Stocking Fillers: The Best of 2012

Stuck for Christmas gift ideas? James Meredith looks back on a year of artistic highs in Northern Irish literature and music

With less than a week to Christmas Day, for some the problem of not knowing what to buy for that special relative, friend or loved one is beginning to turn from worry to panic.

2012 has been a bumper year for artistic endeavour, and some marvellous literature, music and film has come out of Northern Ireland over the past 12 months, so you could do a lot worse than wrap up one or more of these gems and leave them under the tree for someone you love.

Arguably Northern Ireland’s finest living novelist, east Belfast writer David Park’s eighth novel The Light of Amsterdam tells the story of three sets of people who travel from Belfast to Amsterdam for a weekend trip in December 2005.

Recently divorced art teacher Alan, accompanied by his troubled teenage son Jack, is travelling to the city to see Bob Dylan in concert. Single mother Karen is going on her daughter’s hen party, whilst middle-aged couple Marion and Richard are taking a break from running their garden centre to celebrate Marion’s birthday.

The weekend in Amsterdam tests all these characters. Truths are revealed, false realities shattered and hard decisions must be faced. Described in some quarters as a ‘post-Troubles’ novel, The Light of Amsterdam is a beautifully written story filled with tenderness and compassion for the lives of ordinary people.

The novel opens on December 3, 2005, the day of George Best’s funeral, and a new book on the football great, George Best by Ivan Ponting, would be a welcome present for any true fan of football.

Unlike previous books about Best, which often deal more with the sometimes turbulent life of the man at the expense of his sporting achievements, Ponting’s book focuses on the football, telling the story of the callow youth who lit up the English First Division on his debut for Manchester United aged just 17, and who was an instrumental part of the team who won two league titles in three years as well as the European Cup in 1968.

Packed full of rare photos, the tale is told with input from those who knew him best, including fellow football legends Sir Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, and celebrates the talent of one of the world’s greatest ever footballer’s.

Manchester United fan and another contender for Northern Ireland’s greatest living novelist, Glenn Patterson, also published his eighth novel this year. The Mill For Grinding Old People Young opens on Christmas Day 1897, as 85-year-old Sir Gilbert Rice looks back on his life, particularly his time as a young man in Belfast of the 1830s, when he worked in the Ballast Office in the port of Belfast.

A chance encounter with Maria, a beautiful Polish exile, in the flamboyantly named inn of the title leads Gilbert on a life-changing path, which will have consequences for the future of the city. Brilliantly researched and beautifully realised, Patterson has written a powerful historical novel that tallies with contemporary concerns.

Part thriller, part spy novel, poet Ciaran Carson’s latest novel Exchange Place is, in truth, uncategorisable. Set in Belfast and Paris, on the surface this is a story of two men, John Kilfeather and John Kilpatrick, who are trying to solve a mystery concerning a lost friend, a missing notebook and a gun.

Below the surface this is a puzzle of a book, with nods to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, that explores identity, reinvention and language, written in typically poetic prose from a poet supreme.

On the music front, Farriers released a contender for Americana album of the year with their debut release, Years Ago In Our Backyard. Featuring 11 beautifully crafted songs all written and performed from the heart, with this hearty album Farriers managed to live up to the hype.

For any Mumford & Sons fans out there, consider this essential: this is a stocking filler to show them how folk music should really be done. Highlights include ‘Another One Riding’ and ‘San Remo'.

Belfast five-piece Seven Summits released their sophomore album Fossils in August of this year, and its sound is infused with late summer optimism. The modern power pop interplay of guitars, drums and keyboards is infectious, and although there are moments of introspection, Fossils works best when flying high on confident tunefulness. Album highlights include ‘The Worrier’ and ‘Burning Heart', a single summer smash that never was.

Recorded live back in 2010, Tom McShane’s startlingly beautiful The Ural Winter was finally released this year. Recorded with a 13 piece band in front of a live audience at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, brass, strings, piano, guitars and drums cushion McShane’s warm, intimate voice as he lays bare his heart and delivers as devastatingly honest a record as has been produced anywhere on these islands.

Lurgan man Stevie Scullion, aka Malojian, followed up March’s The Broken Deer EP with highly acclaimed debut album The Deer’s Cry in November. Proving once again that Scullion is arguably the finest Northern Irish songwriter in a long time, the album showcases a dozen songs of grace, beauty and tunefulness.

Highlights include the exquisitely melancholy ‘Watch the Rain’ and ‘Julie-Anne', the catchiest sing-a-long of the year. Download The Deer's Cry now from the Malojian Bandcamp page, and the physical CD will be delivered to your door in February of next year. It’s like Christmas coming twice!

Speaking of which, another music related gift that can be redeemed in 2013 is a handwritten promise to take that somebody special along to the cinema come March 31, to watch what is – as far as this writer is concerned – the first truly great movie to come out of Northern Ireland this century: Good Vibrations.

Directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn, and scripted by novelist Glenn Patterson and Hot Press journalist Colin Carberry, this biopic of legendary local punk impresario Terri Hooley is as bold, brash, playful and loveable as the man himself.

Brilliantly portrayed by Richard Dormer, and with a sterling soundtrack of classic tunes compiled by Belfast DJ David Holmes, Good Vibrations could well be the best night out at the cinema you’ll have in 2013. Here's to 2013, and to more sights and sounds, words and pictures that lift the hearts and minds of everyone in our country and beyond.