2012 top ten, 5: Louise Machin

28th December 2012

Our top tens of the year continue with the selection of our head of business development, Louise Machin. The final choice follows tomorrow.

Louise: In no particular order, this is my top ten list of things I enjoyed especially in 2012. Several of them are highlights drawn from a month-long road trip to California taken in August with my husband and three small boys, which was a fabulous experience for all of us.

1. Lotte Mullan, Green Note in Camden, London

My friend, Lotte sings so beautifully and it was a real pleasure to hear her play Green Note in April. The song I have selected speaks movingly about self-esteem and is from her first self-released album, Plain Jane.

Lotte is a singer songwriter whose story is soon to be made into a film based on her blog about her struggles within the music industry. The movie deal, with Elton John’s production company, Rocket Pictures, was announced at the Cannes Music Festival and as a result her debut album, which she originally mailed with a ribbon round it and a handwritten letter to music journalists, was repackaged and reissued by Universal. She’s had some wonderfully supportive reviews in the press and is described by one critic as ‘Suffolk’s answer to Joni Mitchell’. She is busy working on a second album now and I will have the pleasure of hearing some of this when I next see her live in January. She is brilliant, so have a listen to this and the rest of her songs, you’ll love them!

2. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

These were the words Jeanette Winterson’s mother uttered when she first revealed to her that she was gay. Published last year, this book made a huge impression on me. Winterson’s first book, her ‘fictional autobiography’, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, is her most famous: it’s the story of her upbringing in an Evangelical household near Manchester, of her abusive, adoptive mother and of growing up differently to how you’re ‘supposed’ to. Instead of becoming a missionary and devoting her life to Jesus, Jeanette is gay and devotes herself to writing. This second book now includes the adult years that follow, but this time with no fairy tale bits. It’s written sparsely and almost hurriedly, with a real urgency to make the reader understand. She unleashes a terrible sorrow, but it also wriggles with humour, and offers loving descriptions of classic authors, from TS Eliot to Gertrude Stein, as she first encounters them. A wonderfully hopeful memoir that I found both absorbing and terribly moving.

3. Olympic Opening Ceremony, summer 2012

Olympics Opening Ceremony

Ironically, I was away for half of the Olympic Games, in the USA, whose athletes were busy winning more medals than us – although I did feel rather smug, towards the end of the Games, reminding the Yanks that we were coming third, little old us! However, we didn’t leave until two weeks in and so I was able to experience much of the intense drama, sporting brilliance and heart-wrenching emotion of the many of the events, including Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony.

Deliciously unconventional, despite the big flames and cute children, there were plenty of showpiece bangs, but Boyle’s show completely ripped up the ceremonies rule book it seemed to me and so we got punk rather than pomp. His thematic journey through history was quietly subversive, ignoring royal pageantry and instead revealing stories of migration and immigration, protest and rebellion. He filled the stadium with earth and bricks, cloth caps and bloomers, cows and ducks – it was breathtakingly politically charged in England’s green and pleasant land.

4. Lassen Volcanic Park, north of San Francisco, California

Home to smoking fumeroles, clear mountain lakes, bubbling hot springs, wildflower meadows and numerous volcanoes, this is simply one of the most beautiful places I have ever been lucky enough to visit. Located in northeastern California, around 170 miles from Sacramento, Drakesbad Guest Ranch, in the heart of the national park, can only be reached via an 18-mile dirt track. First opened in 1900 and operating continuously since then, the ranch is a rare treasure which has been used by generations of families and as such we were lucky to find space to stay, albeit for only one night.

Apart from the central buildings, the cabins have no lighting, so we burned beautiful oil lamps instead, and each also has a roaring fire. The beautiful swimming pool is heated from a volcano producing water at 140 degrees, which is then cooled by water from a nearby spring. We spent five hours in this pool – all evening – the kids playing and chatting to other guests, all engaged by how intrepid we were to have come so far north and off the beaten track as part of our California tour.

The boys enjoyed eating ‘S’mores’, which are traditional nighttime campfire treats consisting of roasted marshmellow and a layer of chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of graham cracker. We also took a hike to Devil’s Kitchen (see live action in the link above), a colourful group of hot springs, mud pots and fumeroles in the Warner Valley section of the park. I can’t wait to go back for a longer stay.

5. La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

La Brea Tar Pits

During a two-day stay in West Hollywood we made a visit to the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries which houses one of the most important collections of its kind – the famous ice age fossil treasures of the “tar pits”. These important fossils, which have been almost perfectly preserved in tar, document the discovery of life in southern California during the Late Pleistocene time in North America, when man first set foot in the New World.

We were thrilled to find the still bubbling Lake Pit and asphalt seeps just outside the museum from which archaeologists are working everyday in their search for more preserved remains of animals (including a giant Mastodon, similar to a mammoth) and plants (the largest being an entire juniper tree which is 14,500 years old). Inside the centre we were able to watch palaeontologists through glass working painstakingly on recent finds, including a giant jaguar. Outside, Project 23 is well underway on the 16 fossil deposits found in 2006 when they were excavating for a new underground car park for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next door. It’s going to take them years!

6. Hearst Castle near San Simeon, California

Hearst Castle mansion was designed by architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947 for newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who died in 1951. The estate, ‘La Cuesta Encantada’ (‘The Enchanted Hill’) is a pastiche of historic architectural styles that Hearst admired in his travels around Europe (and includes the swimming pool in the header image). He was a prolific buyer of art and antiques from all over the world, including an Italian mosaic of over a 1000 years old and centuries old ceilings imported from chateaus in France.

Hearst would entertain famous actors (Cary Grant, Charlie Chaplin) and politicians (Winston Churchill) alongside local folk, including tradespeople, and he enjoyed watching the interplay between them, often leaving people to their own devices whilst he went to his study to work. Hearst Castle was famously the inspiration for the ‘Xanadu’ mansion of the 1941 Orson Welles film, Citizen Kane, which was itself a fictionalisation of William Randolph Hearst’s career.

Since 1957, the property has been maintained as a state historic park and the estate open for public tours. We spent a very enjoyable afternoon completing one of these tours and the whole operation is a tightly-run, military operation. Home originally to the world’s largest private zoo, zebras and other animals still roam the grounds, which we saw from our minibus as it snaked its way up to the mansion at the top of the hill, with the state-run-like audio introduction playing in the background.

It almost felt like a tour of Willy Wonker’s chocolate factory and there was a slightly spooky air of unreality to the whole enterprise – for enterprise it is. The visitor centre at the bottom is vast, housing multiple cafes, retail outlets, with older men in stetsons ushering the hoards, including us, lined up with tickets for their precisely-timed departure to the castle. No eating, no drinking, no talking – no nothing!

7. Big Sur

There seems to be a bit of a pattern forming here, but another highlight of the California jaunt was driving through and staying in the sparsely populated region Big Sur. This is a stunning part of the central coast, around 90 miles long, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly to 3000 feet from the Pacific Ocean.

The name ‘Big Sur’ is derived from the original Spanish-language, ‘el sur grande’ meaning ‘the big south’ and referring to its location south of the Monterey Peninsula.   In 1960, in the wake of the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac needed to ‘get away to solitude again or die’ and withdrew to a cabin in Big Sur. He wrote about that, producing a gritty and searingly honest novel, Big Sur, which too has become a modern classic. Obviously, had I been secluded in a cabin myself, I would have penned something similar, but three little boys in the mood for adventure put paid to that and instead I took beautiful photographs, which I have recently collated into a book.

A highlight of our stay at Big Sur Lodge, a 75-year-old homestead just inside the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, was a day spent clambering through tall redwoods, tan oak, through wildly growing madrone and chaparral, to an 80-foot waterfall whose cold water spills over granite cliffs, tumbling down to the ocean below. We spent a long time playing in a river nearby, the sunlight dappling through the trees, enough to keep us warm, yet cool and protected under the vicious Californian sun.

8. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe directed by Rupert Goold and Michael Fentimen, Kensington Gardens

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Took the kids to see this in early September and we were lucky enough to end up with front row seats. Housed in a large, very posh tent complex near the entrance to the Gardens, the searing heat outside left us almost sweltering to death once inside, but we loved this fabulously unique production which sees the famous wardrobe rising and falling ingeniously through a centre-stage trap.

Narnia was evoked cleverly through wintry vistas projected on to the surrounding overhead canopy as well as on stage, with frosted branches made out of human bodies, satyrs on stilts and a White Witch’s sleigh seemingly composed of art nouveau antlers. The highlight was Aslan the Lion, which was a maned, multisectioned puppet similar to the War Horse version, voiced by David Suchet. Inviting some audience participation towards the end, this was a complete visual treat and by being close to the stage, we were nicely immersed in the action.

9. Freedom for Birth

Freedom for Birth logo

This is a new documentary about human rights in childbirth made by Toni Harmen and Alex Wakeford. It tells the story of Hungarian midwife, Agnes Gereb, imprisoned for supporting women during homebirths, and the subsequent successful European Court of Human Rights case that has major implications for childbirth around the world. This court ruling, says the filmmaker, means that every birthing woman in Europe has the legal right to decide where and how she gives birth.

Simultaneous screenings of Freedom for Birth were held in 1000 locations in over 50 countries in 17 different languages on 20th September 2012; a phenomenal feat which has been billed as the biggest event in the history of birth activism. Contributors include birth experts, academics, human rights lawyers, doctors and midwives, and calls for a radical shake-up of the world’s maternity systems. My interest in all this stems from my work as a doula (an assistant and support for a woman during labour, the term deriving from the Greek word meaning female servant or slave) over the past couple of years.

The South East London Doulas collective held a screening of the film in a cafe in Telegraph Hill, attended by over 70 people. It was a huge success and I was thrilled to be a part of the mission to spread the message about how important it is for women, both in the developed and developing world, to be aware of their legal rights.

10. Kosovo (or Kosova, if you live there)

I accompanied my mother on a charity trip to Gjakova, a significant town in the east of Kosovo (about the size of Wales and much closer to us than you think), in November this year. It was just for four days, but it was a fascinating, interesting and moving experience, also providing an opportunity to learn more about the conflict in the Balkans.

This conflict ended for Kosovo in 1999 with NATO and UN intervention, under UN Security Council resolution 1199, after 250,000 people had been either killed or displaced from their homes by the Serbian security forces. Many of the Gjokovans (Albanian Kosovars, as opposed to Serbian Kosovars) had been driven from their homes ,over the “Cursed Mountains”, to Albania, and a humanitarian crisis was spiraling out of control.

More than 30,000 displaced people were living in the woods without warm clothing or shelter and with winter fast approaching. This crisis lead to the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces until, on 3 June 1999, Milošević accepted the terms of an international peace plan to end the fighting and air operations were suspended. From this point, the NATO-led peacekeeping Kosovo force (KFOR) began entering Kosovo, where they remain today. Despite the peace plan, Serbia has yet to accept Kosovo as an independent country, so the international protection is still much in evidence.

We visited a small town south of Gjakova, which suffered particularly during the conflict, and met an American couple who had been in Kosovo since two weeks after the conflict ended. They arrived to find that all but four men in the town had been rounded up and massacred over just two days, with women and children left homeless and traumatised after many of their houses were destroyed by the Serbian security forces. They subsequently stayed and built a kindergarten for the town, so that the women could go out to work and their children could be looked after. Twelve years on, the kindergarten is a thriving part of the local community and the charity work my mother is doing is helping maintain this and other similar programmes as Kosovo struggles to get up off its knees and hopes for a future of unity. I felt very proud of her efforts!

For Louise’s previous selections, follow these links for her 2010 Top Ten and her 2008 Top Ten.

Previous 2012 top tens:

1: Keith Griffiths, from the Tour de France to The Real Housewives of New York City.

2: Linda Zuck, with much that came out of Africa but also Rust and BoneArgo and Breaking Bad.

3: Todd MacDonald, including Thomas Heatherwick, Secret Cinema, a screening of London: The Modern Babylon and a band called Thrice.

4. Simon Field: a floating cinema and Raymond Roussel,  Killing Them Softly and The Killing III, and new films from Song Fang and Wang Bing.

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