Messy Lines Top 5 (things which helped me through) 2020

I usually love writing my annual Top 5; it gives me a reason to revisit all the great things I saw in the year. But of course, I didn’t see as many in 2020. And when I did they felt loaded with an extra significance which makes fair comparisons challenging.

I thought a lot about whether using the phrase ‘helped me through’ in the title was perhaps a bit overdramatic. I’ve mostly been OK this year, and I know how much luckier I’ve been than some people. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t pull a rug out from under my feet, that there haven’t been days I’ve needed comfort, reassurance, stimulation and indulgence. And this is a list of five things which, at these points, have provided the help I’ve needed. There are things on this list which have been places of comfort for me to rest and find empathy within. Others have pushed my intellect to feel the joy of making something brand new for myself. It’s a mixture of visual and aural stimuli. I think I’ve found myself valuing hearing voices more than ever: while I’ve spent more time at home than I have in years, it’s been human voices which have had more ability to reach through the walls and across space.

So here, in no particular order, are the Top 5 things which has been my most valued cultural companions through 2020.

Art History

A painting of bring flowers - pinks, greens, whites and yellows mostly-  on a black background. A mix of different types of flowers.

No particular order, I said – but I will start with the most obvious! Writing Messy Histories posts on Instagram every day for the ten weeks of the first lockdown was an anchor for me. I never went back to study just for the letters: I love researching a story! And I loved having conversations with followers and visitors about the work too. Art should create communication.

My first attempts to continue the project on this website felt off, and as life resumed a form of normality I put it aside. But I’ve been feeling more and more of a pull back to this. Now I’ve got a much more solid plan. Expect a lot more Art History content from Messy Lines in 2021.


The cover of REM's "Murmur" album, a black and white photo of shapes covered in kudzu plant

I wrote a post about this band back in July. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve gone through such an obsessively exclusive phase of listening. But their 1983-1992 run of records was, for a good few months, the only place I was finding solace and hope. Important to say the hope aspect; this connection was about far more than wallowing in pity. I think is sounds “emo” to describe finding emotional empathy in music- well, then, that was me in 2020. But I’m so glad I found it.

In the intervening months R.E.M’s place in my musical roster has levelled out – they’re one part of the playlist rather than filling the entire thing. But they’ve still been the band I’ve turned to when I’m after a boost.

Lauren Laverne’s 6Music breakfast show

I have a bit of quirk with music when I’m working – I can’t listen to music I like. It’s too distracting – I want to enjoy what I hear as it’s own experience, rather than as background. Music with lyrics in particular inevitably drags me away from what I’m doing and into other spaces of feeling.

publicity photo of 6Music DJ Laurent Laverne

So the radio is normally object non grata in my workspace. But work has been more erratic this year, and so I’ve been more able to listen. And Lauren Laverne’s show on 6Music has been a particularly valued deskside companion. I’m into her taste – if a bit out of the loop – so connecting with great music has been an obvious good thing. But I’ve also appreciated Laverne as a DJ. As well as naturally being passionate about the music, she comes across as genuinely enthusiastic and curious about guests, and sympathetic to the space we all found ourselves in. Wanting to listen to her show and see what I was going to discover each day was one important reason to get to my desk every morning.

You’re Wrong About

The words "you're wrong about" in white bubbly writing with a rainbow behind.

A late addition in terms of the calendar year. I discovered this show about August, but during November’s second listening it became a bingeing obsession.

I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts this year – mostly bad ones. I’ve been trying to write a piece about wellness culture, and podcasts are a massive place of research. They’re also mostly nonsense: the piece isn’t coming together yet because I inevitably reach a point where my brain ends up unable to cope with any more bullshit.

Thank god for You’re Wrong About – the great leveller against nonsense. Hosts Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall look at the gaps between public understanding and the facts of historical events, figures and phenomena. Their research is always impeccable and balanced which, once I’ve listened to a couple of hours on how a smoothie powder will balance your quantum energy (or whatever), I’m so grateful for. While it’s true that some of their topics are too specifically American for me to engage with, the majority are universal. Their long, binge-worthy series on one topic have had me obsessed (who knew I’d be so invested in Princess Diana?), and the Disco Demolition episode is a joy. The voices of rationality I’ve needed.

Getting Arty

A black-and-white pen drawing through a window looking our onto other windows and roofs

Occasionally in real life people ask me if I’m an artist myself. My standard reaction is to laugh (or more correctly, unattractively snort), shake my head and say “nooooooo…nononononoNO” emphatically until I’m sure that all confusion has been averted. But after this year, this answer might change a bit.

In the absence of any other ways of engaging with art – coupled with a furlough-induced abundance of time – I found myself picking up the pens, pencils and sketchbooks I own, but am only occasionally not terrified to try. I’ve had a long-standing belief from my school days that I have no talent and that whatever I make will only be scorned or laughed at. But stuck at home by myself, who was there to judge?

Now I’ve discovered (better late than never!) that I enjoy it. A lot.

I’ve found myself thinking about how I see things in an entirely different way. Those of you who are artists probably know what I’m talking about. Instead of looking at a house (I made a lot of house sketches) and seeing it as a block part of the landscape, I can feel my brain processing it differently. I’m looking for details, particularly lines: where do they start and end, and at what angle?

I’m not the next Rembrandt, for sure – but I’ve stopped feeling that I need to be, either. Making things has brought me pleasure, and sharing them on Twitter & Instagram has brought connection and conversation. It’s made me vulnerable in some ways, but more skilled in others. It’s become an essential part of my week and a place to turn for calm. Of all the things I’ve discovered in 2020, it may be the one I’m most grateful for.

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