Review of the year (or ‘Last year I may or may not have become a spy’)

Review of the year (or ‘Last year I may or may not have become a spy’)

If you’ve been following closely, you’ll remember that for my birthday last year I had a ‘Jar of Experiences‘  in which I asked my friends to submit ideas of things for me to read, see or do this year. Somehow I only managed to do seven of them (or maybe eight, since obviously I can’t tell you whether or not I became a spy), but most of the ones I did were some of my year’s highlights, so hopefully the others will prove as fruitful when I get a chance to do them.

The things achieved were:

• Read Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin
• Visit Dennis Severs’ house
• Go to Paris for the day
• See ‘Slava’s Snow Show’
• Visit Winter Wonderland (Hyde Park)
• Pig out at Pizza Hut with Virginia

Mao’s Last Dancer was one of my top reads of the year, and I would never have picked it up had it not been for the Jar.

Dennis Severs’ house had been on my ‘to visit’ list for a long time, and Judith and I finally made it there one roasting hot day this summer. It’s certainly a different kind of experience. A little macabre, but well worth checking out once you’ve ticked all the big attractions off your London list.

I managed to get return tickets to Paris in the Eurostar January sale, and had a fun day out there with my friend Debbie.

‘Slava’s Snow Show’ was my first theatrical experience of the year, and was definitely an experience. I’m not sure I’d go again – unlike the friend who recommended it, who likes to go every year it comes on – but it was something new and different.

Winter Wonderland and Pizza Hut are two of the things Virginia and I enjoy doing together, neither of which we had done for a few years, so it was good to have them on the list and be intentional about doing them, and it made for a couple of fun evenings together catching up.

So what were my other highlights for the year?



I read 37 (two down on last year), of which my top recommendations are (in the order I read them):

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai – A beautifully written autobiography of an extraordinary young woman. Outstanding.

I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers – I love Owen’s writing, and this didn’t disappoint. It was terribly sad, but very thoughtful, and beautifully crafted.

TED Talks by Chris Anderson- A very helpful book on how to give great talks, by the head of the organisation that has transformed the public lectured, TED.

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth – A brilliantly readable and addictive book about the craft of writing.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt – Packed with fascinating insights into how we make moral decisions (and how little it relies on rational processing!). I rave about it more below.

And of course, Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin – The riveting story of a young boy selected to attend Chairman Mao’s famous ballet school, his hard work and determination to break out of the life of poverty his family was otherwise doomed to, and his eventual defection to America. A wonderful story, very well told.

By the way, the links to buy these books are to, a site which allows you to shop online while supporting your local high street and independent bookshops. They also have an affiliate programme, which means that if you buy something on their site after clicking through from one of these links, I’ll get a small percentage of your purchase price as a commission (at no extra cost to you). For those of you outside the UK, sorry, you’ll just have to find the books in your local bookshop or through your favourite online retailer. Thanks very much to Katharine for introducing me to Hive!



Having only seen six productions in 2014, in 2015 I worked on improving that count (what’s the point of living in London if you’re just going to sit at home and read?!), and having got into the theatre mode I improved it again in 2016 – to 28 stage performances (I went to a few concerts, too, which I’m including in the ‘theatre’ count). The highlights here – in order of viewing – were:

Nell Gwynn – an unexpectedly brilliantly entertaining play about the mistress of Charles II – and not as bawdy as I feared!

Transports – a two-woman play from a small, independent theatre company, looking at life in foster care. Beautiful. Moving. Brilliant.

Matilda – big West End musical at its best. Just outstanding – the timing, precision and skill, especially of the child actors, was superb. See it if you possibly can.

Down and Out in Paris and London – another small theatre company with a play comparing and contrasting Orwell’s experiences of the world of the underclass in 1920s Paris with Polly Toynbee’s experience of living on benefits in the 21st century. Excellent and thought-provoking.

The Taming of the Shrew – a stunning and harrowing production at The Globe – possibly enhanced by the understudy having to step up after the first act: she was superb.

946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips – Wonderful! An amazing show and fantastic performance at the Globe. Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo.



Films seem to come together in clumps these days – the summer ‘blockbusters’ (action films or kids’ films) and the ‘Oscars contenders’ that all clamber over each other for attention around Christmas and the New Year. I saw seven in 2016, of which the best were:

Spotlight – the story of the journalists who broke the Catholic child abuse scandal in 2001. Stunning acting, and a story told well without hype.

Swallows and Amazons – an unexpectedly successful remake of a children’s classic. There weren’t too many 21st C sensibilities crowbarred into it, and the children weren’t annoying – even Roger, which is a credit to the child’s acting, as that must be a thanklessly pouty/whiny role to be landed with.



andrew-in-ephesusI didn’t visit any new countries this year, but I did get to go back to Turkey, which I’ve been desperate to do since my first visit (in 2003, I think). This time I stayed in a rather nice beach-front hotel, so didn’t quite get to see as much of the ‘real’ Turkey, but I did join a trip to ancient Ephesus which was as beautiful and stunning as I remembered. It was so amazing to walk on flagstones that Paul and John must have walked on, to see things they would have seen, and to read the Bible passages that were set in the agora while we stood there (and to learn that that is the origin of the word ‘agoraphobia’…). Wonderful.

This is a picture of my friend Andrew in the Amphitheatre. Good choice of shirt for the day, Andrew! The main picture with this post is the library in Ephesus. Now that’s how you do library architecture!


Speaking of turkey – I also made my first ever roast turkey this year. I hosted my first Thanksgiving, for my church Life Group, as we’ve got a few Americans in the group and I didn’t want them to miss out. I made the turkey and stuffing (to my friend Amy’s recipe) and everyone else brought everything else, or came early to cook it. We had 16 people at the meal, and it was a wonderful first dinner party hosted in my new home (I moved house this year – still within London, but now in a place with windows and daylight and no water dripping through the ceiling!).


The two most significant things I learned this year were:

1) I love teaching/helping others – particularly when I can see progress. I’m often sought out during the ‘freestyle’ times at my dance class by guys who I’ve danced with in the lesson and who come to me and say ‘Can you show me that again?’ or ‘You were really helpful last week, can you help me get this move?’ or ‘You’re so patient, you don’t mind if I mess up or just do the same moves over and over.’ I really love helping them master a move and grow in confidence. And then when they get better than me, I get great dances out of it, too! I also volunteered with Open House London again last year, and was a steward in a couple of buildings. Again, I really found it fun and fulfilling to answer people’s questions and help them learn something new about the buildings they were in. (But no, I’m not going back into school teaching, thanks all the same!

2) Emotions and instinct play a far bigger role in our moral and ethical decision-making processes than I ever imagined. If you read one non-fiction book this year, make sure it’s The Righteous Mind. I spent the first two sections going ‘Wow!’ and ‘Really?!’ and ‘Oh, I see!’ The third section you can ignore – it is neither so interesting, revealing or well-researched, and hence not so convincing or helpful (the more I think about it, the more I think it actually contradicts a lot of his earlier findings), but parts one and two will dramatically change how you understand everything from the news to social media arguments to how one person can seemingly hold completely contradictory views on two similar topics (like suicide and assisted suicide). Completely fascinating.

3) If someone asks you to index their PhD – JUST SAY NO! I’ve just finished indexing Andrew Wilson’s and though it has appealed to my geeky side to learn some of Microsoft Word’s more technical features, there comes a point where it just takes a lot of very dull manual work to get the indexing right. And it takes HOURS. Chalk that one up to experience!


Well, that’s quite enough from me for one post – sorry it got so long. Hopefully some of it is helpful and inspiring. What did you read/see/learn last year that you want to share with others?

1 Comment On This Topic
  1. Ann
    on Jan 9th at 1:37 pm

    what a fun life. No wonder you never have a chance to write your book.


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