Polly Barton’s Cultural Highlights

Reading Lists

Polly Barton, author of Porn: An Oral History, publishing on 16 March, shares her cultural highlights of the last few months. To read an extract and pre-order the book, please visit our website.

Aftermath by Preti Taneja

I want to recommend this book with everything I have, yet I’m struggling to think of anything I am comfortable committing to saying about it – which I feel is probably testament to just how sui generis it is. Writing from a place where the concept of truth itself feels shattered (the aftermath of the London Bridge stabbing of 2019, where the author was acquainted with both the attacker and one of those killed), yet still determined to resist the compulsion to silence imposed upon racialized communities, Taneja manages to set out the shattering of her psyche on the page in a way that is both an accurate map of trauma and a scalding and comprehensive critique of the system in which such trauma is permitted to occur.

Constructions by Joshua Calladine-Jones

While in Japan, I thought relentlessly about the non-native English I was surrounded by at my language school – and whether there was any way for me to address it in writing, as someone who grew up with English as a first language, in a way that acknowledged the relationships at play and didn’t become appropriation or exercise in arrogance – and so discovering Constructions (and its sequel, Reconstructions) recently was a big deal. Within the realm of these pages – whose governing bodies are transcription software, subtitling and language lessons – non-native English is legitimized and becomes sole (albeit polyphonic) tongue. The result is a cross-section of the mind in its perpetual and ever-frustrated attempt at self-expression, an interrogation of the power dynamics that regulate this process, and a poignant and human rendering of digital and linguistic alienation and uncertainty.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, dir. by Laura Poitras

I’m struggling to remember when I saw a film that hit me as hard as this one. It touches upon so many things of such profound weight that it would be really easy for it to lapse into triteness or overkill, but Poitras’s balance is masterful, and the result is almost scaldingly powerful. Visually, too: the slideshows of Nan Goldin’s photographs punctuating the narrative sections of the film set the tone for a both unstinting in the clarity of its gaze and sublimely beautiful.

Mr Morale & the Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar

I was hoping, honestly, to give something more underground for my musical choice, but I have to be honest and say this last couple of months I’ve been unable to listen to much other than this album. I catch echoes of Saul Williams in some of the more downbeat tracks, the upbeat ones are so popping, and it hangs together perfectly as a whole. Mostly I’m just in awe of the way that not only is it so wildly full of inventiveness, complexity, poetry, things to say and ideas, but that those seem to actively enhance the immersiveness and excitement of the musical experience.

Butterbean, fennel and kale soup

All winter I’ve been consumed by a desire to make and then eat vast quantities of very spicy soups, and this is a home-grown creation adapted from a Joe Wicks recipe, which seems to only get better the more chillies I put into it. He suggests making it tomatoey, but I prefer using just vegetable stock, and having it clear. I also add in fennel seeds, and sometimes put some toasted hazelnuts on the top if I’m feeling fancy.

Sundance by Wiper and True

There are lots of good breweries in Bristol but somehow Wiper and True are my favourite. They have a great taproom, and supremely great packaging design. Sundance is a beer that feels like it’s brewed just for me – at least I pretend that to myself – and something about the combination of the name and the hops and the ship on the front makes it always taste summery to me.