July 2021 Reading List

Updated 30 July 2021

  • Why the Germans Do It Better by John Kampfner
  • English Pastoral by James Rebanks
  • Between Two Fires by Joshua Yaffa
  • A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg
  • A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson
  • Paint Your Town Red by Matthew Brown
  • Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds by Benedict MacDonald
  • Wayfinding by Michael Bond - Notes
  • Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
  • Freedom by Sebastian Junger
  • Who Owns England by Guy Shrubsole
  • How Spies Think: Ten Lessons in Intelligence by David Omand
  • Mind Games by Neville Southall
  • Philosophy for Polar Explorers by Erling Kagge
27 July 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

Summer days

OK, so my first day of leave and I can’t complain. A one hour fell run, plenty of time sitting in the garden reading, then a riverside evening barbecue to cap it off. And, I finished a great book that I started yesterday evening: Wayfinding by Michael Bond. A fine book; a fell run; time with family; a spot of sun. There was even just the tiniest smidge of trespass. What more could one ask for?

Wayfinding isn’t overlong, is written with exceptional clarity, and offers a fair few gems. It digresses enough to take in some fascinating niches but doesn’t lose sight of its destination. The neuroscience is deftly handled without some of the breathless overstatement common to this field. I’ve always loved maps and navigating and Bond has made me realise how smartphones have, as is their way, eroded a simple pleasure. We need to put away the GPS, stop slavishly following the little blue dot, and build our own spatial maps.

But navigation also reveals other truths, if we engage with it fully: a vivid experience of place, and the knowledge that you are here. These are eternal truth. They matter to us as they mattered to the first wayfinders. The journey is still important. There is still a world out there to explore, and we need to find a way through it.

19 July 2021 Scribbles
a dip in the lune 19 July 2021
veggie sausages too 19 July 2021

June 2021 Reading List

If you read just one…

Some fine books here to choose from. Our Boys had been on my list for a while after it had been longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2019 and I’m sorry I left it so long. Parr has put together a richly detailed story of the Paras and, certainly from my own experience, it is one of the few that is genuinely nuanced. There is no goggle-eyed adolescent admiration here for camo-clad heroes but there is a deep appreciation for the social history, the culture, as well as the very real flaws and the horrors of war.

Catching Fire is a fascinating account of the theory that cooking had a major role in the evolution of our species. It did, perhaps, drift a little towards the end but I took a lot from it. I couldn’t help noticing the astonishing number of reviews Born a Crime has on Audible and after listening I’m happy to add my own 5-star endorsement. After reading a lot of books about the opioid crisis Hillbilly Elegy layers fascinating social detail that I found incredbly valuable. There’s also plenty of insight into the long-term effect and impact of adverse childhood experiences.

You have to really love your hardcore science to get the most out of What We Cannot Know. I enjoyed it but it was seriously tough going in places. I’ve already written about Diary of an MPs Wife and Sunburn so you can check them out for yourself. The Compleat Trespasser is a short but compelling summary of the history of trespass and access to the countryside. Empire of Pain is a long book but undoubtedly worth it. It deserves a longer review and I will try to get to that. The Sacklers are laid bare for all to see.

  • Our Boys by Helen Parr
  • What We Cannot Know by Marcus du Sautoy
  • The Scout Mindset by Julia Gatef
  • Catching Fire by Richard Wrangham
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
  • The Compleat Trespasser by John Bainbridge
  • Diary of an MPs Wife by Sasha Swire - Notes
  • Sunburn by James Felton - Notes
  • Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
1 July 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

Also toxic

Sunburn by James Felton is a slightly depressing read though Felton’s humour does cut through to make it tolerable. Felton doesn’t dance around and there is no attempt at neutrality — he regards the Sun as a dangerous, immoral, hypocritical rag which has published, for decades, some of the most God-awful tripe. It is jingoistic, xenophobic and racist, as well as being misogynistic and… you get the picture. I’m not sure if there is a word for bigotry and prejudice related to people living in poverty but that can be added to the list.

I listened to the audiobook — narrated by Alexei Sayle. He is definitely not your typical narrator and if you are not a fan then you ain’t going to cope with it. I thought, overall, it worked out but I can see for some how it would be unlistenable. Sayle brings a certain madcap hysteria to audiobook narration that is definitely not standard but it was generally perfectly clear when he was reading headlines and quotes or offering up Felton’s gags. And I did get some laugh out loud moments from Felton.

Felton works through 99 Sun headlines and few of them will warm the heart. A large number of them may make your blood boil or at least marvel at the sheer staggering idiocy. Most of Merseyside would agree given the Sun’s shameful behaviour around Hillsborough. The utter absence of any sign of a moral compass across almost every domain is bleak. The casual sexism is grim. Of course, the Sun has little in common with many people’s view of what comprises ethical journalism. That’s one of the problems journalism faces — it is difficult to define, even harder with the advent of the internet and citizen journalism, so even the Sun hacks get swept up into the bucket.

Felton lays out the Sun’s most grievous stories in some detail and it is a sorry tale. There are many reasons for the British to reflect on the role of Rupert Murdoch in the pollution and coarsening of public life. Of course, there are complex factors in such societal changes but the Sun is Exhibit B in the case against Murdoch. The News of the World, arguably, was Exhibit A but even Murdoch saw that for himself. The day the Sun follows the News of the Screws and draws its agonal breaths will be one for celebration.

27 June 2021 Scribbles Books

Just toxic

Most diarists tend to produce reams of material and much of it would be tedious beyond measure to read. In my own journal, I have written around 4000-5000 words per month since the start of 2015 which gives me around 300,000 words that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The main function is to remind me just what the hell I was doing with myself even 12 months ago as it is getting harder and harder to hang onto the details as time as gone by. It also serves some therapeutic function where I can have a little rant or make a private bet on some future outcome.

So one of the difficulties with diaries is the level of editing. Sasha Swire makes it clear that a huge amount of material was discarded and one has to be very careful not to get pulled into assumptions based on this narrow view. It’s hard to know what level of introspection the full version of entries might demonstrate. Yet there is no question in its current format, and it is still lengthy enough, that this is a damn difficult book to like. I’m just about politically nerdy enough to get through it for its insights into the frontstabbing world of politics but I laboured through the final third, wincing.

Yet there is no question in its current format, and it is still lengthy enough, that this is a damn difficult book to like.

Swire describes herself as right of centre but, largely, the political stances are almost irrelevant. I can see topics where I might agree with her, or at least recognise and appreciate her viewpoint, and others that had me boggle-eyed. (For example, her suggestion that grammar schools should be abolished as they are divisive works for me — yet, somehow private schools are OK… Uh?) Much of the book is taken up with details of Hugh Swire’s experiences as an MP yet the author is relating these secondhand. Another layer of bias slapped on top and this dynamic feels increasingly odd as one gets through the book.

More than anything, I was left with a tremendous amount of sorrow. I am saddened that people like Swire can live lives that are so embittered; I was disappointed with the actions and gruesome machinations of politicians scrabbling for power and their measure of success; I remain appalled at the unthinking privilege and self-indulgent narcissism. It’s not all lacking insight about the privilege. Swire does acknowledge it in several places yet that doesn’t stop her carping about Hugo Swire’s then lack of a knighthood (it came of course) or, even more gratingly, the whining that Sir Hugo would never make it into cabinet due to his Etonian background. This is, again, borderline bizarre but one wonders if this was cherry-picked by the editor for effect.

Swire has some literary pretensions and some purple passages on the flora and fauna of her country home are there to sugar the unrelenting bitterness. In many ways though, these just serve to underline the privilege. The editors have been mischievous as well — one dewy-eyed elegy to the honest farmer and their disappearing way of life is immediately followed by details of Sir Hugo’s exploits blasting grouse out of the sky. The enviromental juxtaposition is stark and the rural social hierarchy rigid in Swire’s bucolic sentimentality.

I’m not sure I can recommend it; it is toxic on multiple levels and infused with a deep melancholic sadness and although there is no real mention I did start to wonder about the mental wellbeing of the author. Even the interactions with her children seem to be characterised by a bitterness about their children’s political positions. Ultimately, like many diaries, there is score-settling that would give the Starks and Lannisters cause for regret. And, there is a level of indiscretion around supposed friendships that is troubling. In the end, my overwhelming emotion from the book is sadness. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

25 June 2021 Scribbles Books
the calf at the solstice 21 June 2021

May 2021 Reading List

I have already written about Maxwell in Fall’s book and it is a highlight of this month. There’s not a dud here and I’d happily recommend them all. East West Street is an interesting historical exploration of genocide and families torn apart in the mid-20th century. I’ve been wanting to read an accessible account of the Cuban missile crisis for a while and Plokhy, who wrote the excellent book on Chernobyl, delivers with gusto in Nuclear Folly.

I’ve read Nutt’s book before and it is excellent, though there are some wrinkles in it. Rusbridger is his usual calm and rational self, if a little verbose, but the A to Z nature of News keeps it all moving briskly. And, The Knowledge is brilliant — an incredible compendium that shows just how far we’ve come with science and technology. It offers insights on every page.

  • East West Street by Phillippe Sands
  • Drugs Without the Hot Air (2nd ed) by David Nutt
  • The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla
  • Fall by Andrew Preston
  • Nuclear Folly by Serhii Plokhy
  • News: And How to Use It by Alan Rusbridger
  • The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell
1 June 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

Fall by Andrew Preston

Robert Maxwell is not a person that is well known these days but readers of a certain age will remember his relentless presence in the media until his death in 1991. This is a fascinating and compelling insight into the man. You would be hard-pressed to describe him as likeable. He is now best remembered as the owner of the Daily Mirror who was a criminal, stealing the pension fund as he tried to prop up his failing empire, and condemning many people to financial hardship and despair. As a media mogul he makes Rupert Murdoch look like a pillar of moral rectitude.

Maxwell was born into grinding poverty, fought in the Second World War, was a Labour MP, a spy, a billionaire entrepreneur, a raging egomaniac, and destined to die in mysterious circumstances on the brink of the collapse of his business. His youngest daughter, his unabashed favourite, is Ghislaine Maxwell. You may have heard of her.

I hadn’t known Maxwell had been an MP and been awarded a Military Cross. I certainly didn’t know he was alleged to have been involved in the extra-judicial execution of a German civilian. Preston also describes an episode where Maxwell, who was by then an officer, machine-gunned German soldiers after they surrendered, describing how the British soldiers grumbled it wasn’t fair.

Maxwell had a major role in the post-war development of scientific publishing. According to this biography he recognised the potential to monetise what was essentially free — knowledge. Many would argue that is still going on with large corporations profiting from the work of academics while restricting access to that same research with paywalls. Maxwell became the UK and US distributor for Springer-Verlag and his fortune was built on the company Pergamon Press (which had started life as Butterworth-Springer). In 1991 Elsevier bought Pergamon and it continues as in imprint.

Elsevier is incredibly profitable with annual operating profits approaching £1 billion in recent years. And much of those profits, though not all, are built on publicly-funded research. This Guardian Long Read covers in some detail the background to Maxwell’s publishing business, his recognition of the opportunities, and the ongoing challenges faced by scientific publishing. Meanwhile, Elsevier continues to print money science.

8 May 2021 Scribbles Books