Scribblings and Blether

These are my longer posts and photos. Visit the Microblog tab above for the shorter stuff.

Sun up on Winder

A couple of days ago was the latest the sun will get up and it has already been taking a little longer for the sun to go down since we got over the shortest day. I always like this point, just a little after the winter solstice, as we can know that we are over the hump and we’ll be getting up in the light soon.

The photo was taken on 06 January 2022 at 08.38.

6 January 2022 Photos

Some reflections on a year of reading

Must read less…

I’m not one for New Year resolutions but there is never a bad time for some reflections.

Last year I read 116 books.

It’s a decent number, indeed it often surprises people, and it certainly affords me a lot of scope to cover plenty of new and classic books. I do include audiobooks but I now select these with care as detailed audiobooks quoting evidence drive me nuts as there is no easy way to take notes and look up references. I’ve tried various techniques but it just doesn’t work.

My best strategy for the next few months is to read a little less. Not the most common of resolutions but I certainly don’t need to read more. At least not books, although I do think I have scope to read more academic papers in a targeted and purposeful way. I’d like to capture more notes, write more, and linger over the books I do read. If I dropped a couple of books and spent that time writing it would amount to a significant increase.

Now, it is not quite as straightforward as that and reading is obviously a different kind of experience. Yet, there is scope and, as with many things, it is far too easy to chase the numbers and I think, honestly, that is what I have been doing. In the old cliché, I need a little more quality rather than quantity.

5 January 2022 Scribbles

Christmas crime scene

3 January 2022 Photos

December 2021 Reading List

Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire was gloriously angry and rightly so. It is quite remarkable how the British have managed to re-write the history of Empire and it is coming as a nasty shock to the nostalgically inclined to have it challenged and re-examined with a gimlet eye. Tharoor does, in his understandable ire, overstep with some conclusions but they are rare moments and it shouldn’t detract from the brutal assessment of the British in India.

All the Young Men has over a thousand five-star reviews on Amazon. It is worth every one of them. I thought McMindfulness was an excellent polemic though it lacked focus in places and was occasionally repetitive — not unusual with a polemic but it offers an essential perspective. I’ve never been an enormous fan of Bob Mortimer’s comedy style, that’s just a personal preference, but there is no denying the sheer likeability of the man and his book And Away… is a warm, amusing and shyly life affirming book.

  • Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor
  • Do Breathe by Michael Townsend Williams
  • All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks
  • Fake Law by The Secret Barrister
  • McMindfulness by Ronald Purser
  • The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy by Arik Kershenbaum
  • And Away… by Bob Mortimer
1 December 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

November 2021 Reading List

Not a good reading month for me. I just seemed to struggle to settle into it and it was a little bit of an effort. It happens sometimes and the four short books at the end of the month reflect my approach when I find my concentration is a bit waffy.

Unusually, two fiction books are on the list this month. I’ve read all of the Charlie Parker series by John Connolly but I was a bit adrift with A Book of Bones as there is another one after that now out. It is a bit of a brick, coming in at around 200,000 words, and although it did still give me a lot of pleasure I’m not quite convinced it warranted that length. The very short and nearly perfectly formed Small Things Like These was recommended, several times, in a New Statesman best of 2021’ list sits in contrast, lengthwise in any case.

Sad Little Men kicks the hell out of the boarding school system and I can’t recommend Austerity which was way too technical to be enjoyable.

  • Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris
  • Sad Little Men by Richard Beard
  • Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth
  • A Book of Bones by John Connolly
  • Write Useful Books by Rob Fitzpatrick
  • Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller
  • Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
  • Silence: In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge
2 November 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

October 2021 Reading List

Some excellent reading here and the pick of the month’ would be One Track Mind. It isn’t the most promising of premises — a book about a man running around a single strip of athletic track for 24 hours. It turns out to be inspiring and uplifting. I have to give an honourable mention to How to Be a Liberal that taught me a lot and far exceeded my initial impressions of what it would be about.

I will comment on the two pandemic books as well. Spike reads like a self-serving dress rehearsal for the public inquiry which will, eventually, come around and Blinded by Corona has some excellent moments. It is also dismally edited and awash with typos; it feels rushed and veers close to egotistical rantiness. Ashton is not a man who hides his light under a bushel and his book amply demonstrates the real benefit of basic standards of editing.

  • Hooked by Paul Merson
  • Time: 10 Things You Should Know by Colin Stuart
  • How to Be a Liberal by Ian Dunt
  • Spike by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja
  • Blinded by Corona by John Ashton
  • The Juggling Author by Jim Heskett
  • Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera
  • One Track Mind: What Running 150 Miles in a Day Can Teach by Michael Stocks
  • The Running Book by John Connell
1 November 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

September 2021 Reading List

A bit of a bumper month. Let’s concentrate on the best offerings. I genuinely enjoyed the audiobook of Son of a Silverback and Maconie presents a compelling picture of the joys of the value of state services in The Nanny State Made Me. Both are helped greatly by being laugh out loud funny in places. If I had to suggest one then I will plump for Will Storr’s The Status Game that shows off his talents admirably. I did actually get a little irritated with the way links and footnotes are handled in the book. But that shouldn’t detract from the excellence of Storr’s work.

  • The Nanny State Made Me by Stuart Maconie
  • Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli
  • Football Hackers by Christoph Biermann
  • Son of a Silverback by Russell Kane
  • Trials of the State by Jonathan Sumption
  • The Status Game by Will Storr
  • On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming
  • The Art of Making Memories by Meik Wiking
  • Privacy is Power by Carissa Véliz
  • Death of a whistleblower and Cochrane’s moral collapse by Peter C. Gøtzsche1
  • The Way Home by Mark Boyle
  • The Interest: How the British Establishment Resisted the Abolition of Slavery by Michael Taylor

  1. I can’t claim to have read this fully but I am noting it for completeness. I read the first quarter of the book and couldn’t stand it any more so skimmed the rest. It details to quite extraordinary levels (depths?) the minutiae of the interactions between the Cochrane Collaboration and PCG. Ye gads. It’s not edifying. And it is, frankly, remarkably dull. I didn’t know anything of this saga and the indications are that Gøtzsche was treated badly. I can understand his desire to record his version. He has certainly done that.↩︎

1 October 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

How to do footnotes

Having had a moan at various points about footnotes and referencing I wanted to set out what I think is good practice, from my perspective as a reader, for footnotes and referencing. This is for books, particularly mainstream non-fiction, and not for journal articles or academic texts. Though, for the life of me, I have no idea why they need to be harder to read. I sometimes wonder if the single biggest failure of academia is the notion that the writer has to demonstrate they are more clever than the reader. It is hardly any wonder that students and junior academics are so tortured by the need to write in an academic’ style.

And for those of you who might argue for Harvard referencing let me pick a fight. Harvard treats its readers with contempt. It is tolerable when the referencing is very minimal and there is a need to cite the author — more common in single author pieces that might be encountered in the social sciences. Where the referencing is dense or the papers are multi-authored it quickly becomes ludicrous and almost unreadable. It took me two mins to find this example from the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Absolutely horrible. It is grotesque, though certainly not the worst I’ve seen, and an affront to any reasonable notion of readability.

Let’s go back to books. As a reader, I have often had the experience where I’ve struggled to get into a book. It can just be a background niggle and a difficulty in becoming immersed. The pull of our mobile devices, of the internet, makes it easier than ever to act on the mildest of distractions and disengage. Of course, sometimes this is down to bad writing, but I’m becoming more aware that it is often due to the way the text is presented and the footnotes/referencing can play a role.

Some simple pointers for footnotes and references

  1. Distinguish between footnotes and referencing. Don’t mix the two. Reduce the cognitive effort for the reader.
  2. Avoid commenting on the references unless it is specific information on the location or scope of that source.
  3. Miminise any intrusion on the text. Anything except the words the reader reads interrupts the flow. Ideally, an approach where the text is completely clear of all baubles and embellishment is best. I find superscript numbers tolerable but internet-style underlined hyperlinks with colour changes can be hugely intrusive.
  4. Think very carefully about footnotes and be sparing. Is that nugget better in the text itself or just simply binned? I sometimes think they are an ego trip — again, it’s all about the author and not so much about the reader. They can be informative and witty but to read footnotes on an ebook will involve clicking on the screen, usually at least twice. This breaks concentration that then has to be re-established. It is often slightly better for readers of print books as they will have the footnotes on the same page. Usually in a tiny font…
  5. If you have a lot extra to say and many references then plan for a notes section at the back of the book. This can be easily linked by chapter and using sentence markers. It is possible to dispense with all hyperlinks/superscripts using this method. Many books do this and, as a reader, it is now my favourite. It’s a win-win. The keen reader gets an extra source of information, easily bookmarked if they want to find it while reading, and the prose is clean.
17 September 2021 Scribbles

Footnote abuse

I just finished The Status Game by Will Storr this week. It’s very good, full of insight, with little in the way of regurgitation of the well-trodden scientific anecdotes that often litter such books. I recommend it highly. It will be badged as a popular science book but it can be read, in many aspects, as a rather superior self-help’ book. That’s not meant to be disparaging at all and I just want to highlight how it can help us see the world and our place in it with a little more clarity.

I want to talk about footnotes.

I now read almost all my books on an ereader — I recently moved to the rather deluxe Kobo Forma. (It’s superb, thanks for asking.) Ebooks do change the dynamic around footnotes and hyperlinks and referencing. Now, there is an element of personal preference around this but it is simply done badly by many publishers. Obviously, as a journal editor I do appreciate the importance of referencing; we deal with references all the time and they are a critical element of scientific writing. There are downsides and, sadly, the reader is usually a long way down the list of priorities.

It is frustrating to read books that are so casually dismissive of the reader experience. I wrote a blogpost in November 2019 about Cormac McCarthy’s advice on scientific writing. He said:

Avoid footnotes because they break the flow of thoughts”

Yes. This is the core problem. Most people find it hard to concentrate for longer periods these days — all the modern distractions are well known. The most wonderful facet of reading is the immersion. There is nothing better than getting drawn in by the writer, following their train of thought, being led to new insights and revelations. Cormac has this right and footnotes are devastating to that process.

Now, I enjoy a snarky footnote as much as the next person but it is the job of the writer to pick out what they want to say. And, what they don’t need to say. Footnotes are far too often a lazy excuse for not writing better prose, or a paralysing inability to kill off the clever thoughts writers (or their editors) can’t stop themselves from sharing. Putting information critical to understanding of the text into a footnote is all too often a failure to write with sufficient clarity.

That said, I appreciate many readers love footnotes and I’ve used them myself (in my last post no less). I’m not against footnotes as such, I just think they are used carelessly, and the negative impact of them isn’t always taken into consideration.

Footnote abuse

A particularly egregious habit is to mix referencing with footnotes.

Referencing is the basic technique of pointing readers to sources. It’s very important and I would be aghast not to have some option to check references where necessary — though I would argue that they can be entirely dealt with in the rear of a book without any inline markers. Footnotes are usually an embellishment. They should not be mixed with referencing. As the Ghostbusters would say: don’t cross the streams.

Mixing them is problematic as this puts the burden on the reader. This is quite subtle so bear with me while I explain my gripe. Most readers won’t feel the need to look at every reference as they read through a text. Like many people, I like having them available. When an author starts mixing referencing with footnotes then they create a problem for the reader. Is this hyperlink an interesting snippet of extra detail? Or is it just a citation, a simple reference, for another source? The only way to find out it is to click. And, the spell of the writing, the story being told, is broken and the bubble pricked. The flow is disrupted.

Even when one doesn’t click, there is an additional cognitive process that is whirring in the background that is almost impossible to turn off. Click? Or don’t click? At the same time as reading the text I have another cognitive thread running weighing up each hyperlink to make a decision about whether this one is worth the gamble. It’s tiny, but many books have at least a couple of these links on every single page.

There is evidence that the presence of hyperlinks can increase that cognitive load.

Which brings me back to Storr’s The Status Game. He does mix the streams on some occasions but it is very minor and I wouldn’t make a thing about it. Rather than superscript referencing (which is unobtrusive but in ebooks can be annoyingly hard to click with my stumpy fingers) the ebook version uses full on hyperlinks, usually over several words. They appear in a different colour and are underlined. They are incredibly invasive and I found they disrupted my reading to a significant degree. Not good at all.

Worse and rather bizarrely, the hyperlinks don’t seem to have been contextualised, often spanning weird combinations of part sentences, or stopping in the middle of names. It looks like adding the hyperlinks has been palmed off to a disgruntled intern — or, more likely, I’d wager it has been outsourced to some poor freelancer, on the cheap, who perhaps doesn’t have English as their first language.

They are a mess. And, they are a terrible eye-bleeding distraction. The publishers, William Collins, should be royally embarrassed. I thoroughly enjoyed the book yet I found it quite difficult to get through as usual. (I actually stopped for a day or two and read the short Trials of the State by Jonathan Sumption in the middle.) The book deserves better and Will Storr’s work definitely merits a little more care and attention in the ebook version.

16 September 2021 Scribbles

More books to read… the Baillie Gifford Prize announces the 2021 non-fiction longlist

There are two main book prizes I like to keep an eye on. One of them is the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the other is the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction. I admit I get bookishly excited when the longlists are announced. Finding new books to read involves a fair amount of combing through blogs and Amazon and other sites - not unenjoyable in itself but the nature of algorithms and the interweb makes it challenging to break out of one’s filter bubble. The various prizes are incredibly helpful in offering different perspectives I might not otherwise consider.

The Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction was announced this week. Here’s the longlist:

  • Consumed: A Sister’s Story By Arifa Akbar
  • Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn
  • Minarets in the Mountains: A Journey into Muslim Europe by Tharik Hussain
  • Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955 by Harald Jähner, translated by Shaun Whiteside
  • Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
  • The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans by Eben Kirksey
  • Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller
  • Fall: The Mystery of Robert Maxwell by John Preston
  • Blood Legacy: Reckoning With a Family’s Story of Slavery by Alex Renton
  • Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain by Sathnam Sanghera
  • In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova translated by Sasha Dugdale
  • Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson
  • Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi 1

What has caught my eye? There is an announcement with a brief summary of the books. I have already read two of them: Preston’s Fall and Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain. I also have Islands of Abandonment tee’d up to read in the next book or two and I have Empireland in my Audible queue as well.

I am intrigued by Consumed which is about the author’s sister and her battle with tuberculosis - as well as a tale of grief there seems to be a fair amount of medical history which attracts me. And, the other obvious one with a medic’s eye is The Mutant Project and its exploration of a genetically modified future for humanity”. I’m well positioned for this having read A Crack in Creation in July which details the history of CRISPR - a technology with staggering potential consequences and which will surely feature in the The Mutant Project. Indeed, if the Wuhan lab leak proves to be the root cause of Covid-19 we may already be living through some of those consequences.

Of course, these are the books that I lean towards through background. The others look intriguing and I will try to get to some of them. Interestingly, the comment from the chair of judges, Andrew Holgate, points out how they worked hard to ensure they ranged a long way out of our boundaries”. It’s what we all need sometimes.

  1. Frustratingly not released until 28 October 2021. Which seems bizarre and a huge missed opportunity by Allen Lane, the publisher. The Baillie Gifford Prize shortlist is announced on 15 October. I hope that someone at Allen Lane is hustling. I appreciate that the judges may have had a pre-proof copy and that print runs have certain logistical constraints. But, really, not even a ebook version at the moment?↩︎

10 September 2021 Scribbles

August 2021 Reading List

Just one? Then I’d recommend The Book of Trespass. It’s not the only book on the topic but it is beautifully written and sets out the injustice of land ownership in England. It is hard to see how we can ever reduce dismal inequalities until we grasp this nettle.

Oddly, I had tried to read Mountains of the Mind several times in the past and, for reasons I’m not quite sure of, I stalled and dropped it. It’s odd as reading it this time I flew through it and was struck by how much I had in common with Macfarlane in terms of mountain experience.

  • The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes
  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder
  • The Power of Strangers by Joe Keohane
  • The New Climate War by Michael E. Mann
  • First, They Erased Our Name by Habiburahman
  • Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane
  • Men Who Hate Women by Laura Bates
  • Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
1 September 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

July 2021 Reading List

A lot of books this month. I was disappointed with the Orwell Prize winning Between Two Fires but I was completely charmed reading A Sting in the Tale and it led me to Rebirding which is about so much more than birds. In that vein, Who Owns England should awaken the rebel rambler in you.

  • 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
1 August 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.

23 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
bowland tower bike pic 7 May 2021

April 2021 reading List

A good month and a dozen cracked off. As ever, these are in the order they were finished. If I had to pick one to recommend then it would be Failures of State and there are some notes on that.

Okwonga’s book, One of Them, is a slim volume, very readable, and damning. There is perhaps a risk with it that it’s simply a reinforcing book — if you have a problem with Eton and the private school system then there will be much here to bolster your beliefs. Otherwise, I’m not sure it will change minds.

Wright’s book is not quite as radical as the title might suggest but How to Be an Democratic Socialist isn’t nearly so catchy. It is a brilliant overview of all the ways one might oppose the current system without necessarily calling for a full-blooded revolution.

  • Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnot
  • Woke: A Guide to Social Justice by Titania McGrath
  • Free Speech And Why It Matters by Andrew Doyle
  • The Art of Disruption by Magid Magid
  • Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor
  • A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa
  • The Inimitable Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
  • How to Be an Anticapitalist in the Twenty-First Century by Erik Olin Wright
  • Nicotine by Gregor Hens
  • Crack House by Harry Keeble with Kris Hollington
  • Anti-Social by Nick Pettigrew
  • One of Them: An Eton College Memoir by Musa Okwonga
1 May 2021 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago but it is one that has stayed with me. You know how it is — your mind keeps drifting back to a book, it won’t quite let you go. This is one of those. It is all the more remarkable when you consider it is recounting events that we’ve lived through, or at least most of us have, in recent months. A lot has happened.

I’m not quite sure where to start with my outrage. There are so many avenues down which it can be channelled. Perhaps my greatest disgust is reserved for the repetitious nature of the mistakes. Pandemics are not common and we can allow a certain latitude. Yet the abject refusal to recognise the inevitable and to vacillate while people died is unforgivable. One of the bleakest passages is the description of the clandestine Sunday evening rendezvous with the prime minister” with four academics in September as Johnson considered a circuit breaker. Following the science? Read it and weep. Three academics put the case for a more liberal approach. They don’t come out looking good. The fourth academic advising Johnson and Sunak, Professor John Edmunds, if he re-iterated the advice in a co-authored Sage report, would have been recommending an immediate two-week circuit break. (He declined to report to the authors what he said in the meeting.)

The political bunfighting continues but the COVID situation is widely held to be brightening. As long as you are myopically squinting at the UK and that you don’t care too much about the rest of the world. At the time of writing the WHO is pointing out that the pandemic is a long way from over, indeed it is accelerating”. The situation in India is horrendous. But it surely can’t be any secret that the problem of unchecked infection will come back to stalk us in the form of variants?

I’ve picked out some of the quotes I highlighted with some comments.

The initial response

Those months in early 2020 were excruciating as we waited to go into lockdown. It was perfectly obvious it had to happen and the delay seemed inexplicable. Meantime, the infection was spreading and that, of course, means that the death toll will have been ticking up. It was initially quiet and easy to be lulled into a complacency but it was baked in. Calvert and Arbutnott are scathing about the early response and Johnson’s efforts.

He did not attend any of the first five meetings of Cobra, the key national crisis committee that commanded the UKs response to the pandemic. The first Cobra meeting Johnson attended was on 2 March and by then the virus had already firmly gained its foothold in the country. As many commentators would point out after our first article: this was an extraordinary dereliction of his duty as a prime minister, which would have enormous consequences.

A study by Southampton University has shown that 190,000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities between January and March and were allowed to travel across Britain at will. The researchers estimated that up to 1,900 of these passengers would have been infected with the coronavirus — guaranteeing the UK would become a centre of the subsequent pandemic.

In fact, according to the analysis, there were only three occasions in the last 10 years when a prime minister, who had been in Westminster, had skipped a Cobra meeting.

The lack of action was described by Doris-Ann Williams, chief executive of the British In Vitro Diagnostics Association, which represents 110 companies that make up most of the UKs testing sector. Amazingly, she said her organisation did not receive a meaningful approach from the government asking for help until 1 April — the night before Hancock bowed to pressure and announced a belated and ambitious target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of that month.

As part of 26 key recommendations from Cygnus, the NHS was told it needed to make urgent and drastic improvements, which would have to be paid for with money the government was advised to specifically ring-fence for that purpose. That did not happen.

There was also a critical lack of laboratory testing capacity. According to Martin Hibberd, a professor of emerging infectious disease at LSHTM, a key reason for that had been money. The NHS had moved away from using its own laboratories in the years before the pandemic and had increasingly farmed out its work to privately owned facilities in an effort to cut costs.

The herd immunity fallacy

We lost valuable time at the start of the 2020 as the herd immunity fallacy played out. While few would dispute that the CMO and CSO are people of integrity the sense is that they have grown into their roles. One wonders how hesitant and how diffident they were at the start; and for all the denials there seems to have been a strong flirtation with herd immunity in many who were looking at the early signs.

One well-known senior Conservative confided: I had conversations with Chris Whitty [the chief medical officer] at the end of January, and they were absolutely focused on herd immunity. The reason is that with flu, herd immunity is the right response if you haven’t got a vaccine.’

Whitty denies that he has ever been an advocate of herd immunity other than as part of a vaccination programme. But herd immunity was a view that appears to have infected the government.

The concept of herd immunity is toxic politically because it effectively means that the weakest in society — the ill and the elderly — are left to perish.

Herd immunity was a dangerous experiment with no proven upside, but Johnson’s government was willing, nonetheless, to try it.

Since herd immunity was self-defeating, the government’s strategy of delaying the introduction of measures to suppress the virus was a calamitous miscalculation.

The Domoscene conversion

Dominic Cummings had initially favoured the government’s delay-and-mitigate approach, but he changed his mind. Dominic himself had a conversion,’ a senior Tory said. The Domoscene conversion’, as it became known, was said to have happened at an earlier meeting with scientists.

It is difficult to imagine a man who could be much more reviled in public life than Dominic Cummings after his Barnard Castle. There can be few who were genuinely persuaded by his performance in the Rose Garden on Downing Street. This caught my eye at the time as it is a reminder that our Dom is very much his own man. There is little likelihood that he can ever be rehabilitated in the public’s eye but some on the left may find themselves cheering him on and he is catnip for the commentariat. And, given his apparent willingness to hang Johnson out to dry, any testimony he offers to a future inquiry will be box office. We’re going to be hearing a lot of Cummings for a good while to come.

The NHS was overwhelmed

Most people think we got away with it and we coped. The NHS weathered the storm. Yet, when the system gets overwhelmed it wouldn’t typically collapse in a televisual way.

Downing Street was anxious that critical care units should not be visibly overrun as they had been in Italy, Spain and China, where patients in the city of Wuhan were photographed dying in corridors. So a veil of secrecy was now placed over Britain’s hospitals. The publication of critical care capacity figures was suspended, which meant nobody outside the corridors of power would be able to tell whether hospitals were being overrun, and a general ban was imposed on information being passed to the media without sign-off from central command. The NHS management had shifted to a war footing.

There may well have been efforts to downplay the scale of the problem but one graph is revealing. It’s difficult to shift away from this — logical reasons for this drop, other than a form of rationing, are very thin indeed.

This is a compelling image. That drop down to 6% involves a staggering amount of loss, grief, and pain. It also screams of the missed opportunities. If anyone, like the government, ever tells you that ICUs weren’t overwhelmed then remember this dismal curve. Thousands of decisions were made that meant people weren’t sent to ICU who otherwise would have been.

The evidence was buried away in data collected from 65,000 people who were admitted to UK hospitals with the virus up to the end of May and that had been analysed by the Covid-19 Clinical Information Network (Co-Cin), which reports to the Sage advisory committee. This data produced by the Co-Cin team is the government’s best record of how patients with the virus were treated in hospitals during the outbreak. Overall, it showed that just one in six Covid-19 patients who lost their lives in hospital during the first wave had been given intensive care treatment. This suggests that of the 47,000 people who died of the virus inside and outside hospitals, an estimated 5,000 — just one in nine — received the highest critical care, despite the government claiming that intensive care capacity was never breached.

In the middle weeks of March, 13 per cent of that age group admitted to hospital with the virus were given an intensive care bed. By the start of May, that figure had more than halved and was down at 6 per cent.

In October we had revealed evidence that access to intensive care had been rationed in hospitals across England, which had led to patients being denied life-saving ventilation. This had sparked an intemperate reaction from Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS national medical director, who claimed our story was untrue’ and was deeply offensive’ to health service workers. Powis was adamant that even at the height of the pandemic there was no shortage of ventilators and intensive care.’ The consortium’s findings suggest he was very badly informed.

The Inquiry will come

The government is in no rush for an inquiry. It is, obviously, an entirely political decision. There may be a skimpy argument that we are still fighting through and now is not the time. There is certainly some credibility in recognising that the pandemic has a way to go. You don’t have to be over-cynical to feel that the government is unlikely to come out well from an inquiry and they are delaying the moment. It will be much easier to bear the political cost if lives have returned to normal and people are focusing on getting back to the quotidian concerns of family, work, and leisure.

History is unlikely to be kind to Johnson and his government’s stewardship of Britain’s response to the pandemic.

Weatherby and Abrahamson believe that Johnson’s conduct could also amount to the criminal offence of gross negligence manslaughter’, although they believe it is unlikely that the Crown Prosecution Service would take up such a case. That may change, they note, if further evidence emerges at a future public inquiry.

28 April 2021 Scribbles

March 2021 Reading List

One to read: It has to be In Control by Jane Monckton-Smith - terrifying but helpful in equal measure.

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  • Elegy for Mary Turner by Rachel Marie-Crane Williams
  • A World Without Email by Cal Newport
  • Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography by Alexandre Rotenberg
  • The Rookie by Stephen Moss
  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama
  • In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder by Jane Monckton-Smith
  • A Short History of Drunkenness by Mark Forsyth
  • How to Write Funny by Scott Dikkers
1 April 2021 Monthly Reading List