Back on Twitter

It is has taken me a while but I have rejoined Twitter. It is a somewhat painful process after deleting it all a couple of years ago. I was first on Twitter in 2009, I think, and had a few followers but I am now rebuilding from scratch. I’d be very happy to engage with you there. I am @euan_lawson.

15 November 2020 Scribbles

October 2020 reading list

Here is my reading list for October 2020 and I hope it highlights some books you may be tempted to try for yourself. There is no ranking here and they are simply presented in the order in which I read them.

For anyone who spends any time thinking about evidence to help with decisions (and you should) then Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie is the obvious choice this month. Just because there are flaws in the way evidence is presented doesn’t render it all useless—but it is more important than ever to be able to make those judgements.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I found this a slightly disjointed book, not entirely focused, and I’m not sure I was that keen on Foer’s style in certain sections. It is undeniably compelling. I found the argument that Foer put forward irresistible. This is partly as Foer doesn’t try too hard to persuade us—a good technique for doing exactly that but I didn’t feel I was being played. Will it stop you eating meat? Quite possibly. If you are mostly plant-based and wobbling then this book may well tilt you over the edge.

On Fire by Naomi Klein

This is a collection of essays and other writing from Klein, the Canadian author and social activist, including speeches to various organisations. There is a little repetition but mostly I found that they hang together beautifully. She is writing from a left wing liberal viewpoint but Klein’s recent efforts have been to put those politics in the context of the climate emergency. I find it difficult to listen to her and be anything other than utterly persuaded.

Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie

This could be regarded as a disheartening book but I prefer that we make some clear-headed appraisals of the evidence with which we are presented. It is a tremendous introduction to meta-science, the science of science. This is not quite as navel-gazing as it sounds. As Ritchie puts it:

If science is the process of exposing and eliminating errors, meta-science represents that process aimed inwards.”

Publication bias, p-hacking, data dredging are all here. Not to mention outright fraud and overblown hype. If we don’t minimise and eliminate these we’re never going to come to the right decisions as our science will be tainted.

Against the Grain by James C. Scott

Scott explores the earliest civilisations and I’m a bit of a sucker for these pre-historic excursions but I was a little disappointed. There are some interesting notions—for example, the mutual inter-dependence between barbarians and those dwelling in the walled cities and the role of slave trades. There are also the well known problems of disease in these societies, unknowable for those at the time, in moving from hunter gatherer to city lifestyles. Yet, I found the book hard work and it just never grabbed me.

The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

I’m trying to remember how I got put onto Singer. I think it was Jonathan Safran Foer as Singer leapt into prominence for his 1970s book, Animal Liberation. He is a philosopher and not afraid to ask some hard questions. You will think differently about charitable giving, indeed how you live your life, after reading this book. I’ve long felt a resentment at the emotional heart-string tugging that goes into your typical appeal from charities. Singer offers an alternative: effective altruism. There is a TED video (natch) if you can’t find the time for this book.

Left Out by Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire

Corbyn does not come out well of this telling of the recent Labour psychodrama. But few do here. My overall sense was of a lot of people behaving abysmally. It’s difficult to avert one’s eyes and stop reading, but it’s the same uncomfortable sensation one gets witnessing a car crash. Pogrund and Maguire dwell on the Corbynmania but all too often he appears passive, utterly unsuited to the demands of leadership. It also offers plenty of insight into the ongoing anti-semitic debacle with Jezza. All the indications suggest he is an honourable man who has devoted his life to many worthy causes. His very sense of self revolves around this anti-racist self perception. This is the trap; he seems unable to fathom how he could be considered anti-semitic and Labour find themselves trapped in a doom-loop.

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

I read Banks’ contemporary fiction back in the 1990s and I got up to A Song of Stone (1997) before tailing off. One has to be a little careful about memory but I have a vivid recollection of going through several of them while ensconced in various Kathmandu cafés in 1996 while on my medical elective. (Spent at a small cancer hospital in Bhaktapur.) I’m not sure why I never took to his science fiction but I had a sudden desire to take on this first book in the Culture series. And it is a towering achievement, a fitting memorial, one of many he has left us, to a man who died too early at the age of 59.

How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley

A short book but one that deserves to be kept near at hand for reference as various malignant political forces try to bend society to their will. This is no historical tome, though it references past processes with inevitable reference to the Nazis. I read this just before the vote but now we are through the US Presidential election and reflecting on the Trump administration, among others around the world, it’s easy to pick out the scenarios being played out before our eyes. There is an argument that it will add more to polarisation but I found it sufficiently nuanced to reach beyond that.

1 November 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

September 2020 reading list

As it happened I got through just eight books this month though one at least was something of a beast. However, given I took on the editorship of the BJGP that’s not too bad. Here’s the September list.

The books

Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznaric Very good. I came to this after reading Krznaric’s new book The Good Ancestor and I’m inclined to go through his back catalogue. In this one he takes the whole concept of carpe diem — first expressed by Horace — and applies it to modern life. There is some interesting crossover here with Storr’s book Selfie and the nature of individualism.

Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. No less than 25½ hours for this audiobook and I have mixed feelings. If nothing else it has made it clear to me just how complex the global financial system and its inter-linked cogs have now become. The best bits are when the political angles are explored and the hardest bits are endless technical details about bonds, credit swaps etc. I just let them wash over me and it is one of the advantages of audiobook.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson I read Johnson’s book about ideas and creativity last year and you can see the germ of that book in here. This is a rather wonderful exploration of Jon Snow that goes well beyond the simple tale of the Broad Street pump handle and highlights how hidebound we all become when it comes to our opinions. The contortions performed by the establishment to hold onto the miasmic theory of disease are almost comedic to our modern sensibilities. However, it was a deadly serious business and Snow was a remarkable individual.

Selfie by Will Storr Another excellent book by Storr who is a compelling writer. It isn’t laser focused and there is much of Storr’s personal experience in it - no bad thing - resulting in a very readable, occasionally funny book. There are also many insights into the cult of self, of personality, which is engulfing us. He reminds of Ronson in his long form style, only a little more academic, with a slightly more melancholic edge.

MBS by Ben Hubbard One of the reasons I wanted to read this was because I am a Newcastle fan. The Saudi takeover of Newcastle hasn’t, at the time of writing, yet happened but it is still possible it will get resuscitated. There is plenty to deplore about Mike Ashley but he is not in the same league as Mohammed Bin Salman. This is far from a hatchet job and Hubbard covers some of the liberations in Saudi society - women now being allowed to drive. There is, of course, much on Khashoggi and his dark, brutal murder.

The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac I didn’t get a great deal that was new about this but it is a good summary of the climate concerns we face, the options we have for developing a society to cope, and it manages to strike an optimistic tone.

The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards I was concerned this book might be a little too concerned with the topic of leadership and veer off into expansive conclusions about how to lead’ using the experiences of PMs as fertile ground for handy anecdotes. Not a bit of it. It’s a political book that gives a precis of each of these PMs and the struggles they faced, concentrating on their characters and their reactions. Very good.

A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton Another gem that skips across the major branches of philosophy with a light touch. It is accessible and it is engaging. What more could you want?

1 October 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

August 2020 reading list

A slow start to the month as I read less, unusually, while on leave than I do at home. That’s the power of habit for you and the physical exertions and privations of camping (minor though they are) meant I spent less time curled up with a book. However, I came back with renewed enthusiasm. I also caught up with a couple of books that were part read. It is satisfying to finish these up — piles (virtual or not) of half-read books are not good for one’s mental wellbeing. Here’s the August list.

The books

Smallpox: The Death of a Disease by DA Henderson I came to this book after reading Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abrahams last month. Given that smallpox is, so far, the only disease we’ve succeeded in eradicating it is referred back to frequently. This is an enjoyable read, enlightening around the tactics, but it does get a bit listy’ at times with endless WHO epidemiologists and personel poppping up repeatedly.

Bothy Tales by John Burns Easy, fireside reading to make one yearn for a day on the hills. This is, and I don’t mean this disparagingly, something more of a palate cleanser for me. I’m not keeping any notes, I’m just immersed in the vicarious experience of being in the Scottish mountains.

Morality by Jonathan Sacks This is good stuff and I was particularly pleased to read it as it annoyed me at points. Quite severely, in fact, but it’s good to avoid too much confirmation bias. I have copious notes that I need to translate. There were, for me, a couple of major shortcomings. In areas which are not his own experience he relies on secondary sources — much the same books I have read myself in recent times. He seems particularly prone to a failure to differentiate between association and causation. His views on drugs and substance use are dismally biased and lacking any credible evidence base at all. It’s much stronger on the philosophical side and when he stops dragging everything back to religious examples, the latter half of the book is very good and keeps getting better.

This is an Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler The Englers take us through the topic of non-violent resistance. If you are planning to get involved in any future social campaigns it’s vital reading. Even if that’s not on your agenda I found it incredibly instructive to understand how movements we do hear about regularly have worked and may find traction in the future.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer At the heart of this story is the tale of Chris McCandless who walked into the Alaskan wilderness and starved to death a few months later. Krakauer weaves in other tales and his own experience. It’s sensitive, well written, and a very fine piece of longform journalism.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger Junger crams a lot of wisdom into a slim volume. It’s easy to understand how Jonathan Sacks quotes from this book: suicide, social isolation, PTSD, the nature of war and rampage killings. Damn, it’s good.

Austerity’s Victims: Adults with a Learning Disability by Neil Carpenter* Another damning indictment of the policies of the austerity decade and Carpenter lays out the impacts for many of the 900,000+ adults with learning disabilities in England. It’s not pretty reading.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl This scarcely needs introducing. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and Dachau who went on to develop logotherapy. Jonathan Sacks referred to it and I realised I had never read it. In fact, weirdly, I had barely heard of it and somehow it was hardly on the fringes of my awareness — somewhat like Richard Smith and Elizabeth Gilbert.° It’s not a book that needs my endorsement but it is a short read — as an audiobook it was fantastic.

Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed by Men by Caroline Criado Perez* I have written about this book before° and I couldn’t bring myself to completing the audiobook. This month, I finished off with the Kindle version for the last third that I hadn’t yet read. I just found this a hard book to get through and I’m still puzzling why. It might be because Criado Perez lets her (understandable) anger creep in but it’s not just that — her fury at the demonstrable gender bias means that for all the brilliant data exposed she often over-interprets or uses the data to buttress a wider point about gender discrimination where it just doesn’t hold. If you are going to use data as the main plank of your argument I’d argue it is critical that you stay within the limits of interpretation of the data or you hugely weaken your point. This is an incredibly important book but for me it’s not as good as it could be and CCP just doesn’t quite nail it.

The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric This is all about taking the long view and thinking about generations ahead. Krznaric (pronounced kriz-narik according to his website) covers the short-termism of the modern world and then added all sorts of tools and ways of thinking of the future beyond even our own life spans. He presents the moral case and offers practical examples. Of course, the climate emergency is the obvious area in which we need long-term thinking but there are many others as well. I have dozens of notes and it might be my book of the year thus far. More to come on it.

*Part read earlier this year and finished this month.

1 September 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

July 2020 reading list

An interesting bunch this month and, for the first time in a while, a book I just could not get along with at all. Here’s the July list.

  • What If? by Randall Munroe
  • Narco Wars by Tom Chandler
  • The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman
  • Dopesick by Beth Macy
  • Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  • Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy
  • How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson
  • The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
  • Polio. The Odyssey of Eradication by Thomas Abraham
  • The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
  • Hope in Hell by Jonathon Porritt

Comments and Recommendation of the Month

I typed the initial draft of this post in early July, having read the first couple of books on the list and as I neared the end of The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman and Dopesick by Beth Macy. At that point, I’d have been astonished if another book could better Gentleman’s effort and I wrote about it back then.° I was listened to the audiobook, read by Gentleman herself, and it was, by turns, leaving me breathless with rage and often close to tears.

I sometimes wonder what politicians think when they read these books. Do David Cameron, Amber Rudd, Theresa May, feel any sting of shame at all? Most probably not. And, not because I believe they are heartless psychopaths. I try hard not to judge the personal qualities of people on the news and in the media as we can’t really know these people and labelling them as such doesn’t help.

That said, I need to be clear that I am still prone to shouting at the TV, but I know I am just another madman howling at the moon. Yet, as I get older it is impossible to miss the fact that, on a regular basis, the politicians we despised have popped up again in a more human role, having sloughed off the party political skin. Michael Portillo and Ed Balls spring to mind as particularly polarising politicians who have been rehabilitated. No, I suspect Cameron, Rudd and May don’t express any regret because that is, at its heart, how most people behave. We rationalise, we dissemble, we justify and we very rarely admit to ourselves, much less anyone else, that we were mistaken.

Yet Gentleman’s account in The Windrush Betrayal is absolutely damning. The callous behaviour of the politicians, the willingness to de-humanise, is laid bare. At its toxic core, this is, obviously, a book about racism and, importantly, it demonstrates how racism can become systematised. The government machinery, reduced to its heartless efficiencies, exposes the horror of market-driven outsourcing pursuing its sightless, amoral aim. It’s a template for the despots and the malignant. The government created a hostile environment, that could do nothing else but ingrain racist processes. Even worse, they made us all complicit by getting the NHS, GP surgeries, the landlords, and the employers to do the work.

I did read Clanchy as soon as I had heard it won the Orwell Prize° and it is a wonderfully insightful book. It’s more uplifting than The Windrush Betrayal and Clanchy’s background as English teacher, novelist and poet, mean that the literary swirls through it. Which never does any harm, I suspect, when it comes to book prizes. For me, it’s not quite as urgent or as critical as The Windrush Betrayal which I would rate above it.

And, as I mentioned it at the start, I had better follow through and deliver… I could barely muster the strength to finish The Obstacle is the Way which didn’t work for me on any level. I found it superficial and unengaging. I read it shortly after finishing How to Think Like a Roman Emperor — another book following the vogue for Stoic philosophy. In HTTLARE, Robertson weaves in modern psychology and facets of CBT to the story of Marcus Aurelius. I’m happy to recommend it highly if you want to explore that niche.

16 August 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

Late presenting bladder cancer and colour vision

I am red-green colour blind and I’m well aware of my general inability to distinguish red particularly well. In particular, I often miss subtler shades of pink. Apart from a tendency to wear inappropriate shirt and tie combinations it’s hardly life threatening. Or so I thought.

However, it is perhaps rather more than an inconvenience that blood is red. People that are colour-blind may be unable to spot early signs of blood loss. And as any fule kno unexpected blood rings big fat alarm bells for the Big C.

A good example is blood in the urine. I doubt I would miss frank gross haematuria but a red-green colour deficiency makes it easy to miss an elegant pink tinge in my urine. This simple study° from some urologists in Preston took 200 male patients with bladder cancer and assessed them for colour deficiency using an Ishihara° plate test. They found 21 blokes (10.5%) had red-green or complete colour blindness’. The presentation at diagnosis was frank haematuria in 74% of the non-colour blind versus 62% of the colour blind (non-significant).

The study also looked at the histology and the non-colour blind had 69% with superficial disease and the rest had invasive bladder cancer. The colour-blind group had 42% with superficial disease and 58% with less favourable histology. This is statistically significant (p<0.01).

There is sound logic to back up these findings. Colour-blind people (the vast majority being men) can’t pick up some of the early signs of disease when it involves spotting colour changes in bodily fluids. So they are presenting later with more advanced disease. Not good. However, this is a small study — only having 21 cases of bladder cancer in colour-blind men limits how far I would want to rely on the findings.

Colour-blindness is treated as nothing more than an evolutionary oddity; good for teaching the basics of X-linked inheritance° but of no clinical significance. Yet, it might have a little more impact than you think.

Reference

Katmawi-Sabbagh, S., Haq, A., Jain, S., Subhas, G., & Turnham, H. (2009). Impact of Colour Blindness on Recognition of Haematuria in Bladder Cancer Patients Urologia Internationalis, 83 (3), 289-290 DOI: 10.1159/000241669°

15 August 2020 Colour Blindness

Colourblindness and cricket

WH Ponsford

I have been musing on my own personal cricketing failings and I have always suspected that I am handicapped by being colour blind. Think about it. How do you fancy spotting a red ball on a green background with an inability to tell red and green apart? It turns out the medical literature has already considered the issue of colour blind cricketers and is there to back up my plaintive pleas.

There is an expected prevalence of around 8% in the male population for colour-vision deficiency. Of course, an incidence of 8-9% means there is likely to be one colour blind player in every team. Previous studies quoted have suggested rates as low as 4% in first class county cricketers. One study° looked at 293 cricketers from seven cricket clubs in Melbourne. They found that 8.9% had colour-vision deficiencies but only 6.7% played at the highest level within those clubs. However, that reduction in those playing at the highest level is statistically significant.

This could lead one to the conclusion that being colour blind is holding some cricketing men back. This study also looked at some other interesting areas which might prove useful for the village cricket bluffer and will provide ample ammunition to mount a robust defence of any mishaps.

The batting average in those with mild colour-vision deficiencies was 28.3 and those with severe deficiencies was 18.8. (Sadly, the authors report this was not statistically significant but don’t let that stand in the way of your bar-room thesis during the match post-mortem.) It was also noted that those with colour-vision deficiencies rather prefer fielding close to the batter. This might prove a highly useful piece of hard medical evidence for those that find galloping around a boundary rope somewhat wearing. The authors have included some technical explanations which will help beat back any naysayers.

A further hypothesis is that cricketers with abnormal colour vision will have greatest difficulty when fielding in the outfield where the angular size of the ball is small and the ball may often be seen against grass or surrounding foliage. The ball subtends about 12 minutes of arc for a fielder close to the batsman and three to five minutes of arc for a fielder near the boundary. It is known that all observers with abnormal colour vision, even those with a mild deficiency, have difficulty seeing red objects in natural surrounds. For these reasons cricketers with abnormal colour vision should prefer to field close to the batsman. Botham was a brilliant slip fielder…

W.H. Ponsford (pictured) was known to be colour blind but he has the 6th highest average in first class cricket° in the history of the game. He doesn’t always make the lists because he never met the 20,000 run minimum that is often applied. He also scored over 400 twice in first class innings. Only Brian Lara can match that.

Rather amazingly 42% of men in this study did not know they had any colour-vision deficiency. So the next time you shell a dolly at long-off perhaps you ought to toddle down to your GP and do an Ishihara test.° Being colour blind could provide some convenient excuses.

Reference

Harris, R., & Cole, B. (2007). Abnormal colour vision is a handicap to playing cricket but not an insurmountable one Clinical and Experimental Optometry, 90 (6), 451-456

15 August 2020 Colour Blindness

The Orwell Prize winner 2020 goes to…

I finished the last hour of Amelia Gentleman’s The Windrush Betrayal this morning as I ran on the western fringes of the Howgills. I was coming off Arant Haw and down towards Seat Knott. It is not very summery at the moment. The baking hot drought days, mid-lockdown, of April and May, are receding in the memory.

It was barely 12°C and I managed with a cotton T-shirt and shorts but there was no lingering. I had to, incongruously, wear a pair of gloves with the scanty running kit, an affectation usually reserved for Premier League footballers, but an essential one as my stiffening blood vessels aren’t letting warmth get to my extremities in quite the way they did. There was a stiff breeze, unusually more easterly, maybe with a hint of south, compared with the usual prevailing westerlies. It’s curious how the wind, something that we wouldn’t normally pay much mind, becomes so startingly evident when out running. The easterly push meant, despite my efforts to lift the pace, that I was engaged in something of a struggle to get up the hills. The playful breezes at house level are rather more persistent higher up and I had to lean in, work hard. I was glad to reach the summit at 606m and turn my back to the wind.

The other problem with the wind is that I can, when it really starts roaring, have difficulties hearing the audiobook but I was still picking it up just fine today. The Windrush Betrayal hasn’t been an easy listen because it is so emotive. It is enraging. A horror story of institutional racism, the hostile environment of May, Cameron and Rudd. The stories of lives devastated had me in tears. I often wonder if some politicians’ cheeks are touched with any blush of shame. I doubt it. Not because I regard them as unfeeling monsters but because it is just not within human nature to admit to mistakes. More likely, they rationalise it, build the fortifications around their own personal story. Gentleman touches on this as she interviews Rudd and she recounts how May expressed personal sorrow, clumsily as ever, but never apologised for the hostile environment policy. That remained inviolate, reasonable; it was simply the unfortunate collateral damage she regretted. (Though, again, Gentleman points out this only came when it became clear public opinion was firmly with the Windrush generation.)

Amelia Gentleman narrates it well and the story includes moments of personal reflection too, where she had doubts and anxieties. These were welcome, there are times when the forced objectivity of journalists feels, well, forced. They tell of injustices through gritted teeth, not wanting to let their emotions intrude. The Orwell Prize rather exemplifies the need for political journalism to have a viewpoint, to have a stance, though it is perfectly possible to over-egg this. Going to far is, perhaps, one of the reasons I found Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women, a much harder listen. Her understandable frustration and anger at the demonstrable injustice and bias manages, just at points, to lessen the raw power of the data bias. (In fact, I still have a couple of hours left on that book to finish as I had, unusually, given up on it.)

As I was running down, I thought how disappointed I would be if Gentleman’s book doesn’t win the Orwell Prize. A little unfair as I have yet to read any of the other five on the list beyond Gentleman and Perez. I thought, if they can best these two then they really will be worth the effort. My timing is impeccable, as it turns out, as it spurred me to check the site and the Prize was being announced today. Not long to wait to find out. As it happens Amelia Gentleman didn’t win — it has gone to Kate Clanchy for Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. An unanimous decision according to Stephanie Flanders. I have it on my Kindle and plan to start immediately.

9 July 2020 Scribbles

June 2020 reading list

Well it was a much better month than May and I found my groove again. There are some real gems here that would have me enthusing in any given month. I’ll try to tackle them individually with posts in the coming weeks. Here’s the June list.

  • Don’t Be Evil by Rana Faroohar
  • You Talking to Me by Sam Leith
  • Parliament Ltd by Martin Williams
  • Our Final Warning by Mark Lynas
  • How to Survive a Plague by David France
  • The NHS at 70: A Living History by Ellen Welch
  • The COVID-19 Catastrophe by Richard Horton
  • Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
  • You Are Not Human by Simon Lancaster
  • The Art of Statistics by David Spiegelhalter
  • The Candy Machine by Tom Feiling
  • Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

Recommendation of the Month

Don’t Be Evil is a good run through of the problems at Google and Facebook. You Talking to Me hops through the formal discipline of rhetoric, something that I’m not very familiar with at all but I enjoyed. Parliament Ltd is damning of many politicians and the whole parliamentary process. There is a lot to be cross about but, weirdly, I found Williams’ scathing tone about politicians slightly irritated me. It’s clear he has a very low opinion but I wasn’t always sure it was entirely fair to daub all politicians with this particular brush at all times.

Our Final Warning is a bleak read but not to be ducked. How to Survive a Plague is a fairly long book but uplifting despite the desperately long list of victims. One of the big players at the time of the HIV epidemic was none other than Anthony Fauci. He doesn’t always come out of it well. The NHS at 70 is rather short and somewhat superficial. The COVID-19 Catastrophe by Horton is brutally honest, again relatively brief, but packs a punch.

You Are Not Human was excellent and made me think deeply about metaphor and how we use it, unthinkingly, all the time. Humankind is very good as well and this book, plus Utopia for Realists, make Bregman one to keep close. The Art of Statistics does a manful job of tackling some complicated stats. It’s not my first rodeo when it comes to looking at these but my head was swimming at times. The Candy Machine is another book covering the horrors of the War on Drugs’.

My favourite book this month was Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell. I picked it up because of a recommendation in Bregman’s book. For some reason, the life and works of Russell have passed me by. I could barely have told you who he was, much less anything about his books. It was wonderful to read these essays from a different period but be entertained and stimulated. And knowing there is much to read of Russell’s yet is always a lovely feeling — reminiscent of that thrill when you find an author you love and there is a long backlist to work through. I’m not certain I’ll be delving into all his past academic works but there are plenty of essay collections to enjoy.

1 July 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles

May 2020 reading list

Here it is, the May reading list. It was a little bit impacted by COVID-19 as I did, just ever so slightly, lose my focus and I was finding it harder to concentrate. Some of these are, as a result, more varied and rather less academic.

  • Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf
  • The Lost Decade by Polly Toynbee and David Walker
  • Stolen by Grace Blakely
  • Draft No.4 by John McPhee
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
  • Hypersanity by Neel Burton
  • The Secret Barrister by Anon
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
  • Detectives in the Shadows by Susanna Lee
  • Good Cop. Bad War by Neil Woods

Recommendation of the Month

I was looking foward to Proust and the Squid and I was disappointed. The second half of the book is heavily weighted towards people with a specific interest in autism and I was crushed by the level of detail. It didn’t work for me at all. The Lost Decade was good but a bit of a grind. It was also almost impossible not to read everything as if it was asterisked — any talk of economic and social impact now being looked through the COVID lens. Stolen was good, more strident and militant than I was expecting. Draft No.4 started slow but had some great advice about writing longer form work. Bad Blood was gripping, a page turner, and an astonishing indictment of the Silicon Valley startup culture.

I liked Hypersanity but it was a little patchy. The Secret Barrister takes us through the abject running down of the criminal justice system in the past decade. I’m not quite sure why I picked up the Steve Jobs biography, possibly as a consequence of reading Bad Blood and the hero worship of Jobs by the main player, Elizabeth Holmes. Neither of them come out particularly well.

Jon Ronson’s book was diverting enough and it certainly encouraged me to stay off Twitter. Detectives in the Shadows is an academic discussion of the hard-boiled hero but very much has an American sensibility. And Good Cop, Bad War details Neil Woods’ experiences as an undercover cop.

As I write this, I realise that it wasn’t a superb month. Ultimately, if I had to pick a book to recommend then I think The Secret Barrister edges it over Stolen. You may never be involved with it, woe betide you if you are, because a well-resourced criminal justice system is the absolute bedrock of a fair society and it is failing. We spend a pitiful amount on it and the relentless drive for more savings is a deep wound in our democracy. Legal aid has been slashed and we’ve been suckered with the PR about the undeserving. Median income of barristers in 2012-13 was £27,000 — though, some do of course, earn large sums at the upper end, most don’t. Read the book, but if that’s too much for you then check out The Secret Barrister FAQs.°

1 June 2020 Monthly Reading List Scribbles