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 MP’s 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.
1 July 2021
Monthly Reading List
- 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 MP’s Wife by Sasha Swire - Notes
- Sunburn by James Felton - Notes
- Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
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
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
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.
1 June 2021
Monthly Reading List
- 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
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
8 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.
1 May 2021
Monthly Reading List
- 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
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 UK’s 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 UK’s 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.
28 April 2021
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.