January 2021 Reading List

One to read: I learned more from Revolting Prostitutes than I care to admit.

  • First You Write a Sentence by Joe Moran
  • The Precipice by Toby Ord
  • Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac
  • Crack: Rock Cocaine, Street Capitalism, and the Decade of Greed by David Farber
  • Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks
  • Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move by Reece Jones
  • Drug Use for Grown Ups by Carl L. Hart
  • No Fixed Abode by Maeve McClenaghan
  • Labours of Love by Madeleine Bunting
1 February 2021 Monthly Reading List

December 2020 Reading List

One to read: The audiobook of Black and British is sublime. The narration by Kobna Holbrook-Smith (who reads Aaronvitch’s fabulous Rivers of London series) is just perfect. It’s a long one at over 24hrs but I didn’t want it to end.

  • The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking)
  • Black and British: A Forgotten History by David Olusoga
  • The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
  • Beyond the Red Wall by Deborah Mattinson
  • On Inhumanity by David Livingstone-Smith
  • Going Dark by Julia Ebner
  • This Is Not Normal by William Davies
1 January 2021 Monthly Reading List

November 2020 Reading List

One to read: Brian Deer could be the dictionary definition of tenacious, if not obsessive. The Doctor Who Fooled the World is superb.

  • Wake Up by Piers Morgan
  • For Small Creatures Such as We by Sasha Sagan
  • The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle
  • The Rules of Contagion by Adam Kucharski
  • The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel
  • The Doctor Who Fooled the World by Brian Deer
  • Conscious by Annaka Harris
  • The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb
  • Blind Descent by James M. Tabor
1 December 2020 Monthly Reading List

Wake Up by Piers Morgan

Now it is no great shakes to declare that 2020 has been full of surprises, few of them in truth that pleasant. If there was one person I didn’t think would feature in my writing around medicine and politics and books it was Piers Morgan. Like many, though by no means all, I’ve been a long subscriber to what could be called the Hislop School of Thought. The Private Eye editor and HIGNFY panellist has a particular enmity for Piers Morgan and, frankly, it didn’t seem that unreasonable. That said, I’ve always been wary about hating’ celebrities, or politicians for that matter, as we never know these people, not truly.

Piers Morgan has come over as a raging egotist, a Trump apologist, and shameless self-promoting narcissist. Yet, looking back there have been clues. There’s the Youtube video of him in the cricket nets gamely being peppered by Brett Lee’s fast bowling. He took it, cracked rib and all, with impressive courage. Chapeau. I also read Emily Maitlis’ book Airhead earlier in the year and Piers Morgan appears in there, a friend of Maitlis, and the portrayal hints at the decency of the man. I seem to recall, though don’t quote me, that she also mentions Morgan’s assertion that he regards himself as a feminist. He was also the editor of the Daily Mirror. Now, like any tabloid, particularly in that era, it was hardly a bastion of moral rectitude. But, there was the matter of the vociferous opposition to the Iraq War from Morgan and colleagues, a good moment for him and the Mirror.

Anyhoo, back to the politics and medicine. Perhaps then it shouldn’t come as quite such as surprise that he has been the surprise hero of the COVID-19 pandemic. He has, with considerable gusto, thrown himself into holding the British Government to account. To be fair, given the vacillation, the u-turns, and the sheer agonising ineptitude this should be more in line with shooting fish in a barrel. Yet, it has been largely beyond the media. Not so Piers.

He describes himself as a liberal and the book is an extended rant against illiberal wokery”. Now, I don’t agree with him about several arguments within the book and it is all too easy to hear Morgan ranting in sections. He does have a very valid and real point about cancellation culture. It’s difficult to reconcile free speech with the no-platforming approach. For some of the most despicable hate speech mongerers there will be legal grounds for this but one feels it should be held in reserve and deployed in only the most egregious of cases.

And, he is on the side of the angels, well Obama, here as well. Personally I’m less certain this is about wokery, as he characterises it, and more about polarisation. Morgan’s wokery’ is just one manifestation of the divisive nature of social discourse. In some ways Morgan is resisting the polarisation, not letting himself get dragged to either extreme. It is an impressive example of self-confidence, possibly mildly pathological, and those torrid forces tugging at his ego have resulted in him coming across as vaguely unhinged as he has raved about men wearing papooses or vegan sausage rolls.

I took a bit of a deep breath before reading this book, thinking it might be one to puncture my filter bubble. In the end, not so much. I was worried it would provoke some visceral reaction, deepening my own bias. It has, in many ways, given me a tremendous amount of pleasure. It’s all too easy to read books that simply confirm one’s bias. It turns out I almost certainly have more in common with Morgan than we are apart. Arguably, Morgan is now an unusual beast, someone who has not gravitated to an extreme pole, holding liberal views from decades past, but not letting himself be pulled further. The political tectonic plates are shifting but I suspect Morgan has barely budged an inch even as the ground under him has been rent. He has, in 2020, found his mojo again and, to borrow a slightly grim phrase, he is having a good’ pandemic. Which is good for him. And as it turns out it’s pretty good for us too.

Morgan ranting about it is just intolerant and it’s even vaguely bullying; a quality that is often not too far away with our Piers.

Let me finish on a sidenote and say a few words about vegan sausage rolls to hark back to Morgan’s days of petty irrelevance. I don’t actually know what Morgan’s beef is with them but I suspect the problem is the lack of the beef’, well pork. Often it is when plant-based food tries to imitate meat products that it often goes wrong. The thing is, many of us have grown up with sausage rolls, they are a comfort food. Yes, I could eat something completely different but that roll of pastry with a salty tasty smear running down the middle is good. For me, it is just as good, in fact even better, than the meat version. I get the same fatty salty flaky warmth and comfort without the dead animals. Win-win.

Morgan ranting about it is just intolerant and it’s even vaguely bullying; a quality that is often not too far away with our Piers. He does, to his credit, acknowledge this in a few places in the book. I’m not sure his day-to-day behaviour has improved with this self-awareness and insight. I still see him regularly calling out some muppet on Twitter by citing his own follower count. Morgan might be putting in an unexpected bid for national treasure status but the planet-sized ego is still capable of eclipsing and undermining his own arguments. The book is well worth the read though.

19 November 2020 Scribbles

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