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20 January 2024

This Year's Reading List (7)

Tag(s): History, Languages & Culture
Once again, I wish to begin this year’s series of blogs with my annual recommended reading list based on my reading. During 2023 I read some extremely good books and choosing this list has been difficult. One of the best books I read was “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling and I blogged about that on 25th of February.[i] Another good book was “Why We're Polarized” by Ezra Klein which I also blogged about on 21st October[ii]. These two books are among the best I have ever read. But I have blogged about them already extensively during the year, so I'm not going to go into more detail here.

Instead, let me start by recommending two books by Jeremy Paxman, who is well known, of course, as an aggressive television interviewer and indeed for many years as the Quizmaster for University Challenge. He's probably not so well known as a writer, but, in my opinion, he is one of our best historical writers.
  1. Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman
This is the story of coal mining in Britain. Paxman finds stories of engineers and inventors, entrepreneurs and industrialists, and, above all, miners. He tells an inspired history of Britain through its dirtiest commodity. He demonstrates how coal played midwife to genius and Industry, empire and politics, astonishing wealth and, of course, tragedy. You might not think that the history of coal in Britain is particularly gripping, but it is. Paxman brings out the extraordinary courage of the communities where men, women and children worked in the dark in conditions that no one could endure today.
  1. The English: a Portrait of a People by Jeremy Paxman
Jeremy Paxman sets out to find out about the English. Not the British overall, not the Scots, not the Irish or Welsh, but the English. It's a book on what constitutes Englishness, and what are considered its essential characteristics and values. Paxman uses both literary sources and interviews in an attempt to define how Englishness has changed over the recent past and what it is now both in our own and in an outsider's view. It's a thoroughly balanced book with what I think are genuine objective truths, both good and not so good.
  1. Colonialism – a Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar
This is another book I found truly impressive on another potentially controversial subject. In the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in 1989 many believed that we had arrived at the end of history. That the global dominance of liberal democracy had been secured forever. Now, however. with Russia. rattling its sabre on the borders of Europe and China, rising to challenge the post 1945 world order, the liberal West faces major threats. These threats are not only external, especially in the Anglosphere. The decolonisation movement corrodes the West’s confidence by retelling the history of European and American colonial dominance as a litany of racism, exploitation and massively murderous violence. Nigel Biggar tests this indictment, addressing eight crucial questions. Was the British Empire driven primarily by greed and the lust to dominate? Should we speak of colonialism and slavery in the same breath as if they were identical? Was the Empire essentially racist? How far was it based on the theft of land? Did it involve genocide? Was it driven fundamentally by the motive for economic exploitation? Was undemocratic colonial government necessarily illegitimate? And, Was the Empire essentially violent and its violence, pervasively racist and terroristic?

The book has encyclopaedic and historical breath and penetrating and analytical depth. And it offers a moral interest into the colonial past, forensically contesting damaging falsehoods and thereby helping to rejuvenate faith in the West’s future. It does not hide where actual crimes took place. But it does present a more balanced and objective view of our past.
  1. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything
by Steven D. Levitt and co-author Stephen J Dubner.

This is not only a book, but now both broadcast and podcast programmes. And it really redefines the way by which we view the modern world. It asks a whole series of challenging questions about a range of activities in everyday life. Most economists don't ask such questions. But Levitt is not a typical economist. He's a much-heralded scholar who studies the stuff and riddles of everyday life, from cheating and crime to sports and parenting. And whose conclusions regularly turn conventional wisdom on its head. Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise. If morality represents how we would like the world to work economics represents how it actually does work.
  1. The Big Con by Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Cuddington.
This is another excellent book on a very controversial topic. It presents how the consulting industry weakens our businesses, infantilises our governments and warps our economies. There may well be readers of this blog who are themselves management consultants and who might resent this analysis. The book is not about individual management consultants, but more about how the large firms have taken over large parts of systems that govern and control our lives. The book exposes the dangerous consequences of outsourcing state capacity to the consulting industry. And in many cases presents strong arguments about why and how they do this without having the necessary skills and experience. Indeed, their principal skill appears to be the ability to win contracts from governments rather than to deliver on them. And all of us can see numerous examples of that. For example, some of the appalling actions that happened during the pandemic.
  1. The Earth Transformed – An Untold History by Peter Frankopan
Peter Frankopan is one of the world’s leading historians and the best-selling author of the outstanding The Silk Roads. It is easy to accept the premise that our world has always been one of transformation, transition and change. From the Big Bang to the present-day solar activity, volcanic eruptions, floods and droughts have shaped natural history and that of humankind. The ways in which we have used, exploited and adapted the Earth has brought enormous benefits, but has often come at a cost. As we face a precarious future, learning lessons from the past have never been more important. This is a truly magnificent ground-breaking book in which we learn about the origin of our species; about the development of religion and language and their relationships with the environment; about how the desire to centralise agricultural surplus formed the origins of the bureaucratic state; about how growing demands for harvests resulted in the increased shipment of enslaved peoples; about how efforts to understand and manipulate the weather have a long and deep history. All provide lessons of profound importance as we face a precarious future of rapid global warming.
 7. Ravenous by Henry Dimbleby
This is another book which analyses a major area of human life. And how if it is not taken in a different direction, it will lead us to disaster. The author, Henry Dimbleby, is an expert on food. And he takes us behind the scenes to reveal the mechanisms which act together to shape modern diet and therefore the world. He explains not just why the food system is leading us into disaster, but what can be done about it. The food system is no longer simply a means of sustenance. It is one of the most successful and most innovative, but also most destructive industries on earth. It sustains us but it is also killing us. Diet related diseases are now the biggest cause of preventable illness and death in the developed world, far worse than smoking. The environmental damage done by the food system is also changing climate patterns and degrading the Earth, risking our food security.
  1. Elizabeth – An Intimate Portrait by Gyles Brandreth
When I was. a student at New College, Oxford, a fellow student and member of the same college was Gyles Brandreth, who was already making a name for himself. I remember having breakfast opposite him in the Hall one day. While I was an ordinary undergraduate, Gyles was already someone who had done lecture tours in the United States. While I was eating my breakfast Gyles was opening his extensive mail. I've always followed his career since with interest, and he has had a most interesting career, not least as an author.

My wife and I recently attended an evening where he gave a one man show. For two hours with a short interval, he told us stories about his life. And as he promised, dropping lots of names, not least members of the royal family, particularly Prince Philip, who he got to know very well and wrote a very good biography of him. But he was now promoting his most recent biography, that of the late Queen Elizabeth. It's entitled Elizabeth - An Intimate Portrait. And it is exactly that, reciting discussions that he had with her. He wrote an extensive diary, and still does. And he includes part of that diary in the book to show that these were events that happened which he was able to observe.

 He first met the Queen when he was 20. And over the next 50 years, he joined her many times in public and private. His personal observations of the Queen, both at her duties and with her family make this account of her extraordinary life like no other. There are many biographies of Her Majesty, as can be expected of the longest reigning sovereign in British history. She met more Presidents and other Heads of State than anyone else in the world. But most of these other biographies won’t really tell you what she was really like and what made her so special. This book does.
  1. Women Aren’t Persons by Erica Stary
Erica is a personal friend of mine. I know Erica very well through the Past Masters Association of which both Erica and I are members. She has actually been a Master of three different livery companies and in my year as Master Marketor she was the Master Plumber. The book tells her story which has been very tough, but in the end a very successful one. She was born in Lancashire and had a very difficult childhood with an unkind Stepparent. He tried to stop her achieve her personal ambitions and felt that she should leave school at 16, and just take the usual job in the mill or the factory. But Erica had ambitions to be a lawyer and she won through against all the odds and became a very successful lawyer and then judge who's done a lot of very good work in lots of other ways. She is a fine woman and I'm proud to know her. And I recommend this book not just because of my friendship, but because it tells a very moving and powerful story. But it isn't just autobiographical. It is also making the general point as in the title sometimes women aren't persons in the legal sense. And there are still many problems that women have to deal with that men probably don't even know about.
  1. Fiction
In fiction, I read the usual collection: John Grisham, of course, David Baldacci, Jo Nesbo. Jack Higgins. Alexander Kent, Leslie Thomas, Richard Osman and Lee Child. But one particularly interesting newcomer was the former Cabinet Minister Alan Johnson. Alan wrote a very good autobiography some time ago but has now written a very good thriller called One of Our Ministers Is Missing. I commend it as a good entertaining read.

[i]Factfulness” Hans Rosling
[ii]Why The USA is Polarized” Ezra Klein

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