I’d like to begin the year as before with a suggested reading list. My duties as Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors restricted my usual time for reading in 2016 but I still managed to find some gems. First a work of history:
The English & Their History Robert Tombs
This is a brilliant, masterful and enormously readable narrative of the English people from the Anglo-Saxons to the present. Tombs is better known as an historian of the French but he brings a fresh perspective to both what happened to the people who created England and the English language and culture and how they remembered it. Never jingoistic nor afraid to point out the darker side of our history, nevertheless I finished up even more proud of our contribution to the world.
Next a few books on the crisis of capitalism, one of the gravest dangers to our way of life:
Lords of Finance Liaquat Ahamed.
The author is a former Wall St. fund manager who wanted to understand the causes of the Wall St crash in 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. In an outstanding book based on meticulous research he places the principal blame firmly at the doors of the four leading Central Bankers in the 1920s, Benjamin Strong of the New York Federal Reserve Bank Federal Reserve and his successor George L. Harrison; Montagu Norman at the Bank of England; Aimé Hilaire Émile Moreau at the Banque de France; and Hjalmar Schacht at the Reichsbank. Given the floundering of the Central Bankers today and the hugely increased levels of debt, the risks are clear that we could again face such a disaster.
The End of Alchemy Mervyn King
I have huge concerns about the current Governor of the Bank of England but his predecessor has a giant intellect and was at the coal face when the Central Bankers were striving to save the world’s economy from the last recession. He gave me a signed copy of this book after a lecture he gave on the international banking crisis and I thought his lecture contained more sense than most of what I have heard over the last ten years or so. The trouble is that the solution is for all the banks to work together, as they did at Bretton Woods, but there’s no sign of any move in that direction.
Capitalism John Plender
Capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty but is deeply flawed and facing something of a crisis. There is no better way but that may not stop frustrated and angry mobs from striking it down. John Plender is an experienced Financial Times journalist who takes us on a tour of capitalism through the ages, as seen by novelists and philosophers and tries to shed light on some of its darkest corners. This is a valuable contribution to what is arguably the most important topical debate.
Other People’s Money John Kay
John Kay, a distinguished economist with wide experience of the financial sector, argues that the industry’s perceived profitability is partly illusory, and partly an appropriation of wealth created elsewhere – of other people’s money. The financial sector he shows, has grown too large, detached itself from ordinary business and everyday life, and has become an industry that mostly trades with itself, talks to itself, and judges itself by reference to standards which it has itself generated. And the outside world has itself adopted these standards, bailing out financial institutions that have failed all of us through greed and mismanagement. We need finance, but today we have far too much of a good thing.
And next, three indispensable books on huge issues:
Leading Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz
Sir Alex Ferguson is in my opinion one of the leading managers in any sphere, not just football. He has been giving a series of lectures at Harvard Business School and his ideas are captured here in an excellent book, helped by the great technology investor Michael Moritz. Sir Alex mentions me in an earlier book of autobiography but no such luck here. He demonstrates that leadership is far more than management. His job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference.
The Second Curve - Thoughts on Reinventing Society Charles Handy
I also received a signed copy of this from Charles after a lecture he gave at Cass Business School. He is one of the greatest thinkers of our age, not just about business but about society at large. He was born in 1932 but is perfectly lucid on a series of subjects and here he allows his imagination to run free in an attempt to suggest answers to many of the apparently intractable dilemmas that run through modern society.
Being Mortal Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande is a physician of Indian origin living and working in the US. He writes very movingly about the problems of dying in a culture like the US where medical practice is to keep people alive at all costs regardless of the quality of that life while families have almost completely abandoned their old. But it is not just about dying and the limits of medicine, but about living to the last with independence, dignity and joy.
And last, a couple of works of Fiction:
The Baroque Cycle Neal Stevenson
This year I completed the Baroque Cycle, an extraordinary series of novels, The System of the World, The Confusion and Quicksilver. It is one of the greatest literary achievements I have ever come across. One needs an appetite for the long novel as each part is 8-900 pages long but it is well worth it. It is hugely ambitious but compelling as a saga setting an exciting story with a rich entourage of characters with the real protagonists such as Sir Isaac Newton at a time of great discovery and change.
Dictator Robert Harris
I have read just about all of Robert Harris’s works and this is one of his finest. Again it marks the third volume of a trilogy, this time about the life of Cicero. Imperium describes the rise to power, Lustrum the years in power and Dictator the repercussions of power. The work is seen through the eyes of Tiro, secretary of Cicero, and Dictator covers his master’s last fifteen years. Exiled to Thessalonica, he returns to Rome under the promise to support Julius Caesar. Back in Rome he attempts to revive the Roman Republic but the forces against this are too strong. Caesar becomes too powerful and is assassinated. The Senate fails to take control and Pompey and Anthony battle it out. Pompey is murdered and Anthony rises. Cicero sets his hopes on the young Octavian, the future Augustus, but when Octavian strikes a deal with Anthony, Cicero is doomed and the days of the Republic are over.