For the fifth year in succession I want to open the year’s blog account with some recommendations of books I found particularly stimulating and/or enjoyable last year. Some of these occasioned individual blogs during the year while others, I hope, will still be of interest. One in particular I have only just concluded but will definitely blog more about soon.
To start with, two history books:
Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation. Brendan Simms. Allen Lane. 2016
As a former history student I find it is usually best to understand present issues by placing them in historical context and this excellent book does that with Brexit. It is a far ranging and thoughtful history of Britain’s relations with continental Europe. It was Churchill who suggested that Europe was “where the weather came from.” From the cross-European “bonds of Christendom’ and the development of an English identity during the Viking invasions, to the 19th Century when British liberalism was seen as a defence against autocratic aggression, events in Europe have played a profound role in shaping the destiny of first England and then Great Britain.
But as Simms observes: “If Europe made Britain, then Britain also made Europe.” The relationship is symbiotic and Europe has much to learn from Britain; a political union freely entered into with a common currency and the tools of fiscal management and transfer of capital and labour to keep it stable. This is a timely and important study that places Brexit, and as importantly the difficulties of the rest of the EU, in an illuminating historical context.
Isabella of Castile: Europe’s First Great Queen Giles Tremlett. Bloomsbury.
Given my family connections I take particular interest in Spanish history and this is a remarkable biography of a remarkable woman who probably did more than any other person to found and develop modern Spain, which was to become one of the world’s greatest empires. In 1474, aged 23 she claimed the throne of Castile, the largest and strongest kingdom in Spain. It was riddled with crime, corruption and violent political factionalism and she gradually brought these under control, through force of personality, religious faith and wise selection of counsellors and officials. Her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon was crucial to her success, bringing together as it did two kingdoms, but it was an equal partnership in which Isabella more than held her own. Their sponsorship of Christopher Columbus was at best fortuitous but once they realised its success they used it ruthlessly to found an Empire and extract great riches from the New World. Her sponsorship of the Inquisition was less fortuitous and by modern standards unspeakably cruel. But contemporary commentators admired her fortitude in the religious persecution of Jews and Moslems and saw it as a crucial part of Spain’s success.
Here are two books on major economic and political trends:
Moneyland: Why Thieves and Crooks Now Rule the World and How to Take it Back. Oliver Bullough. Profile Books. 2018
Last year I recommended Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson which described much of the problems of avoidance and evasion of taxes by major corporations and hugely rich individuals. Its principal contribution to the oeuvre was to show that much of what we call ‘offshore’ is actually ‘onshore’. Bullough’s book goes further by describing how criminals and others who are not much different hide and spend their money with the connivance of accountants, bankers and lawyers. Bullough builds his case by first describing the racketeers he observed as a young journalist in Russia and Ukraine and then climbing further into the maelstrom and showing that many organisations and individuals who would wish to be considered as legitimate are playing the same game. He argues that in a generally honest country like the UK the word “corruption” is useful to describe those who seek to corrupt the system but in a wholly corrupt country like Ukraine where all parents seeking cancer care for their children must bribe their oncologists the word corruption is not adequate. Even worse is the growing practice of corrupting a small country to obtain diplomatic immunity and so be safe from prosecution. The book’s weakness is that it does not really fulfil the last part of the sub-title and without the full scale cooperation of all major nations this will only get worse.
The book was voted The Sunday Times Business Book of the Year, The Economist Politics and Current Affairs Book of the Year and a Daily Mail and Times book of the year.
Tragedy & Challenge: An Inside View of UK’s Engineering’s Decline and the Challenge of the Brexit Economy. Tom Brown. Matador. 2017
This is a quite extraordinary book. Anthony Hilton, Senior Commentator London Evening Standard said “It ought to be the business book of the year. It will not be though, because it does not take any prisoners.” Anthony, with whom I had the pleasure of having lunch once, is quite right. The long term decline of British engineering is often attributed to the failure of British management and sometimes also to the over-bearing power of the unions in the 1960s and 1970s. Tom Brown, who has worked in British manufacturing for over 40 years and chaired 15 companies agrees with this but goes much further demonstrating the guilt of the political classes and particularly the City of London with its emphasis on short term results and its hopeless addiction to mergers and acquisitions which almost always fail to add value.
Brown goes further still by demonstrating the devastating effect this has had on the British economy with a chronic deficit in the balance of payments and on society with a massive loss of worthwhile manufacturing jobs. And unlike Bullough’s book he offers pages of solutions while showing little faith that our politicians will ever have the courage to follow them. I offer this, unreservedly, as my Business Book of the Year and will return to it in the near future in more detail.
And now a reminder of a series of books on which I blogged during the year on a range of topics:
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos. Jordan B. Peterson. Allen Lane 2018
I met Dr Peterson when he was in London promoting his book. Peterson has distilled his teachings into twelve practical principles for how to live a meaningful life. His basic message is that life is hard with battles against evil and suffering, and that you may as well face it clear-eyed and with some sense of bravery and adventure; and that political ideology is no answer when your life goes wrong. Some of his critics accuse him of right-wing bias but in truth he hates all ideologies.
His advice ranges from putting your own house in order before criticising others, to comparing yourself to who you were yesterday, rather than someone else today. Happiness, he says, is a futile goal. Instead we must search for meaning, not for its own sake, but as a defence against the suffering that is intrinsic to existence.
Drawing examples from his personal life as well as clinical practice, cutting-edge psychology and philosophy, and lessons from humanity’s oldest myths and stories, Dr Peterson offers an antidote to chaos, applying eternal truths to today’s problems.
I tried to précis Dr Peterson’s Rules in the blog, the longest I have ever written, which also attracted the largest post bag I have ever received for a blog. But I suggest you read the book. It is well worth it. If you don’t have the time to read the book, then see him on video. There are numerous lectures and interviews on YouTube. I particularly enjoyed his interview on Channel 4 news where he absolutely demolished Cathy Newman.[i]
Do Good: Embracing Brand Citizenship to Fuel Both Purpose and Profit. Anne Bahr Thompson. Amacom. 2018.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Ms Thompson when she visited the UK promoting her book and exchanged with her a copy of mine on a similar theme: Marketing for Good Is Good Marketing. 2017. Her book is based on thousands of consumer interviews in which she has established that consumers in general are drawn to companies and brands with a higher purpose. We all want to believe this but Ms Thompson provides strong empirical evidence that it is true.
Forman’s Games: The Dark Underside of the London Olympics. Lance Forman. Biteback Publishing. 2016.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Mr Forman as he told his story to a group of us at his family Smoked Salmon business right outside the Olympic Park. Only through tremendous resilience and admirable resourcefulness did Mr Forman save his business from the Olympic Park developers. Most of the 300 businesses that were on the site were not so lucky. Far from being a revitalisation project the London Olympics killed a thriving business estate.
Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late? Mark Cocker. Jonathan Cape. 2018.
One of Britain’s best wildlife writers, the author describes the great dichotomy between the fact that the British seem to love the countryside as evidenced by the far greater membership they have of environmental and wildlife organisations compared with any other country, far in excess also of membership of political parties, and the fact that collectively we do more to destroy our countryside and our wildlife than any other developed nation. He shows how these various organisations fail to work effectively together, often indeed the contrary, and also in trying to answer his own question tells Ten Truths about the British Environment, what mankind has done and is still doing to it. It makes hard reading but if you love the countryside as I do it is essential. In matters of wildlife none of us is innocent. Everyone is to blame.
Chilean Trees Around the World. Rodrigo Fernández Carbó. Ograma. Santiago de Chile. 2018
My wife and I also had the pleasure of meeting the author at the Chilean Embassy. He is a Chilean documentary film maker and has made it his life’s work to collect stories and photographs of how Chilean trees have spread around the world. It makes a beautiful coffee table book, but it is so much more than that as the stories are fascinating and inspiring. Indeed so inspiring that we were inspired to buy an Araucaria araucana, better known to English speakers as a monkey puzzle tree, and have planted it in the corner of our garden.
The Royal Air Force: A Centenary of Operations. Michael Napier. Osprey Publishing. 2018.
To be honest this is not the best book in this list but the occasion of the centenary, the remarkable story that it tells and the fact that I received a signed copy of the book at a VIP event to celebrate the anniversary at the RAF Museum in Hendon, made it impossible for me to leave out. The book also made me much more aware, not only of the RAF’s strategic importance but also of the often unreported role it plays from humanitarian relief missions to counter-insurgency warfare.
Fiction: in 2018 I read good books from many of my favourite authors: Bernard Cornwell, Lee Child, Martin Cruz Smith, Lionel Davidson, Michael Dibdin, Sebastian Faulks[ii]
, Ken Follett[iii]
, John Grisham and P. D. James but I want to recommend two from novelists I regard as not only successful exponents of popular genres but truly great writers of the first order.
Munich. Robert Harris. Penguin Random House. 2017.
Robert Harris is the author of twelve best–selling novels, mostly set in a historical context. His Cicero trilogy was a masterpiece but he first made his name by suggesting in Fatherland what might have happened if the Nazis had won World War II. Here he returns to similar territory and, while not reversing events, through a highly suspenseful sub-plot suggests how tenuous the Munich agreement was. It asks us to reconsider the role of Neville Chamberlain while being a gripping story from start to finish.
A Legacy of Spies. John Le Carré. Penguin Random House. 2017
I would put Le Carré on an even higher plane than Harris, not least because he has maintained amazing quality over nearly six decades. While usually staying in the spy genre he never fails to entertain whilst also becoming increasingly polemical about the world, particularly the foreign affairs of the Western Powers. On this occasion he returns to the George Smiley characters showing how Cold War ghosts can still come back to haunt as the modern secret services are run by people with no memory of the Berlin Wall.
And I didn’t publish a book of my own this last year but I have been working very hard editing Marketing Helps Everyone: The History of the Worshipful Company of Marketors by Paul D. Jagger with a foreword by Rt Hon the Lord Heseltine CH. The book was first published electronically a year ago to celebrate the 40th anniversary of becoming a Livery Company and is now going to print with 200 colour photographs in a Limited Edition.
, [ii] I was delighted to learn that both Sebastian Faulks and Ken Follett had received Honorary Doctorates of Letters at The University of Hertfordshire. I also received this Award in September.