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The Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels: eight years on

In May 2012, I blogged about visiting ‘the Ped’, more formally know as the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle tunnels, which first opened in 1951. A year later, the tunnels closed to undergo a two-year, £7m refurbishment.

The refurbishment didn’t go according to plan: it ended up taking over six years and costing £16m. After adjustment for inflation, that’s about 60% of the cost of building the tunnels in the first place.

Today, I thought I’d revisit and see what had changed.

Both the north and south entrances to the tunnel retain their rotunda-like buildings, that have something of the feel of stations. Entrance remains free of charge. In 2012, the south end was looking perhaps a little tired.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels south entrance

Today, the paving on the approach has been considerably improved, with much clearer cycle paths. The overall appearance has been smartened up, though the heritage plaque seems to have been lost and a TV screen of questionable function has been installed. The shutters are also of note, not only for being new, but also because the tunnels are no longer open 24 hours as was previously the case. They now only open 6am to 8pm, at least “until further notice”.

Note that the entrance is labelled ‘Jarrow’: this on the Jarrow side of the river. One might have thought it more logical to make it plain that the tunnel is for Howdon, but that would I suppose conflict with the station heuristic for which the designers seem to be reaching.

On entering the rotunda, one was formerly presented with two historic wooden escalators, each labelled with its intended direction of motion, and each labelled with one of the historic county crests of the two historic counties the tunnel connects. At the time of installation, they were the world’s longest escalators, and were only overtaken in the UK by those installed at London’s Angel tube station some forty years later. In 2012, they were the longest remaining wooden escalators in the world.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels south escalators

Today, only one of these remarkable escalators remains in place at each end of the tunnel, the other torn out to make way for an (as yet uninstalled) inclined glass elevator. At the southern end, the ‘County Durham’ escalator is the lucky one… I forgot to check the northern end.

The remaining escalators, which didn’t work in 2012, have now been fixed in position: note the open ‘gate’ with its post driven in a step at the top the escalator below. They are now, I suppose, unique heritage staircases rather than escalators.

Note too that the safety information posted next to the unopened glass lift is unusual: the imperative is not to avoid lift use in the event of a fire, but to listen for instructions as the lifts may be used for evacuation. The ‘mood lighting’ is eye-catching, but not especially to my taste.

As I walked down the escalator in 2012, the strong scent of damp rose to greet me. Not so in 2020. The atmosphere barely seemed to shift. The considerably brighter (and working) lighting made the experience feel considerably less unnerving.

At the bottom, one reaches a sort of ‘lobby’ at the entrance to the slightly wider cyclist tunnel and the slightly narrower pedestrian tunnel. In 2012, this was a grimy space.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

Today, these spaces are considerably cleaner, brighter and more welcoming, but still retain the essential character of the space. Today’s photo is of the ‘lobby’ at the opposite end of the tunnels: they haven’t switched positions!

In 2012, the tunnels didn’t just smell damp: the ground was physically wet. The lighting was in a poor state of repair, too. The atmosphere was dingy and unwelcoming.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

Today, the experience could not have been more different. The tunnels were clean, dry and well lit… and perhaps mildly ‘other worldly’.

In 2012, there were a number of upsetting and unnerving damaged bits of wall along the way, which felt to me as though they were raising uncomfortable questions about the structural integrity of the passage.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

By contrast, today there are a number of new emergency help points with flip-down seating, sensitively designed to blend in with the curvature of the tunnel wall.

The midpoint of the tunnel is clearly marked, as one passes from the historic County of Durham to the County of Northumberland. In 2012, this was marked by some weird rusty metal plates.

Today, what I assume may always have been ventilation shafts are capped with a more aesthetically pleasing metal grid.

In 2012, for those with bikes (or those who couldn’t face the hike up the broken escalators) a vertical lift was provided on a branch off the main tunnels at each end.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels

These remain in situ, though I think they may have been replaced with newer models.

The works have also retained the ugly, but probably historically relevant, fish sculpture outside the northern rotunda.

All things considered, I think this is a good job. It’s disappointing that two historic escalators have been ripped out and two turned into staircases, but it is probably unreasonable to expect 70-year-old machinery of this type to keep on working forever.

The difference in the feeling of the tunnels is night and day. They now feel bright and welcoming, and the modernisation hasn’t sacrificed the essence of the tunnels. From the care taken over the retention and repair of the tilework to the way that the historic painted signage has been kept and restored, this has clearly been a project on which respect and love for the craftsmanship of the original workers has not been in short supply.

Of course, it’s a shame that circumstances dictated that the restoration took so much longer than planned at such an increased cost. I hope that they get back to being continuously open soon enough, and that the restricted hours “until further notice” doesn’t turn into permanently restricted hours. I hope, too, that the inclined lifts enter service in the not too distant future.

But, overall, I’m left with the impression that this was an elegant and sensitive restoration of a mighty piece of civil engineering beneath a historic and beautiful river.

This 2,462nd post was filed under: Headliner, Travel, , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

It feels like Neil Gaiman is having a bit of a career ‘moment’, with his work seemingly everywhere at the moment. Art Matters was a very short book of Gaiman quotations illustrated by Chris Riddell making a convincing argument about the importance of creativity in life. I was surprised to find myself feeling a little moved by this book. The subject matter wasn’t classically emotional, but the passion and power of the argument, particularly with respect to the importance of reading, caught me by surprise—especially for such a short book.

How We Fight For Our Lives was a solid and deeply personal memoir which gave me new insight in what it was like to grow up as a gay black man in the USA. Saeed Jones is the same age as me, but we’ve evidently lived very different lives, and I enjoyed reading a different perspective on modern life.

In Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art Michael Glover explored the history of the codpiece, from its first appearance as a functional garment bridging the top of two stockings for men, through its brief (ridiculous) celebration as a fashion item, to its sudden demise in all but sporting contexts (where we no longer use the name). The thoroughly delightful book was structured around very short essays connected with particular artworks, which were reproduced alongside. Glover wrote with a heavy dose of humour, but also brought fresh perspectives on both history and contemporary fashion. I really enjoyed this.

Murray Lachlan Young’s lavishly illustrated The Mystery of the Raddlesham Mumps was a Gothic poem clearly targeted at children. It concerned the seven-year-old Crispin de Quincy de Faversham-Clumps who inherited the cursed stately-home-esque Raddlesham Mumps following the sudden death of his parents. This was not my usual kind of thing, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race was better than previous reviews had led me to suspect. The book challenged and changed my perspective on the racism people face in modern Britain. It helped me to better understand that tackling racism requires positive day-to-day action: ‘colourblindness’ and being nice isn’t enough by itself. I did have some reservations: Eddo-Lodge occasionally seemed to be trying to speak for all people who experience racism, and I couldn’t follow the logic of some of her more detailed arguments which occasionally felt a bit self-contradictory.

I can’t work out what I thought about Lionel Shriver’s blockbuster We Need to Talk About Kevin. There were days when I thought that that it was a real imaginative achievement which combined a gradually building atmosphere with a nuanced exploration of the disturbed mind of a killer. Other days, I thought it was an interesting literary exercise in exploring narrative reliability and post-hoc rationalisation or confirmation bias. And still other days, I thought it was depressing domestic horror which fed off an overly simplistic morally dichotomous view of a world with ‘born evil’ which really had nothing new to say. I can’t reconcile those three views in any useful way.

Codename Villanelle has been turned into a TV series I haven’t seen. I found Luke Jennings’s thriller to be somewhat patchy, with writing which varied from ‘average’ to occasionally ‘good’. The central character, Villanelle, was flawed in intriguing ways – she believed herself to be the ‘perfect’ killer, with a view of herself as a sort of psychopath who did not experience interpersonal feelings, but this was shown to be less than fully accurate. The interplay between her self-conception and the real world could make for an interesting bit of character writing, but Jennings never quite explored that path.

As I’ve previously noted, I also finished off the original Faber Stories series this month.

Homeland by Barbara Kingsolver was a portrait of a grandmother who was a fugitive Cherokee, and an exploration of her relationships with her granddaughter and other family members. The plot revolves around a visit to her now unrecognisable ancestral homeland, but the plot didn’t seem to be the point: this seemed to me to be more an accomplished character study.

The Country Funeral by John McGahern was a story of three brothers who traveled from their modern lives in Dublin to rural Ireland to attend an uncle’s funeral. There were passages in this book which did a decent job of capturing some of the complexity of the conflicting emotions associated with funerals, and the way in which different people respond differently. But I didn’t really feel particularly drawn in by this short story as a whole.

I’ve previously read Come Rain or Come Shine in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, but I was glad to revisit it in a standalone volume this month. It was a great little short story about a man being invited to visit a couple who are old university friends. The man of the couple invited him to visit in an effort to save his relationship: the visitor’s lack of success in life, he hoped, would engender a flattering comparison in the mind of his partner. Like most of Ishiguro’s novels, it was full of tenderness, memories, regrets and—in this case—some wonderful humour.

This 2,461st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , , .

Faber Stories

I’ve long told myself that I don’t enjoy short stories.

When I mentioned this in a review I wrote in May, it set me wondering: why?

On reflection, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary. For every The Beautiful Indifference I’d struggled through, there’s was a Difficult Loves or a One More Thing that were memorably enjoyable. I came to the conclusion that I had formed an utterly irrational prejudice against the short story.


Later that month, I came across Faber Stories, a collection of twenty tiny handsome books published in celebration of Faber & Faber’s 90th anniversary. Each minature volume contained a short story from Faber & Faber’s archive.

I was intrigued. Here was an opportunity to challenge my prejudice while also getting a set of lovely little books to decorate my bookshelves. Somewhat rashly, I bought the lot.

Over the last seven months, I’ve read all twenty.

In a nod to a bit of quantitative analysis, the mean number of stars I’ve given the books on Goodreads (out of a possible five) is 3.05. My average for all the books I read in 2018 was 3.80, so it seems that this set didn’t reach my usual level of enjoyment.

Of course, this isn’t surprising: I usually pick books I like the look of. In this case, I took the whole job lot of a series, whether I liked the look of each individual volume or not. It is to be expected that the average score would be lower. And there were some real stinkers: I gave eight of the books one- or two-star reviews.

On the other hand, I gave seven of the books four- or five-star reviews:

Five of these were written by authors I’d never read before. That’s a pretty good outcome in terms of discovering new writers whose work I enjoy.

I’ve also been reminded, partly the single story format, of the joy of reading a complete work in a single sitting. I’ve come to better appreciate the precision and concision required to tell a story in short form.


In short, I think I’ve been cured of my prejudice. I’m no longer someone who doesn’t like short stories. So much so, in fact, that I’ve already ordered the additional ten volumes that Faber & Faber announced over the summer.

But now I’m asking myself: what other literary prejudices shall I tackle? I’m no fan of science fiction or historical fiction, so perhaps I should look out for some examples of either of those to challenge myself.


The picture in this post is my own photo – as you can tell. If the spines are making you wonder about the jacket designs, there’s a great article on the Faber & Faber blog about that.

This 2,460th post was filed under: Reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , .

My favourite books of 2016

At this time of year, lots of people and publications start putting out lists of their favourite books of the year. Because I’m a bit contrarian, I thought I’d do something a bit different: share my favourite books from three years ago.

My rationale is that if a book I read three years ago has stayed with me, it surely must have been a good. And so, I logged onto my Goodreads account and downloaded a list of books I read in 2016. I manually sorted them in order of favourites as I remember them, without any reference to what I thought at the time. And in this post, I share my top few.

Because I evidently read a lot of novels in 2016, I decided to divide my list into “novels” and “not novels”, and have listed the top five in each category below. As I also tend to go through phases with particular writer, I’ve limited myself to including only the top-ranked work by any single author in each list; otherwise, the top five novels would mostly be Ian McEwan, and that doesn’t make for an interesting blog post.

So here are my thoughts on my favouite books of 2016.


My five favourite novels of 2016

5: Dodgers by Bill Beverly

This was a coming-of-age novel about a group of black American teenagers going on a road trip across America.

Steeped in a culture and viewpoint which is unfamiliar to me, this was unlike anything I’d read before (or since). I think this book taught me to think rather differently about the challenges of up as a deprived black kid in America and about the pervasive nature of gang culture.

More generally, this book made me reflect about becoming better at understanding that people’s life decisions can be perfectly logical within their own frame of reference, even if they make little sense from my point of view. I remember the central resonant theme was really about breaking away from one’s own past and upbringing.

At the time I read this, I gave it five out of five:
“I’ve never read anything quite like this before. East is a 15-year-old boy living in a cardboard box in the basement of his drug addict mother’s house in a deprived area of LA. He runs a team of lookouts defending a drug house. After his team fails to see a drug raid coming, East—who has never left his neighbourhood—is ordered to drive across the country with his 13-year-old half-brother and two other youngsters to shoot a witness in a drug trial. Unsurprisingly, things don’t go to plan.
“So Dodgers turns out to be a deeply personal coming-of-age novel, with East at its centre, against a background of crime, deprivation and America. It’s written in the sparingly tight prose of many classic American novels, but with the detail required to make even the minor characters believable. This is a book that I’ll remember for a long time to come—and will definitely read again at some point.”

4: Conclave by Robert Harris

I have a slight (and possibly irrational) aversion to historical fiction, so I’ve read less of Robert Harris’s work than might be assumed.

Conclave, however, had a contemporary setting, and concerned the election of a new Pope. This book had lots of great colour about the process of entering the conclave, and wider observations of the machinations of the Vatican.

This book became a somewhat unlikely (but nonetheless brilliant) political thriller, yet the philosophical and theological questions the plot confronted made this still more intriguing, and provided plenty of food for thought.

There was also a quote from this book which I’ve thought about a lot since reading it:

No one who ever follows their conscience ever does wrong. The consequences may not turn out as we intended; it may prove that we made a mistake. But that is not the same as being wrong.

It was a really good book.

At the time I read this, I rated it four out of five:
“A political thriller set among the College of Cardinals as they elect a new Pope. This was great: a real page-turner with plenty of twists and turns, but with lots of complex layers underlying the surface plot, and a good dose of moral ambiguity. The dialogue, in particular the set piece speeches, was very well written. I’ve no idea how true to life this description of events might be, but felt like a real insight into the machinations of the Catholic Church.”

3: Holding by Graham Norton

Holding was a witty, closely observed and genuinely intriguing murder mystery set in Ireland. I remember thinking that it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d associate with the chat show host, and that I could barely believe it was someone’s first novel. It was atmospheric and evocative.

In 2016, I rated this four out of five:
“A witty and engaging novel describing the aftermath of a body being found in a sleepy Irish village. I wouldn’t have guessed this was by Graham Norton if his name wasn’t on the cover, and I wouldn’t have guessed it was a first novel.
“The characters are endearing, and the plot is relatively pacey while still allowing space for carefully observed description. The resolution of the main plot is a bit disappointingly ‘crime novel by numbers’ and doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of the book, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless.”

2: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I love Ian McEwan, so it’s no surprise to see one of his novels towards the top of my list. In fact, I loved On Chesil Beach so much that I even managed to get Wendy to read some of it, and she usually hates novels.

On Chesil Beach was the story of the wedding night of a young and sexually inexperienced couple in the 1960s. The short book was set entirely in that one evening, lending it a sense of detailed immediacy.

For such a short book, this had considerable emotional heft. I found it very moving. I took a few quotes from this book that often pop up in my Readwise emails, several of which give away the ending, but this one doesn’t:

He was discovering that being in love was not a steady state, but a matter of fresh surges or waves, and he was experiencing one now.

Since I read this book, it has been adapted into a film starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. I haven’t seen it because I’m too worried that it will spoil my fond memory of the novel.

I didn’t review On Chesil Beach at the time, so I’ve nothing to compare my retrospective view with. I did give it a start rating though: five out of five.

1: Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Reputations made me reflect rather a lot on the difficulty of political journalism in countries with particularly tubulent politics. This is perhaps because of the degree to which political journalism has become a challenge in the UK in the context of divisions over Brexit: many people see bias everywhere, there’s no consensus on basic facts, and impartiality has become ever more difficult to achieve.

Reputations concerned a Colombian political cartoonist reflecting on his career and his choices along the way. I remember being absorbed by the questions (often also pertinent in Ishiguro’s novels) about reliability of memory and the interaction between memory and regret.

This book was also jam-packed with great quotations, presumably thanks in large part to Anne McLean’s wonderful work as translator. Three choice examples:

Not knowing is not hell. The hellish thing is not knowing whether I want to know.


There are no political cartoons that don’t sting, and none without honey.


People already know what they think. People already have their prejudices well formed. They only want someone in authority to confirm their prejudices, even if its the mendacious authority of newspapers.

Just brilliant, and so on the money for the times we’re living through.

I am amazed to see that, when I read this, I only gave it two out of five stars—what a contrast with how I think of it in retrospect!
“This is a novella about a political cartoonist reaching the end of his career. At an event celebrating his life, he meets a young female journalist who he had previously met as a child, when an event pivotal to the novel’s plot occurred. Revisiting ‘the event’ risks the reputations of many of the novel’s characters.
“The writing is tight, and even in translation remains eminently quotable.
“But—I found the plot hard to follow, very implausible in places (seven year olds drinking themselves unconscious?!), and unresolved by the ending. With fantastic prose but so much else letting it down, I’m slightly baffled as to why this has been so critically praised.”


My five favourite non-novels of 2016

5: Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It by Geoff Dyer

This was a fantastic romp of a book, a sort of self-discovery travelogue of things that acutally happened, “even if some of them only happened in my head”. I haven’t read anything quite like this before or since: it was absurd and deep and hilarious and philosophical and though-provoking all at the same time, often in the same sentence.

There are so many quotes from this book that I love, and which pop into my head spontaneously from time to time:

‘It’s all about moderation,’ he said in the Greenhouse on Friday night, after a deliciously inauthentic Thai meal. ‘Everything in moderation. Even moderation itself. From this it follows that you must, from time to time, have excess. And this is going to be one of those occasions.’


‘It fucked up my life but I wasn’t upset. You know, they kept talking about “undergoing” surgery, “undergoing” chemo. It really bugged me. I never saw it that way. I was just living my life. I wasn’t “undergoing” it.’


I became convinced that buildings don’t just fall into ruin – something in them aspires to ruination. It’s the same with people. The purpose of architecture – even the most baroque, especially baroque – and medicine is simply to thwart the urge to collapse. (Maybe that should read ‘disguise’, not ‘thwart’.) All we can do is keep applying the creosote, propping ourselves up with health and success, trying to keep the rain and the damp and the rot at bay for a little longer, trying to postpone the moment of complete collapse and abandonment for the same reason that one waits as long as possible for the first alcoholic drink of the day: because the longer you leave it, the better it will feel.

This was just a rollercoaster of hilarity and genius all mixed in togeher.

I gave this only four of five stars when I read it in 2016:
“Geoff Dyer staggers through an autobiography of adventures, all of which “really happened, but some of the things only happened in my head”. Essentially, Dyer has incredible experiences around the world but laces descriptions of them with profound bathos, either by pointing out their intrinsic absurdity or by drawing unflattering comparisons to humdrum daily life.
“I very much enjoyed this, and found myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion. The careful balance between earnestness and knowing humour is very well judged and really tickled me. And every now and then, there are sparklingly brilliant passages.”

4: Heretics by Will Storr

I think Will Storr is criminally under-rated, and it is no surprise that one of his books should be so high up on my list.

Heretics was Storr’s book about cognitive bias, in which he unpicks why people who hold views which run counter to conventional science continue to hold those views in spite of all the evidence. It was a sympathetic and interesting portrait, and changed my view on some of the relevant challenges in public health, such as people who oppose vaccinations.

This book taught me that it is important to understand their perspective to understand why their decisions may be rationale, even if they are completely wrong from an objective standpoint.

We tell ourselves a story, we cast the monster and then become vulnerable to our own delusional narrative of heroism. This kind of binary thinking insists upon extremes: heroes and villains, black and white, in-tribes and out. This corrosive instinct is evidence in the so-called ‘culture wars’. For many Skeptics, evidence-based truth has been sacralised. It has caused them to become irrational in their judgements of the motives of those with whom they do not agree.

This is a book that had a real impact on my public health practice, despite superficially having nothing to do with public health.

Heretics got the full five stars in 2016:
“One of my favourite books of the year so far. From the blurb, I was expecting this to be an enjoyable (if slightly sneering) debunking of pseudo-science. It’s not that. It’s a fascinating illustrated discussion of cognitive bias, backed up by astounding and revealing investigative journalism. Storr examines the claims and motives of ‘heretics’ and ‘skeptics’ alike in forensic detail – he doesn’t pull any punches in his discussion of the latter, which is refreshing and offers new insights.
“I’ve long been a fan of Will Storr’s magazine features – I will read almost anything with his byline on it, because his name is almost a guarantee that I’ll enjoy this article – but this is the first of his books I’ve read. It won’t be the last.”

3: The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon

This was one of the most surprising books I read in 2016. It was a deep dive into ‘nerd culture’, and specifically the culture around the character Batman. I knew virtually nothing about Batman before I read this book, and I picked it up only reluctantly because I didn’t think I wanted to know anything about Batman.

It turned out that this was an illuminating social history about how the character has changed over the years in response to societal pressure, and how ‘nerd culture’ has developed around these superhero characters. It even became quite philosophical at points, considering the importance of authorial intent to the interpretation of characters.

It really didn’t matter that I didn’t know or care about Batman: this was just a really well-written deep dive into a topic that the author was clearly passionate about, which illuminated lots of other topics.

Essentially, this was unexpectedly brilliant.

When I read this in 2016, I gave it four out of five stars:
“Someone (I can’t remember who) recommended this book, and saying that interest in Batman was not prerequisite for enjoying it. I am the perfect test case for this: I’ve never read a Batman comic, never seen a Batman film all the way through, and only sketchily remember seeing the “Bam! Pow! Zap!” Adam West Batman series when it used to be on Saturday morning kids’ TV. Before reading this book, I would’ve sworn that Batman was able to fly.
“And I loved this book. It’s a fascinating history of how the Batman character has changed over time, and the sociocultural pressures that have caused the changes. There is a lot of discussion of how people’s own experiences colour their understanding of the character at pretty profound levels. And the whole book is infused with endearing lightheartedness, warmth and humour.
“This is also a deep exploration of how much an author’s intentions matter (or don’t matter) in creating a character. Before reading this book, I would have said with confidence that an author’s vision of a character is the “correct” interpretation of that character. Now I’m not so sure: I can see a valid argument that each reader’s interpretation is equally valid. Why can’t one audience enjoy Batman as a gay character and another audience attribute their enjoyment of the same production to his hypermasculine heterosexuality? Why limit interpretations to the artist’s intentions?
“On top of all of that, this book gives one of the most coherent and readable accounts I’ve read of the development of nerd culture, and the influence of the spread of the internet on nerd subcultures.
“I didn’t expect to make it all the way through this book – but, in fact, I raced through it and I’m raving about it. It’s great!”

2: A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding

This was a brilliant book about the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the subsequent investigations into his murder. This included a detailed account of the public health response alongside the political and criminal investigations. A Very Expensive Poison was written with great precision and a driving plot, almost like a thriller. I remember being absolutely hooked.

I gave this the full five stars when I first read it:
“One of the most arresting non-fiction books I’ve ever read. A clear, detailed and compelling account of Alexander Litvinenko’s murder by the Russian state – including all of the cack-handed bungling, which only serves to humanise the story and hence make it that much more horrific. Fascinating detail on the investigation, too.”

1: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

This was a deeply moving memoir by an American neurosurgeon facing his own terminal cancer diagnosis. Reading this was a deeply emotional experience, partly I think because of the quality of Kalanithi’s writing, but also partly because our broadly similar early career paths kept making me put myself in his shoes. I can still remember the intense emotion of finishing this book.

I also gave this book five stars in 2016:
“An extraordinary memoir of a doctor dying of lung cancer as he reaches the end of his specialty training, reflecting on what is important in life and death. Deeply moving.
“The similarities between Kalanithi’s life and my own made this hit close to home. The writing is brilliant – as a single example among many, Kalanithi describes someone being “found by his supervisor, covered in blood and failure” – a sensation that was so familiar I had to put the book down for a while to reflect.
“An unforgettable book which I will certainly read again.”


Reflections

I have really enjoyed this exercise of comparing what I thought when I first read these books to what I think today. I’m particularly surprised by Reputations—I can scarcely believe how negative my contemporary review was compared to how this lives in my memory.

Perhaps I’ll try and do 2017 review next year!

This 2,459th post was filed under: Reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

What I’ve been reading this month

Molly Ringwald’s translation of Lie With Me, by Philippe Besson, was one of those books which totally disrupted my day as I couldn’t help but read it in a single sitting. The short (148 page) book told the story of an intense romance between two teenage boys in France in 1984. It isn’t completely clear whether it is autobiography or fiction. It was completely transporting, evocative and immersive. By the end, I also found it deeply moving. It left me in a bit of a daze.

Find Me was the sequel to André Aciman’s much-acclaimed Call Me By Your Name (I read that volume in February). It was a rather different book, but no less successful. Find Me was narrated in sections by several of the characters from the original novel at five-year intervals, starting a decade on. The sequel had an altogether gentler, more philosophical tone than the original, which was fitting given that it was written from an adult rather than adolescent perspective. The novel intimately explored a series of romantic relationships, with a interesting musical thread weaved through the book. In all, I thought this was as good as the first book, even if it is very different.

Eradication was Nancy Leys Stepan’s comprehensive history of work to eradicate various infectious diseases, with a unifying thread of examining the life and work of Fred Lowe Soper. Stephan gave a great, sobering illustration of how many attempts at disease eradication have failed for essentially the same reasons. She also gave a balanced account of the dangers of eradication programmes, and in particular the opportunity costs. Stepan sometimes lost me in her discussion of the finer details of some of her examples, but nevertheless convinced me of her central thesis that “eradication campaigns should be exceptional and rare”. This was a great read.

Nuclear War in the UK, by Taras Young, was a bit of a niche title describing the public information campaigns the UK government has run in connection with preparing for nuclear war. It gave a fascinating account of the different approaches used over the years, the reasons that the government chose to adopt these, and the public response. Around half of the book was given over to reproductions of pages from various leaflets and information booklets. I would have liked the content to be extended a little to cover the ‘modern’ attempts at communicating similar info in different circumstances (e.g. 2004’s “Preparing for Emergencies” campaign), but that may have diluted the specificity of the book, and I thought this was great nonetheless.

As we’re in the midst of a general election in the UK, I thought it was a timely moment to read Philip Freeman’s new translation of Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, published as How to Win an Election. This was a letter of no-nonsense advice from Quintus Cicero to his brother Marcus Cicero about how to win the consul election in which he was standing, written in 64BC. Reading this was a little cathartic: for all the many failings of our modern politicians, at least none of our candidates has killed and decapitated the corpse of their brother-in-law. That said, the exhortations for campaigning politicians to make promises they can’t possible keep felt depressingly contemporary (“Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal … but if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces immediate anger in a large number of voters”).

I read the Angus Turvill translation of Nagisa Tatsumi’s The Art of Discarding, a guide to changing one’s relationship with physical “stuff” to avoid accumulating too much. This was music to my ears, as I’m already an anti-hoarder with a strong preference for discarding stuff. The book was a little uncomfortably sexist in places, and could have used a little more emphasis on the environmental aspects of discarding, but I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly smug feeling this book engendered in me.

In 2016, Heathcote Williams published Royal Babylon, a 500-stanza poetic rant about the British Monarchy. I picked this up as last month I enjoyed Williams’s (prose) essay on Boris Johnson. There were similarities between the two in that Royal Babylon also serves as an extended character assassination with many astonishing anecdotes. However, a difference between the two was that the logical argument in Royal Babylon wasn’t clear to me. The book dealt mainly with the character flaws of individual members of the royal family which seemed an odd way to argue for the abolition of monarchy; much as it would be odd for the Boris Johnson book to conclude with a clarion call for the abolition of the post of Prime Minister. Nevertheless, this was an entertaining read.

Philippa Perry used her book How to Stay Sane to set out some simple psychotherapy techniques for maintaining mental health. This was something of an accidental purchase, as I expected a discursive and analytical volume, and got an instructional book of ‘exercises’, none of which I actually did. Nevertheless, while this wasn’t my cup of tea, I appreciated the clean and clear style of writing and the advice within seemed pretty reasonable.

The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga has, apparently, become something of an Asian sensation. I picked up the English translation, which I think was translated by the original authors, which is the kind of achievement that could make anyone feel inadequate. The book was a sort of philosophical introduction to the psychological teaching of Alfred Adler. I don’t think I’ve read much about Adler’s ideas before, and so I found this exploration interesting. It certainly challenged conventional wisdom, though I can understand why others have rejected it as unhelpfully victim-blaming. The book is presented as a dialogue between a philosopher and a student, and the authors gave a vigorous defense of this approach in the afterword. Nevertheless, I didn’t take to this format, and found it intensely irritating at times. I would have much preferred a more traditional approach with a clearer explanation of the underlying evidence.

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference was an exceptionally poor form of Greta Thunberg’s persuasive arguments on the urgency of tackling climate change. The volume collected eleven short speeches delivered over eight months: as with anyone giving a series of speeches on an identical topics over a short period of time, Thunberg recycled whole paragraphs from speech to speech, making the book highly repetitious. There was no opportunity for Thunberg to air the detail of her arguments, as a short speech will naturally never dive deeper than key headlines. Thunberg is an inspiration; but unfortunately, this book was neither convincing nor satisfying.

I also continued reading the Faber Stories collection of short books this month.

The Shielding of Mrs Forbes was very Alan Bennett, including a rather wonderful line about “a death that might seem to have more to do with narrative tidiness than driving without due care and attention.” It was a story about the complexity of interwoven family secrets which started with a man continuing a clandestine gay affair on his wedding night and only ramped up from there. This was great fun.

The Inner Room was a Robert Aickman short story in which a young girl chose a doll house as a birthday present and creepy things ensure. I’m not quite sure whether I’d class this as “horror” exactly, but it was certainly weird, tense and atmospheric. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’ll remember it twelve months hence.

Thom Jones’s Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine was the atmospheric story of a young boxer’s fight. It concentrated mostly on the boxer’s thoughts in the run-up to the event. It had a driving plot and a cleverly building sense of tension, but it’s not really a story that stayed with me or taught me any great lesson.

Paradise, by Edna O’Brien, was a 62-page story in which a young woman had swimming lessons while on holiday with her much older and wealthier lover. It’s main theme seemed to be around the tension between meeting the expectations of self-entitled wealthy people and being one’s own person. This struck me as a little pedestrian, and the characters and scenery weren’t especially memorable. I don’t think this book lived up to the promise of its theme.

Claire Keegan’s The Forester’s Daughter was a kind of domestic drama set in rural Ireland about a woman who married a farmer “for want of someone better”. A dog features heavily, including a few lines which are somewhat bizarrely narrated from the dog’s point of view, but with a heavy dose of anthropomorphism (“His urge to roll in the cow-dung is almost irresistible but this is the type of house where they might let a dog sleep inside.”) This left me unmoved.

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What I’ve been reading this month

I Never Said I Loved You was an astonishing and unconventional autobiography by the journalist and actor Rhik Samadder, in which he covered topics including his history of childhood sexual abuse, subsequent lifelong struggle with mental illness, and his complicated but loving relationship with his mother. His adult romantic relationships were also discussed in some detail. Samadder’s writing was beautiful, with power, honesty and—perhaps unexpectedly—real humour. This was really very good, and certainly one of my favourite books of the year to date.

I was delighted this month to come across a copy of Archibald Colquhoun’s translation of The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, a book I’ve never read before. I’ve always been a fan of Calvino’s writing, and it’s therefore no surprise that I devoured this macabre yet amusing and insightful fable. The story concerned a Viscount bisected in a battlefield injury whose two halves went on to lead two different lives, one evil and one virtuous, and whose paths eventually crossed. It was just unhinged enough to be both funny and gently thought-provoking.

It was an unusual experience to find myself captivated by a book in which I struggled to orientate myself and untangle the plot. Sarah Winman’s Tin Man was an extraordinarily sensitive story of first love, loss and grief. It was narrated in sections by two middle-aged men reflecting on their lives to date, including their childhood friendship and teenage love for one another. I was completely taken in by the depth of the emotional insight and the delicate treatment of sexual identity, so much so that I didn’t really care that I struggled to follow the wider structure of the plot.

By turns amusing, astonishing and terrifying, Heathcote Williams’s Boris Johnson: The Beast of Brexit was an excellent essay. It was a full-throttle character assassination of a type which is rarely done so well. A powerful, passionate and somewhat persuasive argument.

In The Carer, Deborah Moggach set the scene of a family recruiting a carer, Mandy, for their elderly widowed father. Suspicions about Mandy’s behaviour grow amid an increasingly tense atmosphere, and it felt as though the plot direction was clear. However, a change in events turns this into a much more sensitive novel with far more character development that it first appeared. All things considered, I enjoyed this as a light and easy read, with an unexpected amount of depth and thought.

The Cockroach was Ian McEwan’s satirical novella on Brexit, a sort of reverse version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in reverse in which a cockroach became Prime Minister. The Brexit-esque policy was ‘reversalism’, in which the flow of money was reversed: people paid to take things from shops, and pay to go to work. I felt it was a bit subpar for McEwan: it was clever, in that many of the phrases and speeches were verbatim quotations of contemporary debate, but it was also a bit mean-spirited. Casting one side of a debate as self-interested insects wasn’t as illuminating as trying to understand their reasoning might have been.

Gotta Get Theroux This was a career-focused memoir by the television journalist Louis Theroux. It included rather thoughtful reflections on the complexity of the human condition, and discussion about the “non-binary” nature of people’s morality. In the current climate, it felt oddly brave to acknowledge that the subjects of Theroux’s documentaries, such as Jimmy Saville, could be both talented and have committed horrendous crimes. I enjoyed the book, but my opinion was probably coloured by my existing admiration for his documentary work.

Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has become something of a cultural phenomenon. It was a story about loneliness and social isolation in which, contrary to traditional expectations, the protagonist is a young adult with an office job. I was slightly disappointed by this novel, as I found the writing a little glossy and unreal, and somehow lacking depth and complexity despite a rather unconventional psychiatric subplot.

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What I’ve been reading this month

Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit, Heroic Failure, was exactly what I expected it to be as a reader of his frequent newspaper columns. He presented some interesting and well-argued perspectives on the drivers behind Brexit, including frequent references to 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t find all of the arguments convincing, but I enjoyed O’Toole’s passionate argument and wit, and found myself seeing some aspects of the debate from entirely new perspectives.

In Catching Breath, Kathryn Lougheed taught me lots of bits and pieces about tuberculosis. Lougheed described the history of tuberculosis over millennia and made a case for it still being a pressing problem in the modern world, as I know only too well from my day job. Lougheed has the rare gift of being able to write well in a conversational tone, and with an added dash of humour, this whole text became thoroughly readable and engaging.

Kazuo Ishiguro is among my favourite authors, but I struggled to get on with When We Were Orphans. It was a sort of detective novel, where the protagonist goes off to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his own parents when he was a child. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I found the narrator thoroughly unlikable and a little irritating, which made the whole book difficult to enjoy.

I didn’t enjoy Jonathan Biss’s Beethoven’s Shadow quite as much as his other books because it seems clear that Biss wasn’t quite as passionate about Beethoven’s works as that of other composers he’s written about. But this was still an excellent essay. I particularly enjoyed his insights into the unexpected ways in which recordings of music have influenced the liver performance of classical music over the last century or so.

I’m not the intended audience for Mario García’s The Story: Volume I: Transformation, but I read it anyway. It was a hassle to buy because it seemed to be mobile only – but there now seems to be a print edition, so who knows what’s going on. It was a very short book in which García, a world-renowned newspaper designer, reflected on various projects he had worked on over many decades. It was interesting to read about his considerations when, for example, first introducing colour to newspapers, or first designing a newspaper for mobile phones. It left me feeling a bit tired and despondent about the future of news, as García’s vision is about as far from my own preference as can be: lots of “content management” and “melon slices” rather than properly absorbing narrative structures.

And I continued the Faber Stories series this month, with Akhil Sharma’s Cosmopolitan. This was a modern, calm, gently funny short story than was also utterly forgettable.

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