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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve five books to mention this month, four of which were published recently.

The Union of Synchronised Swimmers by Cristina Sandu

This slim Finnish novel was translated by the author and published in English in 2019. The main characters are six young women on a Soviet but stateless piece of land between two rivers and working in a cigarette factory. They discover that they have a talent for synchronised swimming, and enter an international competition.

The novel interleaves their joint story up to the competition with individual chapters focused on each of the swimmers after the competition. The whole thing is written in a very sparing, subtle style, which really only hints at a theme of multiculturalism and the difficulty of leaving behind our formative experiences.

At just over 100 pages, this was a quick but very worthwhile read. I didn’t read the blurb until I’d read the book, and this is one of those times when I was especially glad: I think it gives far too much away.

Chums by Simon Kuper

In his 2019 diary, following the election of the current Prime Minister, Alan Bennett wrote “It’s a gang, not a government.”

Kuper’s book serves to demonstrate the surprising degree of accuracy in the caricature of the current Government as a gang of privileged university friends playing political games. It also explores the degree to which this has been true in the past, and highlights the unhealthy degree to which our political classes have been drawn from a narrow background. His particular focus is on Oxford University, and specifically the arts and humanities degrees at that University. (I didn’t previously know that, traditionally, the upper classes look down upon science degrees as too ‘practically useful’.)

It was genuinely remarkable to realise that of the fifteen post-war Prime Ministers, only one (Gordon Brown) exclusively attended a university besides Oxford. Though admittedly, three didn’t attend university at all.

It’s not long since I read Richard Beard’s Sad Little Men, an angry account of the damage inflicted by private boarding schools, which skirts around similar territory. The tones of the two books are notably different: while Beard is viscerally angry, Kuper feels more inquisitive. He also comes up with some interesting suggestions on how to address the problems he identifies.

I’m glad I read this.

The Palace Papers by Tina Brown

This is absolutely not my usual kind of thing, but the combination of an unavoidable recent press launch of the book and the royal fervour surrounding the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee meant that it caught my eye. Tom Rowley’s recommendation in his weekly newsletters was the final push to click through and buy it.

The book focuses mostly on the relationships between Charles and Camilla, William and Catherine, and Harry and Meghan. Brown also covers Andrew in some detail.

The tone is waspish and gossipy, and the near-600 pages flew by. It’s clear that Brown has her favourites among her subjects, and I spent much of the time wondering how much of what I was reading could possibly be true, but I still found that I rather enjoyed it.

There were some pop culture references that were beyond me (“It was like Sean Penn in the old Madonna days”) and some strange commentary (“her hair never presented any unsettling surprises”), but this added to the gossipy charm. But I could have done without the hypocritical reporting in gruesome detail on events that had unsettled the family, followed by seeming chastisement of the press for the very reports the book repeated.

It’s not my usual cup of tea, but I downed it pretty quickly regardless.

Nothing But The Truth by The Secret Barrister

This is The Secret Barrister’s recently published third book. This volume focuses on an anonymised account of the barrister’s training at law school and through post-graduate training and their first few years at the bar. It is written in a similarly ironic, amusing style to the earlier books.

I enjoyed this, but less than the earlier books. The themes, especially of the under-funding of the justice system, are worthy. Reminding us of them is probably a valuable service, but it is also repetitious. I don’t think this book had anything new to say on the subject.

The discussion of the social makeup of the legal profession was more interesting: it reminded me countless similar discussions about the medical profession. It seemed as though the barriers to social diversity and inclusion remain even higher in the law than in medicine.

I’d still recommend The Secret Barrister’s books, but I’d recommend reading the earlier volumes first.

Elizabeth Finch by Julian Barnes

I bought this on publication because I’ve enjoyed a number of Barnes’s previous novels. This slim story is about memory, perspective, and the need to constantly re-examine history to truly understand it… or rather to continually misunderstand it, as Barnes might have it. A theme he returns to several times is that history must be misunderstood.

The titular character is an idiosyncratic lecturer in ‘culture and civilisation’, and our narrator is an adult learner who attends one of her courses. He strikes up a relationship—a friendship, perhaps—and ultimately becomes her biographer. A large section of the book is taken up by the narrator’s student essay on Julian the Apostate, which I found to be a slightly odd choice that took the wind out of the narrative sails.

I also struggled a bit with the eponymous Finch: at the start of the novel, we’re told that searching the internet for information about her life would be fruitless and would turn up no more than two out of print books. She was ‘not in any way a public figure.’

Yet later in the narrative, we’re told that she has written for the London Review of Books and been widely criticised in the media for a talk she gave at one of their events. This is surely contradictory: but I didn’t get the sense that we were supposed to judge our narrator as unreliable on basic facts. So, this confounded me, and really I wonder if I’ve completely misunderstood some key point about this book.

Barnes’s writing is as beautiful as ever, and I particularly the first part of the book, but by the end I felt more mystified than satisfied.

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

Weeknotes 2022.25

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twenty-fifth post of a series.

I went for a walk this week around some bits of Newcastle city centre that I don’t usually frequent. It reminded me how much Newcastle’s skyline has changed over recent years, and how change that seems gradual and unremarkable when observed daily can be enormously striking when seen only at wide intervals of time.

According to those irritating automated Microsoft Viva emails, in a typical week I spend 55 hours in meetings. I work 40 hours a week. I assume the system can’t smartly analyse a diary that is often double, triple or quadruple booked.

On an Internet forum I sometimes browse, a commenter said this week

The sort of thing you used to see on Club Reps or, dare I say it, the original Inbetweeners film, just don’t happen now because if you let yourself go in Kavos, Aiya Napa or Magaluf now, it’ll be all over the Internet within half an hour.

Despite everything I’ve read about things like China’s social credit system, or books like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I have never properly considered the idea that social media platforms could operate as a moderator for ‘real life’ behaviour.

I took a circular walk round York’s city walls this week. I haven’t been to York all that much over the years, and wouldn’t say it’s a city I know well, but walking the walls nevertheless gave me a wholly new perspective on it.

The Times had an article this week recommending the 100 best books for summer 2022. I didn’t read it, but lamented that I’d be so much more convinced by a smaller number. In a world of endless choice, curation is key.

It’s hard to piece together a rationale written thought about the appalling consequences of the US Supreme Court’s decision that access to abortion is not a constitutional right. Reading through the original Roe vs Wade decision this week, as well as the Supreme Court’s latest, I was struck by how plain it was that the original judgement was finely balanced.

It made me wonder how something so fundamental could be left to rest on such shaky foundations, and how the immediate response to the judgement wasn’t to work to firm up the legal footing. But then, just look at how many fundamentals of democracy in the UK are on based on shaky foundations, and how our response to a Government which openly attempts to knock them down hasn’t been to immediately work to strengthen them.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.24

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twenty-fourth post of a series.

For at least 800 years, there has been a tradition of fairs being held on Newcastle’s Town Moor. For most of the last 140 years, The Hoppings has been an annual event, in recent years usually lasting nine days in early summer. Several hundred travelling attractions gather, creating Europe’s largest travelling funfair and attracting a million or more visitors. This year’s event opened this week, and Wendy and I went for our annual walk and gawp.

For the first time in years, I had a full day of face-to-face meetings outside the office this week. It made me feel oddly nervous: I’ve forgotten how to be out of the office, how to be unplugged from email, how to work without being constantly immediately available. I used to have days like this most weeks, and yet I’ve fallen out of practice.

Tech journalists have been falling over themselves to praise DALL-E, the impressive tool which uses artificial intelligence to generate images in response to prompts. TNW’s Neural newsletter transformed my view on this by pointing out that while these models triumph with complex imagery where many outputs are reasonable (such as “the sea at night”) they completely fail with simple, specific prompts (“two squares that are different colours”).

Of course, the models aren’t designed for the latter. Yet, as a casual observer, I suppose I unconsciously assumed that they’d work for it because—from a human linguistic perspective and from a “drawing” perspective—they seem far simpler.

On reflection, my built-in assumptions were obviously inapplicable to an absurd degree. The experience taught me that it’s easy to overestimate artificial intelligence by falsely ascribing methods to its work. It reminded me of examples I read about in New Dark Age.

I’ve been working on my annual revalidation appraisal paperwork lately, and it’s made me realise how poor my perception of time is these days. There are events that seemed to happen last week but actually were months ago. There are projects which feel like I worked on them years ago, but which I actually did in the last twelve months. There’s one bit of work which I was certain I did in November or December last year, and was frustrated by my inability to find some of the documents… I actually completed it in October 2019.

I think this is attributable to the formlessness of the last couple of years, the tedium of constant COVID, constant overwork and constant exhaustion. Dare I say that things are—hopefully—starting to look up?

I’ve mentioned Charlotte Ivers’s Sunday Times column before, but this week’s is especially brilliant.

All the normal rules of politics say he must go. All the experts say he must go. All the rules of the land, our traditions, our unwritten constitution, say he must go. Dammit, the rules of gravity say he must go. And Johnson will look at all these rules and think: what if I just … don’t?

And so he doesn’t. And nobody calls his bluff. Just as they haven’t, time and time again: over the wallpaper, the parties, the — oh, I don’t know, I’ve forgotten half the things we were furious about a few months ago, which I suppose means he has won. Again. Anyway, Johnson just does not go. And there aren’t any structures in place to remove him, because the structures were not built for people like Boris Johnson: people who simply ignore them.

I don’t use my car very much, which means I don’t often buy petrol. While I’m vaguely cognisant of fuel price rises, I was surprised to be charged the better part of £60 to fill up my small car.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.23

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twenty-third post of a series.

It’s 14 years this week since I graduated. I know because this post popped up in my memories. Like much of this blog, I have no memory of writing it. I found myself nodding along and agreeing with myself as I read it.

Wendy and I enjoyed dinner at Newcastle city centre favourite Blackfriars this week. The restaurant is based in the friary’s original 11th-century refectory, making this nearly 800-year-old space (reputedly) the UK’s oldest purpose-built dining room in public use. It’s a mind-blowing length of time to contemplate, but the food was great.

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

Weeknotes 2022.22

A few things I’ve been thinking about this week. The twenty-second post of a series.

Occasionally, I take a bus home from work. This is usually if I’m too tired or too late to walk, or if the skies have opened. The bus runs every 15 mins and I can track it from my phone. Recently, it has been re-routed, and stops just metres from my work desk and metres from my front door. If I’m working late, I’m frequently the only person on the bus.

Basically, I have a chauffeur now.

I’m currently reading Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers. She quotes Queen Mary: “You are a member of the British royal family. We are never tired and we all love hospitals.”

I’ve often reflected on the challenge in medicine of the disparity in the sense of occasion between the doctor and the patient. For the doctor, a consultation is one of a long series to get through; for the patient, it may be a significant life event. Meeting that moment is, I think, a key and underestimated skill of being a good doctor.

How much more is that true for the royal family, who must always be bright-eyed and sparkling, even if this is the twentieth worthy community project they’ve visited in a given week.

In a online meeting at work this week, a colleague who I don’t know very well introduced themselves partly through reference to their Twitter account (“Some of you may also know me from Twitter, where I frequently tweet about a topic irrelevant to this meeting…”)

I was caught off-guard by how many immediate, strong, conflicting reactions this provoked in me. It’s been playing on my mind far more than it deserves to, and I still can’t figure out what I thought about it: it was somehow intensely irritating, totally unremarkable, oddly refreshing, and many other things, all at the same time.

Given that I can only remember to use the current name of my employer about 50% of the time, I’m hardly a shining example of how these things ought to be done.

Another Tina Brown quote, this time referring to the Duchess of Cornwall: “There was honesty in her countryside complexion and crinkly, smiling eyes. Her hair never presenting any unsettling surprises.”

I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a complement or an insult. I wonder if my hair has ever ‘presented unsettling surprises’?

This post was filed under: Weeknotes.

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