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What I’ve been reading this month

I’ve read some really good books this month, and also some I liked a little less…


Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The 2020 Booker Prize winner was, for me, a Christmas present from Wendy. It is one of those books so universally praised that it doesn’t really matter what I write about it, because the tonne of critical and popular opinion far outweighs the thoughts of a person on the internet.

For what it’s worth, I thought it was brilliant. It is the story of the relationship between young Shuggie Bain and his alcoholic mother Agnes. It follows them while Shuggie is growing up, from the age of five to fifteen, against the backdrop of impoverished Glasgow in the 1980s.

It has everything: deep characterisation, moving plot, social commentary, beautifully lyrical writing, profound insight, and more. It is superb.

I’m reminded of Jeffrey Archer whinging through one of his characters that literary prizes are never given to “storytellers”: this book conclusively proves him wrong.


There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli

Published in English last year, this is physicist Carlo Rovelli’s collection of newspaper and magazine articles, mostly from Italian publications over the last decade and translated here by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell. As the author says in his preface,

the pieces collected here are like brief diary entries recording the intellectual adventures of a physicist who is interested in many things and who is searching for new ideas—for a wide but coherent perspective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, from the columns on (what seem to me to be) minutiae of physics to the wider social and cultural commentaries, though the latter held more appeal for me. Rovelli writes engagingly and insightfully on everything from the covid pandemic to activism, and from his experiences taking LSD to his atheism. There is always something interesting about hearing people with a huge amount of knowledge and understanding of one area of life applying their perspective and approach to something different… though the three-part essay on black holes also sparkles and his tribute to Stephen Hawking moves.

I haven’t read any of Rovelli’s books before now (despite them selling in their millions), but the quality of his writing and the clarify of his imagery has got me adding them to my “to read” list.


Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

This is Julian Barnes’s 2013 genre-defying short book. It consists of three essays which are thematically connected in myriad unexpected ways: ‘The Sin of Height’ is a biography of the first aerial photographer, Nadar; ‘On the Level’ is a fictional romance between adventurer Fred Burnaby and actress Sarah Burnhardt; and ‘The Loss of Depth’ is memoir, dealing with Barnes’s experience of grief following the death of his wife.

Altogether, this makes for an exceptional portrait of love and grief. It is deeply moving and feels at times painfully honest, and even has the occasional sparkle of humour. It feels both raw, yet also thoughtful and considered. It deepened my understanding of both love and grief.

It’s no secret that Barnes can write, but it is almost impossible to grasp how he covers such expansive territory with such emotional depth in only 128 pages. Exceptional.


Banking On It by Anne Boden

Anne Boden, founder of Starling Bank, recently published this book about the experience of launching her own bank. Through the press, I’ve followed the story of Starling and it’s competition with rival Monzo over a number of years: indeed, I am a Starling customer. I picked up this book as I was keen to learn more.

This turned out to be a real page-turner, giving a lot of insight into what it is like to develop a seed of an idea into a huge business. Boden, a woman in her 50s from Wales, is not the typical model of a financial technology entrepreneur, and faces a number of challenges as a result of her “outsider” status and her desire to challenge the status quo of the banking world. The book opens with the story of her taking her final job in traditional banking as Chief Operating Officer of AIB, and her decision to take on a job which she knows will be unpleasant yet extremely challenging sets up many of her persistent character traits.

Boden reflects at length on the transition from working as a senior banker in traditional firms to setting up her own business. Boden openly discusses her strength and weakness, and the missteps she has made along the way. It was also interesting to have some insight into the regulatory processes that accompany setting up a new bank, all of which were new to me.

Boden talks in some detail about the events which led co-founder Tom Blomfield, along with other senior members of staff, to leave Starling and form a rival bank, Monzo. Clearly, Boden can only ever give her own side of the story, she couldn’t avoid discussing this pivotal point in the story of her bank, and she couldn’t have foreseen future events; but equally, in early 2021, it is a little uncomfortable to consider Boden’s one-sided and unflattering portrait of Blomfield in the light of his post-publication resignation from Monzo and disclosures in recent weeks about his mental health. I suppose this is something of an occupational hazard when writing about fairly recent events involving real people.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed this peek into a professional world which is so far removed from my own, and Boden’s humour combined with the pacy plot kept me racing through the pages.


The Future of Stuff by Vinjay Gupta

This is the third essay I’ve read in the Tortoise Media FUTURES series, and my favourite so far. Written by Vinjay Gupta, the violinist (and social activist), it is a hopeful account of how our behaviour around purchasing and consumption is likely to change as we become more aware of the systems that support products.

Gupta’s central argument is that we can’t just buy a widget, for example: we are supporting a much broader system which produces said widget, which might well include supporting disgraceful labour practices on the other side of the world. As the world moves towards greater information flow and transparency, and—crucially—as we get better at managing and processing that information, our perspective on purchasing is likely to change.

As a basic example: if an online supermarket were to introduce a simple site-wide filter allowing customers to opt to see only “vegan” products, that would be enormously helpful to individuals and drive sales of those products. As our social conscience moves forward, perhaps there will be similar filters for ethically produced products and so on. And as data on product provenance becomes more widely available and codified, the same data can be used for better advert targeting, and so on and so forth.

I found the argument convincing, and it’s nice to be convinced by something so hopeful these days!


Naked by David Sedaris

I’m still on a bit of a Sedaris binge, having read many of his books over the last few months. This is the earliest collection of his essays that I’ve read, published in 1997. 

I found the essays in this volume to be a little more hit-and-miss than the later collections, as though he was still trying to find his style, but I still laughed frequently.


Daddy by Emma Cline

Published last year, this is a collection of ten short stories by Emma Cline. Seven of the ten have been previously published in either the New Yorker, Granta or The Paris Review.

I have previously read the author’s first novel, The Girls, which was a best-seller but left me a bit cold. I enjoyed this collection more than the novel, though the stories all shared a similar structure, consisting mostly of characterisation around an unspoken central event or situation. There’s also a theme of gender running throughout, particularly a theme of unpleasant men. Having a similar structure and a similar theme to all of the stories struck me sometimes as interesting (different facets into similar issues) and sometime as a bit dull, I think largely depending on my own mood.

The final story, A/S/L was my personal favourite, perhaps because the unspoken nature of the central fact fitted into the setting the author created so naturally. I think, though, that this collection might be better read as individual stories than as a single collection.


Why Don’t We Learn From History? by BH Liddell Hart

I was lucky enough to read this famous essay in an original 1944 edition. 

It starts off well: Liddell Hart gives a lot of interesting theories for why we seem not to learn from history, with a central tenet being that we aren’t very good at truthfully recording events in the first place. 

He then lost me for the second half of the essay by going into some detail about the Second World War and perceived problems with the Christian church, which I’m sure would be interesting to many people, but don’t seem obviously related to the titular question.

It’s only short—58 pages in my edition—so I got my effort’s worth from it anyway.


Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

This 2019 novel by Yiyun Li imagines a series of conversations between a mother and her teenage son, who she has recently lost to suicide. It is a short book at 192 pages.

My first impression of this was strong. The imagined conversations are true to life (or perhaps true to death) and interesting philosophical. The mother character writes novels, while the son was a budding poet, and there’s a lot of ‘philosophy as language’ in here: the conversation is often taken deeper through discussed reflection on the etymology of chosen words, for example.

However, my interest in this waned over time despite the short length. It felt a little emotionally flat to me, and there wasn’t a great deal of progress in the conversation. Perhaps that is intended to reflect something of the lived experience of the aftermath of a child’s suicide; I’m not sure. 

It came to feel to me that the desire to dissect language as a way into the emotion was limiting rather than enlightening. Perhaps others will feel differently.


I Hate Men by Pauline Harmange

Published in English for the first time this month, this is Harmange’s 2020 essay on hating men. 

Lest we think the title is just a rhetorical device, Harmange is emphatic:

I hate men. All of them, really? Yes, the whole lot of them … Hating men as a social group, and as individuals too, brings me so much joy.

Even her nearest and dearest are hated:

We need to be vigilant, we have to keep an eye on the genuinely decent ones, because anyone can stray off course, and all the more so if he’s cis, white, wealthy, able-bodied and heterosexual.

I’m a man. It’s fairly clear therefore that Harmange hates me, even though I followed her advice:

The very least a man can do when faced with a woman who expresses misandrist ideas is to shut up and listen. He’d learn a great deal and emerge a better person.

I really don’t know what to do with this book. It’s full of justifiable and passionately expressed anger. But if anger begets only hate, where does that leave us? 

I’m not sure I learned a great deal, and I’m not sure I emerged a better person. I emerged mostly as a slightly sadder person, and one that’s a little less hopeful for the future of humanity now that I know that books that actively promote hatred on the basis of unchangeable innate characteristics can become bestsellers in the twenty-first century.

This 2,484th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading, , , , , , , , , , .

Some aimless rambling

I’ve read Diamond Geezer’s blog for many years. He’s been blogging for a similar number of years to me, though is much better at it, not least in terms of consistency of posting.

For yesterday‘s post, on one of his many lockdown walks around his part of London, he decided to take a picture every twenty minutes. It sounded like a fun diversion, so I thought I’d do the same: an aimless ramble starting in Gosforth, my part of Newcastle, in somewhat less than clement weather.

20 minutes

Twenty minutes after leaving home, I found myself at Dentsmires Bridge across the Ouseburn. Just out of shot to the right are two men from the Environment Agency, looking concerned about the water level.

This bridge connects Woodlea Gardens, a residential street, to Heathery Lane, a now mostly pedestrianised track originally so-called as it cut across heathland, but which now mostly cuts across golf courses.

The proportion of Gosforth’s green areas which are given over to golf courses, serving a small minority of the population, is a topic I occasionally find irrationally aggravating. Not today, though: not only are golfers barred from enjoying the course by covid restrictions, the week’s rainfall has left the course so waterlogged that it may be some time before it’s usable again.

The Ouseburn is significant not just because I’ll pass it several times on my route today, and not just because I’ve blogged about it plenty of times, but also because it underlies the name “Gosforth” (though not obviously). The name comes from “Gese Ford”—a ford across the Ouse.

40 minutes

A flooded footpath on my rambling route beyond Heathery Lane meant some unplanned doubling back and a diversion through Whitebridge Park, a relatively recent addition to Gosforth which started to be built in the 1980s.

When house-hunting, Wendy and I were put off this area because of the slightly uncanny quietness of its many cul-de-sacs, and this remained true today: the only evidence of human life as I ambled through was a man eating a sandwich in a broadband van.

Whitebridge Park is also home to a play area which I think may be in the running to be Britain’s most depressing.

1 hour

After meandering through the 1960s Melton Park and past the thousand-year-old ruins of North Gosforth Chapel, burned down some five-hundred years ago, I found myself in Newcastle Great Park. With a grand plan from the early 2000s to build more than 4500 homes over a forty-year period, Great Park is a massive development—and not without controversy.

Here at Warkworth Woods, the first bit to be developed, the developers decided to cobble parts of the roadway, presumably to add to a ‘village-like’ aesthetic.

1 hour 20 minutes

Having crossed the A1, I reached the newer part of the Great Park development. Here, the world headquarters of the software giant Sage occupies a huge office—though not for much longer—and a school catering for thousands of pupils is due to open later in the year.

I skirted around most of the housing in this part of the development, sticking with the paths through the green areas (or, as the developers would have it, the “diverse mosaic of woodland, meadowland and network of drainage systems with hills, vales and streams”). These include a few patches of reedy bodies of Ouseburn water. On nicer days, this area is frequently busy with dog-walkers.

1 hour 40 minutes

With unfortunate timing, twenty minutes of further walking brought me to this rather unexciting pedestrianised route across the area known as Brunton Bridge. Speaking of bridges, however, I did have to cross the raging Ouseburn once again to get here.

2 hours

The two-hour mark saw me crossing the Metro line near Fawdon, with an excitement only slightly tempered by having previously crossed a different part of the line only ten minutes earlier. This track route dates back to the Ponteland railway constructed in the early 1900s, which closed to passengers in 1929. It continued to serve freight, however, including the then-Rowntree now-Nestlé factory which is just behind the trees on the right of the photo above. It now makes Toffee Crisps. It might also make other things, but Toffee Crisps are unbeatable in my book.

The line carried passengers once again from 1981, when the Tyne and Wear Metro started operating along this stretch.

To get here, I also had to nip across the A1 again. The history of the A1 in the North East is surprisingly involved. When this section opened in 1993, it was the third bit of road on this latitude designated as the A1 in just sixteen years.

2 hours 20 mins

Red House Farm is an area whose history is all in the name: a residential development on what used to be a farm, of which essentially all that remains is an eighteenth-century farm house, which today’s route didn’t pass.

The Red House Farm Junior Football Club does what it says on the tin gates, having started in 1990 and since taking on hundreds of 6-19 year-old players, many of whom have gone on to be professional players.

2 hours 40 mins

Twenty minutes earlier than DG, I’m back home and slowly drying out.

This 2,483rd post was filed under: Photos, Travel, , , .

31 things I learned in January 2020

1: Alan Bennett had open-heart surgery in Spring 2019 and the news completely passed me by.


2: A paucity of Papal patience provides problematic publicity for a Pontiff preaching peaceful pacifism to pious pilgrims.


3: Norovirus probably causes about two-thirds of care home outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease.


4: Fewer than 20% of schools in Texas teach children about safe sex. Texas is among the States with the highest teen pregnancy rate. Any connection is disputed by conservatives.


5: I’m reading Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive at the moment, and there’s a line advocating for greater ‘mood literacy’ which I found a rather lovely turn of phrase. It reminded me of this blog post advocating examination of one’s own response to the outside world to better understand one’s mood. Both taught me something about self-examination.


6: One of the room booking systems at work requires me to “invite” a given room to attend a meeting. I’ve now learned through bitter experience that rooms can decline invitations… which felt a little humiliating, even if it does open up a whole new seam of entertaining insults (e.g. “that meeting sounds so pointless that even the room declined the invitation”).


7: Populist ‘knee-jerk’ reactions in politics are commonly discussed and clearly dangerous. I’ve been reminded today by an article on the lack of legislation around in vitro fertilisation research in the USA that the opposite—a complete failure to react because issues are complex and divisive—can be just as dangerous.


8: Merely possessing a placebo analgesic, without even opening it, has been shown to reduce pain intensity.


9: The average age of a BBC One viewer is 61. If one considers that a problem, as the BBC seemigly does, then I suppose one might conclude that removing children’s programmes from the channel was not the right approach.


10: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is only a short walk from the city centre and is a great place for a winter stroll. The uphill walk back to the city centre is a touch more tiring.


11: Over the past decade, the proportion of the UK’s electricity generated from wind and solar power has increased from 2.4% to 20.5%. The proportion from coal has fallen from 31% to 2.9%. (As reported in Positive News, though the specific article isn’t online.)


12: Aspiring comedians often go on ‘introduction to stand up’ courses. I’d never thought about these sorts of courses existing, but of course they do.


13: More than half of Luxembourgers speak four languages. The best-selling newspapers in Luxembourg have articles in two languages. This makes me feel inadequate.


14: In the 1990s, John Major mooted renaming Heathrow airport after Churchill, while Lindsay Hoyle and William Hague fancied naming it after Diana.


15: I have long known the North East is an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in primary care, but hadn’t fully realised until a meeting today that the North East isn’t an outlier for antibiotic prescribing in secondary care.


16: I was surprised to read that a survey suggested that only one in three people on the UK knows the standard VAT rate is 20%, and one in ten knows the basic rate of national insurance is 12%. But then, on reflection, my own surprise surprised me, because I don’t really know how or why I know those figures myself. I’m sure there are plenty of similar figures on which I’d have no idea myself!


17: Since last September, Monday to Friday, the City of London Magistrates’ Court has been filled by Extinction Rebellion defendants from around the country.


18: The developers of Morecambe’s Central Retail Park have “put an extraordinary amount of effort into stylising the car park” including quirky themed artworks, sculpted steel waves and effigies of seabirds diving for fish.


19: In the US, a broadly similar amount is spent on treatment for back pain ($88bn) and treatment for cancer ($115bn).


20: Office for National Statistics Travel to Work Areas are an interesting way of dividing up the country.


21: Civil servants in China cannot ordinarily be dismissed. One wonders what Dominic Cummings makes of that.


22: Over 70% of 12- to 14-year-olds in China are short-sighted. The Communist Party has set targets for reducing that, leading to some slightly strange practices in schools, including compulsory twice-daily eye massages and dressings-down for those whose sight worsens over time.


23: It’s not a public health emergency of international concern.


24: Blinded trials are not always best. I remember having to write an essay or answer an exam question on this topic at some point in the past, but haven’t really thought critically about it in years.


25: The attendance fee for the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos is 27,000CHF (£21,400). I will never complain about medical conference registration fees again!


26: Luxury branded homes—as in, “I live in a Bulgari residence” or “I’m in the Porsche apartments”—are now a thing. Is it possible that this is a global conspiracy to see how far the definition of “gauche” can be pushed?


27: “We fill our days with doing laundry, replacing our brake pads at the auto shop, or making a teeth-cleaning appointment with the dentist, in the expectation that everything will be fine. But it won’t. There will be a day that kills you or someone you love.”


28: “To err is manatee. A manatee might mistake a swimmer’s long hair for shoal grass and start munching away, oblivious to the attached figure. To err is baby elephant, tripping over her trunk. To err is egg-eater and moonrat and turnstone and spaghetti eel, and whales, who eat sweatpants.


29: Pulmonary tuberculosis can be detected in babies by doing PCR tests on faecal specimens. Sensitivity of the test varies according to the exact methods used, and this is an active area of research.


30: It’s a public health emergency of international concern.


31: The TV series Love Island has an unexpectedly innovative business model which involves selling items seen on the show via the app which viewers download to vote for contestants.

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