From Peep Show, Season 9 Episode 1
Like many fellow house arrestees, I’ve been binge re-watching some of my favourite childhood TV, from old Top Gear challenges to the Goodman family shenanigans in Friday Night Dinner. It’s a moderate distraction, as we wait for the dual saviours of isolation and vaccination to do their work, and a rare escape from my bedroom-office (commute: about four feet). But Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan puts my feelings best as I continually glance at my watch: ‘6:45! There’s a lot of evening, isn’t there?’ Across these long winter nights, I can’t shake the almost physical sensation of anticipation and guilt at sitting for hours, nay weekends on end, dissolving into the sofa, willing on the clock, and letting my life simply elapse. What’s worse, I have next to no motivation to do anything about it: to take up haberdashery, life drawing, podcasting or German. Even video calling friends feels stilted, awkward, and a bit too much like work. I sleep, I attempt to work a 9 to 5 weekday, I run, I eat, and I force myself to read books until I realise that 80% of the information has failed to go in and I'm back scrolling faintly amusing Instagram reels. There are good days, and there are ‘how do I tilt my camera so my colleagues don’t know I’m lying in bed’ days. And there’s no sense of momentum. Life is very much like the proverbial box of chocolates - so long as the chocolates in question are Revels, and I get a lot of the raisin ones.
I’m sure nearly everyone is in the same boat. New Statesman columnist Megan Nolan refers to our distinctive Lockdown III malady as “ordinary unhappiness”: a ‘near-constant and unresolvable level of misery’ and ‘emotional reaction to our circumstances’. There are four pillars to this, by my count. The first, root cause, is that we are deprived of meaningful social and emotional contact beyond our homes. Second, winter is bleak at the best of times, and the novelty of lockdowns wore off last June; so much for my cheery list of things to do in the balmy spring of 2020. Third, and related to this, is that the sense of a shared endeavour - to protect the NHS and each other - is continually undermined by divisive government messaging and poor communication on the actual restrictions. Having Mark Strong interrupt my podcast walk to question whether I can 'look a nurse in the eye and tell her you washed your hands' will only make me resentful. Finally, a definitive end date is elusive, with politicians and scientists disputing the goalposts (Zero Covid? 1,000 cases a day?) and speculation aplenty in the Twittersphere.
“Ordinary unhappiness” is not a diagnosable mental or physical condition - it would be dangerous to pathologise a general societal malaise - and I think Nolan goes too far to define it so starkly with regard to misery. But our situation clearly triggers underlying health conditions and will push individuals, depending on their circumstances, towards mental illness. The UK - and any nation enduring periodic lockdowns - risks exchanging the short-term Covid-19 pressure on the NHS with a long-term epidemic of anxiety disorders, depression and other mental ailments. Children face the dual burdens of house arrest and suboptimal, virtual schooling, subject to the whims of Gavin Williamson - the worst Education Secretary in living memory. Even if they do return to schools on 8th March, the disruption of two years of education could significantly impact life chances and catalyse wealth and geographic divisions.
The pandemic is exacerbating trends which already suggest that the UK is becoming a “sedated society”. I recently heard the staggering statistic that 17% of English adults are using antidepressants; prescriptions are at an all-time high, according to a Guardian investigation. In October 2020, mental health charity Mind’s Infoline was receiving 500 calls a day, twice the number expected for that time of year. Add to this gathering storm the late diagnoses of underlying illnesses and the NHS’ waiting list backlog for elective surgery and routine check-ups; the think tank Reform estimates that 10 million people will be on this list by April. Even if social mixing is allowed once again from Easter, the nation will continue to face chronic mental, physical and educational turmoil. And that is before we even consider the economic damage.
Clearly, there remain positives to latch on to. I try to embrace the days of total lethargy and just look at the data: UK Covid cases are one-sixth of their New Year’s Day peak; average daily deaths are at their lowest since mid-December and vaccination rates continue to be a rare government success story. Boris Johnson’s spin-the-wheel-of-Tory-wives approach to appointing task force directors has paid off, with the NHS army delivering nearly 18 million doses in just two months. At the current rate of about 400,000 per day, the whole UK adult population could have both of their vaccines by the end of August, at which stage there would be no reason for further restrictions. That’s with the assumption that 95% of UK adults take their vaccine and, as looks likely, there is a >90% rate of protection against serious disease. It would also help if we monitored our borders properly to reduce the risks of mutant strains. As Guido Fawkes’ Tom Harwood tweeted, semi-seriously: ‘Imagine finally returning to normal in the UK… only for Tarquin or Tamara to ruin it all by bringing back a vaccine resistant SuperCovid from their summer safari.’
As long as the government is not lured towards the false mirage of zero Covid - no more than a pipe-dream in such an interconnected world - and accepts a level of basic, long-term risk from the virus, then much of the “old normal” is within reach. Statistician David Spiegelhalter has shown in a BMJ study of the March-June 2020 wave of the pandemic that exposure to “days of additional risk” from the pre-Covid “normal” varied from 5 weeks of additional risk for over 55s to just 2 days for school-aged children. The case for quick re-opening is obvious once the JCVI’s most vulnerable groups are inoculated in the next 4-6 weeks. That is, if it’s not too naive to expect such smooth management and joined-up thinking from a Johnson administration that has exhibited very little of the above over the last 11 months of managing this pandemic.
Having the terminology of “ordinary unhappiness” has allowed me to make some peace with it, and adjust expectations of myself - downwards - accordingly. I’m trying (if rarely succeeding) to make more of Day 245 of “going for an evening stroll” or pan-frying salmon instead of microwaving a ready meal. It’s a case of incrementally adjusting expectations to the day in question, with the help of some wilful self-delusion. I’ve been watching the Australian Open over the past two weeks with a mixture of hope and melancholy: if Melbourne’s half-capacity, masked sporting event heralds the immediate post-Covid world, then sign me up. On the men’s side, the tennis itself has been a groundswell of frustration; I hoodwinked myself that one of the Next Generation could finally step up mentally and beat a injured, vulnerable Novak Djokovic, but Daniil Medvedev’s performance this morning resembled one of my own epic park breakdowns. (I took out my anger on an innocent Santa decoration and then distracted myself with writing this article, so… thanks Daniil?)
Otherwise I have been trying to run regularly to meet my 100km per month Strava target - an arbitrary if vaguely motivating metric - only to be deterred by Arctic conditions and post-work darkness. The solution has been to play Jekyll and Hyde in my own mind: wearing non-running clothes to lower my own expectations; deciding, during a contented lunchtime moment, to go running immediately; cycling out leisurely to West Cambridge, locking up, and knowing the only way to get back without contracting hypothermia is to run. The activity is rarely pleasant in these circumstances, but it never fails to improve my mood. It’s simply the vicious mental cycle of lockdown lethargy which makes it seem like such a mountainous imposition beforehand.
I don’t claim to understand the science enough to conclude that we must open x on y date, and I can’t imagine the experience those facing a much more brutal time shielding, working in hospitals on the front line, or suffering from diagnosed mental illness. I just want to make the case - if my own example is remotely typical - that while lockdowns obviously work, the side-effects remain under-appreciated. Conservative backbench MP Charles Walker, a vocal activist for the dangers of extended lockdown on mental health, has argued powerfully that we ‘cannot cancel life to preserve every life’. Boris Johnson’s government and its scientific advisors have a perilous line to tread in easing the Covid pandemic without further inflating the mental health one. In the Prime Minister’s statement tomorrow, there must be some pragmatic acknowledgement that we need the carrot, as well as the stick.
American History and Politics
Alistair Cooke, Reporting America: The Life of the Nation, 1946-2004 [Penguin: 2010]
This collection of selected “Letters from America” by the BBC journalist Alistair Cooke is an idiosyncratic, personal take on a transformative epoch. His articles combine feats of description and wordplay, emotional catharsis and smart analogy. Commentaries from his daughter reinforce Cooke’s centrality to defining moments in Cold War America; for instance, he was in the hotel kitchen where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. We see his socially liberal instincts adapt towards conservatism over time, yet his "first draft of history” rarely feels far from the mark.
Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas [Metropolitan Books: 2019] - see Top 10
Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin [Oxford University Press, 2011]
An absorbing tour of conservative thought, principally in the US, from Robin’s collated articles in journals and periodicals. He argues persuasively that conservatism is the politics of backlash - reaction - and succeeds through the impetus of recovering and restoring an old order with the proven competence to rule. It’s not about preservation or protection. I’m sceptical that all conservatives can be collapsed into this one ethos, as Robin asserts, and the book can be repetitive. But his contention that for a conservative - seen starkly in a figure like Margaret Thatcher - the battle is never over, elucidates what maintains their enthusiasm and, by extension, their political and electoral success.
Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States [Macmillan: 2019] - see Top 10
David Frum, Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy [HarperCollins: 2020]
Frum’s thesis that America’s election of Donald Trump was a symbol of a wider culture of greed, short-termism and instant gratification is nothing new, but it is worth refreshing our minds should we normalise his appalling conduct as President. Over 360,000 Americans have now died from Trump’s blundering response to Covid-19. But Frum’s discussion of Trump’s structural damage to American institutions, to its robust system of constitutional checks and balances, is most disconcerting. He posits that the country’s political apparatus might never recover from a second term of the “Trumpocalypse” - which six months after publication appears averted - but nevertheless, it must be altered urgently to prevent further destruction. This may not be possible in the short-term, unless the Democrats gain control of the Senate on Wednesday…
Larry Sabato, The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy [Bloomsbury, 2013]
This book reminds us of the chasm between the achievements of JFK the president and JFK the martyr, American icon and oft-cited inspiration for every one of his successors. Sabato moves from a critical assessment of Kennedy administration (marred by foreign policy and civil rights crises), through the litany of theories that obscure his assassination, to a deep discussion of how the image, promise - and curse - of Kennedy and his wider family has shaped a half-century of American history. Since Dallas, the citation of JFK’s memory has proved a uniquely bipartisan catalyst for political action, but also instilled in his family a perception of a stolen right to govern that has fuelled nepotistic political dynasties (Clintons, Bushes, Trumps) in a supposedly egalitarian republic.
Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World [Harvard University Press: 2006]
An entertaining take on the Cold War from the perspective of integrated US jazz tours, sponsored by the State Department, which opened a new diplomatic front and form of “soft power” propaganda in Soviet-allied nations and the unaligned “Third World”. They embodied everything the USSR wasn’t: creatively unrestrained; racially assimilated; an archetype of the capitalist public-private enterprise. Von Eschen notes the hypocrisy of the State Department’s approach, while conceding that jazz was still a hugely popular and distinctly American cultural export. She examines the affinity felt by performers such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in performing in their ancestral countries of origin. At every turn, it is notable how differently these tours turned out compared to the US government’s expectation.
Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus [Nation Books: 2009]
In my view, Perlstein is America’s (slightly more left-wing) answer to Dominic Sandbrook: a supremely talented popular historian who can distil a mood and enliven an anecdote. Perlstein makes riveting anything from the standardisation of car regulations to the nomination of a right-wing firebrand for Republican presidential candidate, against the expectations of a complacent East Coast establishment. This is the first chronicle of four in his exploration of how the nation turned right; with painstaking research, Perlstein dismantles the argument that 1950s America was a ‘cult of consensus’. This is a tale of how outsiders - anti-tax, anti-communist, States’ Rights crusaders - embarked on a journey to the political mainstream. It was a truly grassroots recruitment drive, beginning in the pages of the National Review and the precincts of the John Birch Society. The linchpin of this tome, Barry Goldwater himself, was a reluctant and unprepared draftee for President: as Perlstein’s next books Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge show, this is a stealth takeover 20 years in the making.
Rick Perlstein, Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980 [Simon & Schuster: 2020]
The fourth volume in the series beginning above - weirdly I started years ago with Vol. 2 then 3, which cover 1964-76. Reaganland is both the most chaotic and most satisfying. A New Statesman reviewer described Perlstein’s style as depositing ‘bottomless truckloads of historical debris’, which is a little unfair, but speaks to his level of immersion in the material. Besides, the relative lack of structure is not only a faithful portrait of a political maelstrom - the Carter administration was four years of uninterrupted crisis management - but conveys the confluence of numerous conservative movements whose crusade first began to bear fruit with the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980. Perlstein demonstrates that it’s not simply about the White House for conservatives: its the anti-feminist drive against the Equal Rights Amendment; its the evangelical refusal to be bound by fact when you can simply assert ‘God says so’; its the misinformation campaign to dismantle critical safeguards for minority groups through the regulatory state. This battle for the soul of America continues at pace, 40 years on.
Ronald T. Libby, Purging the Republican Party: Tea Party Campaigns and Elections [Lexington Books: 2014]
This short book traces the origins of the Tea Party as a disparate, spontaneous economic movement, and studies how such ideas proliferated across the Republican base in 2010 congressional campaigns in New York, Utah, Alaska and Florida. Rebuffing narratives that the Tea Party was an “astroturf” movement, bankrolled by right-wing business networks like the Koch brothers, Libby emphasises that Tea Party identifiers organically challenged the congressional establishment. However, he could take the former argument more seriously. Partisanship isn’t an issue in Libby’s discussion of campaign networks and methods, but I blanched at his conclusion that the Tea Party’s focus on fiscal conservatism was a force for good in American politics: a reaction to supposed Democratic “radicalism” rather than a tool to pull the GOP ever further from centrist compromise.
Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton [Melville House Publishing: 2017]
This revisiting of the 2016 US presidential election campaign offers some fresh insights from the point of view of a second wave feminist. Bordo believes the divide between her generation and millennials - who do not understand the precariousness of feminism’s advance - can be blamed for Clinton’s loss. The latter group were drawn to support Bernie Sanders, a traditional leftist who saw feminism as a distraction, and did not turn out for Clinton on Election Day. Bordo addresses identity politics, the Comey letter, and Trump’s caricaturing of Clinton as “evil”, but they are secondary to her argument. Most interesting is her inversion of established wisdom, which blames the defection or apathy of working-class white men for Clinton’s defeat, onto college-educated millennial women.
Barack Obama, A Promised Land [Penguin/ Random House: 2020] - see Top 10
David Cameron, For the Record [William Collins: 2019]
This is a surprisingly readable book written, in the memorable phrase of his American counterpart, with the ‘easy confidence of someone who’d never been pressed too hard by life’. Barack Obama is a little flippant - Cameron writes movingly of the tragic death of his disabled son, Ivan - but his prose suggests that the weight of the office never sat too heavily for the Old Etonian. After all, ‘politics is a nasty business’. His never sizeable self-awareness hits an unsurprising nadir in the closing discussion of the 2016 EU referendum. Having all but rubbished the European Union throughout the book, Cameron’s case for Remain feels weak, occluded by complacency and failing to learn the lessons of the No campaign in Scotland in 2014. Not that it matters when the author can flee the wreckage and spectate safely from his £25,000 shed.
John Bercow, Unspeakable [W&N: 2020]
Curb your enthusiasm for this memoir from the outspoken, reforming former Speaker of the House of Commons and Tory MP. Bercow handles his idiosyncratic personal journey, from Monday Club Thatcherite to Conservative In Name Only, with disappointing shallowness. He sets out his heroes, from Enoch Powell to Roger Federer, his political foes (mostly friendly fire) and a dull chronology of his years in Parliament. There are few revelations; either they were never secret, or Bercow has adjudged much of his life to remain ‘unspeakable’.
Mary Trump, Too Much and Never Enough [Simon & Schuster: 2020]
This attempt to psychoanalyse Donald Trump by his niece is an easy but not especially compelling read. Relying on anecdote - often her own memories working with or visiting her uncle - Trump’s book offers shocks but few surprises. She doesn’t attempt a coherent, holistic theory of his childlike propensities and raises more questions than she can answer. However, she presents the real villain of the piece as Donald’s father, Fred, who never offered any encouragement or sympathy to adequately parent his children after his wife, Maryanne, was beset by chronic osteoporosis from the late 1940s. Fred’s callousness ensured Donald never developed emotionally, yet - as his father’s business protege - he was never allowed to fail. Thus was Frankenstein’s monster born.
Michelle Obama, Becoming [Viking: 2018] - see Top 10
Richard Ayoade, Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey [Faber & Faber: 2015]
Richard Ayoade is the master of the bizarre, as encapsulated in this autobiography-cum-metaphysical magic carpet ride in which he interviews himself. There’s no real narrative to speak of, so I’ll just present some of my favourite lines:
‘Do you often think about death?’/ ‘All the time. I’m always thinking, “Flip, isn’t death a ruddy pain?”’
‘Many’s the time I’ve arrived at a shoot only to be rebuked for not being a woman.’
‘Did you know, Roman Polanski sometimes has sex with adults?’
(One criticism: his use of footnotes as a comic device becomes very grating after a while.)
British History and Politics
Amelia Gentleman, The Windrush Betrayal [Guardian Faber: 2019]
Gentleman’s investigation into the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy is testament to the ability of journalism to make a transformative difference to the lives of Caribbean-born Britons who, half a century after their arrival in the UK, were targeted for “removal” with bureaucratic callousness. She switches between evocative personal portraits and a brief history of immigration in Britain. This work, published by The Guardian, caused a public outcry and the eventual resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd. But as of mid-2019, Gentleman remains unconvinced that a deeper problem rooted in our national obsession with “illegal” immigration remains. It dates to Theresa May’s robotic stewardship of the Home Office, but is symptomatic of our collective failure to address systemic racism in the UK.
Charles Spencer, Killers of the King [Bloomsbury: 2015]
A thrilling chronicle of how the regicides - signatories of Charles I’s death warrant in 1649 and facilitators of his beheading - rose to prominence, sustained a Godly Commonwealth and, crucially, attempted to evade capture after a vengeful monarchy was reinstated in 1660. Some of the characters - Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Harrison - are well-known, but Spencer sheds sympathetic light on many others who fled to the New World or the continent, only to be caught and killed at the hands of royal spymasters. What particularly struck me was the sophistication of communication networks that could track down regicides as far afield as Switzerland and Germany. Spencer presents a vivid picture of a tumultuous and, for many, terrifying period.
David Reynolds, Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit [William Collins: 2019]
This is an important contribution to grappling with Britain’s - and particularly England’s - self-perceived uniqueness in the period since we lost an Empire and are yet to find a role, to paraphrase Dean Acheson. Reynolds adroitly surveys the competing histories we tell and, to link specifically to Brexit, our obsession with the Special Relationship at the expense of any meaningful coalition building in Europe. For me, though, the focus is often too political and economic; at times it reads as death by statistic. Nevertheless, it is a good introduction to British exceptionalism which seems to affirm the notion that geography is destiny.
Dominic Sandbrook, Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982 [Allen Lane: 2019]
When he’s not riling up Daily Mail readers, Dominic Sandbrook is a captivating historian whose books I have devoured. This sixth volume of postwar British history continues his customary blend of political intrigue and pop culture. The use of newspapers and Mass Observation - a ‘national life writing project’ from 1981 - as primary sources give the reader a vivid facsimile of the period. Sandbrook skips enthusiastically through New Romantics, CND and the ZX Spectrum on one side, mass unemployment, Labour Party infighting (what’s new?) and the Falklands War on the other. At the book’s heart, of course, lies the iconoclastic Margaret Thatcher, who Sandbrook adores. But, besides a whole chapter bullying Ken Livingstone and the odd swipe at a young Jeremy Corbyn, his biases are largely restrained. He captures a national polarisation which fizzles out (briefly) in the Falklands victory: she who dared won, and the ‘sick man of Europe’ appeared to be on the mend.
Helen Lewis, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights [Jonathan Cape: 2020] - see Top 10
Iain Dale, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? [HarperCollins: 2020] - see Top 10
Jeremy Paxman, The English [Penguin: 2007 ed.]
Paxman is a dry and entertaining writer, which makes this book a satisfying collection of anecdotes about what defines the English. We are a stoical, dignified, often small-minded people fixated upon our wartime experiences, if far more inured to ‘tending gardens than defending the world against a fascist tyranny’. Nonetheless, the book has quickly shown its age - first published in the 1998 before social media or ever-closer European integration cast aspersions upon Paxman’s surprisingly affectionate view. A paean to aristocratic houses, country wives and Empire Windrush multiculturalism feels particularly quaint now.
Tim Shipman, Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem [William Collins: 2018]
Just like it’s predecessor, All Out War - which covers the 2016 referendum - Shipman’s account of the lead up to Theresa May’s disastrous election in 2017 is addictive. With the benefit of hindsight and insider knowledge, he deconstructs an American-style campaign centred on the personality of a leader, in May, temperamentally unsuited to electioneering. He is even-handed in rebuke and praise; the chapters detailing how the Corbyn machine turned organisational pandemonium into near-triumph are especially illuminating.
Climate - History, Politics, Fiction
Anatol Lieven, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Realist Case [Penguin: 2020]
Lieven adroitly frames climate change as a national security issue. Mitigation of global heating does not have to be the territory of leftists, bound up with solutions partially designed to fell capitalism. It can be fought on ground more comfortable for conservatives - which is critical to “selling” the issue to Republican deniers in the US. This is a pragmatic reading, if dispiriting to proponents of Green New Deal-type solutions, or those which privilege international collaboration. At times the focus on how the Chinese authoritarian government could pave the way is misleading - it ignores the “Giddens paradox” (see below) that hinders democracies - but Lieven’s is a welcome new take on this urgent debate.
Anthony Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change [Polity Press: 2011]
A textbook introduction to climate change, focused around Giddens’ paradox that states, since the dangers of climate change are not ‘tangible, immediate, or visible’ will do nothing to tackle the problem. When the dangers become apparent later, it will be too late to do anything. Therefore, democratic societies must abandon the politically expedient focus on the short-term to have any hope of mitigating climate change (how this works in practice is less well-addressed). Giddens devotes much of the book to solutions - tax-based incentives chiefly - and, like all climate experts, myth-busting. Interestingly, he attempts to reclaim the epithet “green” to depoliticise a climate-conscious agenda, rather like Lieven changing the framing of climate issues to remove all excuses for denialism.
Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis [Manilla Press: 2020]
This manifesto is an optimistic break from fearful prognostications on the scale of the climate crisis. It instructs readers to channel our frustration at the lack of action on climate for good. The authors’ title says it all, and they argue that the 2020s are a critical decade for us to work towards this choice. It is a short and clear read, focused on the debunking of scientific myth, decarbonisation, reforestation, and citizen engagement in politics. Above all, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac exhort us to look for information: for activism; personal carbon calculators; real science; and conservation opportunities.
David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth [Allen Lane: 2019] - see Top 10
James Bradley, Clade [Titan Books: 2017]
Clade imagines a terrifying future of wildfires, natural disaster (including a shout-out to a submerged East Anglia), insect death and pandemic before it was cool. The focus, however, lies on climatologist Adam Leith and his descendants as they navigate this fragmenting world alongside the strains of family life. Bradley speaks to the madness of adapting to a “new normal” far more apocalyptic than that occasioned by current lockdowns, and with no promise of the old world around the corner. There’s no happy ending.
John Lanchester, The Wall [Faber & Faber: 2019]
In the age of “hostile environments”, where a single boatload of asylum seekers at the Kent cliffs prompts an orgiastic howl of terror from the political right, this is a disturbingly clairvoyant novel. Lanchester’s narrative principally takes place on the National Coastal Defence Structure - Trump’s border wall writ large, penning the UK against rising oceans but also the “Others”: an umbrella term for pirates, criminals and an ever-growing number of climate refugees. The focus is on a new teenage “Defender”, Kavanagh, conscripted to patrol The Wall as national service. The job is relentlessly long and dull (12 consecutive hours of ‘concretewaterskywindcold’) until Others start to arrive in their droves. It’s almost too believable a concept for post-Brexit Britain: a sequel where we discover what life is like inside The Wall would be unbearable!
Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back [Granta: 2020] - see Top 10
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change [Picador: 2019]
This is a dispiriting read: through no fault of the author, I wanted to bang my head on the wall in frustration. Rich demonstrates that the scientific and political debate over climate change has been circulating, stagnant, for over 40 years - and back in the 1980s, there was a will to do something about it. Over a series of hearings and summits, chiefly American fossil fuel companies moved to a position of opposition, judging delay to be a more profitable position than adapting to a potentially intractable problem. A climate strategy was shelved, administrations wavered, and the ‘journalistic fetish for balanced coverage’ ensured that unscientific voices of denial obscured the impetus for action. By the 1992 Rio Earth summit, the US was steadfastly against action - and we have been stuck in a quagmire since.
Economics and Statistics
Adam Kucharski, The Rules of Contagion: Why Things Spread - and Why They Stop [Wellcome Collection: 2020]
At the start of the pandemic, with the language of R numbers, second waves and zoonotic transmission just entering the popular lexicon, this was a relieving and well-timed release. Contagion never anticipated a global pandemic, and strays beyond Kucharski’s expertise in disease and epidemiology to elucidate how online networks - not least social media - spread information and can be modelled in eerily similar ways. There are vital differences: individuals choose what they are exposed to online to a greater extent than invisible pathogens; we can be wiped out by disease in a way we can’t (at least directly) by content. But the long-term effects of “fake news” can infect families, towns and nations far more than most illnesses. Kucharski presents causes for alarm at our way of life long after Covid-19.
David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, 1900-2000 [Penguin: 2019]
‘Yet another history of Britain in the 20th century?’ you might say. This one actually manages a unique take (hence it’s in the economics section) through the framing narratives of capital, business, imperial trade, knowledge and industry - the last of which, in particular, helps to illuminate political narratives of decline. Our transition from producer (coal, steel, heavy manufacturing) and net exporter, to service-led economy reliant on global trade networks and capital flows, is made stark by Edgerton. With the aid of graphs and charts, this book helped me to consider our recent past with fresh perspective.
Diane Coyle, GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History [Princeton University Press: 2015 ed.]
A bitesize introduction to the postwar invention of Gross Domestic Product, which quickly came to encapsulate the economic output of countries worldwide. Coyle gives a readable outline of why it works, but also glaring limitations - notably unpaid home work, which is overwhelmingly female. GDP is assumed to correlate with societal welfare, but in an age where long hours and “being busy” is fetishised at the expense of leisure and family time, there must be some way to refine the metric. On that theme, GDP’s emphasis on producing “stuff”, like energy from fossil fuels, is unsustainable going forward. It’s fair to say that Coyle’s analysis gave me a less affectionate view of GDP than she holds.
Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction [Penguin: 2013]
It would be incredible to have the mind of Nate Silver, the professional-poker-playing-pollster-predictor-pundit. While bored into oblivion working at KPMG, he procrastinated by only building a comprehensive baseball database so useful at predicting players’ career progression that it’s used by MLB scouts. This book geeks out gloriously over lists, graphs and data covering all sorts of fields: elections; weather forecasting; natural disasters; GDP growth; and - happy 2020 - infectious disease outbreaks and chess. Silver deconstructs complex statistical theory (Bayes theorem comes up repeatedly) and our general societal inability to evaluate scale and risk. Some of the analysis feels a little outdated now, but I devoured this.
Oliver Bullough, Moneyland: Why Thieves and Cooks Now Rule The World And How To Take It Back [Profile Books: 2019]
A feat of investigative journalism that circumnavigates the globe, from gold-plated toilets in dictators’ dachas to the sun-drenched Caribbean isle of Nevis, in search of the hidden lucre deposited by the world’s richest. Bullough explains the intricate mechanisms by which a staggering 8-10% of global wealth has been stowed away. Britain is shamefully complicit: how else is prime London real estate gobbled up by Russian oligarchs or Harley Street dominated by decoy “shell” companies? It’s a shame he doesn’t cover multinational corporations and their enormous tax avoidance - surely a sizeable omission when considering how governments should respond. Nonetheless, Bullough scandalous and entertaining anecdotes remove any sheen from turbo-charged global capitalism.
Global History and Politics
Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-56 [Penguin: 2013]
A fascinating account of the creation of Soviet communist analogue states in Eastern Europe - specifically Poland, Hungary and East Germany - from 1945’s “Zero Hour” to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Applebaum demonstrates that communist infiltration of media, policing and positions of political authority from before the Nazi surrender ensured that sham elections in the late 1940s would be successful to push these states to the Soviet model. She covers private and community life, the suppression of national identity and stifling of personal creativity which came to define “socialist realism” in art and culture. Applebaum’s study is rarely high political, although the parallels between the postwar Soviet takeover and the strategies of Fidesz or Law and Justice in the present (covered in her new book) are obvious.
Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends [Allen Lane: 2020] - see Top 10
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes, The Light That Failed: A Reckoning [Penguin: 2020]
This thought-provoking if complex book adds theoretical weight to Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy, arguing that the period from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Great Recession was an ‘Age of Imitation’ in Russia and Eastern European states. As a defeated bloc, looking for approval, they mimicked Western liberal democracy but have since reacted against its lecturing hypocrisy (think the United States’ “War on Terror”) and celebration of multiculturalism, which has diluted native blood with that of outsiders. In an age of demographic decline, these nations refuse to watch their identity robbed. The authors build a thesis that America’s victory in the Cold War was pyrrhic and, since the election of Trump, the chickens are coming home to roost. Both he and his Russian analogue, Putin, have disparaged the liberal universalist agenda and the utility of either truth or real democracy to their political ends. We can expect a future global order bereft of morality, where the “imitators” have turned on the “imitated”.
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive [Penguin: 2011]
This is a dense work, packed with detail drawn from societies ancient and modern, and hypothesising on the factors that lead them to survive or perish. I am not totally convinced by Diamond’s theoretical certainty - tantamount to, ‘I can explain all human existence with these 12 factors!’ - yet his examples provide vital historical context to the threat posed by current anthropogenic climate change. He shows that any society, be it the Greenland Norse or Central American Maya, can cohere peaceably around civilisational values, or religious ethics, but will never escape the limitations of their environment (overhunting, overpopulation, soil problems etc.). Biological survival is never guaranteed, even when social relations are harmonious. Diamond’s physically inhospitable exemplars - today’s Australia, Montana or Los Angeles - may be testament to this.
John Kampfner, Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes from a Grown-Up Country [Atlantic Books: 2020]
From “Mutti” to Volkswagen and the fall of the Wall, this is an affectionate yet critical assessment of how Germany learned the lessons of the Third Reich to become a model democracy. Crucial to its stability, argues Kampfner, is a forced and regular reckoning with the past, where other nations have wilfully disregarded the skeletons in their closet. Yes, the German focus on continuity - three of its postwar Chancellors have served 14 plus years - breeds malaise. The qualities that mark Angela Merkel (“Mutti”) as a paragon of leadership internationally are often criticised at home: a lack of ideology; technocratic management; even the empathy she showed in the national response to the 2015-16 migrant crisis. But where Brexit might suggest a betrayal of our national virtues, Germany’s postwar experience feels like a heartening alternative.
Paul Kenyon, Dictatorland: The Men Who Stole Africa [Head of Zeus: 2018]
I’m embarrassed by how little I know about the history of Africa, and this book goes some way to illuminate how the mineral-rich continent served as the terrain of murderous dictators, abetted by Western magnates, since the end of the colonial period. Kenyon is a master storyteller, framing his analysis around the resources plundered: diamonds in Mobutu’s Zaire and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe; oil in Abacha’s Nigeria and Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea; cocoa in Houphouët-Boigny’s Ivory Coast; and, chillingly, people in Isaias Afwerki’s Eritrea. But readable as it is, herein lies the problem: Kenyon reduces Africa to the traditional stereotype of an untameable, exotic darkness, commanded by great men if it isn’t marred in civil war. He illuminates little of how those oppressed by the eponymous dictators found agency to fight back. This is more entertainment than history.
Richard Vinen, The Long ’68: Radical Protest and Its Enemies [Allen Lane: 2018]
1968 was a defining year in the history of social activism, albeit one that is periodised differently by country and resonant with a particular ‘Baby Boomer’ generation more than any other. For France, strikes and student protest, focused on the month of May 1968, strangled the country and ultimately brought down a President. In the United States, the “long ’68” relates more to a state of mind than a fixed period, characterised by opposition to the Vietnam War. Vinen considers the countries involved before chapters on the greater cultural impact of the “long ’68”: on the family; workers; fringe organisations; and key activists who - unlike in later waves of protest - have largely been co-opted into the establishments they once bitterly opposed. A timely read amid the current resurgence of protest movements for racial and climate justice.
Sport - mostly Tennis
Cecil Harris, Different Strokes: Serena, Venus and the Unfinished Black Tennis Revolution [University of Nebraska Press: 2020]
This recent study chronicles the enormous tennis legacy of Venus and Serena Williams, the African American male trailblazer Arthur Ashe, and current Black stars such as Sloane Stephens and Taylor Townsend. Harris emphasises the importance of academies in disadvantaged areas to build access for future generations of Black, female and working-class tennis stars. He also surveys the diversity of tournament staff and the unequal treatment of Black umpires like Tony Nimmons, who is currently suing the US Tennis Association. Harris notes that the depth of Black representation inspired by the Williams sisters on the women’s tour is yet to filter across to the ATP. Current World No. 312 Donald Young argues that ‘black men tend to look at other sports to find their heroes,’ and thus the men’s tour has remained largely homogeneous and conservative in its social attitudes.
David Berry, A People’s History of Tennis [Pluto Press: 2020]
Berry’s thesis is that far from tennis being an exclusive sport, played by the landed gentry on immaculate country house lawns, its development has been spearheaded by radicals and outsiders. He profiles flamboyant figures from tennis’ “founder”, Major Walter Wingfield, to female pioneer Lottie Dod and the organisers of the socialist “Workers’ Wimbledon” in the interwar years. Clearly there are progressive elements: women have always participated and today tennis punches above its weight in the context of women’s sport. But Berry struggles to shift the class-based argument that tennis is expensive - it generally requires a comfortable level of income just to become a club player that, say, football does not. This book feels less of a “hidden history” than a cherrypicked series of exceptions to a rule.
David Papineau, Knowing the Score: How Sport Teaches Us About Philosophy (and Philosophy About Sport) [Constable: 2017]
A disappointingly trite, pop analysis which opens up a number of interesting discussion points (the connection between sport and nationality; the meaning of sport itself) but rarely reaches a well-considered conclusion. Furthermore, Papineau seems not to have received the memo that women exist: Robert Mugabe gets more mentions across 290 pages than the Williams sisters.
Eric Allen Hall, Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era [Johns Hopkins University Press: 2014]
Hall chronicles the life of Black tennis star and three-time Grand Slam champion Arthur Ashe, from his early life in segregated Virginia to his years-long battle against South African authorities to obtain a visa to play in the apartheid state. He places Ashe within greater civil rights narratives; Ashe attempted to balance a tennis career with forays into activism, all under an uncompromising public gaze. He was plagued by complaints from conservatives about his Black radicalism, which deepened after his playing days. But fellow African Americans and feminists castigated him for an archetypal “Uncle Tom” attitude that privileged self-improvement (hardly surprising for an athlete striving to be No.1). In an indicative comment which she’d come to regret, Billie Jean King claimed, ‘Hell, I’m blacker than Arthur Ashe!’. Hall’s is a comprehensive study of Ashe’s place in the global Black Freedom Struggle.
Grace Lichtenstein, A Long Way, Baby [William Morrow: 1974]
As Lichtenstein follows the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1973 - consolidated into the WTA Tour that summer - you sense the experimental, heretical novelty of a women’s tennis tour. Her prose is peppered with glorious quotes and insight into women’s tennis as a sorority (far removed from the über-professional and individualistic spirit of today) and laboratory for feminist ideas. Lichtenstein’s tone is gossipy - before the days of ethics codes it seems journalists went on nights out with the players - if jarring in places. The writer often comments on the physical attractiveness of her all-female cast, which is a sad reflection on what sold books in the mid-1970s.
John Feinstein, Hard Courts [Villard Books: 1992 ed.]
This is a very long account (470 pages) for just one year on the tennis tour - 1990 - but packed with anecdotes, scandal and insight into sports management and marketing. An ideal read for a snapshot of tennis history as the “Golden Age” drew to a close: John McEnroe is disqualified from the Australian Open; Martina Navratilova wins her last Slam at Wimbledon; and the Seles-Graf rivalry begins to fire the WTA circuit. As in Lichtenstein’s book, the unfettered journalistic access to the players stands out.
Jon Wertheim, Venus Envy: Power Games, Teenage Vixens, and Million-Dollar Egos on the Women’s Tennis Tour [Harper Collins, 2009 ed.]
This is a dreadfully titled but merry chronicle of the 2000 season on the WTA Tour, sharpened by majestic turns of phrase from Sports Illustrated’s Wertheim. Amid the sporting world’s fixation on the breakthrough of the Williams sisters, this account depicts a tour on the cusp of commercialisation. In part, it remains a sorority led by such personalities as Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis, but the packaging of WTA players as marketed products is building steam in the example of Anna Kournikova. Wertheim rigorously investigates off-court issues like mental health and physical abuse, but his presentation of the issues is often flippant and boneheaded. Still, as with the above two books, reading this as a product of its time is part of the intrigue.
Kristi Tredway, Social Activism in Women’s Tennis: Generations of Politics and Cultural Change [Routledge: 2019]
This is a crucial scholarly contribution to the study of social activism through the framework of women’s tennis. Tredway uses the terminology of generational cohorts to separate the icons of the game, with Billie Jean King and the “Original 9” activists - who led a breakaway from the combined tennis circuit in 1970 to protest in favour of equal pay - as the “Founder” generation. They were preceded by individual “Trailblazers” and succeeded by “Joiner” and “Sustainer” cohorts. Tredway’s perception that the latter group have taken their position for granted in the context of neoliberal individualism is particularly interesting. Her final cohort is the “Throwbacks”, who understand the history of the WTA and continue to advocate for social causes, from equal pay at Wimbledon (Venus Williams) to LGBTQ rights (Amelie Mauresmo). Unfortunately the book is marred by poor editing - repetition and sometimes assumptions where fact is fit to theory - but it is worth persisting for the conceptual insight.
Peter Bodo, Ashe vs. Connors: Wimbledon 1975 - Tennis that went beyond Centre Court [Aurum Press: 2015]
A short history of two tennis icons who, like Evert and Navratilova or Borg and McEnroe, drew crowds with their conflicting personalities and contrasting styles. The narrative climaxes with Ashe’s surprise victory at Wimbledon 1975, held in a political context where Connors had sued him as president of the player’s union for $10 million in a contractual dispute. Seen as past his peak, aged 32, Ashe triumphed with the near-perfect execution of a gameplan which left Connors - a brash, bruising baseliner - shellshocked. Bodo flits between parallel chronicles of their disparate upbringings and the portrayal of each as ‘outsiders’ for very different reasons.
Andy Greene, The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s [Dutton: 2020]
Based on hundreds of interviews with cast and crew, this is a joyous romp through the history of The Office: a cult favourite and Netflix’s lockdown sensation. Paying homage to Ricky Gervais’ inspired yet agonising British series, the perfect combination of slapstick, heart and assiduous character progression define the American spinoff. Comic genius Steve Carell, as manager Michael Scott, is the shows heart and soul. His departure at the end of season 7 - the result of an ‘asinine’ misunderstanding with NBC show runners - was a mortal blow, yet it limped on valiantly for a further two years. Greene’s interviewees reminisce on a uniquely harmonious workplace (no pun intended). They are worn by the brutality of the 20+ episode American TV “season” but ever-grateful for an experience which defines their careers.
Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other [Penguin: 2020] - see Top 10
Curtis Sittenfeld, Rodham [Doubleday: 2020]
Alternate history is my favourite genre of fiction (a cop out for a historian), and I loved how Sittenfeld crafted a thinly-veiled portrait of First Lady Laura Bush in her novel American Wife. Rodham imagines a world in which Hillary - the self-assured, ardently feminist lawyer - dated, but never married, the serial philanderer Bill Clinton. His first run for Arkansas Governor proves the rupture point from reality, after which Sittenfeld’s sympathy for her protagonist leads to some quite preposterous conjecture and, of course, the outcome we hoped for in 2016. It’s entertaining, but you’d probably want to skip the sex scenes.
David Kynaston and Francis Green, Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem [Bloomsbury: 2019]
In the wake of the government botching of students’ predicted grades this summer, Kynaston and Green’s brief history and meditation on Britain’s stratified education system is timely. I shan’t get into my conflicted opinions on the “problem”, but I like Kynaston and Green’s incremental solution, focused on upgrading state schools such that the impetus for private schools dies out. Whether this is viable, though, with the myth of meritocracy so firmly entrenched in government, is another question. More equitable, contextual university admission policies - Oxbridge are making significant strides - and equal opportunities hiring practices can do more to negate the advantages of private schools in the short term.
Isabel Hardman, The Natural Health Service: How Nature Can Mend Your Mind [Atlantic Books: 2020]
This treatise is a pioneering contribution to our mental health discourse. Hardman argues forcefully for a shift in attitudes - by both medical professionals and politicians - away from easy platitudes on the “mental health crisis” towards an appreciation of nature. It is a prescription that should be as accessible and well-funded as medication. Chapters range from the positive impact of running and cycling to therapy pets and even cold water swimming. Hardman is at pains to emphasise the economic accessibility of these activities and the centrality of nature to our internal chemical wellbeing. As Mark O’Connell also noted, nature is not something you simply you photograph from a car window before returning home.
Sally Rooney, Normal People [Faber & Faber: 2019]
This was one of the BBC dramas of the year, but I gave up after a couple of episodes of the TV series with the feeling that nothing had particularly happened. I tried the book and reached the same conclusion. I admire Rooney’s ability to elevate quotidian observations into weighty philosophical truths (‘If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced’) but the narrative appeared to plod; Marianne and Connell’s disjointed relationship ebbed and flowed without satisfactory resolution for good or ill. Perhaps this is the point - that Normal People is rather like “normal” life and, at the end of it all, rather unremarkable.
10. Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Macmillan: 2019)
The traditional “logo map” of the United States is far more interesting for what it omits than what it shows. From this principle, Daniel Immerwahr has written this pacy, surprising and often hilarious history of a nation founded to throw off the yoke of imperialism. He eschews well-worn political narratives to focus on geopolitical strategy, economics and trade from the vantage point of America’s lesser-known conquered territories. Chapters contemplate why Pacific Island guano - or bird shit - was such a critical wartime resource, or the importance of standardising nut and bolt sizes to the nation’s “soft power” reach. The vanishing act performed by generations of American leaders to draw attention back to the “logo map” - away from colonial atrocities in the Philippines, birth control experimentation in Puerto Rico, or A-bomb practice in the South Pacific - is remarkable. Today, the nation’s more “pointillist” empire of military bases and supply chains that ring the globe is still under-appreciated and mitigates against the United States’ relative decline. Immerwahr does a vital service to expose the nation’s hypocrisy and, just maybe, force its citizens to reckon with the dishonourable underbelly of American exceptionalism.
9. Corey Robin, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas (Metropolitan Books: 2019)
This exploration of the judicial philosophy of Clarence Thomas, the most conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court - and also its lone African-American - was so compelling that I kept stopping to make frantic notes in the middle of fields during my summer evening walks. American political scientist Robin makes complex legal terminology accessible in his argument that both Black nationalism and right-wing revanchism drive Thomas’ opinions on the bench. Race matters to Thomas, but not in the same way that either liberals or conservatives think it does. Rather, he views racism as intractable: no White offerings of help are to be trusted as altruistic, but a performative reinforcement of elitism. The facade is exposed in such episodes as his Supreme Court Senate confirmation hearings, dominated by sexual misconduct allegations brought against Thomas by staffer Anita Hill. (This was described by Thomas as a ‘high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks’.) Thomas believes, says Robin, that Blacks can defend themselves through arms and economic self-improvement alone - not politics or the courts. He wades through the complexity of Thomas’ jurisprudence to construct a dystopian America of guns, capitalism and racial conflict inhabited - incredibly - by the Supreme Court’s most senior justice.
8. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (Allen Lane: 2019)
A vital yet uncomfortable and, at times, existentially terrifying read. Through inaction, ignorance, wilful distraction and distortion, we have allowed our planet’s temperatures to spiral upwards at a rate, Wallace-Wells describes, that could lead to complete inhabitability by 2100. Slowing this rate of increase, even to a ruinous but liveable 2C above preindustrial levels, remains within our grasp. Wallace-Wells details the ‘elements of chaos’ we face at each level of warming from hunger and wildfire to, for me, the most worrying prospect - systems collapse, where earth unwittingly passes thresholds of warming that trigger negative feedback loops and thus become points of no return. But the second half of the book is devoted to how we can snap out of our inactivity, be it driven by fatalism, denialism or a misplaced faith in the technological saviours of fusion energy or carbon capture. The book winds from history to fiction, science to politics, all underlining the thesis that clearheaded action to decarbonise must be taken now, for our own sakes: ‘You can’t halfway your way to a solution to a crisis this large’. We can all take measures to change - until Christmas, I’d cut my meat and fish intake by about 85%. Beyond that, education is key for the private citizen: reading books; supporting petitions, demonstrations and boycotts; and refusing to let governments and large corporations off the hook.
7. Iain Dale, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? (HarperCollins: 2020)
This is a refreshingly blunt exposition of the toxic political and media environment in Brexit Britain. Dale targets social media as a primary catalyst of the blinkered environment in which debate is conducted. We are becoming increasingly reckless with our language - a key theme of the book - and incapable of communicating nuance. Our pandemic-imposed bubbles only exacerbate the trend and sharpen Dale’s arguments. He rigorously explores the issues of the day, from crime and immigration, to the NHS, and the B-word; media outlets must modify their presentation of these to invite more constructive debate (and fewer divisive panellists). Semi-autobiographical sections help to humanise Dale as a commentator who lacks easy categorisation: he is gay, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate and a Brexit supporter. He practices what he preaches; Dale movingly describes how the intimacy of radio allows guests to open up on his LBC phone-ins and build long-term relationships across partisan divides. He also hosted a series of All Talk shows at the Edinburgh Fringe to revive the long-form political interview over soundbites and highfalutin rhetoric. For Dale, what’s crucial to us “all getting along” is not some lofty idealism but renewed focus on our personal conduct. In this hypothesis, he leads by example.
6. Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Random House: 2020)
How we long for the days when this serious, humble, generous and empathetic President inhabited the White House. Barack Obama’s best qualities shine through - not to mention his ability to write beautifully - in this first of two memoirs, covering from his political campaigns in Illinois, through his election as President in 2008, to the successful mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden in May 2011. At 700 pages, Obama’s expansive prose is commensurate with the gravity of the office (albeit, he takes a third of the book to get there). We view every major issue - the stimulus bill, Obamacare, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill - through the eyes of an idealist who, with experience, becomes all too aware of the compromises that top-level politics requires. Yet Obama never loses the inner passion to change lives that fired him as a community organiser on Chicago’s South Side - as the President’s nightly reading of constituents’ letters reminds him. He mulls over his willingness to compromise with an increasingly hostile Republican caucus that, come the Arab Spring, is content to reduce matters of life and death to a partisan game. Intrinsic to this, he reminds us, is the visceral symbolism of a first African American family in the White House; it triggered ‘a sense that the natural order had been disrupted’. In himself, and the figure of his successor, Obama grapples with the promise and the reality of the American experiment, riven by racial inequality. If you normally find political memoirs dull, conceited affairs, this is an exception with rare self-awareness and genuine literary merit (see also, 4).
5. Bernardine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Penguin: 2020)
I mean no ill will to Margaret Atwood, but Girl, Woman, Other richly deserved the 2019 Booker Prize on its own. Evaristo’s novel takes the form of 12 beautifully crafted, loosely connected portraits of Black British women, exploring themes of race, feminism, class and sexuality along the way. She grapples with current issues, such as political “wokeness” and transgender rights, alongside enduring feminist debates over beauty (double) standards and the practicability of male-exclusionary spaces, as seen in the story of Dominique, who leaves for America to partner an increasingly controlling radical feminist. The prose is politically and culturally informative without the sense that Evaristo is lecturing. What were, for me, hitherto abstract concepts are organically embodied in the characters. Evaristo moves from the comic to the serious with ease, while the women span from the feisty lesbian playwright Amma to the more conservative schoolteacher Shirley; from high-flying banker Carole to non-binary online activist Morgan. With 12 profiles in total, some characters fade into the background, especially with the lack of a master narrative to bring them together. (And I’m glad I listened to the audiobook because I think the lack of full stops would annoy me.) However, each profile feels so well developed and interesting that this scarcely matters. I should read more fiction like this.
4. Michelle Obama, Becoming (Viking: 2018)
This uplifting memoir embodies the former First Lady’s mantra, ‘When they go low, we go high’. Michelle Obama balances the competing personas and attendant obligations of all-American girl; Black Chicagoan immersed in the politics of the Freedom Struggle (chiefly through her friendship with Jesse Jackson’s daughter, Santita); wife, mother and career professional; and, finally, First Lady of the United States. It is an unexpected journey for a self-confessed control freak, focused on the corporate law track until derailed by her summer intern, and later husband, Barack. With pride, humour, and the more than the occasional hint of exasperation, she details their journey from Friday evening dates in Chicago to the Inaugural podium on Capitol Hill, juggling Malia, Sacha and a vice-presidency at the University of Chicago Medical Centre in between. Her description of losing her father to multiple sclerosis in 1995 - particularly as she narrates the audiobook - is very moving. As First Lady, we see her drive to craft the nebulous office into a force for change, focused on childhood obesity and military spouses - while navigating loneliness and the impossible expectations for a Black woman in the public eye. The concluding chapters are bittersweet: Obama balances the joy she and Malia felt evading White House security to join the crowds cheering the Supreme Court’s legalisation of gay marriage in 2015, against her anger at the Sandy Hook massacre and the way in which Donald Trump’s ‘loud and reckless innuendos’ have not only demeaned her husband but increased the threat to her daughters. Nonetheless, Obama’s is an inspirational story packed with positivity and - one day, perhaps - an archetypal tale of the “American dream”.
3. Mark O’Connell, Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (Granta: 2020) - see full review
Irish journalist Mark O’Connell details a fascinating journey of discovery to mitigate his apocalyptic fears through ‘exposure therapy’. Worn down psychologically by a fear of climate change, and a world inhospitable to future generations, he provides a witty assessment of the extremes of his own obsessions, to understand them as a counterproductive cancer. O’Connell studies internet “preppers” and self-pitying environmental groups; he travels to luxury bunkers, reserved for Silicon Valley magnates when the end arrives, and hotspots for Ruinenlust (German for disaster tourism). Most entertainingly, he destroys the logic behind ludicrously indulgent public-private enterprises, pioneered by Elon Musk et al., to send humans to colonise Mars. I’m compelled by his argument that most of these solutions enable (largely) privileged, American men to escape a feeling of their own impotence in the present, rather than do anything to avert an infernal future for all humankind. O’Connell concludes that individuals, faced with a wall of terrifying and dispiriting information, must focus on what we can control. We should mobilise against both the fatalist mindset that humans are inherently selfish and catastrophe is inevitable, as well as the billionaire’s silver bullet, which might avert your death, but leave you on a cold, dark planet with none of the aspects that actually make life worth living.
2. Helen Lewis, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights (Jonathan Cape: 2020)
A rich, absorbing, and deeply personal history of feminism in Britain and beyond over the past two centuries. Lewis’ thesis echoes that of Caroline Criado Perez in Invisible Women that feminism is fundamentally a fight for independence and control - to give definition to 3.5 billion women without reference back to men. The fights detailed range from the right to good sex and choosing one’s sexual partners to free time; equality of opportunity in work and education; and the highest-profile battles: to divorce, the right to vote and the right to choose. I found Lewis’ chapter on abortion the most harrowing and sensitively written; where states use the spurious rationales of religion or “freedom” to seize sovereignty over a woman’s body, and equate her legal status with that of an unborn foetus, the enduring power of misogyny is most starkly exposed.
Lewis’ writing is witty, accessible and inclusive; in advocating for the “difficult” woman she casts off the societal “tyranny of niceness”: that a woman must juggle home, work, marriage and children, all with a smile on her face. She does not begrudge activists who have - as in any social movement - blanched at the supposed extremes of feminism or espoused the prevailing ideologies of their time. In Simone de Beauvoir’s dictum these women are: ‘half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else’. Lewis’ basic argument is simple and inarguable: ‘Trust women… How far do you expect a woman to have to suffer so that you can decide on her behalf?’
1. Anne Appelbaum, Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends (Allen Lane: 2020)
This short cri de coeur on the state of the Western liberal democratic order is a must-read for anyone concerned about the continued preeminence of the political values and principles we hold dear. Applebaum, a veteran American journalist and historian of Eastern Europe, married to former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, opens on her Millennium’s Eve dinner party to chart how many of her guests - doyens of conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic - might still be invited twenty years on. The answer, as former Soviet republics slide back towards the authoritarianism they threw off in 1989, is alarmingly few. Tired of the false promises and condescension of liberal democracy, Applebaum exposes how New Right regimes in Poland and Hungary have pushed back on meritocratic principles to chart their own, unique national approaches. These regimes thrive on what historian Timothy Synder calls the “medium-sized lie”: conspiracy theories, like the anti-Semitic tropes that surround Hungarian billionaire George Soros, which don’t require constant adherence but provide an alternative reality to take focus away from the actions of a Kaczynski or Orban to dismantle the already precarious democratic state. Applebaum devotes considerable attention, too, to the UK and US, where populism thrives on a ‘cultural despair’ for the decline of the true (white, male, Christian?) nation against the rootlessness of contemporary life. Identifying as part of the American conservative establishment prior to 2008, her criticism of former confidantes - like Trump’s Fox News mouthpiece Laura Ingraham - is particularly pointed.
After the experience of 2020, Applebaum fears that societies will divide increasingly along the “somewhere” versus “anywhere” fault line. The pandemic has lent credence to an escalation in the power of states to close borders and businesses at will, while monitoring citizens with new technologies under the imprecise “public health” rationale. How much illness and death, Applebaum asks, must citizens endure until they become suspicious of the Trumpian nationalist solution? Or will diehard supporters simply be inured to the ‘authoritarian sensibility’? The choice taken will determine whether liberal democracy prevails or, like Soviet communism, becomes a historical footnote.