Friday, 5 January 2018

Good Reads

A few friends have listed their best reads as they reflect on the year gone by and the year to come. It prompted me to examine my frugal reading of the past year. I managed a mere 15 books as a result of spending more time reading news and articles on the internet. Undoubtedly the John Bew biography of 'Citizen Clem' Attlee stood out. Attlee was the PM when I was born and shaped the environment that I grew up in. The NHS, council house, new school, university education and scholarship and the profession that I joined were all products of the progressive and mainly enlightened post-war government that he led. He had no great ego, little time for the press and despised corruption. He cared deeply about the conditions of working people and had the courage and nerve to begin the dismantling of the empire.

He was not a heroic figure, nor did he have the charisma associated with his peers, most notably Churchill. What he had was the vision and determination to eradicate the worst excesses of class and privilege and the provision of better conditions and services for all the citizens. Yet he remains a largely uncelebrated man in a country that satiates on celebrity. I lent my copy to a friend who was a former History teacher who was moved to tears on completing the book. "Why do we no longer have politicians like this?" His conclusion was understandable during a year when UK politicians reached a nadir in the esteem of the electorate after the mess of Brexit and their inability to address the burning issues of housing, community care, children's services, transport, tax evasion, corporate negligence and the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

Tack forward seventy years and the political changes have been equally dramatic but in a less clement way. Mrs May has presided over the most disruptive and useless cabinet in my lifetime and has then made things worse by her inability to make decisions or direct change. Two books have captured this with differing effects. John Crace's collected diary of articles was published in I, Maybot, the term he coined to describe her robotic behaviour and the failure to have 'a plan' or to be 'strong and stable'. His starting point is factual but he drifts into a fantasy that is believable as fact and creates some comedy out of the tragedy. It was an easy read if a bit repetitive.

More disturbing was the excellent Fallout by Tim Shipman, the political editor of the Sunday Times. He dissects the outcome of the Brexit referendum in forensic detail with the help of dozens of insider interviews. In its way, it is far more critical of Mrs May's government than even the John Crace diaries and leaves you thinking how much longer can this charade continue.

As for novels, well this was a poor year, I am finding it increasingly difficult to find good reads as we are overwhelmed with books from traditional publishers as well as throngs of self-published works. Given that I have spent many months in Orkney and Shetland since retiring it is no surprise that two books set in these remote wild places became my best reads. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was probably the highlight telling the story of an Orcadian girl who moves to London, subjects herself to various addictions in Hackney before returning to the solitude and life-affirming lifestyle of Orkney on one of its most remote islands. Cold Earth is the seventh novel in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves. Her writing conjures up familiar haunts and I can visualise almost all the streets, buildings, beaches and locations described in the book. She captures the brutally wild environment, the cold weather, the warmth of the people as well as strong links to the rest of the UK. The regulatory murders are almost incidental.

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