Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Cabinet Office: 1916-2016. Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin. Biteback Publishing. 2016.

The Cabinet Office: 1916-2016, authored by Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin, offers a detailed history of the Cabinet Office from its creation during World War I up to the present as well as the eleven Cabinet Secretaries that have served as part of this constant, if somewhat hidden, presence in the otherwise changing political landscape of the UK. The book digs into the complex and difficult task of advising and supporting the Prime Minister – the necessary deal-making, crisis management and peace-making – to show the Cabinet Office’s key role in enabling accountable and responsible government,..

When reading through Anthony Seldon’s detailed exposition of the Cabinet Office from its creation in the dark days of World War I in December 1916 through to modern times, it is absorbing to relive the intricate and interwoven narratives of the adaptive Cabinet Secretaries. These have morphed into Prime Ministerial minute-takers, if not outright caretakers to their political masters, and are central in attempting to capture the essence of the Cabinet Office in its ever-changing political environment over the last century and into the present.

The focus of The Cabinet Office: 1916-2016tends to revolve around the roles of the eleven Cabinet Secretaries and their relationships with the civil service and ministers. As the current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, writes in the Foreword: ‘I’m not sure whether it was the intention, but Anthony Seldon has created in this volume a manual, a set text, on being the Cabinet Secretary.’ To that extent, it is a reader-friendly, pragmatic characterisation and set text of what constitutes the Cabinet Office, which, as with the UK parliamentary system, has been replicated across the world.

This illuminating book is at its best when demonstrating the historical methods by which the Cabinet Secretary has embodied the strategy of how to make the machine deliver for the Prime Minister when the government of the day arrives with a set of policies ready to be executed. In a perfect world, the Cabinet Secretary becomes the left side of the brain (logical, analytical and objective), while the Prime Minister is the right (intuitive, politically aware and subjective) (xxii). The book persuasively examines the Cabinet Office as the constancy in government, whereby the Cabinet Secretary in theory acts as the ‘glue’ (xviii) that has bound together diverse Departments.

Often because of the unique personalities of Prime Ministers, it might be thought a difficult task to draw any linear relationship between Maurice Hankey’s strategic far-sightedness, militaristic expertise and management of the Whitehall machine when advising Lloyd George (35) and, for example, the New Labour mastermind’s contempt for the Cabinet Office and collective decision-making by Cabinet government (274). Yet Seldon weaves through those complex, awkward relationships between Cabinet Secretaries and Prime Ministers and ministers as they face gruelling problems, leading to a fuller evaluation of the fundamental conflict implicit in the modern role of the Cabinet Secretary in that it is, at one and the same time, both a servant of the Cabinet and an adviser to the Prime Minister.
 The entrance to the Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, London, UK

All Cabinet Secretaries have been responsible to Cabinet as a whole but this has created tensions with the Prime Minister, especially those who see themselves as presidential rather than ‘first among equals’ (xx). In this respect, Seldon’s far-sighted analysis draws a balanced assessment of the New Labour administration in that their leadership position had been characterised by a failure to use a system that had worked so well for predecessor regimes in No. 10 and did again for the Coalition that followed in 2010 (275). For Seldon, Prime Ministers have been at their most effective when they have worked with the Cabinet Office and Secretary and within the conventions of Cabinet government.

Overall, the text contains an impressive array of historical assessments, including those by Hankey during the First World War – which effectively traces modern British government back to the creation of the ‘Cabinet Secretariat’ in 1916 – through to Gus O’Donnell’s management of the Coalition from 2010. I found it imperative that the authors went some way towards recognising institutional balance and did not seek to overstate the role of the Cabinet Office. For example, there are so many checks and balances upon the Prime Minister’s contemporary powers, but the Cabinet Office does not really perform that operation – and their adopted approach steers clear of those difficult pitfalls.

For better or for worse, Seldon’s assessment (in my view) confirms the critical observation that the fusion of the modern, extended Cabinet Office with No. 10 means it has developed over the decades into a sort of Prime Minister’s Department – where does one end and the other begin? In theory, given this dual responsibility, the Cabinet Office should exercise a proper role in supporting the Cabinet beyond the Prime Minister, yet wherever one sees it in action, all it tends to do is support the Prime Minister.

Seldon writes with a very intentional consideration of the impending nature of ‘events, dear boy, events’ and of personality, personal chemistry and relationships in determining the path set by Cabinet Secretaries with Prime Ministers and also the mysterious, hidden sense of contribution they have made to political history. It is a recurrent theme throughout the text – not least with the Cabinet Office developing out of World War I itself – that, as Bernard Jenkin (Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee in the House of Commons) recently said in a lecture on 19 October 2016, significant change in the civil service occurs as much as a result of events as from conscious efforts to reform. The Cabinet Office is the very reflection of that proposition. If anything, the ongoing development of the Cabinet Office has not been defined by minsters, Government modernisers, academics, politicians or by the civil service. Instead it has been directed by events and the challenges it has necessarily confronted.

As Heywood, the current Cabinet Secretary, separately wrote in December last year as this book was launched, the immediate future holds the most complex challenge to the Cabinet Office because it is set on ‘managing the exit from the European Union while continuing the day-to-day business of government and serving the public who pay for us’. Therein awaits its newest significant challenge(s), which Seldon is very much aware of, since the Cabinet Office was so deeply involved in managing UK-EU relations from the outset.

Seldon’s defining objective has been achieved in this book. He exposes the unenviable, deeply political role of advising and supporting the Prime Minister characterised by behind-the-scenes deal-making, crisis-managing, political-fixing, war-managing and peace-making. While such a role has featured heavily in enabling credible and responsible government, his assessment leaves the impression that the Cabinet Office is a mediating institution; a Prime Ministerial glue; more a necessary catalyst than a protagonist in the creation of modern government.

John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? Reappraising John Major. Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams (eds). Biteback Publishing. 2017.

In John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? Reappraising John Major, editors Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams offer a balanced reappraisal of the tumultuous years of the Major government, challenging perceptions of the former Prime Minister as simply an interlude between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. While the volume could have included more on the Major’s government approach to foreign policy, Robert Ledger praises this as a valuable addition to the historiography of late-twentieth-century British politics.

It is now over twenty years since John Major left office as British Prime Minister. Often an outgoing administration’s reputation is miserable. This was particularly the case for the Major government, dragged down by a media onslaught, corruption and sleaze scandals, Conservative in-fighting over Europe and a public perception of economic incompetence. This stubbornly low standing – not helped by historians’ tendencies to view Major as an interlude between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – has only recently started to improve, in part following the 2014 and 2016 referendum campaigns, where he advocated long-held beliefs in statesman-like fashion and received significant – and mostly deferential – media coverage. John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? succeeds in providing a more balanced reappraisal of the tumultuous years of the Major government, repositioning him as an ‘honest, decent and competent Prime Minister’.

An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? provides a broad overview of Major’s premiership, covering a wide range of themes and policy areas. Some – such as sports, arts and the National Lottery – have received far less attention than others, like Black Wednesday or the Maastricht Treaty. The chapter on rail privatisation will be of particular interest for Britain’s frsutrated commuters, who may well reply negatively to the closing question: ‘Was it really worth the trouble?’ (193). Major’s instincts on this issue, to return to a ‘Big Four’ regional system, appear to have been a missed opportunity.

The Major government’s economic reputation was shattered after the humiliation of Black Wednesday in September 1992, forcing sterling out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Despite Chancellor Ken Clarke’s safe stewardship of a growing, low-inflationary economy from 1993 up until New Labour’s victory in May 1997, the Conservatives were chastened for much of this period. As the book aptly details, much of this was due to the open civil war – fuelled by the media – that Black Wednesday catalysed in the Tory ranks. Despite Major’s skillful negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty (85), the subsequent ratification process emboldened a generation of Eurosceptics. The book also underscores some wider economic themes. Despite the windfall years of globalisation in the 1990s, the Conservative government struggled to deal with Britain’s long-term structural economic problems. The legacy of both the Conservative’s contortions over Europe and questions over the British economy’s place in a globalising world are, of course, still with us today.
Image Credit: Sir John Major, ‘The Referendum on Europe: Opportunity or Threat?’, Chatham House, 14 February 2013 (Chatham House CC BY 2.0)

A study of the Major years would not be complete without consideration of the Labour Party in the 1990s, particularly after Blair became leader. Here, the book tells a story of both confrontation and continuity. The amount of tax collected as a fraction of GDP declined between 1990 and 1997 (150). New Labour consistently criticised the state of Britain’s public services, a tactic that appeared to reap rich electoral rewards in 1997. For Major and Clarke, it was a ‘voteless recovery’ (157). The Major government was savaged by both the media and Labour for ‘sleaze’ and rising crime. Nevertheless, Major’s ‘Citizen’s Charter’ principles, as well as much of his education and health ‘choice’ agenda, were co-opted by the Blair government. The media environment of the era also looms large in the book. The sophisticated New Labour ‘spin’ operation that developed during the Major years, fuelling the flames of Conservative misery and shielding the Labour Party from similar damage, became a long-standing criticism of the Blair and Brown governments.

Major was a strong supporter of the union and wary of devolution in Scotland and Wales as a path towards separatism (56-57). This topic is discussed across several chapters and will provide readers with an interesting reappraisal from the retrospect of twenty years. The Northern Ireland peace process is another key policy area covered in some detail in An Unsuccessful Prime Minister?. John Major receives much praise for his role, and was willing to commit more political capital to this issue than virtually any other British Prime Minister, laying the groundwork for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (138).

John Major’s tenure as Prime Minister coincided with a number of structural changes in British society. An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? contextualises the Major government in terms of these trends, including the acceleration of a globalised world economy and the liberalisation of social attitudes. In addition, much of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ can be seen in Major’s civic conservatism. Major was part continuation of Thatcherism, part gateway to New Labour, part ‘balancer’ during a testing period in British politics. Indeed, the book suggests he may have been the last ‘authentic’ Conservative Prime Minister (50).

John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? covers a wide range of policy areas in its 22 short chapters. As such, it works very well as an overview of the Major years, but can leave the reader wanting more on some topics. Foreign policy, for instance, is only touched upon briefly. The assertion in ‘An Overall Assessment’ that Major ‘was an equally steady and resolute leader over Bosnia’ (328) is highly contentious. Britain’s under-examined, and potentially catastrophic, policies towards a disintegrating Yugoslavia (as well as genocide in Rwanda) require further analysis and discussion. Although this is summarised well in the short chapter on foreign policy, at least another on this area would have been useful. Likewise, three short chapters written by other politicians of the era seem rather unnecessary. John Redwood’s self-satisfied ‘View From the Right’ in particular evades the balance found in the rest of the book.

In summary, John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? is an excellent addition to the historiography of late-twentieth-century British politics. It will appeal to the general reader, as well as to students and academics. Historians have skipped merrily from one hugely polarising figure (Thatcher) to another (Blair), paying only scant attention to the Major government. The current work on the 1990s often focuses on New Labour’s rise to power or provides memoirs and biographies, such as Anthony Seldon’s Major: A Political Life. This new book is a worthy addition to the still-developing literature.

How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again). Nick Clegg. Bodley Head. 2017.

Product Details

In How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again)Nick Clegg offers a short, accessible book seeking to persuade the ambivalent or undecided as to why Brexit should be stopped; to suggest what the average voter can do about it; and to propose an alternative model for relations between Britain and Europe. This is an engaging and lively read with a number of thought-provoking suggestions, nevertheless  questions arise whether the book will succeed in its aim to change minds when it comes to this divisive issue. 
Nick Clegg’s new book, How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again), caters primarily to the many ‘Remain’ voters who have been asking themselves a very similar question ever since 23 June 2016. Clegg, former leader of the pro-European Union Liberal Democrats and — until the 2017 General Election — MP for Sheffield Hallam, puts forward a number of suggestions as to how Brexit, or at least the hard or cliff-edge variety, might be prevented by citizen action.
Clegg has well-known and often-articulated pro-European views, so one could probably conclude that this book is aimed at Remainers. This is not, however, Clegg’s stated objective. The book is ‘mainly for those people who don’t hold their views for or against Brexit especially strongly’, and ‘who voted for Brexit knowing exactly what they were doing […] but who now see that Brexit is not turning out the way they were promised’ (2). Clegg wants to change these voters’ minds, for ‘there is nothing wrong with revisiting a decision’ (1).
This short, accessible, book is set out into a number of sections: a broad-ranging analysis of Britain’s relationship with the EU to date; why Brexit should be stopped; what the average voter can do about it; and an alternative model for Britain and Europe. Yet, Clegg has no doubt that Britain will remain close to the EU, however Brexit works out:
in the end, a simple truth will prevail: we are condemned by history and geography to be allies, neighbours and friends sharing the same space, the same seas, the same continent and the same values (137).
The historical analysis of Britain’s at-times awkward relationship with the EU will be familiar to many readers. Nevertheless, it provides an informative overview. British policymakers in the 1960s and 1970s saw the European Economic Community as a collective based upon trade, and through a transactional and un-ideological lens. Britain never had the same attachment to the project due to events of the Second World War. When the EU integrated more deeply and expanded ever wider, a hardcore rump of British nationalists, conservatives and Thatcherites — however unfaithful this interpretation is to the Iron Lady’s actual views towards Europe — mounted a long campaign of insurgency to withdraw the UK from the European club. Despite Clegg’s earlier ambition, this analysis will probably already diverge sharply from many of the narratives harboured by Brexiteers. They may also point to — as anti-EU opinion sees it — a ‘democratic deficit’, the stifling effect of European bureaucracy and the assault to British parliamentary sovereignty.
The 2016 referendum, why it was called and the conduct of the campaign are also discussed. The Leave Campaign’s claim that the NHS, once Britain was outside of the EU, would gain £350 million a week is one of several used to demonstrate that the British people were sold a false prospectus. Clegg also discusses the assertion that Brexit is an anti-establishment endeavour, stating that the referendum campaign was financed by a shadowy cabal of business people and financiers: ‘wealthy individuals with personal motives’ (135). These are described as the ‘Brexit elite’ (63). We also learn about the negative impact that Brexit, particularly the no-deal version, is likely to have.
Having ascertained that EU membership is in Britain’s interests and that the referendum was fought on a disputed, if not outright dubious, set of promises, the former Deputy Prime Minister sets out how Brexit can be averted. His main points for action revolve around political engagement. Voters are encouraged to join either Labour or the Conservatives, and then lobby its politicians in a pro-European direction. Although this is admirably non-partisan — indeed, both parties’ leaderships are correctly described as being, at best, lukewarm towards the EU — it may come as a surprise to readers that they are not advised to join Clegg’s own Liberal Democrats, who, after all, are the most pro-EU of the mainstream parties. Clegg writes that ‘if 1 in 100 Remain voters were to join the Conservative Party, they would outnumber the current membership of the party’ (103). On the other hand, a quick check of the numbers also shows that if 1 in 35 Remain voters joined the Liberal Democrats, it would become Britain’s largest political party and surely exert more influence than is currently the case. That Clegg avoids partisanship is refreshing compared to the literary work of most politicians. It is nonetheless curious that the author, by and large, does not involve his own party in his strategy.
Finally, Clegg sets out a possible future arrangement between Britain and the EU, and it is this section that readers will find most thought-provoking. Short of full, core, EU membership, the UK could sit in an outer ‘concentric ring’. This is, more or less, the current – if unacknowledged – de facto situation in Europe, where different countries sign up, a la carte, to the various EU initiatives. The idea has influential proponents, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and ex-German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Angela Merkel has also signalled she might be open to this kind of arrangement, at least in principle. Clegg moreover suggests that a new relationship could be (according to the concentric circles idea) arranged via a joint UK-EU Convention and co-chaired by, for instance, Sir John Major and current Dutch Prime Minister (and a friend of Clegg’s) Mark Rutte. Major would be an ‘honest broker’ and has previous experience negotiating at the European level: for instance, the Maastricht Treaty (122-24).
How to Stop Brexit (and Make Britain Great Again) will appeal to the general reader — it is written in an engaging and lively manner, and makes a number of thought-provoking suggestions. Whether it will be of interest to those who support Brexit or will achieve its stated intention of changing people’s minds is less certain. There are currently a host of books being published on Brexit, from analysis of the machinations of the 2016 campaign to proposals for the various future directions for Britain and the EU. Nick Clegg’s book provides a fast-paced commentary on the topic. The nature of the subject, however, means that it will not be for most Leave voters, and will struggle to break through the echo chambers that have emerged around the EU issue.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece by Stephen Fry (Michael Joseph)

Product Details

Mythos review – the Greek myths get the Stephen Fry treatment.Fry’s retellings have stiff competition, are limited in selection and sometimes appear to be set in North London. But they have real charm. Engaging, fluent prose .People who enjoy Fry's media personality and particular style of post-Wodehouse English drollery are in for a treat

Ever since William Godwin persuaded Charles Lamb to retell The Odyssey as a novel for younger readers in The Adventures of Ulysses (1808), the myths of ancient Greece have been retold in contemporary prose by every generation. Most of these retellings were originally poetry – the epics of Hesiod, Homer and the philhellene Latin poet Ovid, the Athenian tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – in Mythos, Stephen Fry has narrated a selection of them in engaging and fluent prose. But do we need another version of the Greek myths in an already crowded market? Such treasured collections as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales (1853), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes (1942) and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths (1955) are still in print. Countless family car journeys are enlivened by Simon Russell Beale’s audiobook of Atticus the Storyteller’s 100 Greek Myths. So should a reader looking for an initiation into the thrilling world of the ancient Greek imagination choose Fry’s book?

One reason to do so is that Fry is unusually sensitive to the contemporary resonance in myths about gay gods and heroes and the transgender Hermaphroditus. But his subtitle “The Greek Myths Retold” is misleading; it implies a certain comprehensiveness. In fact he has selected a rather small group of stories. They derive mostly from Hesiod’s Theogony (the birth of the gods and the creation of the first few generations of humans), Apuleius’s Latin novel The Golden Ass (Cupid and Psyche), and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Arachne, Midas, Echo and Narcissus). Disappointment awaits readers expecting the myth cycles centring on Troy and Odysseus, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Jason, Medea and the Argonauts, Heracles’ labours, Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda or the Theban royal house of Oedipus and Antigone. Fry’s collection is the equivalent of a book advertising itself as retelling “the stories from Shakespeare” that leaves out Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Julius Caesar, Romeo, Juliet and Henry V. Since there is no contents page, nor even an index, the eccentricity of his choice of myths would not be immediately apparent to a shopper browsing in a bookstore.

Yet Fry’s ear is finely tuned to the quaint tonality of some of his ancient sources. This is best revealed in his retelling of two Homeric Hymns, to Demeter and Hermes. They deal respectively with the abduction of teenage Persephone and the theft by the newborn Hermes of his big brother Apollo’s cattle. Fry’s distinctive voice undoubtedly adds something lively, humorous and intimate to myth’s psychological dimension. People who enjoy his media personality and particular style of post‑Wodehouse English drollery are in for a treat. He tells us that he imagines Hera, queen of the gods, “hurling china ornaments at feckless minions”. Ares, god of war, “was unintelligent of course, monumentally dense”. Baby Hermes tells Maia: “Get on with your spinning or knitting or whatever it is, there’s a good mother.” Epaphus, child of Zeus and Io, “was always so maddeningly blasé about his pedigree”.

Dialogue is Fry’s great strength, his wit demonstrated in the episode he has invented where an infant Artemis cajoles her “daddy” Zeus into promising her a whole series of presents. This enables Fry to explain her divine attributes: a bow and arrows, a short practical tunic, hunting dogs, choirs of maidens, protection from men and, of course, the moon. Fry’s gods and heroes exchange banter in an endearing style resembling his own posh but colloquial metropolitan argot. Indeed, despite his excellent knowledge of the topography of Greece, especially the Olympus mountains, that informs the narrative, the episodes themselves often feel as if they are set in north London: Cadmus and Harmonia, who Fry tells us today might be called an “iconic power couple”, watch the lethal combat between the Thebans sown from the dragon’s teeth “like a frantic parent on the touchline watching their son being squashed in a scrum”.

Sometimes the charm of Fry’s rather domesticated mythical world comes at a price. He tells stories about love and children and animal metamorphosis with grace, but is less successful dealing with grand elemental or heroic themes such as the emergence of the universe from cosmic chaos, or the philanthropy, heroism and terrible punishment of Prometheus. He tends to play down the horror of the primal power struggles and violence in his sources: Kronos has “an unkind habit of eating anyone prophesied to conquer him”. Perhaps this explains why Fry has kept away from the legends of quest, war, politics and kin-murder that are the stuff of the major mythical cycles.

This leaves the question as to the intended audience. Fry insists eloquently in his foreword that the dazzling Greek myths are for everyone and require no traditional classical education whatsoever. He has a touching mission to inform the public about some relatively arcane issues of classical scholarship: as might be expected in a celebrity who has chaired television quiz shows on etymology and quirky facts, he often explains the meaning of Greek or Latin terms, or appends learned footnotes that provide historical or cultural details to illuminate the meaning of a myth. But he also reveals that he was introduced to them as a child, so does he see children as his primary audience? If so, although the book reproduces 34 famous illustrations of myths from classical art and old masters, he has to compete with some exquisite illustrated children’s versions, notably Marcia Williams’s evergreen Greek Myths (1991), my own children’s runaway favourite. But I have already heard from schoolteachers at both primary and secondary level that the accompanying audiobook, in which he reads his versions himself, is going down well in the classroom. This applies especially to the Ovidian tales in the second half of the collection. Despite my reservation about the book’s limited coverage of the teeming world of Greek mythology, it is commendable to see the well-loved Fry put his fame to such constructive use.


Bantam by Jackie Kay ( Picador )

Bantam by Jackie Kay review – home truths from a goddess of small things.Jackie Kay depicts a world of grief, joy, love and humour in the sparest terms. ‘Who could resist a poem called Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk?’

This collection is a pick-me-up – fresh, upbeat and sympathetic. The tone is partly a matter of temperament. Jackie Kay writes about the past with uncommon spirit. She makes you realise how often poetry that looks backwards is written with a dead hand, how often, in memorialising verse, the unsmilingly elegiac obtains. She, by contrast, is loving, non-reverential and interested in the human predicament – in being quick not dead. Remembering the novelist Julia Darling in Hereafter Julia she exclaims: “Why – even dead, Julia, you’re still the life and soul.” And if you read the Guardian obituary Kay wrote about her friend, this is confirmed as she quotes Darling declaring she was “in no pain unless she tried to dance the hokey cokey”.

When Jackie Kay closes one door, she opens another. There is a long poem, Threshold, about life’s doors and the collection can be considered in terms of its exits and entrances. She holds open a door into Scotland, imagines friends and refugees in a “building of pure poetry”. But having your heart in the right place would be no good were your pen to stray. Hers does not. Her poems are clear, skilfully engineered, and Threshold ends in an exuberant outbreak of foreign tongues before settling down into: “Wan patter is naer enough.” I am intrigued by the way Scottish dialect dresses – sometimes redresses – its subjects. How successful the national costume proves. Take A Day Like Today, which describes the sort of duff day that might seem past redemption. It begins: “If every there wis a day/A doon about the mooth day…” One wonders why “doon about the mooth” is so much perkier than “down in the mouth”. In plain English, the poem would be plainer, the day less worth recording. Perhaps it is the taste – the trace – of Burns, bracing as malt whisky.

Small – essential that the poem itself be small – is a good example of Kay’s understanding that less can be more. It is a measure of her attractive poetic maturity that overstatement is resisted, that simple measures suffice. Smallness features elsewhere too – in Bantam, the nickname for the short soldier her grandfather once was. And the second stanza of Welcome Wee One begins: “O ma darlin wee one/The hale world welcomes ye…”

But Kay is as assured taking on the “hale world”. In Planet Farage, she takes aim at Ukip: “We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it./No trees, no plants, no immigrants./No foreign nurses, no doctors; we smashed it.” She smashes it – an entertaining and deadly bull’s eye. Kay’s adoptive parents, John and Helen Kay, would have approved. He worked for the Communist party, she was the Scottish secretary of CND and in April Sunshine she writes a protest poem about protesters, presumably her parents, now elderly patients in a hospital, no longer recognised for the things that make them tick: worthy vitriol, a passion for social justice. Yet what makes the poem refreshing is that instead of tub-thumping to the bitter end, she lets April sunshine, a neutral blessing, bookend the poem.

There are so many delightful poems here. I loved Perfume, about trying in vain to make scent out of rose petals (I recognise the futile enterprise from childhood), and who could resist a poem with the title Would Jane Eyre Come to the Information Desk? Silver Moon is another fine poem about the now closed feminist bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road: “And by the silvery light of the bookshop you grew up/By the open door, standing alone, together.” Another of Kay’s splendid doors in this welcoming – and welcome – gathering.

It’s always the small that
gets you, a wee act
of kindness, the tiniest detail,
a stranger’s caress,
your heart, the way you react
when faced with the trials.
The gift of a bluebell, an embrace,
Oh – the yellow gorse,
the small brown foals,
the crows lined up
from the train window.
Beauty, inches close to sorrow


Saturday, November 25, 2017

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel Ages 3-5 44 pages Chronicle August 2016 Hardcover (IBRChildrensBooks)

Wenzel’s picture book is about perception. As a cat “with whiskers, ears, and paws” wanders from his home to a pond, he encounters a variety of animals and insects (even a worm).

The illustrations reflect what the cat looks like through their eyes. For example, the mouse sees a cat that is large and ferocious. His nails and teeth are long, exposed, and sharp! He appears against a red background scattered with black spikes. The mouse’s fear clouds his perception.

From a flea’s perspective, there is a lot of long fur. The cat’s head is small and far away. The fish sees a cat which appears to be in a haze, and the bird’s view of the cat is from above. The illustration shows the back of the cat. Because the cat stays out overnight, he also encounters a skunk and a bat. Echolocation is represented by dots.

Wenzel, who used numerous drawing materials to achieve the different looks, combines them all in a double-page spread which shows the one cat pieced together with all these views. By the time the cat gets to the pond, the author asks a question that children will surely be able to answer.

This story has repetition, and lots of animals. It will get children thinking about vision and how all living things experience the world. The book could segue into talking about self-perception as well, especially with older children.

The Christopher Columbus story for kids : A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus (Picture Book Biography) Paperbackby David A. Adler (Author),‎ Alexandra Wallner (Illustrator),‎ John Wallner (Illustrator) (ages 2-5). Published by Holiday House; Charles Scribner's Sons ; Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus Hardcover – September 9, 2003 by Peter Sis (Author, Illustrator); Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers;Columbus by Edgar Parin D'Aulaire (Illustrator),‎ Ingri D'Aulaire (Illustrator), Published by Beautiful Feet Books (IBRChildrensBooks)

First Grade History: All About Christopher Columbus Paperback by Baby Professor . Published by Baby Professor 

All hail to the man who discovered America and placed it in the map. If it weren’t for Christopher Columbus, America wouldn’t be known throughout the world. Do you know how he made such astonishing discovery? This book tells his tale, in all facts and no fiction. 

Some books To Read With Kids About Christopher Columbus

Before we raze the memory of Christopher Columbus, we might wish to know why many generations considered him a great man despite his sins.

Christopher Columbus has been a controversial figure ever since he began petitioning European kings to fund his fantastical dream of finding a western passage to the Orient. The best antidote to bumper-sticker politics is knowledge. If your kids aren’t learning anything about Columbus, or what they’re learning is largely negative, here are some well-regarded books that give an age-appropriate, holistic picture of his life and times.

I’ve presented them in order from most appropriate for youngest to older kids. The age ranges are approximate, and geared at families who read to their kids semi-regularly and would read an article about Christopher Columbus books for kids, which is sadly above-average parenting these days. The younger the age range, the more likely Columbus will be presented for his accomplishments rather than his sins, but the better books for older readers also present the crucial psychological and historical context to understand his susceptibility to abuse of power once he attained it, how greed and pride paved the way, and mitigating factors such as him being forced to crew his ships with criminals, court politics, and the vicious attacks of indigenous people on him and similar explorers.

By the way, parents, I’ve learned that reading with my children is a great way to educate myself, as well. These books have something for all ages. Even a picture book can refresh your memory on the bullet points of a historical timeline or figure.

A Picture Book of Christopher Columbus (Picture Book Biography) Paperbackby David A. Adler  (Author),‎ Alexandra Wallner (Illustrator),‎ John Wallner (Illustrator) (ages 2-5). Published by Holiday House

This is the simplest Seuss for youngest use. Actually it’s not Seuss at all, I couldn’t resist a reference. David Adler has written a series of beginner biographies that are good to read out loud to the smallest people and great for beginning readers to read aloud to you. This is his Christopher Columbus book, and it should be available easily at your local library. Read the others if you like this one. I find it a little simple for my tastes but my beginning readers especially appreciate the series and the text to picture ratio is good for toddlers also.

The Columbus Story (ages 3-8)

Alice Dalgliesh is a famous children’s author from the golden age of children’s literature in approximately the 1950s. You are probably familiar with her “Courage of Sarah Noble” and “Bears on Hemlock Mountain.” “The Columbus Story” is out of print and can be hard to find to purchase, but I hunted one up in the used books pile at a local teacher’s store and copies would be available at a good library. If you see her name at a used book sale, get the book. (And if you are lucky enough to thrift up duplicates, send your extras to me!)

The Columbus Story Library Binding by Alice Dalgliesh (Author),‎ Leo Politi (Illustrator), Published by Charles Scribner's Sons . The first edition was published in 1955 and still very much a classic .

Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, (ages 4-8)

The best thing about this book by Peter Sis is the artwork quality, which is unusual for picture books, as the trend nowadays is to give children garbage art to look at. This is also popular and should be at any decent library. It won a New York Times award for children’s book illustrations.

Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus Hardcover – September 9, 2003
by Peter Sis (Author, Illustrator);  Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Columbus (ages 5-12)

Edgar and Ingri D’Aulaire emigrated to the United States as artists and illustrators in the 1920s, turning their talents to children’s books at a publisher’s request. They wrote and illustrated several historical biographies, including of Pocahantas. Their illustrations are striking. For younger children “Columbus,” and the D’Aulaire books in general, is a good read-aloud, and a good self-read for kids at approximately a fourth-grade reading level or better.

Columbus  by Edgar Parin D'Aulaire (Illustrator),‎ Ingri D'Aulaire (Illustrator), Published by Beautiful Feet Books

Meet Christopher Columbus (ages 6-10)

This is a modern update to the famous Landmark history series, written at about the length and in the style of an age-appropriate novel. The writing is very engaging and perfect for a child to read on his or her own with little encouragement needed. If your child (or you) likes this one, you will have started an excellent and luckily cheap habit to feed, as the paperbacks are very thrift-friendly at something like $3.50-$5 a pop.

This Country of Ours (ages 8-adult)

This is slightly a cheat, as it is an early history of the entire United States that has two chapters on Columbus bookended by the stories of the explorers before and after him, including an explanation of how America took its name from a man who didn’t first discover it that is perfectly history — essentially a random happenstance. You can get a copy on Amazon , or read it free online here.

Author Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall was a Victorian-era popular writer of national histories aimed at children, most famously “Our Island Story,” a child’s history of her native England. The reading is entertaining yet thorough, and again engaging enough to be read aloud to children or for pleasure by adults. It is my current nightstand book.

Columbus  by Edgar Parin D'Aulaire (Illustrator),‎ Ingri D'Aulaire (Illustrator), Published by Beautiful Feet Books, Yesterdays Classics

The World of Columbus and Sons (ages 12-adult)

Genevieve Foster was another famous female historian, mostly publishing in the 1930s and ’40s, who illustrated her own books. She was a four-time runner-up for the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, and the U.S. State Department translated and distributed her books across the world. Beautiful Feet Books is reprinting many of her 19 books, including “The World of Columbus and Sons.” Foster’s approach to history was to give as comprehensive a picture as she could of the interrelated events and figures that contributed to certain periods, and it makes for a gripping read.

The World of Columbus and Sons Paperback – Unabridged, April 1, 1998 by Genevieve Foster (Author, Illustrator) Published by Beautiful Feet Press

Animals Are Delicious illustrated by Dave Ladd and Stephanie Anderson Ages 3-8 48 pages Phaidon Press May 2016 Board book (#IBRChildrensBooks)

Open up the three six-foot long accordion-style board books in this series to learn how animals get their food. One book is set in the forest, another in the ocean, and the last is about animals in the sky.

The forest book has a green cover and begins,
All around the forest, everyone is hungry. The wild strawberries sweeten in the sun. They turn sunshine into food. But someone nearby is hungry…a slug! The leopard slug eats the sweet strawberries, but someone else is hungry…a beetle. The ellipsis at the end of every sentence on every page builds anticipation for the answer which is revealed as the next panel is unfolded. All the books follow this pattern. The ocean one begins with hungry green algae, and the sky one starts with an elm tree’s leaves. The animals in each book get progressively larger, and end with a bobcat (forest), a killer whale (ocean), and a great horned owl (sky). Long arrows on the page point in the direction of the next panel to read.

Ladd and Anderson’s illustrations look like diorama sets. The animals are toys, and they stay in place with visible strings. The leaves, tree branches, and seaweed are made of paper. None of the scenes show the animals killing or eating one another, but they do appear in their natural habitat. On the back of the panels, there are black-and-white illustrations of the same animals. Beside each drawing is a list of other things they eat. “Leopard seals eat: krill, Antarctic silverfish, squid.” Each book ends with a one-page summary of additional information about the animals’ diets.

The design of this book is eye-catching. Children who don’t like books may like these because they unfold to be bigger than them, and every page ends with an omitted word. This prompts them to guess the next bigger animal. This is a fun-to-handle trio of books, and not scary for children because the focus is on survival and dependence

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Masses of Seán and Peadar Ó Riada: Explorations in Vernacular Chant by John O’Keeffe (Cork University Press)

Some 25 years after the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, the people of a small village perched on the edge of the Atlantic gathered at a farewell meal for their outgoing parish priest. In the course of the evening, various contributors voiced their appreciation of all that had been achieved during his time amongst them. Two principal themes emerged. The first was that the parish was soon to have a new church, a new place to pray, of which all were understandably proud. Coming a surprisingly close second was the community’s sense of gratitude for the fact that the priest had taught them to sing .

A new way to pray – this was a theme very close to the hearts of the Vatican II reformers as they welcomed vernacular languages and increased community involvement in the liturgy. Attention had also been focused from the outset on the musical heritage of individual peoples, with a view to identifying elements of worship which could be adapted to their native genius. In the spring of 1968, a number of Irish church musicians gathered in Glenstal Abbey to discuss the implications of the recently-promulgated Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram, which included the following reflections on the challenges ahead:

Adapting sacred music for those regions which possess a musical tradition of their own….will require a very specialized preparation…It will be a question in fact of how to harmonise the sense of the sacred with the spirit, traditions and characteristic expressions proper to each of these peoples. Those who work in this field should have a sufficient knowledge both of the liturgy and musical tradition of the Church, and of the language, popular songs and other characteristic expressions of the people for whose benefit they are working.

Seán Ó Riada: his church music has forged a unique place in the spiritual imagination of the Irish people

As one of the panellists of the Glenstal symposium, Ó Riada would have noted this paragraph with particular interest. Five years earlier, he had obtained a music lectureship at University College Cork, and taken the decision to embrace fully all aspects of native Irish culture by moving his family to the west Cork Gaeltacht area of Cúil Aodha. The following year he had formed a church choir of local men (later to become known as Cór Chúil Aodha), many of them accomplished traditional singers, and together they had been working on a combination of traditional Latin chants and a growing body of native vernacular religious texts for which Ó Riada provided musical settings. These settings drew increasingly on the vibrant tradition of song for which the area was renowned and which provided the composer with a working, living language.

In his essay, Ó Riada at Glenstal Abbey, the Benedictine monk Dom Paul McDonnell recounts how, for the Christmas of 1968, he sent a greeting card to Ó Riada, the main illustration of which was the plainchant melody of a Gospel acclamation for long in use in the monastic liturgy. “By return of post,” he recalls, “he sent a plain postcard on which he had scribbled the Our Father in Irish, set to his own music.”

Seán Ó Riada’s Ár nAthair: reckoned to be the composer’s “first essay in liturgical music”

The hand-written setting, marked “go mall, oscailte, sean-nósach”, is quite clearly in traditional Irish song style. The significance of this exchange between the monk and the musician is difficult to overstate. McDonnell sends, from the heart of the Latin tradition, a hallowed chant from the Church’s universal canon, while in response, Ó Riada sends, from the heart of the Gaeltacht, his own musical setting of the Lord’s Prayer, as realised in the distinctive rhythms of Irish prose.

The nature of Ó Riada’s reply certainly bespoke a confidence, perhaps not so much in his own abilities as in the artistic richness and potential of the native tradition. The composition itself, comprised of living musical gestures expertly woven into the unique textual structure of this pre-eminent Christian prayer, managed to distil within a few bars the essence of what might be possible in the future interplay of two rich traditions.

As things turned out, this setting, which McDonnell reckoned to be the composer’s “first essay in liturgical music”, and which lay at the heart of his immensely popular Mass, Ceol an Aifrinn, was to mark the beginning of a process, initiated by the composer and continued to this day in the work of his son Peadar Ó Riada, an organic development which has already produced a sizeable body of Irish vernacular settings for the liturgy.

The Masses of Seán and Peadar Ó Riada: Explorations in Vernacular Chant considers the compositional significance of this output. Published in the 50th anniversary year of the Vatican II instruction Musicam Sacram, it examines in detail the contents of Ceol an Aifrinn, together with those of the composer’s Aifreann 2 (written for the Benedictines at Glenstal Abbey) and Aifreann Eoin na Croise, written by Peadar Ó Riada for the Carmelite community of Clarendon Street.

The material, presented in musical score and on an accompanying CD, is considered from the following perspectives: as emanating from a living culture of native traditional song; as part of a historical continuum of monophonic liturgical composition for the Roman rite; as part of a broader aesthetic context of text-music relationships found in the repertoires of plainchant, medieval song and folksong; and finally, as part of the new liturgical reality brought about by the reforms of Vatican II.

The book assesses the achievements of both composers, measuring their work against the heritage, discipline and compositional principles of western plainchant, and heralding its significance as a model for contemporary vernacular liturgical music. Particular light is shed on the work of Peadar Ó Riada, who, of the two composers, is shown to be the more profoundly “traditional” in his approach.

Over the past 50 years, Ó Riada’s church music has forged a unique place in the spiritual imagination of the Irish people. The majestic strains of Ag Críost an síol express and celebrate a richly-inclusive vision of human life from the seed to the harvest, from the womb to the tomb and beyond, and phrases such as “i líonta Dé go gcastar sinn” may, for instance, be found on seaboard memorials from Portmagee to Killybegs.

For its own part, almost five decades later, the confident, uplifting strains of Seán Ó Riada’s Ár nAthair continue to resound in parishes throughout Ireland, forging a unique bridge between speech and song, music and liturgy, earth and heaven.

John O’Keeffe, a native of Portmagee, is Director of Sacred Music at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth and Director of Choral Groups at Maynooth University. An early version of this article first appeared in Brendan Leahy and Salvador Ryan (eds), Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Places, Images and Texts (Dublin: Veritas, 2012). The Masses of Seán and Peadar Ó Riada: Explorations in Vernacular Chant is published by Cork University Press.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Environmental Documentary: Cinema Activism in the 21st Century. John A. Duval. Bloomsbury Academic. 2017

Environmental Documentary: Cinema Activism in the 21st Century, John A. Duval offers a comprehensive survey of recent environmental documentary films, covering such topics as climate change, peak oil, food and water politics and animal extinction. This is an accessible introduction to the genre, with a passionate commitment to the environment that makes it a work of activism in itself. 
John Duval’s book, The Environmental Documentary: Cinema Activism in the 21stCentury, presents the reader with a comprehensive catalogue of environmental films ranging from well-known documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to lesser known activist films such as Garbage Warrior (2007). The selection of films included in the book’s 320 pages is impressive, making it a valuable resource for any researcher or film enthusiast seeking an introduction to the environmental documentary genre. As such, the author succeeds in fulfilling his intentions, which are clearly set out in the introduction – namely, to survey ‘many of the outstanding examples of recent environmental documentary films’ and to prompt readers to ‘take the next step and actually watch some of these informative and important films’ (2).
The book is structured according to the overarching issues dominating environmental debates. These include topics such as climate change, peak oil, pollution and waste, food and water as well as animal extinction. The first chapter presents a basic introduction to documentary as a genre. Although remaining on the surface of documentary debates, some of the major concepts are highlighted. John Grierson’s famous definition of documentary as the ‘creative treatment of fact’ is, for example, briefly highlighted in relation to the genre’s ‘privileged relationship to reality’ (7-9).

This is followed by a summary of the decision-making processes of the documentary filmmaker. Although this section of the book at times reads as very basic material, it offers learners useful information as to what it takes to produce a documentary film. This is followed by a discussion of what it actually means when we talk about the environment. Here, Duval traces the historical development of environmental concerns. In this way the author illustrates that, contrary to popular belief, environmental awareness has always been part of the US social and political landscape. The environmental concerns of Thomas Malthus are mentioned, while the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the two World Wars as well as the increased reliance of the United States on fossil fuels and corporate interests all draw a clear historical outline of the issues within which environmental documentary has found its activist niche.

Image Credit: Still from documentary Histories del Chapapote, Stéphane M. Grueso, 2003

Following on from this, the second chapter presents the reader with the development of so-called ‘ecocritical perspectives’, which seek to situate environmental films as a central tool for the environmentally conscious activist. ‘Ecocinema’ as a concept is appropriately highlighted at this point, thereby underscoring the multifaceted nature of the environmental filmmaker as researcher, film practitioner and environmental activist. In this regard, Duval aptly invokes the words of Paula Willoquet-Maricondi that ecocinema:

overtly strives to inspire personal and political action on the part of viewers, stimulating our thinking so as to bring about concrete changes in the choices we make, daily and in the long run, as individuals and as societies, locally and globally (26).

This chapter offers the reader a more detailed overview regarding the genre’s relationship to scholarship – a dimension that becomes less apparent in subsequent chapters.

The third chapter focuses on the development of environmental documentary within the historical framework set out in Chapter One. Duval briefly traces the development of the genre prior to the turn of the century. Films such as The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936), The Living Desert (1953) and Animal Farm (1981) receive special mention as canonical texts paving the way for the development of a recognised documentary genre.

The following chapters are all structured according to the various environmental concerns prevalent in the twenty-first century. Before discussing the specific films grouped within the scope of each chapter, Duval briefly introduces each relevant issue by contextualising it in the contemporary political climate. In this regard, his discussion on climate change is particularly engaging and strongly reflects the author’s activist spirit. Here, one of the most influential environmental films of our time, An Inconvenient Truth, receives specific attention, with the discussion of Al Gore’s documentary notably spanning seventeen pages (on average, the discussions of other films range from two to six pages).

Duval’s approach is intended to give an outline regarding the key themes in each film as well as its critical reception by audiences and reviewers; it is not intended to engage with existing scholarship or filmic debates dominating discussions of the canon nor offer detailed sequence analysis of key moments with regard to mise-en-scène or decision-making processes. The value of the book is rather that of a chronicle illustrating the development of the genre within popular reception, with each discussion concluding with an overview of critical responses to the films on popular websites, in journals and in newspapers.

Particularly interesting is the tenth and final chapter entitled ‘Direct Activism and Community’. Given the subtitle of the book, some readers would expect this chapter to be included earlier so as to centralise the filmmaker’s role as activist in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, it highlights in a thought-provoking fashion how the production of environmental films can, despite claims to the contrary, make a concrete difference to the environmental causes they support. This is significant since, as Duval rightly notes, the impact of environmental film is often dismissed by its detractors as a genre based on fear-mongering that fails to offer possible solutions to the problems uncovered. The films discussed in this section include the original work of filmmaker-activists such as Oliver Hodge, Scott Hamilton Kennedy, Ryan Mlynarczyk and Emily James.

At times, Duval would have done well to pay more attention to academic conventions: for example, by not making a habit of using titles – on several occasions, Duval refers to ‘Mr DiCaprio’ or ‘Mr Gore’ when discussing their contributions to their respective films. This distracts from the author’s otherwise consistent writing style. Using Wikipedia as a resource also does not adhere to the standards of what are usually regarded as legitimate academic resources quotable in a monograph of this nature. Finally, both the introduction and conclusion of the book are extremely short, which does not entirely do justice to the extensive range of research Duval clearly demonstrates through the rest of the book.

On the whole, however, Duval makes a complex and thoroughly controversial genre accessible in a way that would prompt young scholars and students to seriously consider the destructive impact of consumption and neoliberal ideologies on the environment. Teachers may also find Duval’s overview helpful in selecting films for classes dealing with environmental issues. Significantly, the author’s highly commendable passion for the environment clearly shines through. As such, the book itself functions as a piece of activism, raising awareness not only of our responsibility towards our environment, but also putting a spotlight on a genre that has not received as much attention as it should within the discipline of film studies.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Gold: The Once and Future Money by Nathan Lewis (John Wiley & Sons, $27.95)

Policymakers, economists, investors--everyone--should read and reread Gold: The Once and Future Money by Nathan Lewis (John Wiley & Sons, $27.95). It’s worth its weight in gold--and then some. If all grasped its basic conclusions, the world would be an infinitely richer and happier place. Economic disasters don’t come from inherent flaws in the free marketplace. They come from government policy mistakes, and, as we saw in the 1930s, those errors can have ghastly consequences.

Gold combines engrossing history with absorbing economic analyses and conclusions. Who would’ve imagined a book could give you what you need to know about economics without ever sounding like a textbook?

Not that everything Lewis writes is gospel--some of his interpretations of diplomatic history are way off base--but on the core subjects of money and prosperity he’s absolutely on target.

The basic keys to sustainable economic growth are sound money and low taxes. Countries can have lavish welfare programs or even a bevy of state-owned enterprises and still prosper if they get those two things right.

The fundamental importance of sound money has been virtually forgotten by the economics ­profession today, even though no country has ever achieved sustained prosperity without it. A stable currency is the foundation for the literally billions of transactions and economic arrangements that make growth possible. To simplify, imagine how difficult it would be to function if the number of minutes in an hour were constantly changing. Even cooking would be problematic: If a recipe called for cake batter to bake for 45 minutes, how long exactly would that be?

Why gold? Because it retains an intrinsic, stable value better than anything else. In that sense it’s like Polaris, a fixture.

The impact of cheapening money goes beyond economics: “Continuous inflationary periods are often accompanied by a conspicuous decline of morality and civility. Just as people cooperate in the money economy, they cooperate in their daily lives, forming unspoken agreements. During inflation, all the monetary contracts between people are warped and distorted. The deterioration of monetary contracts is matched by a deterioration of social contracts, because monetary ­contracts, in the end, are also agreements between people. … Currency devaluation has been tried literally hundreds of times since the 1940s as a remedy for all manner of economic ills, and it has failed every single time.”

Lewis builds his irrefutable case for gold and low taxes with fascinating accounts of economic successes and failures. Britain moved to a gold-based monetary system in the early 1700s, which helped set the stage for the Industrial Revolution and an era of British financial dominance that would last until the First World War.

Japan enjoyed extraordinary economic growth after the U.S. forced it to open up in the 1850s, which continued after the Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s. Japan’s 2,000 or so different currencies were unified under the yen, which was tied to gold. More than 1,500 taxes were eliminated, as were virtually all tariffs. For a while Japan was the world epitome of free trade. It fumbled badly in the 1920s and 1930s, but from 1950 to 1975 it enjoyed growth rates greater than that of post-Mao China. During that era the yen was effectively fixed to gold, and every year Tokyo reduced taxes.

The 1920s are particularly instructive. Britain kept its high WWI taxes and, despite wartime inflation, fixed the pound to its pre-World War I gold parity. The result was deflation and economic stagnation. In contrast, the U.S. sharply reduced taxes and boomed. In the mid-1920s France did the same, while refixing the franc to gold. Paris prospered.

So why the 1930s’ Great Depression? The root cause was that classical economics virtually ignored the impact of taxation on economic activity. Amazingly, “the economics profession proved unable to incorporate taxation in its framework of analysis,” Lewis observes. One of the Victorian era’s noted econ­omists was Alfred Marshall, whose Principles of Economics was enormously influential. Yet that treatise has “no mention of taxes in its 858 pages.”

The U.S. began the disastrous chain of events when it enacted a massive protectionist trade bill in the spring of 1930. The global trading system blew up. “More than 1,000 economists signed a petition protesting the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, adding their voices to the complaints of 30 foreign governments. But,” notes Lewis in astonishment, “when the act was passed and trade predictably shriveled, not one of those economists drew the connection!”

As economic activity fell, governments raised taxes to keep their budgets balanced. Britain, for example, raised levies on income in 1930 and again in 1931. The U.S. enacted the biggest domestic tax increase in its history, with the top income tax rate going from 25% to 63% in 1932.

Economists were at a loss as to why the slump deepened. “Unaware of the fiscal policy catastrophe swirling around them, [economists’] excellent monetary training told them that, with currencies solidly pegged to gold and no evidence of a liquidity-shortage crisis, a swift ­return to economic health should be soon forthcoming,” just as happened in the U.S. during the 1920–21 depression. “When their predictions and policy prescriptions didn’t work out, they were cast aside.” The gov­ernment-spending and cheap-money nostrums of John Maynard Keynes ­became dominant.

Under the post-WWII Bretton Woods monetary system the dollar was fixed to gold, and every other currency was fixed to the dollar. Japan and Germany systematically reduced their tax burdens, and with their money fixed to the gold dollar their economies made rapid recoveries.

Unfortunately, most economists had drunk the Keynesian Kool-Aid of cheap money, which held that printing a lot of currency would painlessly lead to rapid economic growth. By the late 1960s the understanding of a gold standard had virtually disappeared. Few tears were shed when the U.S. destroyed the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. The result was a hideous decade of inflation, economic stagnation and political chaos globally. Ronald Reagan put an end to the terrible inflation of the 1970s, but a new gold-based system was never established.

The U.S. expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, but progress was periodically checked by continued monetary instability. In 1987, for example, the stock market crashed when the U.S. made clear it was going to weaken the dollar and push for new major trade barriers.

In the late 1990s, when the Fed inadvertently deflated the dollar, the U.S. went in the opposite direction. Agriculture, steel, oil, mining and other traditional industries were hit hard. Even though stock market indexes rose until 2000, profits peaked in 1997, and most common equities declined in the latter part of that decade.

The Fed lurched in the opposite direction in the 2000s, which led to the disaster we now have. Lewis’ book was written in 2007, so it doesn’t include an account of our current woes.

But Lewis does tell the grim tale of how countries have suffered from bad U.S. economic advice and the even more poisonous prescriptions of the IMF, which wreaked havoc on Latin America, Russia, the former ­Yugoslavia, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Turkey (IMF policies led to the election of an Islamist government) and numerous other countries. Notably--and to its immense profit--China in the mid-1990s ignored U.S./IMF prescriptions.

What’s amazing when reading a book like this is to realize how much of a vise-like grip bad economic ideas have on economists and policymakers, even when they fly in the face of all ­experience.

Despite all the turmoil of the past decade--the catastrophic housing bubble; the quintupling of the price of oil and many agricultural commodities; a sovereign debt crisis that threatens to economically upend Europe to a degree not seen since the 1930s; the slow-­motion self-strangulation of Japan, whose gross national debt, proportionately, vastly exceeds those of all other developed countries, including Greece--political leaders and economists resist the idea of returning to a monetary system that history has shown countless times to work far better than anyother in creating conditions for sustainable prosperity.

As this book makes compellingly clear with its sweep of history and fascinating analyses, a gold-based system will emerge because the global economy needs it. The question is under what circumstances? Ronald Reagan would have done it in the 1980s, but he had virtually no support, intellectual or political, to make it happen. At the time, most conservative econo­mists, particularly Milton Friedman and his fellow monetarists, vigorously opposed the idea. But today there is growing support. And creating a gold-based currency would, aston­ishingly, be fairly easy.

Gold is right: Because the yellow metal has a fixed, intrinsic value that greatly facilitates commerce, it is the ultimate future money.

Appointment in Arezzo: A friendship with Muriel Spark Hardcover – November 2, 2017 by Alan Taylor (Polygon)

Ahead of the centenary of Spark’s birth, this beguiling memoir of a friendship is revealing of the novelist’s personal entanglements and Scottishness.

Born Muriel Camberg in Edinburgh in 1918 – stand by for the centenary celebrations next year – she was a very clever, attractive girl. Her promise and ambitions were stymied and swallowed up by the upheaval of the second world war, a hasty marriage to a deeply unbalanced man (Mr Spark, whose name she gladly took) and a child – Robin – born in Rhodesia when she was only 20. The 1940s and 50s were years of struggle and penury on the depressed fringes of literary life in London. It was only in 1957 with the publication of her first novel, The Comforters, extravagantly hailed by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, no less, that the Spark career began to achieve significant lift-off.


Alluring and spirited … Muriel Spark. 

In 1976, when I was in my early 20s, I wrote to Muriel Spark – I was an avid fan – asking if I could interview her at her house in Italy, in Arezzo. I was spending some weeks in Tuscany researching the death, in 1822, of Percy Bysshe Shelley and thought I might profit by interviewing some writers I admired who happened to live in the area. Spark declined, swiftly, politely: alas, it wasn’t convenient. It would be another 15 years before I met her.

Alan Taylor, author of this beguiling, fascinating memoir, had more luck. He went to Arezzo to interview her in 1990 and a lasting friendship ensued that went as far as regular house-sitting for her and her friend Penelope Jardine, as Muriel and Penny quit Italy in the hottest weeks of summer for more temperate climes. Taylor came to know her well in the last decade-and-a-half of her life. He was often called on to be her walker-cum-cicerone on trips she made, in failing health, to Oxford or New York or other places where she was being feted. She was Dame Muriel Spark, then, with a long literary career that seemed enviably successful. It’s only now, posthumously – she died in 2006 – that the riven complexities of her early life, the entanglements of her personal relationships and the various glosses and concealments that Spark deployed to enhance her elaborate myth are coming into sharper focus. The Spark persona becomes more and more fascinating.

Taylor’s familiarity with his subject gives him privileged access and insight into the numerous controversies that have dogged Spark’s life. His memoir is a valuable adjunct to Martin Stannard’s official biography. Taylor is particularly astute on the fraught roller-coaster of affection and animosity that dominated Spark’s relationship with her son Robin (1938-2016). Robin Spark became obsessed with the family’s Jewishness – an obsession that, ultimately, drove an immovable wedge between mother and son, especially given that Spark had converted to Catholicism in 1954. Spark’s life was always replete with literary gossip – much to her irritation. A writer she knew in New York said she used up friendships “like Kleenex”. One of the explanations for this glamorous, difficult persona that she developed – no fools were suffered for long – was that she was a late starter.

It’s only now, post­humously that the riven complexities of Spark's early life are com­ing into sharper focus

She never looked back and her unique gifts as a writer coupled with her indomitable nature ensured that the limelight never really dimmed. That there was a degree of reinvention can surely be excused: she had known real hardship in postwar London (wonderfully documented in her novels Loitering with Intentand A Far Cry from Kensington) and there was no way at all that she was going to descend from the heights she’d reached.

As the centenary of her birth approaches it’s a timely moment to assess and evaluate the real stature she has achieved as a novelist. The 22 novels she wrote – short, dry, comic, strange – reflect a tone of voice and a view of the world, its denizens and the human predicament that is as distinct as Chekhov’s. The fact that she was Scottish is another aspect that will focus attention. She was a writer who spent most of her life far from Scotland but who declared: “My formation is entirely Scottish.” And thereby hangs the dilemma that attaches itself to any writer who emerges from a small nation – James Joyce and Samuel Beckett would agree.

The historian Christopher Harvie came up with a neat analogy that has a real bearing on Spark and Scottish literature. He divided Scots into “Red” Scots and “Black” Scots (this idea was fruitfully developed by another Scottish historian, Angus Calder). Red Scots are cosmopolitan, enlightened – Scots on the make, some might say – and exiles. They have to leave Scotland to flourish. Black Scots, by contrast, are demotic, nationalistic, Anglophobic, doggedly tending the kailyard “back hame”.

This split-personality trope is echoed throughout Scottish writing, and has a few sub-varieties. There are Red Scots who never leave Scotland and Black Scots who choose to live abroad. No names, no pack-drill. And I think the same division probably applies throughout all literatures and cultures that are fed by small populations in small ponds. I’ve mentioned the Irish, but I’m sure there are Red and Black varieties of writers from Iceland, Corsica, Ivory Coast and Tasmania, for example.

With this in mind, the writer that Spark seems most to resemble is Robert Louis Stevenson, who was also born in Edinburgh but very swiftly left his native land. He became an exile and achieved great success in his short life, a life that ended in Samoa, further flung than Spark’s Tuscany, though, I suspect, the flight from home answered the same need. Stevenson wrote (in 1893): “Singular that I should fulfil the Scots destiny throughout and live a voluntary exile and have my head filled with the blessed, beastly place all the time!”

One of the great merits of Taylor’s memoir is that it echoes the same Stevensonian plaint. Spark, top to toe in haute couture, wealthy, famous, sought by the glitterati in London, New York and Rome, still had her head filled with the “blessed, beastly place”.

The 100 best novels: No 79 – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1960)

Her small pond, Edinburgh, was even smaller in that she came from Jewish stock. When she was born, there were maybe 400 Jewish families in Edinburgh. Wholly assimilated as Scottish Jewry is, it was still a distinguishing feature, particularly in Spark’s youth and adolescence. Yet her virtues, paradoxically, are Scottish Presbyterian. Taylor expresses these principles succinctly: “Her ethic was Presbyterian: Life is what you make of it. What one achieved was by one’s own efforts. Take nothing for granted. Expect no favours – nor for that matter much in the way of thanks or praise.”

This is the code Spark lived by, as did Stevenson. The code can warp perversely and produce paranoia, animus, self-doubt and delusion – and one can see the darker consequences of her upbringing and its ethos in both her life and work. But at root there is a healthy stoicism engendered by such an uncompromising weltanschauung – it will, on the whole, serve you well, as it served Spark.

There is a half-mocking comment that sees Scotland “as a psychiatric condition” rather than a nation. Perhaps, if valid, it’s a condition most experienced by Scotland’s writers. Stevenson himself nailed it in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – the ultimate, enduring metaphor of the split-personality trope – but Spark exhibits the same symptoms, though in a more complex, less binary manner. She remains a most fascinating, multilayered, alluring, spirited writer. I have a feeling that posterity will come to recognise that more and more.

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Hardcover by Greg McKeown (Crown Business;)

The poet Mary Oliver wrote “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

This quote from Essentialism maybe sums up the core messages that the author Greg McKeon is conveying to the reader.

Have you ever felt the urge to declutter your work life?

Do you often find yourself stretched too thin?
Do you simultaneously feel overworked and underutilized?
Are you frequently busy but not productive?
Do you feel like your time is constantly being hijacked by other people’s agendas?
If you answered yes to any of these, the way out is the Way of the Essentialist.
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s about getting only the right things done.  It is not  a time management strategy, or a productivity technique. It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution towards the things that really matter.  

By forcing us to apply a more selective criteria for what is Essential, the disciplined pursuit of less empowers us to reclaim control of our own choices about where to spend our precious time and energy – instead of giving others the implicit permission to choose for us.

Essentialism is not one more thing – it’s a whole new way of doing everything. A must-read for any leader, manager, or individual who wants to do less, but better, and declutter and organize their own their lives, Essentialism is a movement whose time has come.

McKeown  then forces us to look at the 3 realities of individual choice, the prevalence of noise and the reality of tradeoffs.

To help achieve living a successful life of passionate purpose that is yours and yours alone he outlines 3 essential steps.

  • Explore – Discerning the the trivial many from the vital few
  • Eliminate – Cutting out the trivial many from the vital few
  • Execute – Removing obstacles and making execution effortless

The author wrote this book by blocking 8 hours a day without phones, email or other distractions to interrupt his priority of doing something important. This is something that is also explored in the book “Deep Work“.http://israelbookreview.blogspot.co.il/2017/11/deep-work-rules-for-focused-success-in.html

For me there is a genius and magic to routine. It eliminates distraction and creates focus. Focusing on these essentials can result in more clarity, control and joy.