Books of 2014

After such excitement these past two weeks, let’s get back to normal, which now means ‘off-topic’ and ‘random’. I’m afraid there’s nothing to add to either album or tour speculation just yet, it’s still far too early to say anything about anything, and if you are lucky enough to have tickets, you’ve six months to wait, so best think of something else. Some of you seem to be hyper-ventilating and I’m starting to worry.

The music of 2014 in general, some of us already agreed, was so-so at best. The books of 2014, however, were much more interesting.

The one that stood out for me above all others – and there were many excellent others, which I’ll come to later – was Harry Leslie Smith’s Harry’s Last Stand.

Harry is 92 and clearly someone with more ‘get up and go’ than most. At the age of 75, he backpacked across Europe, returning to the places he’d visited during the Second World War when he’d served as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force.

After moving audiences first to tears and then to their feet at the 2014 Labour Party Conference with an impassioned speech, where he spoke of the desperation of his boyhood years, his pride in voting for the first time – for change, in 1945 – and concluded with the warning: “Mr Cameron, keep your mitts of my NHS,” now he’s travelling around Britain speaking to young people to encourage them to register to vote, reminding us all of what life was like before the introduction of the welfare state.

As he writes in his blog: “If we don’t remember the past injustices done to ordinary folk, the powers that be will commit them again, except this time it will be upon you and your children.”

His book is a timely warning to us all that we should heed the lessons of history and stop taking the things our ancestors had to fight so hard to gain over so many decades, for granted.

Harry has a lovely way with words. It’s very hard to stop reading, so engrossed in his memoirs do you find yourself. His compassionate observances, brutal honesty and aching for his beloved wife Elfriede, who died in 1999, leave you wanting to shake this proud man’s hand or give him a great big hug. How he has deserved each standing ovation.

He recounts a childhood of poverty during the Great Depression; of working after school – aged seven – as a barrow boy until dark, for four shillings a week, to help put food on the family table; of losing a sister to tuberculosis in the workhouse infirmary at the age of ten, and seeing her buried in a pauper’s grave (the few lines devoted to this are heartbreaking). It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks standing by and doing nothing but complain when we can vote and protest for change is acceptable. With a Conservative government privatising the health service, dismantling the welfare state and cruelly removing support for the most needy and vulnerable, there are too many parallels between now and the time Harry witnessed his desperate parents struggle to eke out a grim existence in 1930s England.

The book is able to shock, chill, then amuse just a few lines later, but always shames younger generations who have had it relatively easy and really don’t know hardship on such a scale. We must fight the social injustices of low-pay, obscene bonuses, zero-hours contracts and food banks as Harry’s generation rallied against its own injustices.

Insightful and inspirational, I’m now reading his earlier books and recommend 1923: A Memoir (2011) and Hamburg 1947: A Place for the Heart to Kip (2012). If you have an interest in social history, I suggest you read these. If you don’t think you’ll bother to vote in May, I urge you: please read them.

65 per cent of the British public voted in the last general election, in 2010. The turnout among the under-24s was just 44 per cent. The young are being hardest hit by austerity and must vote for change.

I certainly stand with Harry on the issue of voting (it should be compulsory), not Russell Brand, who has instead been sympathising with those who do not vote. This is easy to do, obviously, when you’ve plenty of money in the bank and need never work again nor fret about housing or education or who will care for you in your old age.

I have to agree ever so sightly with Robert Colvile, writing in the Telegraph, who considered Revolution, Russell Brand’s call to arms, “a rambling, egocentric mess.” He does tend to meander. He is a master populist and young people make up the bulk of his audience. None of this means that his views should be dismissed, though, just that you have to read through an awful lot to find out what his views are.

I quite like him, loutish, foul-mouthed hedonist that he is. You can of course be rich beyond your wildest dreams and still care enough for those less fortunate to join strikers on a picket line or to exploit your celebrity to attract media attention to the plight of campaigners who feel that nobody is listening. He has earned his wealth, he wasn’t born rich, he has enough experience of real life’s struggles to be able to write with an authenticity lacking in the writing of many others. For this, he has my respect.

I care very little for the sneering of cultural and intellectual snobs who have been particularly unkind about Revolution. It seems rather spiteful to ask, as Robin McGhee did: “Why is that while serious political thinkers languish unread, a TV presenter can get a reportedly six-figure advance for an unfunny autobiography with political pretensions?”

I take his point, but Revolution caught people’s attention and generated debate, which can only ever be positive. People get more for contributing less. (We’ll come to them shortly.)

Of course, I take Brand’s general point, too: who do you vote for when they’re all more or less the same, all serving the same business interests, all from the same comfortable backgrounds, all from the same select schools and universities? I’m all for a revolution, I just don’t expect to see one, so we absolutely must vote in the meantime.

I enjoyed Revolution. I didn’t read it in one sitting; I couldn’t. I had to stop, read something else, and return to it days, even weeks, later.

That said, Brand is intelligent, passionate, self-deprecating and means what he says. I like his colourful vocabulary. I just hope youngsters don’t think it acceptable to refuse to vote because Russell Brand says so.

Andrew Sayer’s Why We Can’t Afford the Rich should also be required reading in the run-up to the next election, as we observe ever more rapid growth in inequality. It challenges the myth that the rich are specially-talented wealth creators, pointing out that the richest of all (defined as “income extractors” rather than earners, because most of their revenue is acquired from their control of assets such as land, property and money) extract much more wealth than they create.

The media barons, controlled by the richest, keep the public focus squarely on the poorest in our communities, so often seen as ‘scroungers’, yet surely this rentier class, free-riding on the labour and necessary expenditure of everybody else, should be labelled ‘parasitic’?

Furthermore, it is claimed, because of their undemocratic and often anti-democratic influence in politics and on society, along with their excessive over-consumption and all its dire environmental consequences, it would seem that we can’t afford them any more.

The author, Professor of Social Theory and Political Economy at Lancaster University (who blogs here) makes a strong case for taxing this unearned income more appropriately to check the self-sustaining greed of the One Percent at the expense of the 99. Amen to that.

In a similar anti-capitalist vein, Naomi Klein’s hard-hitting, thought-provoking, authoritatively researched This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate had me nodding like Churchill the dog from start to finish. What a book this is.

Five years in the making, this hefty tome makes it as clear as what little water remains in California that unfettered capitalism is destroying our environment. She unleashes a vicious attack on neo-liberal market fundamentalism, insisting that our contemporary, predatory capitalism is wholly responsible for creating our numerous, irreversible environmental problems, as well as resisting significant changes to curb carbon emissions to the levels that 97 per cent of climate scientists have long recommended.

Clearly we need sweeping changes, and we needed them years ago, yet the unbridled greed of those with financial interests in continued unsustainable growth, who have benefited from a culture of deregulation, from free market ideology, from colonialism and industrialism – those most likely to be climate change deniers, funnily enough – for all their vaunted superior intelligence continue to deny and defy at such great cost to our imperilled world.

“We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process and most of our major media outlets.”

Indeed, the misery of austerity being experienced by so many right now is all for the benefit of an economic system that is making the rich richer while decimating our blue planet.

Pragmatic as always, Klein reminds us how, during the collective sacrifice throughout two World Wars, we embraced the rationing of food and fuel, dug for victory and made do. So we should now.

She points out the sickening hypocrisy of so many environmental organisations which have ties to the worst polluting businesses, blaming them for softening the Green agenda and redirecting public attention away from the need for change on a grand scale, which they’ve done so effectively for more than a quarter of a century.

Not surprisingly, in 1988 when James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, famously stressed the need to urgently reduce emissions, Reagan and Thatcher were in full flow, too busy eagerly forcing globalisation and privatisation on everybody to listen.

We really have “wasted precious decades attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of deregulated capitalism, forever touting ways for the problem to be solved by the market itself.” Does anyone still believe these people give a damn?

As much as I agree with Naomi Klein about the evils of a rapacious system that continues to relentlessly pillage resource-rich lands in pursuit of profit, and welcome its demise, it would be nice if she and all the other environmentalists included that which is inextricably linked to capitalism, an economic system that requires non-stop growth: overpopulation. This unpopular and politically-incorrect issue warrants only the briefest of mentions in the book’s footnotes. Yes, doing so would obviously make a rather large book even larger, and climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet is the clear message throughout, but it’s a shame that the pressure of our burgeoning global population on our planet’s finite resources, which capitalism promotes and to hell with the consequences, wasn’t deemed worthy of closer examination. Surely we need to consider both numbers and distribution. Those defending one and blaming the other are just wasting time we don’t have.

Yes, fine, whatever. I’m clearly a misanthrope.

(I’m hoping that Elizabeth Colbert touches upon it in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which I’ve yet to finish.)

Someone else who does a good impression of a misanthrope from time to time is the wonderful David Mitchell, whose Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse: And Other Lessons from Modern Life will probably cause you to laugh out loud more than once. A collection of his weekly columns for the Observer – “a weekly attempt at a public moan with jokes” – some from as far back as 2008, so not terribly current (which of course you could read online for free if you wanted to), he muses on a variety of topics with the potential to infuriate, from people wearing sparkly poppies rather than paper ones in Remembrance to the self-righteous way we demand public apologies for everything, in his usual self-deprecating style. I really enjoy his dry, laconic wit and perfectly measured eloquence. He’s a fine writer.

Here’s one of my favourites, if you did want to read for free: ‘Snakes are evil, but save your venom for the self-appointed language police’.

It’s good to chuckle in agreement and occasionally self-recognition, to feel relieved that someone else is as irrationally irked by silly little things as you, particularly when many of the books you choose to read, as I have shown and will continue to show, are clearly gloomy. Thank heavens, fellow grumps, we can still laugh at something.

This is one to pick up and put down many times rather than read in a few sittings. If I had to catch a bus or train to work, I’d look forward to reading this on every journey, feel silly for giggling, then despondent when I’d got to the end and realised I might have to go back to listening to music (probably not from 2014) or talk to people instead.

Although then I’d have Randall Munroe’s What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions to fall back on. I think some of you will like it. (Randall Munroe is responsible for the ‘Webcomic of Romance, Sarcasm, Math, and Language’ – xkcd.) I’ve not read it all yet, it’s far too clever for me, but it’s very funny.

Enough jollity.

Beheaded by Hitler: Cruelty of the Nazis – Civilian Executions and Judicial Terror, 1933-1945, by Colin Pateman (told you there was more despair), made for truly shocking reading. An area of Nazi history that has often been overlooked, I could not believe some of the things I read about the Volksgerichtshof, or People’s Court, established in 1934 to try those accused of treason. Death sentences were handed down to ten per cent of defendants in 1941, rising to forty per cent between 1942 and 1944. So accustomed are we to death tolls being expressed in the tens of thousands, even millions, as is the case of the Third Reich and Second World War, 12,891 death sentences in a four-year period might not have the power to shock any more. Remember that these were death sentences for crimes where there was often insufficient evidence to arrest and imprison, never mind execute.

Markus Luftglass, for example. Elderly and Jewish, he was executed on 4 November 1941. He had originally been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison – for stealing eggs.

The book demonstrates how easily the manipulation of the judicial system was accomplished. The Civil Service Law of 1937 required all judicial officers swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Yet judges were often willing accomplices, enthusiastic in this ideologically-driven purge of Germany, still resentful of their diminishing role and weakened status during the failed Weimar Republic.

In all, Hitler’s public prosecutors were responsible for the executions of some 26,000 people in Germany and occupied territories.

An incredible amount of research has obviously gone into this book. The cases and statistics will leave you open-mouthed.

What else? The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics, by Kenan Malik, is an absolute steal on Kindle at the moment. Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else, by James Meek, and Good Times, Bad Times: The Welfare Myth of Them and Us, by John Hills, are next on my list.

What did you read from last year? And, are you reading your books off paper or a screen?

Remember, no discussion of tickets or touts or tours allowed for the time being. Just books for now, please. Thank you for your patience.

Just time to add that Polly’s new book, her second novel entitled The Kindness, was published this month. The reviews have been ever-so positive. I’d love to know if you’ve read it yet. It’s out in the USA in July.