What I’ve been reading – March 2020

Right. So we’re all locked in together in a COVID-19 state of joy. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading lately (and what I’m currently working through). I’m already 8 books in this year, because I had a lot of time on my hands in Amman!


Necropolis, Catharine Arnold: This one charts a course through London’s relationship with its dead. Where and how does it bury its dead? The subject is a little dark, but ultimately it’s a fun romp through a kind of history that isn’t often written about. What is amazing is how major shifts in history radically change approaches to mourning and storing of the dead.

Jerusalem – the Biography, Simon Montefiore: I’m a quarter through this one and it is amazing! I struggled a bit with ‘the’ London biography, but this one is leagues ahead in terms of accessibility, flow and storytelling. I am looking forward to seeing how he dances his way through the fraught modern era. But really – isn’t all of Jerusalem’s history contested?

The Rule of Law, Tom Bingham: Our whole society is predicated on the rule of law. We obey the law, and so does everyone else. Without it, the economy dies and so does society, really. A rather topical read, given what’s going on (and what I’ve spent the last few months working on).

Misery, Steven King: Somehow I missed this modern classic before now. What a gripping, frightening, tense read! He really was the master. Was the whole thing a metaphor about his hatred of his cocaine addiction? I don’t care. It was just a good story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read (as an adult) a book where the first-person protagonist was a child. I LOVED this book. Highly recommend for a quick weekend read.

First you Write a Sentence, Joe Moran: Have been trying to improve my writing but there aren’t very many good practical books that give you writing building blocks (other than Steven King’s On Writing). This one boiled down to “Don’t be too noun-y. Except when it makes sense. Or too verb-y. Except when you want to. And don’t use too many parentheses (except when you should).”

Preparing for Easter, CS Lewis: Who doesn’t love CS Lewis? This devotional has a thought for every day of Lent. Some days are better than others. It has been a very thoughtful journey so far.

Bonus – Ginger Pig Meat Book (because I want to be better at cooking), Easy Learning French Grammar and Practice (because I want to improve my French).

I’m also still slogging through the 15-book Wheel of Time series. More on that later.

I still need to do my 2019 wrapup. Maybe. One day.

7 lessons I wish I had learned earlier

In my career so far, I’ve had the great fortune to live in three countries/continents and work in (for varying lengths) a dozen others. 

I sometimes wonder what I would tell myself if I had the great misfortune of being stuck in an elevator with myself from ten years ago. Reflecting on the (many) mistakes I made in those first ten years, I think I would say:

1. Talk less (smile more)

I had many thoughts and very clear opinions at the beginning and, naturally, wanted to tell everyone about them with a great degree of confidence. This was a bad idea. Your degree(s) get you in the room, but your ‘value-add’ (awful phrase) will mean you are heard. It’s great that schools and universities encourage contribution from those learning/emerging/young, but I wish I had tempered my enthusiasm and confidence with just a dash of realism (know your ‘known unknowns’). Chances are, many of my opinions and conclusions early on were wrong, and my approach was even worse. I just didn’t have the experience or nous yet. 

2. Watch how experienced operators work

I wish I had started earlier in watching how the experienced players relate to others in the room. A canny operator will often not speak or argue in such a way that alienates others. They make people feel heard, and don’t force opinions – they influence.

Remind yourself of point 1; don’t argue or speak until you know what you are saying is worth listening to. 

3. A career is a marathon, not a sprint

Someone told me this at the photocopier once, in quite a pointed way. I had probably been obnoxiously trying to game a system or suck up to someone. Ultimately, a career has elements of both sprints and marathons – but the long game is about settling in for the long haul. Long-term thinking – while ‘not throwing away your shot’ – is crucial.

4. You and your responses are the only elements in the mix you can control.

Stressful situations will come. In these situations, you can only control what you can control, and sometimes (often) you and your response to the situation are the only things you can control. A measured response (after a deep breath) will go a long way to proving your maturity, but an outburst will be long-remembered.

This mindset also helps you contextualise conflict and stress. Stress is real, but most of your ‘old’ conflicts and stresses will be meaningless with the passage of time. 

5. Don’t confuse a cock-up for a conspiracy 

Most of the time, a mistake is a mistake. It’s probably an honest one. Most of the time, nobody is out to get you (though sometimes they really are!). 

6. Own up to your mistakes

Sure, this has to be contextual – don’t send an ‘all staff’ email admitting to blocking the toilet. But if you made a mistake, you are better off fessing up to the right person, who can help you fix it and/or manage the fallout quickly.

7. Just be nice

It’s much easier to work with people when people don’t feel the need to tip-toe around or be afraid. This sort of works hand-in-hand with the entitled attitude I talked about in point 1. Healthy respect is good, and you should be firm about boundaries… But don’t be a douche for the sake of being a douche. People will be more willing to work with you – and more honestly – if you are gracious and constructive. This is particularly important for expert advisors.


One day maybe we can offer this advice to our past-selves, and create some sort of time-travelling paradox. In the meantime, let’s offer a prayer for anyone who had the  misfortune of working with the James from the late 2000’s.