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!

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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.

On fear, sadness and COVID-19

In many ways, one of the saddest things about COVID-19 is the fear. The fear of each other, the fear of the future and the fear of being without.

I cried a little at Amman airport this morning when I saw two young children wearing face masks. Their parents carried on stoicly, but you don’t cover your children’s faces without being struck by some sort of fear (justified or not). It reminds me of the morning after the Finsbury Park mosque attacks. I was walking to the station and saw little boys and girls accompanied by their tired-looking parents. The children normally walked to school without adult supervision.

The parents were afraid. Literal survival was at stake.

There is something primal about the protection of a parent over a child. And in the case of COVID-19, it’s a risk that they cannot see nor fully comprehend. This event could still be anything and they don’t know how to protect their kin.

I also share in the fear. Today, I was nearly quarantined by flight restrictions. I would have been stuck outside of my home countries, without friends of family. In the hours when that seemed a real possibility, I was afraid. Even as I write this, waiting for the plane to take off, I am anxious.

But what of fear? Fear often comes from a sensible survival instinct, but there is also an element of sadness to it.

There is a sadness to it because a state of fear is your body telling you that something is not normal, is not safe.

Young children with their faces covered is not normal. It is not safe.

And in this case, the non-normal, non-safe state is such an unknown. If a lion is coming towards you, you know what you’re afraid of. In this very strange March 2020, we don’t really know what to be afraid of. Closed borders? Flu symptoms? Running out of bog roll? Each other?

Being afraid without fully knowing what to be afraid of is unusual.

Either way, this state is not normal. And it is not safe.

Yet we have Hope. “I lift up my eyes to the hills– where does my help come from?”

On the passage of time

There is a certain helplessness that comes with the passage of time.

“Time flies”, they said… but it never really rang true to me.

The older I get, the faster time seems to go. There’s a growing sense of running out of time.

When you are a child, the hours and days are endless. As a teenager, you can waste hours lying on your bed, doing nothing, and it costing you nothing.

Time no longer works like that for me.

Every day is full and somehow seems to have fewer minutes than the last.

It’s not a matter of not being in control. It’s that the march of time is speeding up.

And with it, my life.

It is perennially harder to find time for reflection, for prayer, for planning and for growth.

And when you blink, a month has gone.

It’s like being a passenger in a speeding tube of time.

There’s still so much to do, but so little time.

I wonder whether Jesus felt like this, approaching the end of his time on Earth. He had done so much… but did he have the feeling of running out of time as well?

Lent day 12, 2020. Amman, Jordan

On Ash Wednesday

From the love of my own comfort

From the fear of having nothing

From a life of worldly passions

Deliver me, O God

– Audrey Assad

Today is Ash Wednesday; the beginning of Lent.

Lent was (and is) not really something practiced in our church tradition. Pentecostalism was marked, amongst other things, by a desire to do away with many things that appeared liturgical or overly religious, and simply ‘follow the promptings of the (Holy) Spirit’.

So the Christian calendar (at least, apart from Christmas and Easter) was not something observed in our rhythm of worship. For its many wonderful qualities, I do think our tradition misses out on something by not observing some of these very old rhythms.

In my own situation, this Ash Wednesday, I am in a foreign country and away from friends and family. Perhaps as a result, I am acutely aware, maybe more than normal, of the significance of the season.

After all, by its nature, the season demands a certain amount of introspection and solitude.

Am I ready? I think of Him, I think of my faith and reflect on my shortcomings. I am grateful for His sacrifice.

Without Lent, without this season today, would I have this same sense of self-examination?

Likely not.

As the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for everything under the sun”. And the reality is that this includes times of reflection and times of sorrow, along with times of celebration and times of joy.

Without the balance, we cannot appreciate the extremes.

So, today, I am grateful for Lent.

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.

Winter Reading List – 2019-20

Here’s what I’m reading for the holidays. I’ve tried to post less frequently about my reading habits (as I worry it makes me a relentless bore), but, well, this is my blog, and you can always keep scrolling if you really want to.

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London: The Biography – I am sure Ackroyd called it ‘the’ biography rather than ‘a’ biography to appear as the definitive story of London. Interesting and unwieldy it is; definitive it is not. Great to focus on ‘life’ in London but you can’t really tell that story without telling the story of power, government or politics as well. Plus, it is SO long, and I feel as though I have been reading it all year (which is nearly true). (Goodreads)

12 Rules for Life – like marmite, Jordan Peterson seems to have split my friendship group (and not on the usual left/right dichotomy). I’m about halfway through this and have not yet decided my view on it. Peterson is unquestionably smart and well read, but sometimes uses words so carefully that you wonder what he really thinks (see: gender roles). Also, I am having difficulty identifying with a lobster, and my back is already pretty straight. (Goodreads)

The Green Mile – somehow I have never read this nor seen the film. I haven’t started yet. I enjoyed Stephen King’s ‘the Outsider’ last summer. (Goodreads)

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount – John Stott is a master and his writing is imbued with such grace and humility. I have loved this walk through the most important sermon ever preached. I will be sad to finish it because it has been such a joy. (Goodreads)

A Short History of England – this has been on my list all year, but it arrived yesterday, and I am super excited to read it. (Goodreads)

I’m going to indulge myself and post a year-end ‘books I liked and hated this year’ at some point soon. Sorry (and Happy Christmas).

Quirky experiments: be curious

In 2018, on my request, my grandfather wrote a letter to my wife to celebrate a milestone birthday.

It was a one-page handwritten letter filled with a goldmine-like numbered list of observations about life that he had gleaned along the way. In his typical understated way, he said “it is not a worked-out system but rather some random things that I approve”. After I read the letter, I thought about it a lot in the coming weeks and days.

One thing in particular still stands out to me: “give way to quirky experiments”.

The one and the same avocado!

I thought more about it and realised that Grandad is one of the most intellectually curious people I have known. He has always had some sort of experiment on the go – whether it was building something, planting or growing something, or simply reading about a new area.

Notably, I turned up at their house one day (well into his retirement) to discover a giant telescope sitting in his study. It turned out that he had picked up a book about stars, taken an interest in astronomy, and started stargazing from suburban Brisbane.

I’ve tried – to varying degrees of success – to adopt this advice.

Since the time of his letter to my wife, I have grown an avocado tree from seed (pictured above). I tried painting (this was not a success). I’ve enjoyed baking bread. I grew a sourdough starter. I brewed beer with a friend. I’ve tried to grow various seeds or try new food combinations.

Many of these experiments failed; a number barely lasted a week. But I can recall many of these quirky experiments – especially the ones shared with friends – because they added welcome trivia my life in a way that the ‘eat / work / eat / sleep / repeat’ cycle cannot.

If all you are is the sum total of your work (and, dare I say, religious) life, then you are probably – frankly – a bit boring. If nothing else, your quirky experiments make for good pub conversation-fodder… “Did I tell you guys I’m growing an avocado tree?”

 

In praise of non-partisanship

Political scientist and professional LinkedIn provocateur Ian Bremmer recently quipped:

I’m nowhere near confident enough about the universality of my political preferences to announce that I’m a liberal or a conservative. I wish more people felt that way. ‪Not because it’s “right.” ‪But because I think we’d be happier.

Mr Bremmer is, of course, right; we would be happier. But the quip belies a deeper truth: partisanship is killing the development of good policy.

Democracy is, to some extent, built on a marketplace of ideas. Ideas are formed, the principles are debated, the details are massaged, the framework is drafted into bills, and the laws pass through the legislature.

Partisanship stifles innovative policy thought; our ability to develop and pass creative solutions to complex problems becomes limited by whether it is associated with a particular agenda or party. Identity politics often play a key role.

Hyper-partisanship and petty point-scoring is a particular feature of the American system, but it is increasingly being felt elsewhere, from Britain to Brazil (though Brexit has been the exception which proves the rule, with ‘remain’ centrists from the Conservatives decidedly uneasy with the change agenda, and ‘leave’ socialists from Labour all-too-eager to be done with the European experiment).

So what is the remedy? Realistically, an element of partisanship is always going to be a feature of parliamentary or representative democracy. But incrementally shifting from purely partisan thinking in policy development should allow the space for better policy.

Think independently: Each of us can take a step back and consider ‘do I really think this, or do I think it because I think this is how I am supposed to think?’ (Sorry. Read that twice). Realistically, very few of us have views that are perfectly aligned to the party who we may be voting for. So why not say so? Slavishly following party lines is what has got us into this mess. If you vote for ‘Party X’ but think that their ‘Policy Y’ is bollocks, say so! Why fight about it with your mate from ‘Party Z’ just because you feel it is your duty? It is not ‘right’ simply because you happened to vote for them (or worse: read their affiliated newspaper).

Policy institutes: Strong independent policy institutes and think-tanks can help. That said, the role of dark money funding these institutes in accordance with political and economic agendas are always a watch-out. A wider role for law reform commissions could be an important feature of a de-partisan landscape.

Grand Coalitions? Minority or coalition governments from both Australia and Britain have shown that sensible and practical policy decisions can be made and passed by minority or coalition governments (e.g. Australia’s NDIS was formed in minority government and with cross-party consent). The rise of third (or minor) party forces in parliaments may result in better decision-making; certainly breaking a party duopoly (even a little) should help.

Citizen initiated referenda? Sometimes an uneasy fit with representative democracy, and not always the most considered path to good policy-making, but citizen-initiated referenda can be a way to break through the partisan deadlock or stale dialogue.

Select and elect more independently-minded parliamentarians: This may be pie-in-the-sky stuff, but the shift from hyper-partisanism to considered policy-making requires individuals whose commitment to good policy is higher than their loyalty to their party. This one is probably too idealistic for the short term – but a guy can always hope!

What I’m Reading: At Home by Bill Bryson

I could read Bill Bryson all day. Who couldn’t? It’s like having a good chat at the pub with a life-long mate, who happens to be strangely well-informed and articulate.

91w+3DAuHpLBryson’s writing tends to meander off into strange specificities and peculiarities; an engaging collection of facts told in a jovial way. At Home is no different: it is through-and-through Bryson.

Loosely set as Bryson walks through his home, a former parsonage in the English countryside, each chapter deals with a different room and how that room has shaped by – and been shaped – the private life of humans.

“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

As is inevitable for Bryson, a large part ofthe tale is not just of the home and of humans, but of America and England. Development in the home is often (rightly) framed within greater geopolitical shifts (and vice-versa, in the case of the nineteenth learned clergy he spends time extolling at the beginning).

Each room gives us a glimpse of how we got there, and how we changed along the day – including in our diets.

“One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk–a sadly appropriate word here–of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn’t do any good at all.” 

At Home has a lot going for it, but it did take me a while to read. The narrative structure works well as a way of bringing the facts together, but it did mean that it lacked a collective theme (except in the very broadest sense). At times, you have the sense that you were being led taken on a very long walk for no reason other than the very long walk.

However, each chapter stands on its own. It can easily be set aside and enjoyed in bite-sized chunks.

Approached with that in mind, it may well have been a more enjoyable read – just take your time and stroll through the house slowly.

What I’m Reading: Fayke Newes by Derek J Taylor

For anybody with even a passing interest in democratic institutions, it was jarring to hear the American president describe the free press as the ‘enemy of the people’.

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘surely we have now shifted the Overton window to a new extreme!’

It turns out that I was dreadfully wrong. The ‘Media’ and ‘the Mighty’ have fought for centuries with mud-slinging, lies and aggression (and counter-aggression).

Fayke Newes cover

With a delightfully irreverent cover, a title of faux-medieval origin and the (current) American president in Henry VIII’s garb, Derek J Taylor’s latest book immediately invites us to place modern ramblings about ‘fake news’ into their rightful historical context.

Taylor begins the tale with the Western world’s favourite serial husband (Henry, not Donald). And with his decidedly Trumpian cry of ‘false fables and tales’ against an opponent, Henry VIII is an excellent place to begin.

Charting his way through Tudors, wars and revolutions (of both the bloody and industrial persuasion), Taylor’s mapping of the relationship between those who make the stories and those who tell them (or both, simultaneously) is an engaging read. Their co-existence appears to be a form of uneasy symbiosis; the mighty providing the fire, and the media, the oxygen (or does that make it antibiotic?).

A particularly engaging part of the book involves the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU did not gain real traction – despite serious action – until the media picked up the story (one way or another). The sheer starvation of information or recognition meant that there was no real engagement… until a turning point. And with the media attention came real reaction from the mighty – to the press and to the suffragettes. And so the cycle continues.

A lengthy historical tome this is not. A salutary lesson: more likely.

Fayke News is published by the History Press. Additional details and vendors available here.