Sunday, 31 January 2010

'Global warming', by Mark Maslin

This pocket-sized book is from the extensive series of ‘very short introductions’ by Oxford University Press. It was very useful to read on trains. It is a solid reference book, with plenty of guides to further reading and study. It was perfect for my purpose – to become an informed amateur on the subject.

It explains the science and the politics of the science very fluently. It is calm and objective, but firmly putting down doubts and canards about whether global warming is actually happening and whether or not humans are a prime cause of the current phase of warming. The conclusions are clear, but still cast in an admirable Popperian humility and willingness to go on searching for truth and facing difficult facts.

Buried in it are some appallingly depressing facts. For instance, the worst case scenario of the IPCC for carbon dioxide emissions in the 21st Century is already being exceeded by a large margin and accelerating. The consensus modelled predictions for consequent temperature rise in by 2100 are around 6 degrees. The impacts of this scenario in terms of weather patterns, sea level, ocean acidity, fresh water scarcity, crop yields, disease, biodiversity and human population are so bad that the author simply writes ‘Don’t go there’ – having described the probable outcomes of lower temperature changes.

He tries to inject a positive note at the end by describing solutions and his personal vision of a new urban environment. But, frankly, these ideas seem like pissing in the wind, compared with the possible changes to our sustaining environment soberly examined in the book.

John Vernon

'Ghost', by Robert Harris

This a classic ‘airport novel’ – one you can pick up on impulse and read quickly. It certainly draws you in. Having read all Harris’s previous novels, I found this an ‘outlier’, less erudite and researched than the others, but still distinctively marked with his style of writing and plotting.

I read this quickly, compulsively turning the pages, mainly as I lay on a futon on the floor in Japan, suffering from jet lag. A post airport novel!

This book is boldly modelled on Tony Blair and his wife, and is very contemporary. It was obviously a money-making distraction from his promise to write more books about Cicero (see earlier review on ‘Imperium’). It is a great story, and I recommend it. However I sadly sense Harris being nudged by commercial realities, rather than following where his heart lies in historical fiction. (Ironically, after only a few years, this book may plausibly be classified as historical fiction!) Perhaps that is why he includes some acid portraits of publishers and book agents.

John Vernon

'Red Die - A Dorset Mystery', by Roger Norman

This is another beautifully produced book by The Sundial Press, and their first by a living author. It still fits their West Country theme, the action of the novel being tightly focused around the Dorset locality of Cerne Abbas, Minterne, Middlemarsh, Duntish and Buckland. The book is a hymn of love to the Dorset countryside, and imbues it with mystery and magic. There are a few imaginary locations mixed in with the real.

The story is set during the first world war, centred around a deserting soldier, Jack Yeoman, who has escaped from the horrors and madness of the trenches to his home base in Dorset. The story draws in a number of vividly drawn characters, who react to Jack’s situation and views in different ways. For me the highlight of the book is when most of them are drawn together in the homely warmth of the ‘Duntish Rings’ tavern for the night. They have sharp differences of opinion, but some of them are prepared to change their minds. Different aspects of English society are delineated (or rather a rural English society that has now passed).

The book has a rich tapestry of themes, touching on abstract ideas such as fate, chance, class, duty, conscience, magic, evil and loyalty. It also has concrete sensuous themes such as herbal potions, food, rain, mud, horses and so on. These intertwine physical and spiritual dimensions that are very Powysian in ethos. I had a strong feeling that the description of Louis Yeoman’s book-lined cottage was a direct depiction of the later life of John Cowper Powys.

The ‘Red die’ of the title is a reference to one of two dice that Jack carries with him to help him make decisions. Do the dice have magic powers? Do they have a Philip Pullmanesque ability to foretell and guide human actions? These issues are discussed at several points, but rightly not concluded. For me the correct attitude is summed up by the phrase in the book “Expect everything; predict nothing” – I hope I quoted that correctly.

Do not look for the mystery to be resolved. I found the end to be hurried and unsatisfactory (like ‘A Mill on the Floss’). Obscurely I felt the role of the mysterious ‘priest’ had not been fully thought through or integrated. I think the book could have benefited from greater length and exposition. I could not finally grasp the author’s intention in writing the book, and was left baffled by the last chapter.

John Vernon

Saturday, 30 January 2010

'Irrationality', by Stuart Sutherland

This book was given to me as a birthday present by a friend (Peter Hart). It seemed quite apposite amidst the collapse of the world’s financial system in October. It is written by a Professor of psychology, and so has solid academic background, but it is written in an easy non-specialist style.

He shows us through over 200 page of densely packed argument how often we humans fall short of rational behaviour and decision-making. It is quite sobering. In the end one realises that the ideal of pure rational thinking occupies a very small portion of our thought. This has profound consequences, since disciplines such as Economics are built on the premise of rational behaviour. We also tend to think of ourselves as rational, and this book proves that we often are not. We tend to see the foibles of others more readily than our own, but the mirror held up by this book should make us humble. Try doing the many tests he gives in the book to show your own failures of rational thinking.

Sutherland sets a very strict high bar for rational thinking. Failures to evaluate mathematical and probabilistic calculations are failures of rational thinking. He is correct. You can’t argue against it. But he seems to be defining rationality in a daunting way. Sometimes I find I can’t fully agree with his harsh logic, since he does not always take into account the human dimension, where many of our decisions are performed in non-laboratory situations.

The implications are vitally important. He shows how doctors, researchers, generals, civil servants, politicians and businessmen make less than optimal decisions. These have disastrous consequences on companies, society and even human life. The teaching of rational thinking should be a higher priority in our education system.

A thought-provoking book and one I intend to re-read. However my main complaint about the book is its severe essay style. It should be broken up with sub-headings for easier reference. Also the answers should be physically removed from the questions – say on to the next page. Often he gives the answer in the very next sentence, within the same paragraph. So the eye cannot dwell on the question, and can easily slip down to the answer, preventing one from thinking through the problem at leisure.

'Impossible loves', by Don Cupitt

This is a slim, rich volume by the influential religious writer and philosopher, Don Cupitt. ‘Theologian’ would be the wrong word, since he does not believe in ‘God’. He is a lapsed Christian, yet remains obsessed with many of the traditional Christian concerns, as he himself ruefully admits. This book is mainly about the ‘impossible loves’ which dominate our human lives, such as love for the Dead and love for a God we no longer believe in. He is very harsh on himself and brutally frank with us, pointing out how illogical and pointless are many of these loves, but he shows himself and us that they are necessary and fundamental to our make up.

He sets himself a big target: “attempting a re-invention of religious thought as such”. He makes some startling declarations, such as “It has become obvious that not one of the major religious traditions can survive in its present form”. This is the voice of a Cambridge academic, and is hardly a statement that would win any agreement from a US Evangelical or a Saudi Wahhabist cleric!

Cupitt’s brutal honesty, if one can agree with it, leaves life stripped down to a very stark and almost nihilistic world view. He makes one face the illogicalities and contradictions in many of our moral and ethical views in a world without God. He points out how we retreat into an ‘entertainment culture’ fostered by TV and other modern media, which is the true opium of the modern masses. This makes one realise how easy it is to be sucked into the entertainments of modern life that fill in our empty lives, filling up time and distracting us from the difficult religious and social problems that crowd around us.

But Cupitt completely fails to build any alternative system. He strips away our illusions, and only in the last few pages attempts to build an alternative. I wondered what this could be, given the few pages left in the book. In the end, I think he just gives up. I would expect several hundred pages of his finest writing and thoughts, building up a system of a ‘religion’ that is “a way of seeking to become reconciled to, and at ease with, life in general and one’s own life in particular”. Instead we are left with a few notes and doodles, encapsulated into simple and simplistic precepts.

I think the book proves that ‘religion’ without a ‘God’ is a nonsense.

'The land of England', by Dorothy Hartley

This is a detailed description of English Country life and customs ‘through the ages’ – but concentrating on the civilization that emerged in the late Anglo-Saxon period up to what was finally destroyed by the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 19th and 20th Centuries. The author wrote many books on this theme, and had an unrivalled knowledge of country life. She was best known for her classic and comprehensive book ‘Food in England’. Her knowledge is truly miraculous – you would think she could only know what she knew by living in a Medieval village all her life!

I love this book – for the depth of the knowledge Ms Harley displays, for the many wonderful drawings she did herself and above all for the sheer quality of her writing. She writes with passion, vividness and clarity. I found this on my father’s bookshelf and he kindly gave it to me.

Here are a few snippets of the hundreds of things she describes: types of grass in the pasture, winter fodder for cattle and sheep, making hedges and fences, ploughing methods, selecting and protecting seeds, cattle rearing, making cream, butter and cheese, sheep dogs, shepherd crooks, shepherd’s music, weeding, fertilising, sowing, harvesting, threshing, shearing, measuring wool, weaving, dyeing, lanolin, tallow, scythes, haystacks, making ropes, bee keeping, milling, bread-making, beer-making, basket-making, timber cutting, wood turning, charcoal making, thatching, swine keeping, slaughtering, droving, saddlery, smithy work, leather tanning, window-making, farmer’s feast days, coins, markets, trade, bread-making, pickling, cooking, medicines, herbs, candles and torches.

As a modern, urban man, I realise my almost total ignorance in how to look after myself and my environment. These peasants had so much knowledge and practical ability, passed down from generation to generation, in self-sufficient village units. They were generalists, and yet better at any of the single activities listed above than I am. Could I make a willow basket? Could I kill a pig and use every part of it productively? It makes one humble and conscious how totally dependent we have become on the complex industrial society in which we live.

I have to admire the skill and mastery of basic technology that our ancestors have – knowledge that we have almost completely lost, due to the fundamental break from the land caused by the industrial revolution. It overthrows ideas of progress and any idea that we are superior to our ancestors. It also reminds us that the basic cloth of history was woven by ordinary men and women, who were tough, resourceful and self-reliant. Ms Hartley puts us fleetingly back in touch with that past, reminding us of the ultimate importance of the land for the survival of all of us.

The knowledge that these peasant societies carried was, in some ways, superior to the ‘scientific’ knowledge of our modern society. Co-incidentally to writing this review, I have been reading about environmental degradation caused recently by farming and logging practices: the salinisation of soils, the poisoning of rivers by artificial fertilizer run-off, the erosion of land and polluting of rivers caused by clear logging, the increased fuel-load per acreage caused by over-zealous fire-fighting policies and so forth. The scale of these environmental disasters is threatening our ability to feed ourselves. Of course we cannot go back to Medieval practices wholesale – but there must be lessons to learn.

Friday, 29 January 2010

'Unclay', by Theodore Powys

This is probably the major novel of T.F. Powys, one of the talented family of Powys brothers, who were all writers, but it is not widely known. Theodore can simplistically be characterised as the gloomy hermit in the family, contrasting with the joie-de-vivre evident in Llewellyn Powys. His world is very religious, without appearing to believe in any conventional Christian theology. His world is thoroughly rural – the author hid himself in the Dorset countryside, and became less and less willing to meet people, as he became older.

This book is set in a rural village, drawing deeply on East Chaldon, where he lived for many years. This creates a hermetically sealed world, where Powys can develop an intense and allegorical ethos. It is a world with traditional, even feudal, relationships, laced with extraordinary suppressed violence and strange sexual relationships. This is by no means a cosy English village. Violence breaks through in the brutal beating of a dog, in what amounts to a domestic rape scene.

However – and this is hard to explain – it is also a deeply comic novel. Powys comes alive in writing about the innocent clergyman Mr Hayhoe and the local squire Lord Bullman, as well as the villagers with their strange obsessions – like the woman who thinks she is a camel and the man who thinks nut trees will defend him from love. The main character of the book is Death himself – John Death, dressed in smart clothes and frequently carrying a scythe, who gets the job as the local gravedigger! Death is a direct allegorical character, and it is daring of an author to write so directly, to give his positive message that death is a release from the pains of life.

The clergyman Mr Hayhoe meets Mr Death in a country lane scratching his head looking for something he has lost. Ludicrously, Mr Hayhoe wonders if he is an insurance agent, but he flashes darkness from his eyes and causes a “curious feeling of cold dread”. Mr Death has lost a vital parchment which God has given him with orders to kill two people in the village – but Powys uses the curious and evocative word “unclay” for his task of relieving people from the sad pains and burdens of life and love.

Mr Death decides to stay in the village for a while and the book is built around his time there, until the climactic ending. After the energy of being introduced to the many quirky characters of the village, and the boldness of this narrative of Death, as well as the stimulation from Powys’s direct, bald yet florid writing style, I confess that the book sagged in the middle for me. There is no strong central story to drive forward the reader, and I found the book meandered too much and got stuck in too much aphoristic statement making. It took me many weeks to read through this book, and I felt reluctant to pick it up again at times, feeling it was too heavy and that I was possibly too stupid to understand the book’s purpose. However I was eventually rewarded, when the pace speeded up again and the high comic spirit returned to create a great ending to the book.

One of the characters of the book is the authorial voice. This voice makes many comments and statements that take one aback, or seem to hover between madness and profundity, or between simple beauty and banality. These aphoristic comments are not entertaining like Oscar Wilde, but have a heavy, individualistic, pessimistic tone. I clearly detected Theodore Powys’ character directly in this authorial voice.

In one short section in chapter 49 the author suddenly and touchingly uses the personal possessive: “Was it a mere chance that a yellow leaf, driven before the wind, lifted up and blown here and there along the lanes, until at last a wilder gust, or a swirl of eddies, carried the leaf into my room and placed it upon the paper beside my pen? Has the leaf a known purpose? Does it come to ease me of my care, or has it come to say that it loves me? What is it that takes a man, as well as a leaf, out of his path, and bids him follow a road that he has not intended to travel?”

This unintended path leads us to one of the climactic scenes of the book: Dodder churchyard, with Death about to strike a naked girl with his scythe. Two men happen to take a walk to the churchyard and come upon the scene just in time. Death desists saying “Love is as strong as death, and it is not given to me now to dispute a man’s right to a mortal girl. My time will come. He, under Whom I have my dominion and my power, is a dark star. Who can escape Him? I thought to have enjoyed Susie and to have forsaken for ever the hard task that has been laid upon me, and I almost attained to that freedom.”

It is hard to wring a consistent metaphysic from Powys’s utterances. But you realise he is not being deep and serious, but actually deeply and darkly comic. This is illustrated a few paragraphs down when Death talks about literature. Of all the books in English literature to choose from, he cites ‘The Watsons’ (by Jane Austen), which is a quirky Powysian choice, the reading of which “can give a greater happiness than a whole night with a Helen or Lais”. I think Powys is joking with us, in an eccentric, sardonic fashion. My conviction that he is tongue-in-cheek in the midst of this dramatic churchyard scene is confirmed by another strange comment of death’s, referring to God: “If only my Master had been educated at Benet College in Cambridge instead of in Palestine, perhaps He might have thought a little differently about prose writers. But as it is, He always preferred a short story to a novel, viewing a parable and a short story as the same thing.”

So my two messages about this difficult book are 1) persist to the end, if you have the courage to start reading it, and 2) view it as a comic novel through and through, if you want to understand the author’s purpose in writing it.

'The Bible - The biography', by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong specialises in religious topics, and has taken on the big topic of writing a biography of the Bible – how it came to be written, how its content was determined, how it has been interpreted and how it has influenced history. This is too much to tackle satisfactorily in only 230 pages, though there are 70 pages of glossary, notes and index, to give it academic weight. This author has a predilection for biting off more than she can chew. The influence on history is something she wisely only touches on, since that could arguably be a massive volume.

However her brave amateur approach scores some surprising successes, since she has a knack of providing a good précis and moving across subject boundaries. She gives equal weight to Jewish and Christian use of the bible, and draws parallels between Jewish and Christian exegesis of the sacred texts in an illuminating way. The ways the bible has been reinterpreted down the ages and even to draw totally opposite conclusions is fascinating. She makes clear that a literal interpretation, and a belief that this is the literal word of God, is intellectually untenable. This is very much a book written, edited, censored, added to and copied by humans, imposing their views and temporal beliefs on the text. The idea that the bible has to be supplemented by ritual and ecstasy re-occurs in several periods of history.

I was particularly interested in the first three chapters which describe how the text the Jews and Christians have today was written, often from contradictory sources and traditions and viewpoints. References to specific passages in the bible allowed fruitful re-reading of the bible from a new viewpoint. I also appreciated the brief references to key figures in the development of religious and philosophical thinking, since that encourages one to investigate further those people, such as Spinoza and Bacon. I was disappointed with the hurried and incomplete treatment of the 20th Century, which surely had many key people and events to cover in a ‘biography’ of the bible

'Iran - open hearts in a closed land', by Mark Bradley

This is a short book on Christianity in Iran, by an author I have met more than once. It runs to only 104 pages, plus a few endnotes and references. My main complaint about this book is that it is too short. I wanted more detail and deeper analysis.

You may think that Iran is a solidly Muslim society, but this book reveals that there is a small and thriving Christian community there. The author is surprisingly optimistic about prospects for the growth of the church there. This particular approach to understanding Iran proves very fruitful, since it cuts through the details of history and opens the lid on a society which few of us understand in the West. One also realises how important a country Iran is, both in history and in the contemporary world, and how educated Westerners should familiarise themselves with the Iranians much better.

First the book lowers our expectations by explaining why Iran can be described as a ‘closed land’. The government’s policy of doing everything it can to promote the glory of Islam is made clear – though personally I would have liked more explanation of why the 1979 revolution came about. The second thread in this section is to explain the Shia preoccupation with the return of the Mahdi – the hidden Imam, and how that shapes policy and religious attitudes. The third thread is and explanation of the anger that seethes below the surface at the ‘Christian’ West – mixed with confusing despising of the irreligious modern paganism / materialism of the West. Again I would like the colonialist actions of the British and Americans explained more fully, especially the seminal Mossadeq episode.

Then the book explains the ‘open hearts’ anti-thesis. It is interesting to learn of the widespread disillusion with their own Islamic government, which sent many tens of thousands to their death in the Iran-Iraq war, messed up the economy and has become riven by hypocrisy and corruption. The second part of this section is to stress that Iran is an ancient culture and language going back many glorious centuries before the adoption of Islam. So Iranians are proud of their own identity separate from Islam, which makes them more open to consider other religions, and less guilty about ‘betraying’ their native identity. Lastly Bradley explains the remarkable witness of the local Iranian church.

Bradley is obviously a talented writer and I hope he will give us a lot more on this and other related topics.

'Still blue beauty', by Llewelyn Powys

This is a companion book to ‘Durdle Door to Dartmoor’, also published by The Sundial Press. It contains more short essays on the West Country countryside and its famous people, with a large dose of personal family reminiscences. This little volume helps one appreciate the natural and cultural riches of this part of England, as well as being a useful insight into the talented Powys family.

I decided to use the two books as a travel guide and in the month of July took a brief driving holiday to the area. Having the essays to hand, so well written and quick to read, enhanced my enjoyment of places such as Cerne Abbas, Weymouth, Portland, East Chaldon, Studland and Corfe Castle. However these essays are not a tourist brochure – Powys is keen to dig into his personal memories and bring in historical and literary anecdotes, even if they wander off the ostensible subject sometimes. This gives a strong feeling of being in the company of a colourful individual, and one who loves life.

'The ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth', by Frances Wilson

I have been investigating the personal lives of some of the English Poets, and wanted to know more about William Wordsworth. This account of the life of his sister, Dorothy, seemed to be a profitable side-entrance to his life, and so it proved to be.

In particular, I wanted to know more about the love and sex life of Wordsworth, who had been portrayed as a supreme, upright and admirable poet to me. There is no sex to speak of in Wordsworth’s poetry. The key issue directly, frankly and subtly explored by Frances Wilson in this book is the extraordinarily close, strong and passionate relationship between the siblings, particularly during the period December 1799 to October 1802, when they lived together in Dove Cottage, near Grasmere.

Dorothy devoted herself to her brother, caring for him, cooking meals, doing the washing, nursing his health, taking his dictation, walking with him, copying out his poems, reading other authors to him, talking together about nature and the landscape around them. She was certainly the midwife to much of his poetry.

She kept a journal during that period, revealing her character to be passionate and sensitive. She does not reveal any dark secrets, and probably nothing conclusive will ever be known, but Frances Wilson explores their relationship with great skill and perception. It is clear that William and Dorothy loved each other deeply, a sibling love that can find few comparisons. But the intensity of that love is revealed in a passage of her journal from the very morning of his marriage to Mary Hutchinson: “I saw them go down the avenue towards the church, William had parted from me upstairs. I gave him the wedding ring – with how deep a blessing! I took it from my forefinger where I had worn it the whole of the night before – he slipped it again onto my finger and blessed me fervently. When they were absent my dear little Sara [sister of the bride] prepared the breakfast. I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men running up the walk, coming to tell us it was over, I could stand it no longer and threw myself on the bed where I lay in stillness, neither hearing or seeing anything…”

This ritual of the ring symbolises William Wordsworth marrying two people that day. Is this true? Did Dorothy make it up? Does it not reveal a disturbing strength of feeling bordering on incest? Frances Wilson does not go so far as to suggest they had an incestuous physical relationship, but she picks out tiny details in the journals that suggest the turmoil of incestuous emotions in both of them.

This book is well written, poetic in its own right. The tone is just right, and the weighing of the facts balanced and perceptive. It certainly is extremely informative, giving us a picture of Dorothy Wordsworth from her point of view that is akin to a novel – or a ballad, to use her own title. I read it quickly (within five days) and found it deepened my understanding of both characters, and of the famous poetry that emerged from that period.

Incidentally, I identified closely with Dove Cottage, since I worked very close by in the summer of 1975. I did volunteer work clearing out the weed from White Moss Tarn, a few hundred yards from their house. Their favourite walk was past this tarn up to the Upper Rydal path. They walked out together virtually every day.

'The Tao is silent', by Raymond Smullyan

Raymond Smullyan is a polymath and a great man. He is a philosopher, a logician, a mathematician, a prolific writer, a magician, a humorist, a poet and a pianist. In this book, first published in 1977, and first purchased by me in 1981, he praises the philosophy of Taoism, and applies it to modern life.

Taoism is a Chinese philosophy, expounded principally by Lao Tse and Chuang Tse, blending into Zen Bhuddism. Smullyan uses a gentle, subtle and humorous approach to persuading us to see and join the Taoist philosophy. He quotes ancient poetry and inserts poems of his own devising. It is not possible adequately to rehearse his text in a brief review – go an read the book, which will be a happy experience, I am sure. One of his techniques is to write dialogues, which develop into extended Socratic educative debates, and are most telling. His chapter 22 ‘Is God a Taoist?’ is a classic, for it is a brilliant dialogue between ‘Mortal’ and ‘God’, changing our views on many traditional Christian beliefs, such as whether or not we have free will.

One aspect of this book is its view of Nature. At the risk of a gross simplification, one could say that Taoism is about working with Nature, rather than controlling nature. ‘Nature’ is one of the trickiest words is philosophy and religion, admittedly. The ‘Tao’ is Nature. It is the life force. It is the universe and the way things are. You could say that the philosophy is about trusting nature, believing in its natural goodness, and the original goodness of human nature. This opposes the Christian belief in ‘original sin’. Lao Tse seemed to believe than man is fundamentally good, and becomes distorted and spoilt by restraint and too much stress on morality.

So Taoism, as expounded here, sounds like a ‘hippy’ philosophy – and indeed the picture of Mr Smullyan makes him look like a hippy. But do not be fooled, he has a brilliant mind, and I am sure you will like being guided by him, even if you do not agree with everything he says. Indeed he does not want you to agree with everything he says. Go with the flow.

Incidentally, there is a Western philosopher who came up with very similar conclusions to the Taoists, but by a completely different route. That is the Dutch-Jewish philosopher, Spinoza. By logic and critical thinking, he rejected much of the prevailing Jewish and Christian thinking of his time, and argued that God and Nature were inseparable – indeed they are one and the same thing. Since we are part of Nature, and Nature is everything around us, we are part of God and cannot be separated from him. The parallels are uncanny, and worthy of further investigation.

'Fooled by Randomness', by Nassim Taleb

This is Taleb’s earlier book, which I read later. It addresses many of the same themes as ‘The Black Swan’ – indeed, the Black Swan metaphor is used and explored in this book. The title is quite self-explanatory: in judging human success we are frequently fooled by random effects. In many walks of life, people can just get lucky and then are wrongly regarded as being made of superior stuff. This is particularly true of financial traders and fund managers, to which he devotes a lot of time.

He is eloquent about the social interactions between the apparently successful and the apparently unsuccessful. A trader in dangerous emerging market bonds snubs his neighbour, who also works in finance, but does not earn so much – until the trader loses everything in a sudden market crash.

This book is a good complement to ‘The Black Swan’, since it covers different ground. In essence you can say here he focuses on the random roulette wheel of life and how to avoid being fooled by it, whereas in the other book he focuses more on the extreme tails of the frequency distribution of life that is created by that roulette wheel.

I think he would have felt more at home in the Middle Ages, with their fixation on the wheel of fortune, though he greatly enjoys laughing at and being enraged by the absurdities of modern life.

The unfolding appalling events in finance and the real economy make him an important prophet of wisdom. He wrote these books before the financial crisis, and is not just one of the cacophony of wise-after-the-event commentators now.

'The Black Swan', by Nassim Taleb


This is an important book. All intellectual people should read it. It should be a set text – certainly for all business school students. The trouble is that business schools would have trouble accepting much of what he has to say. Furthermore, Mr Taleb is unrestrainedly outspoken, so that he almost seems offensive. In the first half of the book, I wondered what kind of egomaniac was keeping me company. BUT his erudition and his arguments (and his rough charm) gradually and firmly win through. By the end of the book, I simply have to admit that he is correct.

To admit that he is correct is intellectually like an earthquake, since it shakes down the towers of many things taught in our conventional education, not least business school itself. If you accept he is correct and then go on with your life as normal, then you have not fully accepted that he is correct. I personally realise that I have not internalised his messages and changed my way of thinking and my way of life. I am somewhat confused about the far-reaching implications of his arguments. I will have to read it again and contemplate, and then implement some changes. This almost sounds like a religious book!

So what is it about? A ‘Black Swan’ is his label for a highly improbable, but high impact event. It is an outlier; something beyond our regular expectations. So we do not think about a ‘black swan’ event much. We may not even know it exists. Our experience gives us no clue that it exists. We take a thousand balls out of a bag and find they are all white. Why would we expect a black ball? Our statistics, whether Pascalian or Bayesian, will not alert us to the possibility of a black ball. Then one day we draw out a black ball. All our previous experience is vitiated. Mr Taleb’s metaphor comes from Europeans seeing only white swans, and being astonished to discover black swans in Australia.

The metaphors of swans or balls in a bag do not capture well his other key point here. The ‘black swans’ have a high impact. Think of history. 9/11 was unexpected and had high impact. The First World War has unexpected and had high impact – to put it mildly.

Or think of your own life, and the unforeseen key events that changed your life for ever. They were not planned, but once they happened, everything changed. The person you met and married. The job you applied for and got, and the job you suddenly lost. Specifically I think of going to work in Japan, something not remotely contemplated 12 months before I arrived there. I also think of the thunderbolt of being diagnosed with Polycythaemia in 1994; or the stroke that might suddenly floor me as a result.

If you think in personal terms, the significance of ‘black swans’ comes home. Mr Taleb says forecasting is impossible in many circumstances. Planning often turns our to be futile. I would have been astounded to be told in 1978, as an English student at Oxford, that I would turn out to be a financial markets trainer in 2008 (having the effrontery to teach physics graduates financial maths!).

Mr Taleb seems to wander over all kinds of ground in this book, and you wonder sometimes what the relevance and point is. But it all comes together by the end of the book. For instance, he discusses fame at several stages of the book. We tend to idolise the famous. But how did they become famous? Are they really worthy of our adulation? Maybe they were just lucky. Maybe they just happened to be a touch ahead in talent, but then were swept up in the many ‘winner takes all’ processes of modern life. Are the footballers earning £10 million really 500 times better than a lowly footballer earning £20,000? Is the man on TV being heard by millions of people more worthy to be listened to than a mere teacher in a classroom? Was Admiral Nelson truly the greatest leader in the Royal Navy? And what about those who achieved great things, and have never been heard of? A stunning poem written in a book that is lost forever. A talented composer who never gets published? A man who prevents a terrorist outrage, whose name is never known to the public.

What has this to do with infrequent, high impact events? Everything. Many of the fortunate are the products of positive black swan events. Furthermore the luck element, or some self-reinforcing effect like academic peer review, leads to the domination of ideas which are simply weak or misleading – or should be more critically challenged, were they not coming from the mouths of such ‘famous’ people. When he is scathing of Nobel prize winners – especially those who won the Economics Prize – you at first think that Mr Taleb is being very disrespectful. Well he is. And when the scales fall from your eyes, and you see the unfair process by which Nobel prize winners are selected, you realise that Nobel prize are possibly not so worthy of our exaggerated respect. This is well explained by his description of social contagion.

Contagion and feedback loops are a large part of social phenomena that set them apart from pure science. He discusses the financial markets in several chapters, and firmly regards them as social phenomena, affected by human emotions and crazes. He rips apart the ideas of efficient markets and portfolio diversification and risk management techniques (all Nobel prize winning topics).

He talks a lot about ‘Mediocristan’ and ‘Extremistan’. He says we have to know which country we are in, and it is fatal to the search for truth and assessing risk to mix them up. He stores up positive venom for those who misuse the Gaussian normal distribution curve. It is a tool of Mediocristan. It can be rightly applied in the physical sciences and mechanical / chemical engineering fields. But he rages against it being used in the social ‘sciences’. Banks who assess their ‘Value at Risk’ with the normal distribution curve are telling us about the 99.9% confidence interval, which is actually unimportant. By their methods and actions they ignore the 0.1%, which is the Black Swan that changes everything. So they are not truly measuring risk, let alone thinking about it.

Finance is rich with black swans that come out of the 0.1% zone: the 1929 and 1987 stock market crashes; the Latin American Debt crisis of 1981; the collapse of LTCM in 1998; the collapse of Bear Stearns in 2008. Oh, they are all explained after the event. But we really did not forecast them and we really did not know the ultimate cause, any more than we know the cause of the First World War.

So we are urged to get away from the toxicity of Gaussian Curve thinking and to face the fact that many important distributions are highly skewed. Take wealth ownership for instance. Independently of this book, I have found statistics saying that 20% people own 83% of the world’s wealth. Furthermore an eye-popping 1% of people own 40% of the world’s wealth. The winner takes all – or so near to all that it hardly matters. We are talking about Extremistan here.

'The ode less travelled', by Stephen Fry

My friend Clem lent me this book at least a year ago, but I dared not use it properly, since Stephen Fry urges the reader to write in the book, such as marking up the stresses on samples of Iambic Pentameter. So I bought my own copy, and have been happily defacing it. I confess not to have done all the exercises he urges us to do, but I can come back to this book again and again. This is not the sort of book to sit down to read cover to cover. Indeed, it is a manual to turn us into poets, and so is a reference book and an inspiration to be used over time.

At this point I have not read it all. But I thought it worth reporting in my reviews now to praise Mr Fry. He is evidently a hugely intelligent person, belying the plumy image he sometimes conveys on TV. This book is startlingly original and he is the perfect person to write it. He has little time for the ‘inspirational’ approach to poetry, urging children to write down their feelings in free verse. I had that at school, and am actually grateful for it (thanks Mr Barton). However I now acknowledge that us schoolchildren were not taught the craft of writing poetry. Mr Fry is very old-fashioned in that respect, and you realise he is completely right. One needs to know the technical tools of any trade.

So he sets out to thoroughly educate us in Metre, Rhyme, Verse Form and Diction. My conscientiously reading this book you will be able to impress your friends with a knowledge of Iambs, Dactyls, Trochees, Enjambments, Rhyming arrangements, Terza Rima, Odes, Villanelles, Limericks, Sonnets, Haiku and so forth. Would you not be proud to identify those things, and even write them yourself. Mr Fry gives many examples from literature and gives many samples of his own poetry. He quietly but emphatically displays his huge knowledge, and does so with humour and modesty, that makes this book a pleasure to read.

'Emma - the twice crowned Queen', by Isabella Strachan

In my partially serendipitous way, I wandered into Piccadilly’s Waterstone’s on Wednesday 12th March to spend a little time, and picked up this biography. I have for a long time been interested in the history of England prior to the Norman conquest, and often browse this period of the history section of bookshops. I read the book rapidly – which is a good sign.

Emma was the wife and queen of King Ethelred (‘The unready’) of the house of Wessex, and later of the Danish King, Knut (also known as Canute). This is an extraordinary straddling of the two sides in the prolonged struggle for the control of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. As Ethelred’s wife (1002 – 1016), she was on the losing side, as the country was progressively invaded. She was even forced into temporary exile with her young children, one of whom was Edward – who later became a king of England (known as ‘The confessor’). As Knut’s wife (1017 – 1035), she gave legitimacy to the Danish conquerors and made great efforts to heal the nation’s wounds by gifts to the church. She also gave birth to a son by Knut, called Hardeknut, who was king of England for a short time.

In both marriages Emma had to compete or co-operate with another wife and her children. This was an age when the church winked at an informal polygamy, so important was securing the blood-line of kings. Ethelred had previously married Elgiva, one of whose many children was Edmund (‘Ironside’) who fought the Danish invaders, and whose bloodline stretches down to the present royal family. Knut had previously had an informal ‘marriage’ with (another!) Elgiva (‘of Northampton), who gave him a son, Harold (‘Harefoot’) who also was king of England for a short time.

Confused? The dynastic struggles of the time were complex, but extremely important in determining the whole direction of subsequent English history. So it is worth studying this period in detail. I am always annoyed by the victors’ version of history which virtually starts at the Norman conquest, ignoring hundred of years of independent and interesting history.

However detail is something in short supply, unfortunately. Historians gave to glean information from a paucity of documents, with very little opportunity to cross-reference to establish the true facts. One could describe the known facts of Emma’s life in a short monograph – as my friend Tony Head once did. Isabella has to pad out the book with other facts and a huge dose of speculation. Note the frequency of phrases and words, such as “one can imagine”, “would”, “if”, “might have”, “would have”, “may”, “possibly” and “probably”, and one realises that very little can be relied on in this book.

I am not blaming the author, since this is an ineluctable problem with the history of the era. In fact she makes a good (though sometimes mawkish) attempt at adding colour and drama to the story. However there are many unqualified sentences, especially those telling us what Emma thought (!) which are novelistic rather than historical.

'On Chesil Beach', by Ian McEwan

McEwan is an eminent British novelist, a booker prize winner and the subject of a previous review on mine (‘Saturday’). This is a relatively slight work, both in its length and subject matter. It almost reads as an extended short story. The subject matter is an investigation of Englishness, within a narrow range of history (the early 1960s) and of social category – young middle class from Oxford and London.

The narrow focus of many English novelists disappoints me. And to what does this book amount? I can blow its key event, because it is trivial: the frigidity of a newly wed woman and the premature ejaculation of her husband. The attention to detail in describing their wedding night is clever and comic. It is not pornographic, but slightly voyeuristic. I did not find the protagonists particularly interesting, though they were skilfully put in context. I did not care that they did not see each other again after the failed wedding night, and felt indifferent to their fate.

The book does have a brilliant jewel at its centre, small though it is: their recriminatory conversation on the beach after the aforementioned ejaculation is intense and true-to-life. The unpremeditated flow of their emotions and the hurtful words they throw at each other define their lives from that moment on. The crux of the story is a moment of non-response when the man, Edward, lets her walk away out of sight forever, without stretching out a hand or saying a conciliatory, loving word. The inaction changes everything.

I think McEwan likes to write to capture these defining moments. But it does not matter much, in this case.

'The English', by Kate Fox

This is an anthropological book on the tribe known as the English, purportedly explicating the ‘hidden rules’ of their behaviour. It is not in an academic mode, and is clearly pitched at selling good numbers to the public. The author tries hard to entertain and provoke, and ends up giving a fairly subjective view, which can hardly qualify as cool objective scientific research.

I found it repetitive. She has themes, which emerge repeatedly in examining different contexts, such as home, food, pubs, dress and so forth. The concluding chapter ‘Defining Englishness’ is yet another repeat, and offers nothing new. It has a diagram “of Englishness”, bringing together her theses in one flowing system. According to Ms Fox, the central driver is ‘Social dis-ease’. From this psychological core emanate ‘Reflexes’ (Humour, Moderation, Hyprocrisy), ‘Values’ (Fair play, Courtesy, Modesty) and ‘Outlooks’ (Empiricism, Eeyorishness, Class-consciousness).

This list does not do justice to the colour and humour of the many observations and anecdotes. Many of the comments are piercingly accurate – Pub culture is brilliantly explained. However she does not reflect on the philosophical problem of Induction – drawing conclusions from evidence. She makes generalisations which seem somewhat false, trite, conventional or just plain irritating.

Underlying the book is a journalistic need to paint the English as particularly weird and embarrassed by everything. This strikes me as exaggeration and inaccurate. I wonder if the English are really so special. It seems a kind of egotism – Ms Fox is herself English. What about the quirks of say the South African Dutch tribe? Also I wondered if many of the social phenomena she observes are really human universals. So I was somewhat disappointed, and judged the book lightweight.

At several points she likens the English to the Japanese. Indeed, I have long thought the two races/cultures have many mirror points. Since these are the two tribes I know best, maybe I am conditioned into thinking our quirks are normal human behaviour.

Still one can come away from this book with edification. Certainly observing one’s fellow human beings in an anthropological manner is highly entertaining.