Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides

Adam Nicolson

2001


An elegy to a Hebridean island through time.

The author is the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and son of the man who last purchased the Shiant Islands (pronounced shant) that sit in The Minch off Lewis. The book is an homage to them. Not, as might be expected, a tale of living on the islands, which Nicolson never does for any extended period of time. Instead it tells the story of finding out about when they were inhabited, and how that habitation came to an end around the turn of the nineteenth century as the cash and market economy took over from the more self-sufficient one that had previously been in place. It's hard to say this was an improvement for the islanders, but equally hard to say that many would now seek out the kind of life they lost.

The main resonance here is with The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in which Robert Macfarlane covers a lot of similar ground (and water). It makes no attempt to "sell" island life for what it isn't, and is dismissive of attempts at "structured" conservation in place of enlightened private ownership. It's hard to accept this argument, or at least hard to feel safe assuming that all future generations will be enlightened in the same way – although that's perhaps true of government quangos as well.

Finished on Fri, 09 Jul 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs

Michael T. Osterholm

2017


Sub-titled as being by the man who predicted the pandemic. He didn't, of course, he predicted a pandemic – which he expected to be of influenza, not coronavirus, which was relegated to a "regional" risk.

That's not a criticism of this book, however, which is a powerful exploration of the world's state of preparedness for pandemics and – more importantly – some very detailed policy prescriptions to improve that level that are now even more relevant given what we know about pandemic spread in the modern world.

The style is a mixture between personal anecdotes and broader perspectives: very characteristic of Mark Olshaker, whose style I think I could have recognised (from Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit and The Cases That Haunt Us, which is co-write with John Douglas) even had I not seen his name on the cover. It gives an immediacy to the content that otherwise risks becoming lost in a maze of science and politics.

Finished on Thu, 01 Jul 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Stalin's War

Sean McMeekin

2021


Even those who are familiar with Second World War History, and with Stalin, will find a huge amount in this book. It's a complete take-down of the usual western-centric perspective of both the war and its background diplomacy.

It's hard to comprehend the degree of duplicity displayed by Stalin, other than as an utterly ruthless and unswerving devotion to both the short- and long-term benefits of any agreement to the USSR. No lie is too brazen, and no-one remains un-betrayed. It renders the war in the West unavoidably morally compromised, as Britain and France fight Germany over its treatment of its neighbours while not fighting the USSR which has invaded just as many of its neighbours. Having said that, it's clearly rather fantastical of McMeekin to suggest that this could have been rectified by the Allies fighting the Russians too in defence of free peoples: no matter that it would have been an unsaleable proposition at the time, it's hard to see how it would have enormously altered the broad strokes of what followed had the Nazis still knocked-out France.

The Western leaders come out very badly: Churchill, but especially Roosevelt. The former is too romantic and too old-world to cope with the diminished nature of Britain's place in the world; the latter is clearly entirely taken in by his belief in his own ability to charm and manage anyone, with this belief being fed by a collection of NKVD assets and Communist fell0w-travellers embedded in the US foreign services. Both are comprehensively outclassed. It's shocking to read of Roosevelt's treatment of Churchill in the wider context of the Lend-Lease programme, from which Russia receives a cascade of material for free while the British receive substantially less and are required to pay exorbitantly for it. It's also shocking in this context to read that the Red Army's supply base from Lend-Lease left it so overwhelmingly superior in men and machinery to the Wehrmacht – and yet still took almost unimaginable casualties in almost every encounter.

McMeekin's overall view of the war is that the Russians won in terms of their final positioning in the world, and that both Lend-Lease and the looting of German and the other countries of Eastern Europe positioned them as a superpower ready for the Cold War. It's a hard diagnosis, but one that's also hard to counter.

Finished on Mon, 28 Jun 2021 05:57:51 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Savage arena

Joe Tasker

1982


Still one of the greatest mountaineering books ever written, all the more poignant for being posthumous. It's the book that first fired my imagination for the mountains.

The climbs that Tasker tackles (with a variety of "great names" from British muntaineering of the era) gradually grow in severity – although starting with the north face of the Eiger is hardly a normal progression! His honesty in describing his feelings is remarkable, not least because they're generally feelings of technical and emotional inadequacy. These are set amid quite epic descriptions of climbing challenges and the (often grim) reality of being on expeditions in the Himalayas.

Tasker often compares his own emotional state to that of his companions, notably the notoriously self-contained Dick Renshaw and equally notoriously voluble Doug Scott. It's hard to know from this book what they would have thought of him: he gives the impression of being rather inscrutable himself (an impression that Chris Bonnington reinforces in his forward). It's perhaps a trait that served him well on the walls when the going got especially tough, as it did frequently. He finds himself repeatedly questioning his motivations for climbing without reaching too much of a conclusion. He seems simply to accept it: it's what he does, there doesn't have to be a reason, and the dangers and isolation are simply part of the cost. It never feels over-examined.

Finished on Mon, 21 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Stephen Greenblatt

2018


An analysis of Shakespeare's treatment of tyranny in several plays: the Henry VI series, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, A Winter's Tale, and Coriolanus. All fascinating discussions as they stand, written by an individual who's clearly a deep Shakespeare scholar – but also cleverly addressing contemporary political themes and events. Make England Great Again!

As with much such scholarship, it often begs the question of how much Shakespeare really meant what is imputed to him: to what extent is his writing a mirror onto which we can project any theme of interest? Perhaps that's not such an interesting question in this case, though, as the reflections cast by the plays – histories and tragedies, including a couple considerably less well-read or -performed in modern times – are really illuminating of the timelessness of events that sometimes feel like they're uniquely modern, rather than be reiterations at some level of eternal themes. The power of this is shown by the fact that this book was published well before some of the events that it parallels, such as the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol. That I think makes clear the depth of the historical context.

Finished on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Everest the Cruel Way

Joe Tasker

1981


A classic of mountaineering, although not to the same extent as Savage Arena, Tasker's other (later) book.

This is the story of an ill-fated expedition to climb Everest by an unusual route, in winter. The challenge was too great and the team had to turn back, plagued by illness and atrocious weather. But that in no way diminishes their achievement, and they laid the ground work for later winter expeditions to the Himalayas having exposed exactly how cruel the wind in particular made climbing in that season.

Tasker is quite an acute observer of his partners, especially of their strengths as climbers and team-mates. He himself comes through less strongly, and this is a far less personally revealing account than is "Savage Arena". It's probably best read as an inspiring tale of what can be achieved even when short of ultimate success.

Finished on Mon, 07 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care

Madeleine Bunting


Part policy exploration, part history, part memoir, and part anthropological study, this is a detailed and deeply worrying take on the state of modern British healthcare – the most loved and trusted part of the British State that has been under constant attack for decades. Why is that? – why would politicians seeking the approval of voters nevertheless fail to support and recognise the one thing that all voters admire? And do so with such fake affectations of care?

The notion of "care" itself, both as a noun and as a verb. comes under scrutiny. It's a word that's replaced a rich vocabulary of terms, bring aspects of medical and social services that were all previously regarded as separate under a single rubric. And perhaps that's the root of the problem. By destroying the subtlety in search of management and measurement, it becomes easier to neglect the essence of what's being provided and turn social care (and mental health care in particular) into "Cinderella services" adrift from public attention.

Finished on Sat, 05 Jun 2021 04:33:32 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd

1977


Here then may be a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any
mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to
think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in
itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in
one sense at a time to live all the way through. ... The many details
– a stroke here, a stroke there – come for a moment into perfect
focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the
beginning.


Jeanette Winterson, in her afterword to this edition, describes the book as a "geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms". That's a good description, though incomplete: this is a meditation on mountains and mountain-centred living in all its forms, often quite breathtaking in its imagery and always rather meditative and spiritual in its perception of the wholeness of the environment.

The style of writing itself is fascinating, almost Victorian but without the heaviness. The grammar is flawless, which in itself is quite dated and dating, and every now and again there are some passages that jump off the page with their insight and lucidity. It's a book I want to take into the mountains to read in the situation of its conception.

Finished on Sat, 05 Jun 2021 04:26:48 -0700.   Rating 5/5.