General

My 2015 in books

2015 was another year of avid reading for me. I was quite surprised when in 2014 I managed to read 79 books over the course 0f the year. In 2015 it was 97 books. Whilst I haven’t tried to reach a certain number, as I’d rather enjoy the books instead of trying to meet some sort of target, I did end up a little disappointed to just fall short of 100. The full list of what I read is here on my Goodreads site. But as with last year I’m going to pick out some that I particularly recommend or that I think were noteworthy.

Surprisingly, the book that came out top was Roman Krznaric’s How To Find Fulfilling Work. This is part of a series of books by The School of Life, a project started by Alain de Botton to help people improve their lives through culture and their emotional intelligence. It now runs courses, publishes books and has various other services from its base in Bloomsbury. It’s an organisation I’ve always thought sounded interesting and when I spotted a book by them that aims to help you work out what motivates you and how that translates to a job that you would find particularly fulfilling, I knew it was a must read. What this book did most of all for me was make me think. It made me think in a different way about what I’m most interested in and where in the longer term I want to be as it’s highly unlikely I’ll remain in my current job for the 30 years until I retire. It’s a short read but one that made me look at things in a different way, and also much to my surprise included someone as a case study who I once knew and who I hadn’t realised had gone off in a completely different direction from his old career.

Whilst my favourite book of the year is perhaps a surprising one, I have continued to read plenty of crime fiction – traditionally my preferred genre of book. But like in 2014 it’s becoming a lot less of a key part of my reading. My two favourite crime novels last year were both set in the same city – Venice – a city which I have continued to be fascinated by ever since I visited it nearly 15 years ago. It makes me wonder whether it’s the subject matter I find fascinating rather than the books themselves, but regardless of that The Anonymous Venetian by Donna Leon and Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin were both excellent. Donna Leon has rapidly become one of my favourite crime writers and as all her books are set in Venice she manages to depict many different sides of the city in each one. Her main character Commissario Brunetti is also an interesting and fully formed character in his own right rather than being just another dogged investigator. Michael Dibdin is someone who I haven’t read for a while as I was a little disappointed with his last book which felt too melodramatic, however in this one his lead character Aurelio Zen finds himself back in his home city (unlike Leon, Dibdin’s books are often set in different parts of Italy despite the origins of Zen) and is caught up in a complex web of relationships between the great and the good. Dibdin is back on form with this one. 2015 was also a year when I started to read a number of books on real crime, perhaps inspired by my time on jury service in February, of which two particularly stood out – Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun about the first murder victim on a train back in 1864 and Blood on the Altar by Tobias Jones about two murders committed by the same man – one in southern Italy and the other in Bournemouth. I’ve also finally read my first Sherlock Holmes, thoroughly enjoyed JK Rowling’s first book written as Robert Galbraith (great characters about whom I’ll definitely read more) and uncovered Barbara Nadel’s interesting Hakim & Arnold series.

Last year another new departure for me was reading a number of different travel books. I’ve always been fascinated by geography, and in particular what makes different countries tick, but I’ve never read many non-fiction books about specific countries. In 2015 I managed to find out more about Pakistan, Angola, Nigeria, and Italy, as well as a book that explain travel writing in general and one that covered a number of different world cities. I also found myself reading more fiction set in different countries including Japan, Sweden, Norway, Italy, France, USA, Netherlands, Spain, Egypt, Finland and Nigeria (the latter being Americanah by the amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It’s all been pretty enlightening and showing you sides to countries you didn’t know. The two books I’ll particularly pick out though are Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven which is an amazing book, and quite a hefty tome, in which he uses his many years of experience as a journalist in the country to show you the contrasting and contradictory elements of Pakistan. It has made me see the country in a whole different way and helped me understand so much more about its place in the world. The other book was Looking for Transwonderland by Noo Saro-Wiwa, the daughter of murdered human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who spent most of her life growing up in Britain, but who decides to go back and explore her home country of Nigeria and face what she finds hard about the place. Although very different in style to Lieven’s book, Saro-Wiwa once again shows how books (whether fiction or non-fiction) can give you such a broader understanding of the world than the one you usually get through the media.

I’ve read far fewer political books than I have in previous years. Perhaps the reality of the General Election put me off. But there are two books I will pick out. One is Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism. This was a book I’d long wanted to get and I finally found it at a bargain price from one of the independent retailers that sell via Amazon. As the late Conrad Russell used to do in person, the book manages to sum up really well the key tenets of what being a liberal is about and manages to combine real life with academic rigour to explain the philosophy behind it. This was something that was a refreshing read for a Lib Dem such as me after such a traumatic year politically. The other book I read is one that I’d had mixed feelings about before I read it – Owen Jones’ The Establishment. I admit I’d been put off it because of Jones’ strident political opinions which I rarely agree with and I feared a lot of coalition government bashing. Yet I was also very keen to read it as I liked the premise of the book. The book was well researched and provided fascinating details about the lack of transparency and democracy involved in many of the institutions and companies that affect our lives so much. A very good book, but one that emphasised to me that whilst I share many of the concerns of socialists like Jones, I also disagree with the solutions that he wants to see (where are the books by liberals with the solutions to these same problems?).

One more book that I must particularly mention is Journey Through a Small Planet by Emanuel Litvinoff. I discovered this book entirely by chance when browsing the shelves of Waterstones in Greenwich the day after I’d been on the London Walk entitled The Old Jewish Quarter. This book describes the Jewish East End of Litvinoff’s youth and the people he encountered and the story of how his own parents left Russia and settled in Whitechapel. Where this book really excels is bringing to life the area at the time and the experiences the author had, to the point where you can see and smell vividly in your own mind what it must have been like. A fascinating book about a very distinctive culture that is both familiar yet also very alien.

As I always do on this blog, I have written far more than I’d intended and yet I’ve only covered a handful of the books I read last year. But finally I must give more words of praise for Sheffield’s Central Library. Although I’ve been a member of the city libraries from being a small child it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve used them so extensively. The Central Library, being my nearest, has become like a second home and I’ve acquired far more variety in my reading habits as a result of just being able to take a punt on a book even if I’m not sure whether it’s my thing or not. I’ve discovered new writers and new types of books as a result. It’s largely due to the Central Library that I’ve ended up reading so many books this year as every time I return a book I always end up borrowing more, even though I know that at home I’ve got shelves full of books that I’ve yet to read.

Last year I finished off my review by saying that I wanted 2015 to be the year I finally started the book I want to write. Well it didn’t happen, but perhaps in 2016 it will as I’ve already signed up to a free online course from the Open University via the FutureLearn website on how to Start Writing Fiction and that begins later this month.

The tipping point

Yet again tipping in restaurants is in the news following criticism of various restaurants for either keeping the tips that customers leave or by keeping a share of them in administration charges before giving it to their staff.  But the idea that we should rely on tips at all either for staff to earn an adequate salary or for restaurants to make money seems crazy.

The thing is I can’t actually eat at a restaurant without the service. In fact, food without service is essentially called eating in (or a picnic).  The very reason you go to a restaurant is because they do all the work for you before serving you at your table. Obviously it’s also the case that most restaurants produce food to a standard that you can’t, but the point stands that the service is an intrinsic part of why you’re there.  So a restaurant needs to charge a price that covers the work they put in and the amount it costs to pay their staff a salary.

I don’t begrudge giving a tip in a restaurant if I feel I’ve had a particularly good experience.  It is after all essentially an ultra democratic form of bonus scheme.  But why I’m expected to put in a set amount of money (usually 10%) simply to ensure a decent wage or a company’s profit feels the wrong way round.  After all, how many of us actually withhold the 10% and if we do it may end up punishing the very person who wasn’t at fault (it could be the management, it could be the chef, there’s so many other people involved who might have made or ruined the experience).

In this discussion about service charges little has been said about how this is simply an archaic way of paying for things.  Service should surely always just be part of the cost, as we can’t do without it, and a company sets its prices and its salaries based on that.  Then anything extra we leave beyond that is a bonus for the person or persons who did a particularly good job and at whatever level we want to set ourselves.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 13th Dec 2014

One commitment I made when I stood for election to the English Liberal Democrats Executive (ECE) was that I’d write on this blog about what was coming up at each meeting, and then do a post summarising what was discussed or decided after the event.  I was pleased to be elected back on to ECE for 2015 (I currently sit on it as Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Lib Dems) and so here’s my first of these posts.  I warn people who have no interest in internal committees of political parties, especially those that deal with internal issues, that this will be very long and very dull and that is largely why I’ve inserted a ‘read more’ tag to the article!  I will endeavour to be much shorter in future, but as this is the first one I need to explain the background to more things.

This is the last meeting of ECE of 2014 and is taking place a few weeks later than usual to allow the newly elected regional chairs and directly-elected committee members to attend, along with the existing members from 2014.  If the meeting had taken place on the usual date the election results wouldn’t have been announced in time for that to be possible.  The benefit of this is to allow elections for those positions that are elected by the other members of the ECE to be held before the New Year and to take office alongside the new chair (Steve Jarvis) on 1st January.  The full set of positions to be elected are – treasurer, vice-chair, four members of the Finance and Administration Committee (EFAC), four members of the Regional Parties’ Committee (RPC), a rep to the International Relations Committee and the English Diversity Champion.

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London Olympics 2012

How amazing was that?

I always thought it would go well (despite the cynicism) and I never thought we shouldn’t have bid for it (despite the expense).  But what I didn’t know was quite how amazing the London 2012 Olympics would be.

I have always been rubbish at sport and I don’t usually watch sport much on TV.  But I’ve been hooked.  I’ve watched so many sports that I would never watch and been spellbound.  As one radio presenter (I can’t remember who) said “I never thought I’d find watching a horse moving sideways to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory a good way to spend an evening.”  I’ve spent evenings watching water polo, archery, athletics, wrestling and rowing to name just a few.  When would I normally do that?  What I regret is not having seen any part of the Olympics in person, unless you include seeing them film the helicopter supposedly carrying James Bond and the Queen fly through Tower Bridge.

I think the thing that finally got everyone interested after the initial scepticism, despite it being seen as hugely London-centric, was the torch relay.  It just excited people as it brought the Olympics to every part of the country.  A beautiful torch.  Some amazing torch-bearers.  Covering all of the UK.  And I also think it was good to add in some famous local person too.

I loved the Opening Ceremony.  Yes there were parts that were a bit lefty in parts, but it was an absolutely amazing event that showcased our history and Britain today.  Britain is all of the things in that opening ceremony, despite what Aidan Burley and the Mail Online might say.  We’re a traditional and also modern country and that Opening Ceremony showed it.  It was the Britain that I love and why I think we’re a great country.  And I think Danny Boyle deserves huge praise for distilling what Britain is, when most of us sort of know it in our soul but perhaps can’t express it.  Anyone who wants to know what being British is about should just watch the Opening Ceremony (and the Closing Ceremony for that matter too).  Oh, and the Olympic cauldron was amazing and despite it not much was said about our country’s amazing designers (except for those in fashion).

I even found myself excited wondering where Sheffield’s golden postbox would be once Jessica Ennis won her Gold Medal.  Despite my initial reservations about the idea of them.  I was even more excited when I stumbled on it whilst it was being painted.  Yes, as a proud Sheffielder I am also chuffed that someone local won a gold medal (Jessica Ennis).  Someone local and from my school organised it (Sebastian Coe).  Some locals performed in the opening ceremony (Arctic Monkeys).

Everyday at work we wondered what our Gold medals were going to be that day and we realised that we had champions that we had never even heard of because there were so many of them.   A couple of us also were proud at how well Yorkshire did.  We told everyone when we had won something and it was considered fine not a distraction from work as this is a once in a lifetime event.

There’s plenty of events I can say I’ve enjoyed watching on TV, but there’s nothing that has ever been as good as these Olympics.  Britain at it’s best.  I’ve never been much of a nationalist and my nationality has just been a fact rather than something I feel fanatical about (although by being born in Sweden it makes it someway more complicated).  But I think these Olympics have made me use the word “proud” for the first time.  I’m proud we can put on an event this good.  I’m proud that we can be this successful in sport.  I’m proud that we show the world what an amazing country we are.  I’m proud that we’ve all got behind it.  I’m proud that I’m British.  I was even a little tearful when the flag was handed over to Brazil.

What a show.  What a spectacle.  What an achievement.  Let’s hope we keep up the positivity and use the pride in our nation for positive good.  Oh, and lets not forget we do still have the Paralympic Games coming up.

Sorry for all the hyperbole but I have genuinely loved all of this.

Photo credit: Shimelle (Opening Ceremony) and LondonAnnie (Mo Farah)

The Secret History of our Streets

One of the benefits of the Olympics has been a series of fascinating programmes about London.  One of the best has been the BBC2 series ‘The Secret History of our Streets‘ which has taken a road somewhere in London and shown how it has changed over the years.

The series takes as its start Charles Booth’s Poverty Maps showing the income and social status of roads in London, and then goes through the years showing how the roads have changed.  Some have stayed as working class areas, whereas moved either upmarket or downmarket.  It doesn’t matter whether you know the roads or not – so far only Caledonian Road has been familiar to me and even there it’s only the bottom end of it that I know – but it remains fascinating and you can probably build similar stories in cities across the country.  This isn’t just some dry social history, although personally I love social history, as it not only describes the history of the street but also talks to its residents current and past.  If you haven’t watched this series I really recommend that you do whilst it’s still available on iPlayer.

Whilst I’m recommending programmes, another great one has been ‘The Bridges that Built London‘ with Dan Cruickshank.  Dan Cruickshank has always been one of my favourite TV presenters as he makes history come to life in a way that I’ve always found fascinating.  I first discovered Dan Cruickshank when he was on the series ‘One Foot in the Past‘ back in the 1990s which I really miss and which has never really been replaced.  Since then he has been a constant feature on TV and I don’t think he has ever done a programme or series that hasn’t been worth watching.

Pecha Kucha Sheffield #9

It’s ages since I blogged, but after such an enjoyable night out I just had to tell people about it.

Pecha Kucha is the Japanese for ‘chit chat’ and essentially that is what it is.  People come in and talk about something they are interested in or on which they have a particular knowledge (see the Pecha Kucha website or Wikipedia for more).  The 20×20 format is how it’s run and it’s very simple.  A series of people have 20 slides that are shown on a big screen and they talk to them with each slide shown for no more than 20 seconds.  It was invented by architects with the intention that it would limit how long they can talk for and is particularly popular with design and arty types, but I think I’d sum it up by saying if you’re just interested in stuff, stuff that happens around where you live and the people who do this stuff then it’s for you.

There were a number of speakers but a few particularly stick in my mind.  The one that everyone who attended is bound to remember for some time was the very emotional talk by Julia O’Dwyer whose son Richard O’Dwyer is currently up for extradition to the USA for running a website which provided links to websites which allowed you to do illegal downloading.  I can’t do justice to what she said and so I’ll just provide a link to her website if you want to know more.

Another great speaker was Erica Packington on Roller Derbys.  A subject in which I would have never expected to have any interest but it was actually informative and thought provoking.

I also particularly enjoyed the two urban explorers as it covered two things I find fascinating –  photography and interesting derelict buildings around Sheffield.  Urban exploration isn’t something I’d have the guts to do, although I do occasionally stick my camera through broken windows in derelict buildings just to see what’s inside.

Other speakers included Rob Lee on perspective art (I knew I recognised him couldn’t place him and then found he works at the Showroom, which explains it), Dave Carlson on the Burton Street Foundation where the event was hosted and a building that I was probably last in about about 20 years ago when it was the Langsett Music Centre (for those who don’t know Sheffield it was where the job centre scene was filmed in The Full Monty and the outside was used as the school which is what it was originally anyway), Jonny Douglas on Sheffield specially to celebrate the Pecha Kucha Global Cities Week (since becoming a councillor I keep seeing these presentations both amateur and professional on the city and I keep thinking how great it would be to collect them all together in one place as they are all different), and Nynke Wierda on photography of the dead (strangely fascinating)!

I must also give a mention to The Mother Folkers who played music in the break halfway through.  Very good musicians to the point where I bought their CD and I’ll definitely make the effort to see them perform again.  Another mid-event event was showing two amusing and interesting videos from YouTube, including this one that whilst getting across a message is also interesting to any Sheffielder who is a fan of Tinsley Cooling Towers.

I thoroughly enjoyed the night.  I found about things that I knew nothing about before, (or would have expected I’d want to know about), I met people I’d never met before and I just wish I’d heard about it before.  I’ll definitely be back.  This is exactly the sort of thing I find fascinating and I just wish I’d found  out about it before.

Keep an eye on the Pecha Kucha Sheffield website for details of the next event in April.

Song of the Week 5 – Edge of Darkness by Eric Clapton

A slightly random choice for my Song of the Week this week, or should I say this month as I’m not very good at writing this regularly.

The reason for this choice is that this song suddenly came to mind on my way home from work tonight.  I was listening to Radio One when a song came on that had some elements that reminded me of Edge of Darkness.  Given I was driving through the icy darkness high up on a hill on the edge of the Colne and Calder Valleys near Huddersfield  it felt like an appropriately dramatic soundtrack for my drive, and I couldn’t shake it out of my mind afterwards.

Edge of Darkness was a song I first discovered when I was a child and had one of these cassettes of TV theme tunes.  I remember Edge of Darkness came after the Howard’s Way theme (another great) and before Tomorrow’s World.  That shows how many times I listened to the cassette even though I don’t even own it anymore.  I’d never seen the TV series Edge of Darkness that was first shown on the BBC in 1985.  I was ten at the time and so probably still a bit young.  And I’ve still never seen it, but looking it up on Wikipedia I see it did have Yorkshire connections and so it seems even more appropriate that it came to mind when I was driving through the Yorkshire countryside.

It’s astonishing that a great like Eric Clapton did a TV theme tune, but he did.  I just love the drama and mystery of the tune that fits with a dark story that involves conspiracy and intrigue.  A brilliant bit of guitar playing and I know how much of an understatement that sounds.