Twenty books from 2020

When the pandemic started, I dug out a number of plague stories to read – Camus, Defoe, Marquez, the Adam Mars-Jones short story about the Queen getting rabies, and studies of the Spanish Flu epidemic. I didn’t read any of them – I wasn’t in the mood. So instead here are twenty books I did read that seem worth noting. They are not the only books I read in the year – there must be at least a couple of dozen others I read for work alone. These are not in any order, other than chronological order of reading.

  1. Patrick White The Living and the Dead. Until I went back through my pandemic diary I had forgotten I read this earlier in the year. In my teenage years I remember there were a few dog-eared copies of Voss in the school library, but I never read it – I was more interested in Simenon. This is a family in decline in the 1930s. There’s something of Anthony Powell’s Dance series about it, but it’s darker.
  2. Sara Blaedel is a Danish crime fiction author and we spend – spent, before the pandemic – a fair amount of time in Copenhagen for family reasons. Her Louise Rick series is ideal distraction reading. This year I read several, so let’s go with The Midnight Witness, a murder story set in Copenhagen itself.
  3. The Swedish journalist and crime fiction writer, the late Stieg Larsson, was the source of the material for the next book, which is based partly on his files on the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme: The Man who Played with Fire, by Jan Stocklassa. It’s a thorough piece of investigative journalism, irritating in its development in places, but an important assessment of the failures of the investigations and the right-wing networks that may have been involved.
  4. The Alanbrooke diaries. Lord Alan Brooke was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of the Second World War. This is a fascinating read on the thoroughness of the planning for the defence of the UK, the preparation for D-Day, and the interaction between Churchill and his military chiefs. Anyone who thinks Johnson is another Churchill should read this and think about Churchill’s preparation for speeches and decisions.
  5. Derek Raymond’s The Crust on their Uppers (written when he was known as Robin Cook – not the late Labour politician). Raymond’s Factory series is gripping and doesn’t hide the realities of violence and murder. This is a much earlier thriller set in a 1960s milieu of upper class decadence and criminal association.
  6. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach had sat on the bookshelf for a while. It was engaging and cleverly-imagined, though I thought there should have been some development of both male and female characters in the years following the separation.
  7. Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains has also sat on the bookshelf for years. In the early days of lockdown I wanted to ensure a real break between the week and the weekend and without football I turned to shorter novels for a Sunday read, like this and Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Both deal with relatively unknown – to us in the UK – periods in European history – the first, Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the Nazis, and the second, West Germany under threat from the Red Army Faction. The first has many unlikeable characters but contains a tragedy: the latter, I enjoyed more for its sense of a society under threat.
  8. The Mirror and the Light. This was the big one. I found I couldn’t read it in one go as I had the previous two volumes – and Mantel herself has said it is a more difficult read for the reader. I kept seeing Brexit parallels throughout – Henry VIII as a manic Johnson – and the politics of the Kingdom, relations with the North and the Scots, played a significant role. Cromwell’s last days were very effectively conjured.
  9. Curtis Sittenfield’s Rodham was a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end: the story of what Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life would have been like if she hadn’t married Bill. She created plausible futures for both Hillary and Bill after their break-up, and didn’t duck challenges. One of my favourite books of 2020.
  10. We have been to Sicily a couple of times in 2018 and 2019 with Sicily Unlimited and were due to go again on the Montalbano Unlimited tour in 2020 which was of course cancelled by Covid. I am late to the Montalbano novels of Camilleri but I started with the first three and I prefer them to what I have seen of the TV series. Camilleri uses dialogue substantially to shape plot development and character and has said he learned a lot from the way in which Simenon’s Maigret novels were torn part for TV reconstruction on Italy’s public service broadcaster, RAI. The Shape of Water introduces Montalbano and the fictional town of Vigata (we have visited its real-life equivalent), as well as the cuisine, culture and politics of Sicily.
  11. I loved Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes. I spent a lot of time in Scotland in the 1980s for work and personal reasons and this brought back much of that milieu and its culture and distinctive developing politics as it criss-crosses time periods from the 80s to the present. It’s not all set in Scotland, but Scotland – and radical politics, feminism and popular culture north and south of the border – is its centre.
  12. Fintan O’Toole has been one of the most acute observers of the post-Brexit UK, writing from an Irish internationalist perspective. Heroic Failure is full of sharp observations drawn from both political and cultural analysis on how we got to our current crisis and why.
  13. Eimear McBride is an extraordinary writer. I much preferred The Lesser Bohemians to her previous novel, although that itself still sticks in my memory two years after reading it. Bohemians is rich, evocative, challenging and contains one of the most remarkable 70 pages of a single character’s story you are ever likely to read.
  14. Leonardo Sciascia was not only a novelist and short story writer but also a Sicilian politician who wrote devastatingly about Italy and Sicily’s history, political corruption, criminality and social unease. I have read a lot of Sciascia in the last few years and we visited Racalmuto, his home town, in 2019. He wrote a scathing account of the murder of the Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in the 1970s. The Wine-Dark Sea is a volume of Sciascia short stories which is a good introduction to his writing.
  15. I haven’t read any Martin Amis for probably thirty years, but I wanted to read Inside Story largely on because of his exploration of his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, including in his last years (and also with Saul Bellow). It’s not really a novel, though it has novelistic aspects and fictional elements. I’d call it a meditation – it explores themes of life, death, physical decline, and love.
  16. I found Don Delillo’s The Silence a bit thin – it’s a spare, dystopian account of what happens to a small elite group when the electronic systems on which we rely start to fail. I couldn’t really engage with this, despite the contemporary themes and despite having enjoyed much of Delillo’s previous writing.
  17. Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an extraordinary piece of dystopian science fiction written by a Chinese writer who actually gets the science of a lot of key issues in physics. It’s the first volume of a trilogy. I enjoyed it not only for the concept itself but also for the insights it gives to Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution and after.
  18. Amongst other things, Hani Kunzru tackles the strategies of the alt-right in Red Pill. The term comes to us of course from the film Matrix but it has been adopted by the alt-right as a description of the process by which people come to shed their supposed delusions and turn to the alt-right world view (I discuss this a little in Facebook, the Media and Democracy). Cleverly done, the novel explores the breakdown of a writer’s sanity.
  19. Jock Colville’s The Fringes of Power cover his years working as Private Secretary to Churchill. They contain a revealing paragraph about Churchill’s conception of the Empire, based on the emotional solidarity of its white inhabitants, which illuminates the Churchillism of the Brexit-backing right today, and on which I have written in a forthcoming book.
  20. I ended the year reading thrillers. There’s always a new Michael Connelly to read around Christmas-time. I read The Law of Innocence in a day. Gripping escapism in itself, as an aside, it is the first novel I read last year that mentions Coronavirus.

Johnson channels JFK

I knew I’d heard a version of ‘moment of maximum risk’ before. The reason I knew was that I remembered saying to senior officials in my department when I was Education Minister in about 2012  that this was ‘the moment of maximum danger’ for our school improvement policy: we had buy-in across the sector, but now we needed the resources on the ground to enable people to deliver, and if we failed in that we would lose momentum and support.

So last night I posted a request on Twitter for help in tracking down the original, and thanks to Daryl Leeworthy and Jon Coles we tracked it down. It’s from JFK’s inaugural speech, where he refers to the ‘hour of maximum danger’:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

So there you have it. Johnson channels JFK. Not, I think something they would have said about that other Johnson – LBJ.

Johnson, Churchill and Crisis Communications

My article on Johnson, Churchill and crisis communications was published in the New European yesterday. It was written and published before we knew the Prime Minister had contracted COVID-19, and I genuinely wish him a swift recovery. But that doesn’t invalidate what I wrote:

The UK Government’s coronavirus communications have been poor. Partly because of the apparent change of strategy – from the formation of ‘herd immunity’ at the risk of a large number of deaths to a stronger emphasis on social distancing and self-isolation. The initial strategy, heavily criticised and harder to explain, will unquestionably be the subject of Parliamentary and Public Inquiries in due course. Inquiries will also deal with the apparent delays in creating more ICU beds, ordering additional ventilators and protective equipment for front-line staff. For now, the priority is getting those problems sorted.

But the major problem has been the Prime Minister. The people taking key decisions at the centre of this unprecedented crisis are intelligent, hard-working and diligent, working under extreme pressure, at great pace and with facts and evidence that are being gathered in real-time. But the PM’s performance has not inspired confidence. Alastair Campbell, who knows a thing or two about crisis communications, published twenty recommendations for practical things the government should be doing. His key observation was the need for the Prime Minister to ‘narrate’ a strategy. Unlike his hero Churchill, Boris Johnson has failed in that. Even Monday’s address to the nation showed someone trying but failing to suppress his gung-ho bonhomie.

There are four key factors that can gleaned from the writings of Churchill’s contemporaries, people who served with him or watched him at close distance. They are

  • Clarity
  • Gravity
  • Preparation, and
  • Discipline

Clarity. Waffle won’t wash. Indeed, it confuses the message. Churchill could sometimes be prolix in his orations but he knew the importance of clarity and concision in the delivery of messages. Shortly after becoming Prime Minister in 1940, he wrote a minute to his War Cabinet headed ‘Brevity’.  It’s as relevant today as when it was written. ‘To do our work’, said Churchill, ‘we all have to read a mass of papers. Nearly all of them are far too long. This wastes time, while energy has to be spent in looking for the essential points.’ This was not a plea for recommendations without evidence – where needed, that should be given in an Appendix. The demand for brevity, to Churchill, wasn’t simply about the use of time. It was about getting clarity. This one-page memorandum ended ‘the discipline of setting out the real points concisely will prove an aid to clearer thinking.’

Gravity. Churchill didn’t treat the British people as idiots, setting out the severest challenges with honesty. He also used humour wisely. Sir Ian Jacob, Military Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet, and later BBC Director-General, recalled ‘humour in debate was not precluded, provided it did not degenerate into levity.’ Churchill wouldn’t have offered ‘Operation Last-Gasp’ in a meeting or conference call as Johnson is alleged to have done with industrialists in discussions on ventilator manufacture. Churchill had strong views on the naming of key war-time operations, stressing that they should not be frivolous or boastful. He understood the dignity of state office. It wasn’t a game.

Preparation. Churchill was a ‘girly swot’. Jacob said ‘his passion for detail is well known’. What most impressed people about Churchill, Jacob recalled, ‘was the fury of his concentration’. The diaries of his Assistant Private Secretary, Jock Colville, are littered with references to his preparations for speeches. A frequent opponent, Aneurin Bevan, recorded that Churchill ‘prepared his work with care and polished and re-polished it.’ The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, who frequently clashed with Churchill, recalled in his diaries that he often had to help with Churchill’s speech preparations:

the whole Cabinet table had usually been littered with segments of the speech which had been returned by various people with remarks of criticisms. He worked at tremendous pressure on these occasions.

Discipline. Not all Churchill’s speeches worked. But in the midst of crisis, Churchill understood the importance of discipline for getting his message across. Bevan recalled that Churchill’s speeches ‘advanced along a broad sweeping front, making this point, then another, paragraph by paragraph, a majestic progress.’ Clement Attlee explained how Churchill provided the narrative for the war effort. ‘If somebody asked me what exactly Winston did to win the war, I would say “Talk about it”’.

Clarity, gravity, preparation, discipline. Not words yet associated with the current Prime Minister whose slap-dash extemporising has delivered mixed messages. Where Macron, Merkel, Sturgeon, Varadkar and even Rishi Sunak have been clear and controlled, Johnson has jabbered.

Churchill of course didn’t face 24-hour news or real-time social media. But he knew the importance of message discipline in a crisis. The Prime Minister should re-read his own book on Churchill, particularly this: ‘Churchill’s speeches were a triumph of effort, and preparation.’ From now on, he has to stay scripted.



Leighton Andrews is Professor of Public Leadership at Cardiff Business School, and a former Welsh Government Minister.





This is a time for honesty.

Waiting for Godot

As people assemble their recommended Corona-lit – the latest being King Lear, which some argue Shakespeare wrote in lockdown from the plague – I’d like to make a pitch for Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

For those of us not yet suffering from the virus, but watching its exponential growth in the UK, the flouting of government advice on social distancing, and the example of Italy which exists in a Covid-19 timezone 15 days ahead of us, as Thomas Jones writes in the LRB, all we can do is wait, acting on the best advice, for the storm that is coming.  Beckett called his play a tragi-comedy. The tramps go on waiting for that is all that they can do. (There is, of course, an element of hope in their continual waiting). Today all we can do is wait, observe the advice, treat each day as it comes.

Waiting for Godot has lots of funny lines – but back in 1987 I saw a production at the National Theatre in London  with John Alderton, Alec McCowen and Colin Welland that seemed to be playing it as Laurel and Hardy. As Michael Billington wrote in the Guardian at the time,’you surely need to feel that the vaudevillian exchanges are a way of staving off the terror, the silence, the apprehension that life may ultimately be devoid of significance.’

As I wrote ten days ago, as a lifetime asthmatic with ropey lungs I’ve been apprehensive about Covid-19 for weeks. I said then:

We are living with uncertainty, in a way that few of my generation and those younger have ever experienced. Indeed maybe only those with experience of living through the war have anything similar to compare it with.

It wasn’t until I read Jo Baker’s Beckett novel A Country Road, a Tree, that I thought much about how Beckett’s wartime experiences as a member of the Resistance, on the run in France for long periods, had shaped the writing of Godot. (Beckett’s experiences of crossing France initially to escape the occupation of Paris, ‘bearded, filthy and broke’ are described in Deirdre Bair’s biography. His time in Roussillon, in the Vaucluse, is referenced in Godot).

Uncertainty defined Beckett’s wartime experience. In the UK, Brexit uncertainty has been displaced by the much deeper and more existential uncertainty of COVID-19, even for those of us who were passionate and unrepentant Remainers. Uncertainty is bad for our mental health. But that’s our current state.