Reading 2016 (April)

I came across The Screwtape Letters by C.S.Lewis (1942) via an article in The New Yorker. I downloaded a copy from the Gutenberg website (Canada). It is a dry deadpan satirical tale following the efforts of Wormwood an apprentice demon and Screwtape his mentor and senior demon to capture the soul of an unnamed man (who is not tempted, but rather falls in love and is killed in an air raid).  Lewis was a well-respected broadcaster and writer during WW2: he was wounded on the Somme in 1917/18. Its enduring power comes from its portrayal of a typical life, which despite temptations and failings reveals the strength of human nature. When we were kids my mother didn´t let us read Lewis – so of course we borrowed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from school friends. Perhaps she was not keen on christian apologetics.

lady van

I saw the movie the The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett (1989) and then immediately caught up with the novel (really a short albeit true story, a Graham Greene ´entertainment´). I had read some of the stories before in the London Review of Books. The screenplay is actually much better than the novel. I also re-read his more recent novella The Uncommon Reader (2007) which is a firm favourite, a gentle piece of lèse majesté. The Queen comes across a mobile library parked outside the kitchens of Buckingham Palace, and starting with Ivy Compton-Burnett moves on eventually to Marcel Proust, causing much discontent in the Palace and beyond. For republicans the ending is a treat too.


Power: A Radical View (2nd edition) by Steven Lukes (2005). This classic text was published in 1974 and updated in 2005, showing Lukes´ willingness to re-assess his ideas. Lukes describes “three faces of power”, of which  – the third dimension – is about power as domination over people: “how do the powerful secure the compliance (unwilling or willing) of those they dominate?” Much of this translates into drivers of change and theory of change approaches in my own field of work.

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera (2014) is sadly not much good. His classic novels – The Joke, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable kunderaLightness of Being – were written before the fall of the Czech communist regime. Since then he has rather lost his mojo. Jonathan Coe reviews Kundera´s legacy, which includes his apparent disdain for his women characters.

Kundera would fail a literary version of the Bechdel–Wallace test that asks whether a film features (a) at least two women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man.


My own bookshelves show that I would fail such a test in terms of what I buy. Most of these books are non-fiction, not that that is an excuse. I am making an effort to read more fiction written by women. One of my favourite writers has been Jenny Diski who has sadly died. I have copies of Rain Forest and Skating To Antarctica.  As she wrote she lived with cancer. The London Review of Books has put all her contributions online, a lovely gesture.




Reading 2016 (January)
Reading 2016 (February)
Reading 2016 (March)


End of Season

The final weeks of the 2015/16 premiership season turned out to be unexciting. Leicester City became the people´s football team, Spur´s challenge faded, and the relegation teams succumbed to their fate quietly with Sunderland´s latest escape. Leicester´s success does raise the issue of the competitiveness of the Premiership (the quality aspect is undoubtedly to be found in La Liga). Leicester finished with 80 points  with Manchester City and United 15 points behind, Liverpool a further 6 points adrift and Chelsea on 50 points – closer to the relegation zone than the top. So it was an extraordinary season. Here are some graphics.


The first shows the points per game for the top and bottom-5 teams for the period 1992-2016 and the median points score*. None of these indicators show any marked tendencies across the period. However, the dominance of the top-5 clubs in any particular year does seem to be increasing over the period (plucky Leicester notwithstanding) – measured by the Herfindahl Index below.


Will the new money exacerbate the trend  or level the playing field? Inequality in outcome rules in sport, but good management in team sports does make a difference as Messrs Ranieri and Wenger show. With new managers and presumably players at Chelsea (with Conte) and both Manchester City and United (Guardiola and Mourinho), there will be added pressure on Spurs (Pochettino) and Liverpool (Klopp)  – and not least of all Arsene Wenger – to do well, and it should be great for fans.

My own results in the Fantasy Premier League are not great. For Gameweek 38 I managed 39 points which was coincidentally the average score for the week (reversion to the mean with a vengeance). My best GW rank was 141,513th, and my worst 3,008,939nth (there are about 3.7m players).


For the 2015/16 season I finished with my best score (1,957 points) and in 891,187th position (top 25% at least). So consistency if not much progress. I used to get school reports saying “… conscientous, but could do better“.  I´m still trying. And I am going to have to pay some more attention to the player stats too…

*Google Drive´s charts are basic – I could not add the secondary Y-axis for median points on the RHS; these range from 55 in 1992/93 (the highest result and the first year on the chart) to 49 in 2015/16.

Prime Minister May´s Bomb moment

On her first Commons appearance as PM, Theresa May´s insouciant willingness to authorise a nuclear strike (or at very least sing loudly from the usual MoD hymn sheet) confirms the points made by former Secretary of Defense, William J. Perry, in his book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.

The so-called debate in the Commons underlines the political elite´s collective nuclear denial that in turn mirrors the public’s unawareness – perhaps equal amounts of confusion and ignorance – of the issues.

So parliament has just committed well over £100bn on a weapons system that we won’t use, that we mustn’t use, and that even the Russians know we won’t use.

The British government´s wish to maintain and upgrade its independent nuclear strike capacity is moreover hard to square with its obligations under international law to reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile by the mid-2020s.

faceof the earthBut the scare-mongering ´deployment´of nuclear terrorism deflects public attention away from the on-going modernisation of the U.S.´s land, air and sea nuclear capability and the  expansion of NATO up to the Russian border, programmes started by Bush but which President Obama has been unable to halt (during his  Presidential campaign, he pledged to “set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it”), and which has inevitably prompted a range of responses from Putin´s mafia state. But facing a new wave of nuclear proliferation and the concomitant increased risk of a nuclear catastrophe shows how little nuclear and non-nuclear disarmament progress there has been in the past 30+ years  –  Jonathan Schell´s scary Fate of the Earth was published  in 1982 .

John Galbraith in The Economics of Innocent Fraud stressed the corporate interest in the endorsement of rearmament and support for war.

Wars are, one cannot doubt, a major modern threat to civilised existence, and corporate commitment to weapons procurement and use nurtures and supports this threat… War remains the decisive human failure.



This video by Orbital Mechanics shows the global history of nuclear detonations. From the first Manhattan project tests, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (between the US, UK and the Soviet Union) that saw an end of all the testing of weapons except underground, and through to the North Korean tests. The US carried out 1,054 (904 at the Nevada Test Site), the Soviet Union 715 tests, France 210 (including atmospheric testing until 1974), China and the UK 45 each, India and Pakistan have detonated 6 nuclear devices each, and North Korea has tested 4 times. In all the video shows 2,153 nuclear explosions and tests with an approximate total yield of 545 megatons of TNT equivalent (or 34,000 Hiroshimas …).

To this add the 444 nuclear reactors in operation (May 2016) in 30 countries. What has been – and continues to be – the health implications? It is undeniable that the tests resulted in release of substantial quantities of radioactive materials that are now to be found all around the world. For the Nevada Test Site the National Cancer Institute in 1997 estimated that the levels of radiation were enough to cause 10,000 to 75,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer alone in the U.S. In Russia City 40 is one of the most contaminated places in the world.

For nuclear reactors the evidence seems no better.

The [Radiation and Public Health Project] study of baby teeth showed that Sr-90 levels in children near reactors [104 in the US] were 30-50 percent greater than children in distant areas, and that levels were rising sharply over time, as aging reactors corrode

UK NPP map In the UK studies in the 1990s indicated leukemia clusters near nuclear plants. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment in 2003 found higher rates of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma near Sellafield and Dounreay which were “… unlikely to be due to chance, although there is not at present a convincing explanation for them”. The arguments over Hinkley Point C is a recent example of corporate lobbyist inside trading in which the health aspects are discounted.

But does the political and corporate elites lack of interest to create “a world free of nuclear weapons” also show their lack of a willingness to deal with climate change? The similarities between the two global concerns are striking. But at least the climate change debate has entered a new arena, one within which there are a wide range of social movements seeking a political revolution  – challenging business as usual attitudes and practices from the local to national and international level and linking spaces of resistance and progressive alliances for rights, labour, race and environmental issues. Extra-parliamentary pressure has always been the font of systemic change since the ranks and agitators of the New Model Army argued for the representation of the people in Parliament. Surely writing today Galbraith would have included climate change as an equal existential risk.

Theresa´s weekend notepad

Theresa May

  1. At Question Time – – that David´s main achievements were making the´nasty´ party electable again, apologising for Bloody Sunday, managing Chilcot, dealing with the aftermath of the financial crash, reading the public mood on same-sex marriage, and continuing the (Blair´s) health, education and welfare reforms, plus funding commitments on international aid. Also showed that coalition governments can work!– maybe can´t say that!
  2. But new agenda can be more ambitious. Brexit is more than English nationalism, results shows divisions in country. BUT: How to be transformative?
  3. Can´t do anything about Trident today. Successor (who chooses these names?) sub is pointless, we all know this. Critics are right on everything… horrendous cost, legacy of the cold war, militarily obsolete, etc. Must ask about nuclear-powered sub replacement but with conventional cruise missile and drone launch (and capture) capability. Can we defend UNSC seat by arguing compliance through the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?
  4. Brexit. Ok we Boris et al can kick the can down the road for next 2 years. French and German elections will give Brussels food for thought (not least some migration controls from within and without EU). Shut up that unspeakable Juncker and dreadful Mario Draghi and rest of the EU / corporate ancien regime. Keep access to markets + get enough reforms in key EU institutions and keep Scotland in union. Draft of negotiated deal ready for next manifesto. QED.
  5. Hammond: Delete all austerity talk, tone down deficit-cutting. Drop Heathrow new runway pronto, drop ridiculous unwanted & over-priced HS2. New railway investment, especially in north. ++ new social housing nationwide (200k, 300k? ask numbers per year). Get local economies moving. Focus on inner city + brownfield sites first (so much for NIMBYs). And 1 for 1 with private sector to spread risk and costs. Good on local job creation & in long run will even out recovery making the future recovery everyone´s … who said that??); ?help on wealth equality.
  6. Short-term: income tax reform. Has to be popular. Let´s look again at the basic income idea! (sell it as helping people to help themselves) = eliminate all worries (red tape, costs) of unemployment benefits (!!) and pensions. And at once deals with globalization/unemployment fears. Get working group to set threshold. Above threshold = income taxes. New tax rates above 150k, 500k. I DID say prioritise not the wealthy, but you.
  7. Public sector. PM salary set as highest in public sector. That will shock my PS and Oxbridge+ crowd thinking private schooling as annuity for life.
  8. Climate change. Need to quickly set out new stance. Climate change cuts across whole economy. Got it out of one ineffective ministry. Next establish office for climate adaptation responsibility – like OBR –  keep everyone on their toes! Look again at Cameroon´s energy tax breaks, must ask (Merkel) about renewables and energy efficiency…Philip says our house will be flooded out too at present rate. Check flooding and R. Thames.
  9. Get Priti to fold DFID back into FCO. She´ll enjoy that!