Category Archives: Review

Police, Crime & 999

I am an avid reader …but mainly of first chapters. It takes something special to get me really into a book and on the surface ‘Police, Crime & 999’ looked to be just another cop book. Sure, it promised to give me the inside track as to what REALLY goes on behind the scenes in the British police service …but don’t they all?

What I didn’t expect from a police officer was such a refreshingly different style of writing. It is rare to come across a book that so happily bucks the same formulaic trend for the genre. There is also an artistic freedom that seems to prevail throughout the book. Maybe this is because Donoghue himself does not conform to society’s norms.

After serving as a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy and then in the British Army, he became a successful businessman.  Then, rather unsurprisingly, he got bored – so he just handed back his company car and keys to the executive loo – and in his early 40s, started yet another career, this time in the police.

‘Police, Crime & 999’ chronicles the true story of a year in his life as a front line response police officer. His sharp observational humour and wit are evident from the off (along with the odd corny one liner). He is a natural story teller, and Royal arrests, ‘celebrating’ corpses, irate barber shop customers, bungled burglaries, Tourettes’ afflicted pensioners, mad axe men and pornographic snowmen all get the Donoghue treatment.  Humour,  warmth, intelligence and humanity abound in the book  …along with plenty of wonderful little asides.

Although achingly funny, utterly absorbing and very eloquently written, it is also deeply revealing. This is a part of society that (thankfully) most of us never see. What I also loved was seeing the gradual transformation in PC Donoghue over the course of the book – in his own opinions and outlook on life.

This is a treasure trove of a book – a wonderfully informative, self-mocking and addictive read, full of belly laughs. Utterly brilliant.

By Joanne West

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Jilted Generation

Probably the book which has angered, inspired and politicised me most in the last six months is Jilted Generation by Ed Howker & Shiv Malik.

Howker and Malik argue that the baby-boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have enjoyed an uniquely privileged set of circumstances growing up – a set of circumstances which contrasts with the shoddy inheritance left to the generation after.

  • Housing. As well as the sell off of council housing – a massive windfall for the baby-boomers – baby-boomers only had to borrow (on average) three times their salary to buy their two-up, two-down with a garden. Their debt was also diminished by high inflation rates. Since then the decline in house building, strict planning laws, and population growth have caused house prices to rocket – making baby-boomers rich, and pricing the young out of the market.
  • Higher education. Boomers not only got their higher education for free, but once  gained, their degrees were highly valued in the job market. Starting wages were comparably high. Today young people face £9000 a year tuition fees, a jobs regime that requires many young people to work for free on  ‘internships‘, a lack of apprenticeships, and an economy that leaves one in five young people unemployed.
  • Pensions. Boomers joined companies with final-salary schemes. Now most companies don’t have ANY pension provision. The ones left are risky ‘defined contribution’ schemes, paid later and requiring bigger contributions.
  • Dismal government finances. We have a national debt of £867 billion, and that’s not including the PFI schemes and public sector pension liabilities that sit off the balance sheet. All the fuss at the moment about reducing the deficit (basically the nation’s overdraft) doesn’t touch the underlying debt.
  • And there’s probably half a dozen other things I’ve forgotten

These arguments have been set out elsewhere. David Willetts (now the higher education minister) in Pinch, calculates that with baby-boomers entering the job market later than the generation before (after going to University), whilst retiring in their 60s (earlier than those who will follow), combined with their long life expectancy, means they will take out 118% of what they put in to the welfare state.

What Howker and Malik do which is different

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Losing our way

To anyone who’s been enjoying BBC’s Human Planet, a couple of recommendations:

First, check out this incredible series of photographs, published by Wired magazine, of uncontacted people (or indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation, to use the correct term), some taken at the very moment they first make contact with the outside world. The variety of responses is fascinating – from curiosity and bewilderment, to utter delight, to terror. There are apparently around 100 groups, most living in the Amazon.

Second, track down a copy of Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, a fantastic book about what we can learn from indigenous cultures that, when compared to 21st century living, seem disconcertingly primitive.

It’s generally agreed that we, Homo Sapiens, sprung up around 200,000 years ago, and that we co-existed with other hominids (including Neanderthals, who – like us – were descended from Homo Erectus). The earliest ‘human’ (in a fairly loose sense of the word) dates much earlier, to 3.3m years ago, and was discovered only recently, in 2006: the skeletal remains of a three-year-old Ethiopian girl. Anyway, until about 60,000 years ago all of humanity lived in Africa. But for one reason or another – most likely changing climate and ecological conditions that led to desertification – a small group of men, women and children, possibly as few as 150 (!), left. They walked out of the cradle of humanity, and set about colonizing the world. First, travellling via the shoreline of Asia, they reached Australasia in about 50,000 BC; then north through the Middle East and then further east to India, Southeast Asia and China by around 40,000BC; finally to Europe (30,000 BC), Siberia (20,000 BC) and, some 12,000 years ago, the Americas.

I read this and couldn’t help but wonder how those first 150 pioneers lived. Imagine if you could go back and see them, the Founding Fathers of humanity! Fortunately, you don’t need a time machine, as using genetic tracing anthropologists have been able to find a people living in Africa who are genetically identical to the ones who lived there 60,000 years ago: the ones who never left. They live in the searing sands of the Kalahari desert, straddling Botswana, Namibia and Angola, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, having rejected the ways of successive agriculturists and pastoral herders. There is no standing water for ten months of the year, meaning it has to be found in the hollows of trees, sucked from beneath the mud with reeds, or squeezed from the guts of animals. The sun is not a source of life, but a symbol of death  – in the worst months of the dry season, they scrape hollows in the ground, moisten the earth with urine, ‘then lie beneath a sprinkling of sand, tormented by flies, as the wait out the heat of the day’. Their language is dazzling – in everyday English we use 31 sounds; the language of the San uses 141, ‘a cacophony’, Davis writes, ‘of cadence and clicks that many linguists believe echoes the very birth of language’. He goes on to evoke the breathtaking precision of their hunting techniques: ‘Nothing escapes their notice: a bend in a blade of grass, the direction of the tug that snapped a twig, the depth, shape and condition of a track. Everything is written in the sand’. And it works – plus these people can literally run down an antelope.

I realise I’m reeling here, and I should end by making Davis’s wider argument clear: half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear within our lifetimes, but these are ‘merely the canaries, in the coal mine’: think of the songs, the stories, the knowledge, the cultures that will also be lost.

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The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare With Amber Eyes – acclaimed potter Edmund De Waal’s story of tracing his family history through 264 tiny Japanese ornaments – has been a phenomenal success despite what might be thought of as a rather niche subject matter. I was eager to know what all the fuss was about, particularly in the wake of the news that it was the cited in the annual ‘Book of the Year’ roundups more than any other title of 2010.

De Waal’s story takes us from fin de siècle Paris, through war-ravaged Vienna and Tokyo, to London. Yet it blends enormous sweep with microscopic, tactile precision. A large part of the book’s richness comes from the fact that it’s about touch, about how objects feel in your hands, the meaning they gather over time, and the way each one can tell its own story:

‘All this matters because my job is to make things. How objects get used, handled and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question to me. It is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names, I mumble and fudge, but I am good on pots. I can remember the weight and balance of a pot, and how its surface works with its volume. I can read how an edge creates tension or loses it. I can feel whether it has been made with speed or with diligence. If it has warmth. I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby. How it displaces a small part the world around it.’

Reading this is a bit like having a conversation with a brilliant violinist after watching them play – they just seem attuned to something separate, something bigger, that you’ve not really registered before. You just want to touch something as you read it.

But while this intimate, personal family history moves us, it also does something that history as a genre has an innate capacity to do, time and time again: shock. Here’s a passage from Austrian-Israelite Union’s summer newspaper, for example, published in the days after the First World War kicks off, which gives voice to the sanguinity of Vienna’s Jewish community:

‘In this hour of danger we consider ourselves to be fully entitled citizens of the state…we want to thank the Kaiser with the blood of our children and with our possessions for making us free; we want to prove to the state that we are its true citizens, as good as anyone…’

Then, the shocker:

‘After this war, with all its horrors, there cannot be any more anti-semitic agitation… we will be able to claim full equality.’

Germany, they believed, would free the Jews. It’s chilling stuff, made all the more unsettling by De Waal’s unerring precision.

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Stranger Than Fishing

Decoding the Heavens - Solving the mystery of the world's first computer by Jo MarchantOne of the joys of non-fiction is that some real life stories can be as exciting and unlikely as the most imaginative of stories spun. ‘Decoding the Heavens’ by Jo Marchant, despite the terrible new age self-helpesque title, tells the story of the Antikythera Mechanism. This ancient mechanical artefact was fished up from an Ancient Greek ship wreck at the turn of the 20th century, and stunned the world because such a complex machine should never have existed from this period. There are three threads to this story: the human interest side of those that worked to discover its purpose, the science of what the machine does, and the history of how and why such a thing could possibly exist.

‘Decoding the Heavens’ is a compelling account of those that sought to work out just what this 2,000 year old clockwork computer was for. From its discovery in 1901 to 2006, there is politics, betrayal and intense rivalry as various scientists and mathematicians dedicated their lives racing to be named as the genius that could finally reveal its purpose. The book is accessible to those without scientific knowledge, though some (like me) may end up skipping some of the explanations of mathematical ratios.

Whilst Marchant succeeds with telling the scientific and human interest sides of the story, I found myself wanting more than the relatively paltry chapter that she includes speculating as to the original purpose of this fascinating machine and its context in Ancient Greek society. What makes the Antikythera Mechanism so extraordinary – what drives the entire story – is the absurdity of its existence in the first place. If the Ancient Greeks were capable of creating such complex devices, why was the technology never applied to other machines? Why did it die with their society? Clockwork technology was not reinvented until after the dark ages – just think, mankind could be almost 2,000 years more advanced had the knowledge survived.

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Let Them Watch Dallas

I’m half-way through Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World (Allen Lane), an impressive and uncompromising polemic that seeks to dispel the illusion of ‘cyber-utopia’, i.e. the idea that free infomation leads to free people, that the internet inevitably generates democracy.  It’s dense, unrelenting, but immaculately researched and studded with fantastic examples.

Morozov refers on a number of occasions to the Cold War, which numerous triumphalists claim was ‘won’ by the west (the alternative theory, adroitly argued by Tony Judt in his now famous demolition of John Lewis Gaddis’ 2006 history of the Cold War, also published by AllenLane, is that it imploded under the weight of its own ineptitude). There were two separate, but related, theories about how access to Western media would democratize the Soviets – ‘liberation by facts’, whereby news and current affairs broadcasts would reveal to the oppressed masses the truth about their despotic leaders, leading the people to rise up and overthrow them; and ‘liberation by gadgets’, which basically involved spreading images and stories of ‘fast cars, fancy kitchen appliances and suburban happiness’, thus tapping into citizens’ natural and innate consumerist impulse and inciting, yes you guessed it, revolution.

So that was the theory, but sadly it didn’t always seem to work. Morozov highlights the German Democratic Republic, which was an unusual case to say the least: a communist country that for virtually all of its existence could receive western media. (I had no idea – as a fan of films like The Lives of Others, I’d just assumed there was blanket censorship). Were citizens more politically informed, more vocal in their opposition, as a result of being able to compare Western and Eastern versions of ‘news’ for the best part of a 30-year period? Apparently not. East Germans weren’t all that interested in tracking the latest developments from Nato – they preferred soft news and entertainment, such as Dallas, Miami Vice and Sesame Street. In interviews with East Germans conducted after the Wall fell, many said they didn’t believe what they heard on Western news; they just assumed it was propaganda (Morozov wrily points out that in their distrust and suspicion of ‘the Western propaganda apparatus’, they were ‘more Chomskian than Noam Chomsky himself’). When asked, in a separate study, what they thought of their country’s TV scheduling, they requested more entertainment and less politics. Eventually the GDR’s propaganda officials realised that the best way to get people to watch their ideological programming and propaganda reports was to schedule them when Western TV was running news and current affairs programmes – ‘which East Germans found to be least interesting’.

All of this taps into an ongoing argument about the role of media organisations, newspapers, broadcasters, indeed governments – should you give the people what they want? Or what you think they ought to want?

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Obama’s Wars

Bob Woodward – one of the journalists who exposed the Watergate scandal – is without equivalent in Britain. With the possible exception of Andrew Rawnsley (and we’ll have to wait to see how he does with the Coalition), no-one gets the kind of access that makes you feel ‘in the room’ in the way that Woodward does. After his incredible trilogy on Bush’s administration, now he’s writing about Barack Obama.

Obama’s Wars documents the struggle between the President and his military over the best strategy in Afghanistan. The military, backed up by the noisy Republicans in opposition, are arguing for a ‘protect the population’ counter-insurgency approach based on large numbers of troops. It worked in Iraq with David Petraeus’ surge, it can work in Afghanistan.

On the other side of the debate is Vice-President Joe Biden, arguing for a “counter-terrorism strategy”: small groups of mobile “Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams” attacking terrorist targets, and largely ignoring the Taliban.

Obama sits between the two sides, listening to the arguments and asking sceptical questions. This is a striking contrast to Woodward’s portrayal of Bush – which records President Bush taking a kind of Chairman approach, trusting his team to get on with things, and avoiding detail and not asking difficult questions. It’s more like the Clinton approach George Stephanopoulos describes in All Too Human (a great Washington Book which provided much of the inspiration for the West Wing).

In the end Obama decides a full ‘protect the population’ strategy would require too many soldiers, and it’s best to focus on Al-Qaeda. The strategy he decides on is more limited: specifically not aiming to ‘defeat’ the Taliban, merely to ‘disrupt’ and ‘degrade’ it.

The remarkable part of the book comes once Obama has decided this limited strategy. Woodward shows in incredible difficulties Obama has getting the military to understand and sign up to it. The end of the book finds him “right down in the weeds”, dictating directly to a secretary, battling with Ministry of Defence redrafts.

CONCLUSION: Good, though it doesn’t quite have the Tom Clancey pace of some of his others.

PS: The most chilling moment is when Woodward recounts a meeting in 2007 between the CIA chief and Pakistan President Zadari. The discussion is about the controversial predator drones that have killed civilians in the North West Territories of the country. The CIA chief is explaining the effort to Al-Qaeda targets when Zardari interrupts him, “Kill the seniors. Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”

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