Category Archives: Personal

What I meant to say on Radio 4

Last Friday, I appeared as a guest on the Today programme on Radio 4. The subject was a report that had been done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how the wealth of those born in the early 1980s was half of those born 10 years earlier (when they had been in their early/mid 30s). The largest factor behind this was the inability of those born in the 80s to get on the housing ladder.

The interview was done before 7am, I hadn’t had any coffee and speaking to an audience that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions was rather nerve-wracking. So I stumbled over my words and didn’t make all the points I had wanted to.

This then, is my attempt to clarify and expand a little on what I had hoped to say.

The economic reality

I was born in 1983 and as such I fall squarely within the demographic being studied. I fall at the tail-end of Generation X, just a little older than those increasingly referred to as Millenials. The housing situation comes with a double-edged sword. The starting point is that rental prices are high. The effect of this is that it is difficult to save as much of one’s salary as one would like in order to contribute towards a deposit. Yet it’s a goal that is constantly moving. Moving further away. In January, the Halifax bank said that the average deposit needed for a first time buyer in my area was £91,000. More recently, the Land Registry recorded house price inflation in the 12 months to July 2016 as being 8.3%. So what ends up happening is that the real value of the savings towards a deposit is being eroded by inflation. Interest rates aren’t keeping up either. The highest rate of interest I can get on my savings is 0.75%.

As such, I cannot foresee a time within the next few years when houses may become affordable. One of the few hopes of the Brexit vote was that it would bring house prices down, but the devaluation in the pound seems to have offset any domestic instability in the market by making buying houses in the UK cheaper for overseas investors.

A fairer economics

So what needs to happen? Here are some suggestions:

  • Rent controls. First of all, curb any increases in rents and then seek to bring them down, starting with those that are most exploitative (e.g. by looking at rent charged per square foot of living space). At present, tenants are simply being milked for their cash to slake the thirst of landlords’ greed.
  • Build new houses. One of the main driving factors behind house price inflation is a lack of supply. We need new homes and they need to be built sustainably and sold affordably. There’s no point going down the “grand designs” route if all the houses you build come with a £400,000 price tag. The prices need to be linked to average local incomes. There’s also the added benefit of investment in housebuilding is invariably a boost to the economy, creating jobs.
  • Factor in house price inflation into either CPI, RPI or create a 3rd There’s a saying I use at work (nicked off a book on steady state economics): “You measure what you care about and you care about what you measure”. At present, the Bank of England willfully turns a blind eye to house price inflation. This leads to them keeping interest rates artificially low. If they cared about the economic problems caused by uncontrolled inflation, then they would start to factor it into their measures. And once they do that, they’d care about getting it right and getting it down.
  • Increase interest rates to control inflation. Linked to the above, it has to be recognised that inflation of 8% is not healthy for the economy. Incremental increases are needed to a) curb the reliance on debt and b) assist savers in going someway to stop the real value of their savers being eaten away.
  • Limit buy-to-let investors from having an unfair advantage over first time buyers. As well as the under supply of new houses, one of the problems that is contributing to the problem is that homes are being bought by those who don’t intend to live in them. Examples of such measures could include: a) penalties for property owners for not letting out empty properties, b) increased taxes on the profits from rents, c) tariffs on overseas companies & individuals buying UK residential properties, d) Legal maximum on the number of residential properties an individual can own.

Objections

The above suggestions are not universally welcome.

  • Free market fundamentalists object to the idea of rent controls as a matter of principle, as they abhor “market interference” regardless of how justified it is. The reality is that with inelastic demand in the housing market, unfettered market forces will only push prices even higher. Those who subscribe to neoliberalism, though, subscribe to a failed economics and their opinions on such matters need not be taken too seriously, as they are always driven more by ideology than they are by sound reasoning.
  • There tend to be fewer objections here. The main issue is about where houses are built. Brownfield sites are preferable. The downside is that extra supply may push prices down, though given the rampant inflation of recent years, it seems likely that it would just temper that runaway increase in prices. Even if house prices were to come down, this is not as bad a thing as some might think it is. The term ‘negative equity’ still haunts those who remember the late 80s and early 90s, but today’s recent inflation means that homeowners have already benefitted hugely, so it is unlikely that the value of their homes would dip below the amount they bought for it. E.g. Let’s say someone bought a house for £200,000 three years ago. If inflation was about 8% a year, then that house would now be worth about £50,000 more. So if a market correction brought the price down to £220,000 they would still have a £20,000 gain, even though it had decreased by £30,000 from its inflated peak.
  • I’ve heard some contest that this isn’t necessary because mortgage inflation is already factored into the RPI. However, I don’t see this as an objection holding much weight as it only takes into account those fortunate enough to already have mortgages. It does nothing to measure how much more difficult it is to get a mortgage in the first place.
  • This is the big one that people hate. It depends on whether you are part of the “haves” or “have nots”. The downside to increased interest rates is that those with existing mortgages will find they get more expensive. It would also push up the cost of borrowing for businesses. This is where we find out if the lessons of the 2008 crash have been learnt or not. Sensible financial planning, whether personal or in business, needs to take into account the possibility of interest rate rises. If you haven’t got enough headroom to be able to afford a rate rise, then your financial planning abilities should be seriously called in question. In the case of the homeowner, when enjoying the advantages of low rates, it is prudent to save some of the excess; a rainy day fund, if you will. In the case of a business, you need to have modelled your banking covenants with sensitivities built in. Not everyone will have been so sensible, and those who have indebted themselves to such an extent that they would be unable to cope with increased will find themselves struggling more than they have done in the past. Of course, it is the job of a responsible government, with the will of the populace, to support any who fall on hard times. Some people would be hurt by an increase in interest rates, but it’s a necessary consequence of a correction to the market, and there ought to be a sufficiently robust welfare state in place to ensure that nobody is made homeless or bankrupt as a direct result of any interest rate rise.
  • Here, there are difficulties of practicality. How enforceable might they be? In particular, proposal d) might be easily dodged by the having properties owned by a spouse/partner. I must confess I’ve not thought through all the possible loopholes and there’s significant improvement needed to make this a workable suggestion. Yet the principle appears to be sound. For while on the one hand, the rhetoric of the current government is increasingly xenophobic, to pander to the support they get/need from the far right, there is at the same time keenness on investment into the UK from overseas. But we need to both educate out the xenophobia that is endemic in society and be more nuanced about the nature of overseas investment. If it is a case of “put a little in, get much more out” then this should be recognised as a threat to the economy, as opposed to blaming doctors who come from overseas and do a great job in the NHS under (unnecessarily) difficult circumstances.

Political Will

The existing economic situation is a result of the economic and political will of the past. To have a hope of changing things for the better we need a fairer economic and political will now, though it will take time to come to fruition. One of these is the need to change an unhealthy mentality that sees houses as investments rather than as homes. Just a few days ago, I saw on Facebook a post from an old school friend who is an estate agent encouraging people to see how much their house had increased in value. Someone I used to sit next to at work also had an odd boast that his home made more money in a year than he did. This is the kind of thinking that has been allowed to fester for many years and will take a long time to fix. With the above measures, there should be a reduction in the rate of increase in property prices and therefore lower returns for those who have used property as a means of investment. But none of this will happen if the political consensus carries on in the same way it has done for the last few decades. There needs to be a change, but it needs to a sensible change. As we’ve seen particularly in the last year, change for the sake of change can turn up some distinctly unsavoury characters and ideas that should never become part of public policy.

Side issue: the radio experience

Having gone through the experience, there are any number of things I would have liked to have done slightly differently. I had lots of thoughts (which I’ve tried to enunciate above) but I didn’t arrive in the studio with a set of points to make. I was given some idea of the questions, but John Humphrys could ask me what he liked, having been given a briefing paper on the think tank report and on what I had told the show’s producers the evening before. So I have something of a new-found respect for the politicians who go on live interviews. They come on with a set agenda, something they have come prepared to say. While we were off-air, just before the interview, John asked me “So you’re going to say you’re broke, are you?” which I wasn’t. When the microphone was on, I could think of 3 different things I could have said, each worded in another 3 different ways, and so in trying to pluck the right words out of the air, I hesitated, mumbled and then stumbled over what I actually said. That’s why I’m ever so grateful for the existence of a backspace key on the keyboard. I was also conscious of the rumour that if Radio 4 goes silent for 6 seconds, it’s a sign that something’s gone very wrong, so every moment of silence on my part (while my pre-7am coffee-less brain was trying to work) added to the pressure I felt in the interview. I do admit to dodging one question, as it was about another member of family (who’d been invited on, but declined) where I wasn’t prepared to speak on their behalf.

Final thought

As frustrating as it is to be living a relatively miserly existence, certainly compared to friends and colleagues, I am by no means poor. There are many more who have been hurt far worse by the failures of Conservative economics. One need only look at the proliferation in the need for food banks in the last 6 years to see the damage that Cameron & Osborne wreaked upon the citizens of this country.  Whether we are rich or poor, as measured by non-liquid assets, cash or income, there is far more to life than materialism.

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2015 in books

This has become something of an annual habit. You can see my reviews of the years 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. I began by polishing off a couple of books I started at the tail end of 2014.

The christianity books have been more numerous than any other. The reason for this is that I had simply acquired more books in this category than any other. I tried to roughly alternate between general theology, something specifically related to Jesus and testimony.

My science reading has pottered on. I made no particular choice to pursue certain topics. Though it remains slightly depressing that if you browse the science shelves of the average bookshops that you will find quite a gender imbalance, so the fact that my science reading is almost exclusively male is more reflective of the publishing industry than it is of a conscious choice on my part to avoid women writers.

In fiction, I continue to try to mix up classics with lesser known works. This year saw the publication of Harper Lee’s follow-up to To Kill A Mockingbird. The publication was announced at the start of the year, with Go Set A Watchman hitting the bookshops in the summer.

The other non fiction has attempted to plug some serious gaps in my understanding of philosophy, with some pepperings of history and economics. Yet just when I thought I was getting somewhere in patching up these holes, I ended the year by reading Slavoj Zizek, which rather exposed just how ignorant I am.

At the start of the year I gave myself a challenge to read some things that would counter my own worldview. It is of little use merely reading books that I think I will agree with. It’s good to look at things afresh. If we all only ever sought out views that accord with we what we believe already then no one will ever learn anything. I also asked for recommendations of books that would challenge me or otherwise be off my beaten track. Specifically, these books were:

Cover Her Face – P.D. James (to challenge my dislike for crime fiction)
Taking God at his Word – Kevin DeYoung (to challenge my liberal objections to biblical inerrancy)
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori (which wasn’t really to challenge me, I think the person who recommended it to me is a friend of the author and recommended it to me as a way of helping them out)
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek (to challenge my left-wing economic views)

Christianity (18)

The History of the Church – Eusebius
Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
Simply Good News – Tom Wright
How God Became Jesus – various authors
Taking God at His Word – Kevin DeYoung
Theology of Hope – Jurgen Moltmann
Hebrews For Everyone – Tom Wright
Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches (review pending)
The Quest of the Historical Jesus – Albert Schweitzer (review pending)
Gravity and Grace – Simone Weil
Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr (review pending)
Mark for Everyone – Tom Wright (review pending)
Quaker Writings – various authors (review pending)
Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn (review pending)

Science (8)

Stuff Matters – Mark Miodownik
50 Ways The World Could End – Alok Jha
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science – Jim Al-Khalili
The Blind Watchmaker – Richard Dawkins
The Spark of Life – Frances Ashcroft
The Signal and the Noise – Nate Silver (review pending)
The Descent of Man – Charles Darwin (review pending)
Alex Through the Looking Glass – Alex Bellos (review pending)

Fiction (11)

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cover Her Face – P.D. James
Good Evening, Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter-Downes
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
Dear Life – Alice Munro
Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee
Thank You, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
Neither Here Nor There – Miriam Drori
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons (review pending)
The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier (review pending)

Other non-fiction (14)

Watching the English – Kate Fox (already started)
Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne (already started)
The British Constitution: A Very Short Introduction – Martin Loughlin
The Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
The Koran: A Very Short Introduction – Michael Cook
Before I Say Goodbye – Ruth Picardie
Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction – Nicholas Vincent
Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction – Cynthia Freeland
The Social Contract – Jean-Jacques Russeau
The Early History of Rome – Livy
The Road to Serfdom – Friedrich Hayek
Hegel: A Very Short Introduction – Peter Singer
Wanderlust – Rebecca Solnit
On Belief – Slavoj Zizek (review pending)

Total (51)

Started but not finished (1)

The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch

So of these, which were the best and which were the worst?

Let’s start with the negative first. In fiction, there were no real stinkers, though Miriam Drori’s overly-explanatory style and simplistic writing stood out as being rather more amateur than the other books in that category. In science, again there were no particularly bad books, though Charles Darwin’s ‘The Descent of Man’ stood out merely for its dullness. Not a dullness of wit or intellect, but rather that it made for an uninteresting read, particularly in comparison to the expectations that I had for the book. The subject has been covered by others since Darwin and has been done a lot better. Other non-fiction didn’t fare so well. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘The Social Contract’ is very outdated now and speaks to a different world to the one in which we live, so I cannot find myself recommending it. Onto more 20th century politics, Friedrich Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is more relevant, but his whole premise and conclusions are topsy-turvey to reason and good sense. The year finished with my introduction to Slavoj Zizek who had moments of sparkle, but where the whole work was so far up its own arse it rendered it incomprehensible. Within the writings on christianity, I had some issues about James Dunn’s ‘Baptism in the Holy Spirit’ though that was more with the presentation of the book than its contents. Much worse in terms of the writing was Simone Weil’s ‘Gravity and Grace’ which had its moments, but read like a disparate string of half-formed thoughts. But taking the biscuit was the worst of the lot, not because of a lack of clarity but because of how wayward and misleading the content was. So my award for the worst book of the year goes to Kevin De Young’s ‘Taking God at His Word’.

With the less pleasant reading done with, let’s look at the sunnier side of things. Staying with christianity, the year began well with Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’, which was a very creditable effort and which I’d recommend to pretty much anyone. Any work by Tom Wright is always worth checking out and this year saw me finish three such works, two of which were part of his ‘For Everyone’ commentary series; though his work, ‘Simply Good News’ was a great work, which did a lot to summarise his magnum opus on Paul: Paul and the Faithfulness of God. But my best christian book of the year goes to one that dates from the mid 20th century, as a gracious, yet firm, take on christian life. I’m referring, of course, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’. Moving onto the fiction works, I rather enjoyed Jessie Burton’s debut offering, ‘The Miniaturist’, even though it was for reasons quite different from what I was expecting. ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was always going to be a book that would anger some, given the high regard for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, yet I found it a worthy companion piece that posed some very awkward questions of the reader. Though science was the most neglected of the 4 categories I use, there were some great works within it. None managed to top the book that I started the year with, Mark Miodownik’s ‘Stuff Matters’ which was a superb example of enthusiasm married to expertise. In other non-fiction, I was very pleased with Peter Singer’s Very Short Introduction to Hegel, but this was eclipsed by one of the most spectacular set of essays I’d come across about walking. So taking my recommendation to you as the best book of the year is Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust.

Noisy head, blank page

If you read this blog on a regular basis, you may well have noticed a lack of….well…blog posts. All there’s been recently is a few book reviews and even those have been of a lower quality than I would normally publish.

The thing is, there’s so much going through my head that I want to write about, it’s hard to know where to start. During the day, I witness lots of things in the world of work that I could write about. Some I would be legally prohibited from writing about, due to confidentiality agreements. At other times I read, I talk to people and I think. Yet by the time I’ve done a full day at work (typically 08:30-19:30, minus lunch) my mind resembles the inside of a blender. There’s so much that’s gone in, but it’s all a bit of liquidised mess when I get home. If I have time to turn on the computer all I am greeted with is a blank screen.

Even if I have a key point to make, a good piece must begin somewhere. So I end up trying to reverse-engineer an introduction which either proves to be too contrived or else it naturally leads in a different direction to that in which I intend the argument to go. OK, maybe that means that my original idea is need of reworking, but then I’m left exploring new thoughts which takes some time and effort to condense into words. Time and effort that I generally don’t have at 11pm on a weekday evening.

Which leads me on to my other difficulty at the moment. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I get it sometimes, but amongst the worst is the summer. In the mornings, the early sun wakes me far earlier than I ought to be awake. Sleep is elusive, so when breakfast has been had and the bus journey to work completed, I arrive at work having had less rest than is ideal. The long day then wears me out. I begin to recharge in the evening after having dinner and so my energy levels pick up about 9pm, though my head is still buzzing from the day’s activity. It’s rather like a state of entropy: plenty of energy but no coherence.

Finally, there are two pieces that I’ve been hacking at for months now but can’t seem to get right. One is a piece trying to state clearly why I support same sex marriage and the other is on a liberal evangelical perspective on sola scriptura. Both, I think, need saying. Both have the potential to really piss people off, so I’m trying to be careful about what I say, but without being disingenuous. Those two pieces are being written like a statue. First I need to write a big block, saying as much as possible, but then I need to chip away the extraneous parts, leaving (hopefully) a fine sculpture. I don’t want to miss major things and I want to address most obvious objections. Others have written similar pieces, though few I wholly agree with. I could point to them, but then it’s no longer my voice. And it’s only once I’ve condensed my thoughts into words, found my voice and articulated them that I can truly say I know my own mind on these matters.

So that’s why there’s been little on the blog other than book reviews lately. Once those two chips are off my shoulder, work quietens down and my sleep patterns get back to normal, then I hope to resume some blogging.

Whether anyone will be reading then, I have no idea. But if it makes one person smile, think or realise that they’re not alone, then it’ll be worth it.

End Austerity Now: The Witness of One Participant

Gathering by the Bank of England

Gathering by the Bank of England

On Saturday the 20th of June, I took part in a protest march in London. It was the first march I had been on since the days of the Blair government introduced top-up fees and launched an illegal war against Iraq. Organised by the People’s Assembly, it was an anti-austerity protest directed against the planned cuts to public services.

Here is my account of the day.

The itinerary on the People’s Assembly website stated that we were to gather together outside the Bank of England at midday, there would be some speeches and then we would set off at 1pm through the City of London, down Fleet Street and Strand to Trafalgar Square, then turning left onto Whitehall, past Downing Street and finishing in Parliament Square.

I got off the train at London Bridge shortly before 12, where the first signs of a protest were visible. One or two banners were visible, but they were furled up, their messages hidden for now. Walking out of the station, there were pockets of people gathering together. In the shadow The Shard was a group of about a dozen people, with a very prominent NHA (for the National Health Action party) in its familiar shade of blue.

Going across London Bridge, there were far fewer people than expected. I recall my days of commuting this route and the east side of the bridge would be packed with medium paced, middle aged, middle class white men in suits. On Saturday, we had more guitarists and the first of the placards were visible.

Getting across to the north end of the bridge the first of the road blocks was visible, so I was able to wander down the middle of the road, which was quite liberating. Though I soon discovered it was only closed to motorised traffic as a cyclist ting-ed their bell before passing by in close proximity.

Getting to the bank of England, the crowd was huge. The junction with Mansion House is a very large one, and there were people as far as you could see (which, admittedly, as a little limited due to the banners having been unfurled). A few opportune salesmen were offering whistles for a pound. The stewards in their fluorescent tabards were encouraging people to move towards the front which I duly did until I could go no further.

I had been hoping to join with the Quakers for some of the march, but at no point did I see any sign of them. In the throng at the start, I found myself standing alongside the anarcho-Marxists and the members of the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP). They’re not groups that I would readily identify with, but it was testament to the unity in diversity that we could stand shoulder to shoulder. From where I was stood (just between Mansion House and Poultry), I could see the big balloon that was suspended from the Fire Brigade Union’s (FBU) and there were a few Green Party signs dotted about.

The organisers had made sure there was something of a carnival atmosphere to it, with plenty of music. Every now and then, for no apparent reason, there were whooping cheers and mass whistle-blowing. It was a difficult balance to strike, as this was a protest, not a celebration. So I didn’t cheer, nor did I dance. In fact, I was quiet pretty much the whole time, apart from the occasional conversation with those around me. I was most vocal on Twitter, where I was providing updates, primarily for those who wanted to be there but couldn’t. There was some very heartwarming feedback, saying that people felt I was marching for them.

Looking round, there were some who (purely due to my own prejudices) thought might have been there to cause trouble. With any mass protest consisting of tens of thousands of people, there are often a handful who do something daft and who draw the attention of the right wing press. In this case, it was those wearing black bandana-style covers over their mouths and noses. On closer inspection, each had a logo and some words on them, and it was clear that this was to protest against state surveillance. Chatting to one bloke near me who had one on, he said that it was a reaction against the kind of surveillance that was revealed by Edward Snowden and also against the proposed snooper’s charter, which Theresa May has recommended, after its previous incarnation was scrapped during the coalition. To get the negative out of the way in one paragraph, I wasn’t in agreement with some of the tones of the banners. There was one that read ‘Fuck the fucking fuckers’ and another that called for unilateral free markets. I’m more in favour of protest by education (making sure that those to whom you are protesting understand what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing they do about it) rather than insult and I am also not a free market fundamentalist, preferring good corporate governance and a strong regulatory system in place to ensure that the business sector acts for the good of all society, not just the narrow segment of investors and analysts.

To that end, I was much more in favour of a group entitled ‘Economists against austerity’ and I’ll take a look at that group later this week.

In contrast to what had been promised, there were no speeches at the start of the march. We eventually started to move at around quarter past one, as a few people had started to complain about the prolonged standing and wanted to get their legs moving. As we got going, the throng thinned out a little, so it was less like rush hour on the Underground and a bit more civilised. The main upside was that I no longer got the whiff of cigarette smoke from nearby chimneys.

There was a sort of MC who was reading out some of the placards. A lot were from the People’s Coalition and a variety of trade unions. Some construction workers looked down on us, as did a couple of helicopters. The route was dotted with police, though their presence was unnecessary. Some looked on with seemingly stern disapproval written across their faces, others were much friendlier, chatting to the crowds and helping to direct people to the nearest public toilets.

Once we got beyond St Paul’s cathedral (we didn’t go immediately next to it, but another road down), the chanting began to subside and people marched on in relative quiet. Occasionally, there’d be pockets of noise, but being the City, we were going through an area that is generally deserted on a Saturday anyway. Off to the side of the main crowd, the route was dotted with some side shows. There was a brass band, some Hari Krishnas, a rat pack style singer doing a piece of satire on Iain Duncan Smith and someone dressed as a crab. In many ways, it reminded me of the Great North Run in terms of atmosphere.

One place in London I’d never been to before was the Royal Courts of Justice. It’s a really spectacular building, and I couldn’t help but think that justice was a theme that underpinned so many of the strands of protest.

As I went along, I marched alongside a number of different groups. There was the group Disabled People Against Cuts. One of their big concerns is the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund, which currently helps to pay for the costs that allows disabled people to live with the independence and dignity that many of us take for granted. The Conservatives wish to take this dignity away from disabled people.

Another group was Sisters Uncut. They are primarily concerned with the effects that cuts have on women, arguing that they have been unfairly targeted, as well as that not enough is being done to prevent violence against women or to adequately prosecute those who perpetrate such violence.

Coming down Whitehall, past Downing Street, the volume began to pick up again as people made various chants and songs, mainly directed against the incumbent government, some against particular members (David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne, Theresa May and Michael Gove being those mentioned most frequently) and a few that were bordering on the abusive. The police by Downing Street were the most densely packed and the most stony faced. Previous to this, it was their guarding of Coutts bank that was the most superfluous (7 officers in uniform). It struck me as more symbolic, verging on the futile, to aim slogans at Downing Street directly, since it’s likely the weekday residents would be spending their Saturday at their 2nd homes in the country.

Arriving in Parliament Square, the place was pretty packed. I found a tiny spare patch of grass and sat down at about quarter to three. It wasn’t long before the speeches started. Most of the speakers I hadn’t heard of. The only one I was familiar with was Len McCluskey, the democratically elected leader of the Unite union. As I have the foresight to take a notebook with me, I couldn’t catch all the names or the details of the speeches. So I can only convey the general sense that I picked up. They were all passionately given, with a mixture of well-researched evidence and rhetoric. All were strongly pro-trade unions. It seemed to be fairly standard fare. The question was, who was listening? Because unless the anti-austerity message gets beyond those of us on the left and has the positive effect of educating and persuading those in government and those who voted for this government, then it will all be for naught.

As I had made sure I was well hydrated along the march, it became necessary to make a visit to a nearby pub to use their facilities. As I left the square, I checked with a policeman that the figure of 250,000 was correct, as had been claimed by Len McCluskey. To be precise, he said that that was the police estimate, though later reporting in the media said that the police did not make an estimate. The officer I spoke to confirmed verbally to me that “that was the estimate we were working with.” However, there were signs of an increased police presence around, with them massing in large groups outside Westminster Abbey. To me, it looked like they were getting ready to instigate a kettle. So I made the decision to not come back for the rest of the speeches (missing out on Jeremy Corbyn, whose praises had been sung throughout the march, in contrast to Liz Kendall who was roundly booed every time her name was mentioned). I headed down to Victoria to get a bus home.

There was a small group of vocal protesters (about 15-20) outside Westminster City Hall. They were being very closely watched by the police, in a ratio of 1 police officer to every 2 protesters. On hand also were the legal observers, seemingly taking the numbers from the epaulettes of the officers nearby and talking with them. Earlier, the same observers had been handing out cards advising people what to do if they were arrested. I simply stated that I would give no cause for possible arrest. As it turns out, no one else did at all as the whole event went without any trouble whatsoever. Any suspicions of possible mischief-makers were unfounded.

Here ends my observation of the day.

Reflections

It was a fantastic day to be out and extremely heartening to be part of such a diverse group of people, united in standing up for what is right. Yet the point of it was not to make us feel good. This was to ensure that the message was delivered: Austerity isn’t the best way; there are fairer ways to do politics.

There are many sub-stories that make up this narrative, many of which were represented on Saturday. Yet effective protest has to not only be large and loud, it has to be clear and clever. If the only ones who listen to the message and understand are those on the political left who would never dream of supporting Conservative neoliberalist ideology, then we are speaking to an echo chamber. We need to demonstrate the human cost of austerity to those who tacitly or openly support it, in order to bring about a change of mind.

Key to this is ensuring that the press are not allowed to twist the message. If you read the reports of the march in the Mail or the Telegraph, then you will end up with a highly distorted understanding of what went on. Many doubted the BBC would report on the march, though to their credit they did. Yet the only person they interviewed was the one chap from the right wing pressure group The Tax Payers’ Alliance, which is hardly representative of the views of the thousands who marched. This is partly why I’ve written my eyewitness account, and I hope that others will do too.

Earlier I stated that it one needs to state 3 things: what your complaint is, why you are making it and what you are proposing those in power do about it. It seems only right then to finish with a brief summary of these 3 points.

My complaint

The last 5 years of austerity and the current plans for further cuts to public services is not the result of sound, well-thought out economics. At the end of the last Labour government, after the 2008 crash, the economy was recovering. We had growth in GDP and falling unemployment. So Conservative claims that their policies were the sole factor in the recovery are untrue; things were getting better.

Some cuts were necessary, that is clear. We needed to try to reduce the debt and the deficit, very few deny that. But the manner in which the Conservative-led coalition did this was not fair. The burden of the cuts fell hardest on disabled, the unemployed and the poor. There was some good here (the raising of the personal allowance, as championed by the Liberal Democrats) but the bad far outweighed the good. This is why we have a country where around a 1/3rd of children live in poverty, where over a million meals have had to be provided by foodbanks.

This is not right. This must change.

Why make it?

I am not one of those who has been badly affected by the cuts. But that is not sufficient reason to refrain from protesting. I am compelled by a sense of decency to stand up for my fellow human beings. Many couldn’t make the protest because they were housebound. Right now, I am healthy and employed in the private sector on a salary that is more than the national average. But there is no security in this position. If I become unemployed again, or homeless, or ill or disabled, who will stand up for me?

My proposal

I have laid out my ideas at some length in A Voter’s Manifesto. In short, we first need to ensure that government supports those who most need it. This includes an NHS that provides universal healthcare, free at the point of need. It means a system of social security that helps people to have a decent standard of living when they are unable to earn enough. It is also ensuring that employers provide a living wage so that there is an end to the need for in-work benefits.

To fund this, there must be a fair tax system, where those who earn more than they need to live on pay their fair share. Where companies providing valuable goods and services at a fair price are managed and regulated well, allowing them to do business and to earn sufficient, but not excessive, profits from which they may pay their fair share of tax.

We may also need to cut some aspects of spending, but not those that the current government proposes. We can phase out the renewal of our weapons of mass destruction and scale back expenditure on those industries and government departments whose function is warfare and death. Yet this need to be done in a careful manner, so as to not increase unemployment.

In short, I want a fairer, more just society where no one is left behind.

Why read?

As the number of book reviews on this blog approaches 200, there’s never been an explanation here of why I read quite so much.

I haven’t always been a bookworm. I really only started to read more extensively and intensively since I finished all forms of examinations when I qualified as a chartered accountant. Through my higher and postgraduate education, I was far more focused on my studies that I barely had time to read. What little I did was often of a low quality. For example, most of the 4 years of my degree were supplemented by Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. While the first instalment, The Gunslinger, was very good and the follow up was OK, but the rest was an awful drag and I’ve been put off fantasy ever since. This is why, despite numerous recommendations, I have never read any of the volumes of George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This might seem out of character, as in my youth I loved Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I read the whole lot between my GCSE mock exams and the finals, subsequently dropping a grade in nearly every subject.

It was around that formative time that I learned to hate Jane Austen. We studied Pride and Prejudice to death, sucking out any joy that might have been there. I’m still no fan of hers and have no desire to pick up Northanger Abbey any time within the next few decades.

I suppose the main reason I started to read a lot was because of my commuting. At the time I worked as an auditor so rarely worked in the same place for more than a week at a time. I tended to either be in central or south London, Kent or various industrial estates around Sussex. Spending upwards of 3 hours a day on various trains can be rather boring, even if some of the countryside around the South Downs is rather picturesque.

Perhaps it was this rural world that I would pass through on my way to a factory floor that drew me to Thomas Hardy. Though not all have been reviewed here, I’ve read most of Hardy’s work. The only extant published novels of his which I haven’t yet read are: A Laodicean, Two on a Tower and The Hand of Ethelberta. As I saw dwellings other than those of a city or a large town, I could imagine the characters making their way in life in the very locations that I passed, separated only by time.

But fiction is not my only passion. My primary passion in reading has been science. It’s a peculiar consequence of when I set up this blog that there aren’t more science books listed. The fact is, I had increased my level of reading before I started reviewing. So it may be a case that if I run out of good science books to review that I’ve found in a shop recently, then I may re-read some of the great works that don’t currently have a review on this website. For example, if you look at the index by author, you may get the impression that I haven’t read much Richard Feynman. That is a false impression; I simply read most of his more popular works before I started this blog.

This is all before I get to the category that forms the majority of my reading: christianity. I think the reason why I have read so much more on christianity in recent years than any other subject is because I’m catching up. I used to pretty much study the bible either by myself or in church and had quite a small selection of study guides. It wasn’t really until I started to read around a little more widely that I began to get a glimpse of how much more I didn’t know or didn’t understand. So I began to consume theology and apologetics quite voraciously.

This then gets to the heart of my current reason for why I read so much these days. It is to try to fill the gaps in my understanding in order that I may hold informed opinions and make informed decisions. To be somewhat self critical, this is because of an awareness that others are almost invariably better informed than I on matters about which we converse. It is rather a treadmill where nomatter how much you learn, there is always someone who can simply stroll past you. So I admit to a kind of envy of the learning of others. I see myself as a child with short legs who has to put in a lot of effort to run, just to keep up with the long-legged stroll of their parents.

This way of thinking about reading has then extended into the other non fiction. This used to be a casual break from the more serious reading that I did, but of late it has extended into more learning, particularly about history, philosophy and economics. There is no real end goal to this. I am not aiming to get a point where I could claim “I know it all” or to be more informed than anyone else. Others might consider me well read or reasonably well informed, but many of those same people have read plenty that I haven’t, know things which I don’t or have life experience that I will never have.

Yet at the same time, it would be unreasonable to play myself down too much, that would be false modesty. I am reasonably well informed on the subjects in which I am interested, for someone who has had the opportunities in life that have been afforded to me. My point is that this cannot be grounds for complacency or to arrogantly think that I know more than any person I may pass on the street. I’m just trying to keep up, and books are the easiest means available to me.

Contrast this with travel. I am very poorly travelled compared to many people. Having only been on overseas holidays twice in the last 15 years, there are many who have had great wealth that have allowed them gap years, annual holidays or the like in which they have gained far more life experience than I have. My exposure to other cultures comes through words, translated into English, that have come mostly from single sources. I have never laid eyes on many of the great sights that the world has to offer and probably never will. While such travel is limited to the very privileged, reading is far more democratic.

That’s my motivation for reading. What’s yours?

What to read in 2015?

Having listed out the books I read last year it seemed appropriate to look ahead at 2015. I’ve had a look at all the books that I have on my living room floor (in several piles) and in my desk drawer at work to see what I could read this year. Below, I’ve split the books out into my normal 4 categories. They aren’t necessarily in the order that I will read them but a rule of thumb would be that those nearer the top of each category are more likely to be read before those near the bottom of the same category.

As you can see, there are imbalances all round. For example, I’ve got far more christianity books than fiction books and far more books by men than by women. So I have a few questions for you that will help shape my reading for the forthcoming 12 months.

  1. Can you suggest some science and fiction books to even up the categories?
  2. Can you suggest some more books by women to even up the gender imbalance?
  3. Of the books listed, are there any that you particularly recommend (i.e. that I read them sooner rather than later)

The fourth question is a bit more convoluted. While I aim to read books that I think I will enjoy, I also want to stretch myself by reading things that I may well disagree with. In 2014, I read several works by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, where I didn’t expect to agree wholly with them, though I sit towards the same end of the political spectrum as they do. As a complete opposite, you will spot Friedrich Hayek’s most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, on my list. So the 4th question is this: What book would you recommend as something to challenge my views, something you think I will disagree with? This comes with a couple of caveats: first, no extremist literature; I have no intention of reading Mein Kampf or anything like that. Secondly, if you make a suggestion that I take up, you must take up a reciprocal suggestion from me. Thirdly, it must be a reasonable price and length; I would be hesitant to take up a book that is 500+ pages long or costs in excess of £25.

Christianity (24)

  • The History of the Church – Eusebius (already started)
  • The Making of the Creeds – Frances Young
  • Jesus the Jew – Geza Vermes
  • Quaker Writings – various authors
  • How Jesus Became God – Bart Ehrman
  • Cranky, Beautiful Faith – Nadia Bolz-Weber
  • How God Became Jesus – various authors
  • Baptism in the Holy Spirit – James Dunn
  • Imitating Jesus – Richard Burridge
  • Dazzling Darkness – Rachel Mann
  • Zealot – Reza Aslan
  • Theology of Hope – Jürgen Moltmann
  • Letters to London – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • God’s Smuggler – Brother Andrew
  • Simply Jesus – Tom Wright
  • The Return of the Prodigal Son – Henri Nouwen
  • The Inner Life – Thomas a Kempis
  • Life Together – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
  • Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road? – Brian McLaren
  • A New Monastic Handbook – Ian Mobsby & Mark Berry
  • The Go-Between God – John Taylor
  • The Bible: A Very Short Introduction – John Riches
  • Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction – Fergus Kerr
  • Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction – Mark Noll
  • Pentecostalism: A Very Short Introduction – William Kay

Science (10)

Fiction (8)

  • Slaughterhouse 5 – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  • Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dear Life – Alice Munro
  • The House on the Strand – Daphne du Maurier
  • The Black Prince – Iris Murdoch
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Other non-fiction (20)

Total                      (62)

You may also place a wager as to how many of these I will get through.

2014 in books

As previous years (2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) here’s a summary of the books I’ve read this year, along with links to each of the reviews that have been published so far.

This seems to have been a year of the longer book which, combined with a shorter commute after moving home, has resulted in a reduction in the number of titles finished. By quite some way, the monumental read was Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which I started in November 2013 and finished around 7 months later.

After this, I managed to speed up a little in terms of the number of books read, though I did choose to read some shorter books during the summer. Another factor that affects my reading is depression. Though I don’t suffer from it anywhere near as many others do, between May and July, the early sunrises, coupled with a lack of blackout curtains, meant that I had much worse S.A.D. than I have had in the summer before. Normally, it only affects me in the winter. This winter, though, work has rather predominated which is why I am behind on writing my reviews.

So without further ado, here’s what I managed to complete in 2014:

Christianity (10)

Science (11)

Fiction (8)

Other non-fiction (11)

 Total (40)

 On top of these, there are 3 books which I’ve started but not yet finished. These are:

  • Watching the English – Kate Fox
  • Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction – Catherine Osborne
  • The History of the Church – Eusebius

Worst book of the year

Before deciding what was the best book, it’s worthwhile to see what I most definitely wouldn’t recommend. There certainly wasn’t anything I read that I absolutely hated. In the christianity books, the stand out weakest two were Revelations of Divine Love and Why Worry. From very different points of view, they each portray a version of the gospel that is lacking or at least misguided. In the former, it is the catholic perversion of the gospel, in the latter it is the prosperity gospel.

In science, the possible two that were a bit of a disappointment were The History of Astronomy: A Very Short Introduction and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. The former was because it was just a summary of Hoskin’s other work to which he kept referring, the latter because of the lack of detail in the mathematics, combined with the author’s slightly haughty attitude.

None of the fiction books I read were poor. The middle part of Silas Marner got a bit turgid and the third part of The Forsyte Saga did drag on a bit. But I wouldn’t seek to deter you from reading either of these.

In other non-fiction, you may notice a particularly strong left-wing leaning with Marx & Engels. Now while I may not wholly agree with their particularly analyses, even finding them out of date in some cases, only Socialism: Utopian and Scientific could be regarded as a poor work, as opposed to simply being one with which I disagreed. Though I wasn’t too enamoured with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, given its highly individualistic point of view.

So which of these should be regarded as my one to avoid? Even though it is short and is probably not found in most bookshops, for shoddy writing, poor theology and all-round shallowness my turkey of the year has to be Andrew Adeleke’s ‘Why Worry?

Best book of the year

With that over and done with, let’s turn to the sunnier side of things. In the christian reading, the year was dominated by N.T. Wright’s magnum opus on Paul. In fact, that probably sated me in terms of heavyweight theology which is why the rest of the year was spent, to extend the metaphor, snacking on some lighter areas.

The science books were probably the strongest consistently, though the year ended with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which was one of the best pieces of science storytelling one could possibly hope for and I would thoroughly recommend. For those more inclined towards physics, Lisa Randall’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door is well worth reading, even though it is already out of date thanks to the confirmation of the discovery of the Higgs boson.

The fiction reading was dominated by the 3 part epic that was The Forsyte Saga and I could readily see why John Galsworthy was given the Nobel Prize for it. Though not generally a fan of modern fiction I greatly enjoyed both Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, both of which were their respective debut novels.

In non-fiction, there are a few classics there which I have gone through. My surprise hit here was Plato and a Platypus which I found both delightfully irreverent and quirkily informative. The other book that jumps out was the most recent publication of the year, being Harry Leslie Smith’s take on austerity in the 1920s and the 2010s. Combining personal story with searing insight into politics, economics and history, Harry’s Last Stand is a stark warning, looking at this country in the same way some of the Old Testament prophets looked at Israel.

So while I would that you read each of these that I’ve mentioned, which ought to be read with most urgency? For its timing, with just months to go before the general election, my 2014 book of the year has to be Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith.


Your turn now:

What have been the best (and worst) books you’ve read in the last year?