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Idle Scrawl's "Fifty Books That Are Books"

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Paul Mason | 13:51 UK time, Saturday, 18 December 2010

Earlier I relaunched a mental exercise first started by Hollywood scriptwriter and columnist Ben Hecht in the 1930s. You have to make a list of the 50 books you would have bound and put in a library if that was all you could have.

The key is to do it from memory. No internet, no Googling, no peer pressure: in an ideal world you sit down in an empty room with a typewriter and a bottle of something and hammer out the list. Here is mine (actually I have cheated and looked up some titles on the internet, and I wrote on a computer).

Hecht annotated each entry, I'll do it in groups of ten:

1. Life And Fate, Vasily Grossman.
2. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
3. Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
4. War And Peace, Leo Tolstoy
5. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
6. Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell
7. Ulysses, James Joyce
8. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
9. Germinal, Emile Zola
10. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

These are the "big books", the ones where all life is there; there's nearly always a love affair blighted by a vast social conflict; the writer creates the entire world, using a giant canvas, yet captures the essence of being human (or Elven) and it stays real inside your head for the rest of your life.

If I sit and think about the striking images, scenes I have actually "seen" vividly off the printed page, these are the books they usually come from: Novikov launching the tank attack at Stalingrad; Pirate Prentice making a banana breakfast for his SOE buddies; the students linking arms at the Pantheon as history suddenly interrupts Frederic Moreau's pursuit of Mme Arnoux; stately, plump Buck Mulligan...

11. The Classical Style, Charles Rosen
12. Crime and Punishment, Feodor Dostoyevsky
13. The Civil War, Shelby Foote
14. Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
15. Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
16. Dispatches, Michael Herr
17. More Than Somewhat, Damon Runyon
18. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
19. Red Shelley, Paul Foot
20. John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky

A bunch of books that help you orientate yourself in the world and understand its dynamics. I particularly treasure my hardback edition of the Runyon because it contains cartoons showing with what ribaldry we are supposed to enjoy these stories - there is a drawing of two dodgy Great White Way characters even on the cover of the book. Rosen's treatise on Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven influenced my whole understanding of classical music. Skidelsky's book on Keynes is really a biography of the English Liberal middle classes and a history of the mid-20th century.

21. The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
22. Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence
23. The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
24. On The Road, Jack Kerouac (or if you can't stand it, Big Sur)
25. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
26. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
27. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
28. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Peter Carey
29. Big Breasts And Wide Hips, Mo Yan

These are novels and a couple of memoirs that mainly focus on the subject of the self, the senses, mania. By authors in love with language.

31. Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas
32. Poems 1913-1956, Bertholdt Brecht
33. Milton's Poetical Works
34. Complete Poems and Selected Letters, John Keats
35. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
36. The Thief's Journal, Jean Genet
37. Amerika, Franz Kafka
38. The Good War, Studs Terkel
39. Iron In The Soul, Jean-Paul Sartre
40. A Capote Reader (including Breakfast at Tiffany's) Truman Capote

A mixture of the obvious heavy poetry and drama you would want to be able to dip into, a completely personal choice here, plus some mid-20th century writers who really grab me. A little bit influenced by Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton - as my former schoolmates will attest.

The last ten is very difficult because it comes down to hard choices, and they will just have to be self-explanatory:

41. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
42. The Black Jacobins, CLR James
43. Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
44. Dune, Frank Herbert
45. The Portable Hannah Arendt
46. Another Country, James Baldwin
47. The Odyssey, Homer
48. Surveys From Exile, Karl Marx
49. Nana, Emile Zola
50. Something by Victor Serge but I can't decide between his memoirs and one of his novels...

That's it - I won't revise it. There is an obvious bias towards male over female writers; an obvious bias to the mid-20th century, English and American "lit".

I am not claiming these are the 50 greatest books ever, and I am certainly open to argument; I know there's a desert of non-English books, nothing about science and it's all a bit redolent of a bloke who went to a Catholic grammar school sometime in the 1970s. To my surprise there are two Zolas, but I am not surprised that I have succumbed to two Pynchons since these are two of my favourite books of all time. I still don't know how Baldwin's Another Country got in there, but it won't go away.

I don't think I have broken Hecht's rule of nothing from the last 10 years but if I could it would be:

51. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
52. Underworld, Don DeLillo

Wierdly there's not a single overlap with Hecht's list - although there is also a high degree of overlap with the lists my commenters posted under the original call for lists. If you're only going to read one that you've never read before, try either (a chorizo) Life and Fate or (shorter and funnier) Vineland.

We're all products of our age really.

* Keep your lists coming and I might compile a best-of-Idle-Scrawl-commenters reading list. The blog will be sporadically active over the Xmas break - I will do something on the Euro and a review of the year/preview of what's to come. Newsnight is off the air until 4 January.


  • Comment number 1.

    must protest at the general tone of the interview by Kirsty Walk on Mr Assange on Newsnight. This was not worthy of Newsnight and Im feel it breached the code of fair and unbiased reporting. Walk kept referring to unsubstatiated and contentious 'charges' that have not been made even by the Swedish authorities but to hear Walk you would think they were fact. Why did she harrangue Assange and not let him reply? Why did she only return to the 'sexual' part of the case in which a leading council in Sweden did not think them worthy of further investigation? The unseen hand in all this affair is the the interest of the USA and yet not once did she mention or even try to discuss this part of which many people think is the prime motive of the whole affair. How can she call herself an 'unbiased' reporter. It is not worthy of Newsnight.

  • Comment number 2.

    RE 1
    WARK always does this, she thinks she is the female version of Paxman but it sounds like the usual beeb interview and if you complain youll get the same ole standard reply, the beeb is not fit for purpose, for a laugh look on youtube for kw interviewing Alex Salmond and showing exactly how not to interview someone in a balanced fashion as dictated by the beebs own royal charter which they should be indicted for ignoring

  • Comment number 3.

    the novel is a relatively new invention that was designed to replace religious texts to 'save the soul and heal the state' Cambridge didn't even study it till early 20th century.

    Do they save the soul and heal the state? Do they and can they function like religious texts? People do speak of 'a' or even 'the' 'canon' of fiction. Books that have been considered as 'safe' because it steers away from the explicit use of the word divine. To enter this world not only should one not believe anything but one must 'suspend belief'.

    Before printing 'books' were feats of memory perhaps learnt through a guild or family tradition. The book 'The art of memory' shows how such huge texts were remembered and why Giordano Bruno was executed [for his exotic memory systems] which is sometimes taken as the turning point and beginning of the new age of 'books' as unremembered but read/consumed stories losing much of their power.

    Are authors today writing to 'save the soul and heal the state? Or are they manufactures of consumption designed for fun and profit? To flash a thigh [or more] at the reader for a temporary high or period of forgetfulness of their inner Munch Scream? [see NN Review for how 'art' is treated today].

    The dictionary is perhaps the greatest book because it contains every book ever written or will be written if only one knew the order in which the words were put. Words woven and designed like a web by a spider author to catch what? Food?

    Authors take no oath to 'do no harm' but can be like drug dealers dealing opium with some, if they are paid by the word, cutting their craft with a lot of talc and toilet cleaner.

    Everyone we are told has a book inside them. Perhaps even only one book and subsequent books are mere variegations of the original book? Why?

    Could it be the book is dependent on what the author has chosen as the highest idea of the mind, the controlling motif, and like most people tend to stick with that highest idea through thick and thin making their work rather samey?

    The highest idea the author has chosen gives the work a colour and texture that once tasted can be recognised anywhere. Douglas Adams and Steinbeck agonised over sentences for perhaps days and weeks as in the case of finding out which number was considered the funniest [42]. Some take less care.

    Novels, then, can be like a game where the reader is tasked to finding out what idea image the author has taken to paint as the highest idea of the mind. As the reader yomps through page after page the author, like Rolf Harris, seemingly breathlessly asks the reader 'Can you tell what it is yet?'.

  • Comment number 4.

    I agree that many BBC interviews become shouting matches but wonder if that`s the fault of the presenters or the production team in setting them up as they do? All the presenters show evidence at times of being capable of serious thoughtful intelligent and respectful interviewing...but quite often there are too many interviwees at the same time ...and what we can`t know is how the interviwers are being prompted via their earpieces and how this affects their interviewing style.

    But there is also a worrying bias towards pleasing what I imagine is an American target audience.The BBC is clearly positioning itself as a global broadcaster ....and in an americocentric world it`s perhaps inevitable that we will hear more of the Janet Daly/Irwin Stirzer perspective than the Tony Benn/Tiriq Ali view.

    As an unrepentant old-fashioned social democrat I feel largely alienated from a British political scene that seems almost entirely dominated by the interests and objectives of people in the USA.

    Is that Kirsty Wark`s or Paul Mason`s fault? No....we are virtual hostages in a virtual one party global capitalist state.

  • Comment number 5.

    #3 - very well put. I'm not sure that the novel has as high a purpose as the treatise, the history or the biography, but i definitely think that reading a novel is a much more comforting experience than reading any of the above, and to misquote Barry Norman "that, in a sense, is what it's there for"'

    Life is hard, and it's not always made easier by information and further revelation, important as these are to a functional society. Escapism is a luxury, and like any luxury we shouldn't overdo it (not just because of marginal utility, but for health reasons as well), but it should still be a central part of our lives.

    I'm always a bit wary of qualifying or quantifying escapism, as it describes such a personal, inward act, and so inevitably one person disagrees with another when it comes to the effect it has. Douglas Adams does not make me escape, or Dostoevsky or Dickens (he just annoys me)., Total Wipeout, Call of Duty - these all DO make me escape, but they don't make me fly in the way a good novel does. Modern computer games come close but feel too contrived, Dungeons & Dragons did the job when i was 14 but as they say in football, "never go back".

    So, in my opinion, definitely a place for a novel, however quickly written, however trashy, as long as it does the job for someone in taking them out of their lives for a while.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have read NONE of the books in Paul Mason`s list ...and seldom watch films either.
    For reasons beyond my control I have had very little formal education... but this leaves me feeling liberated to "free think" my way through situations that appear to confound you "more informed" types..... with your heads full to bursting with received ideas....many of which may be irrelevant to the challenges that confront us in modern Britain.
    Take the wikileaks revolution as an example.It presents all sorts of challenges to our way of seeing the world and our place within it.
    The Anglo Saxon establishment are in total dissaray because they have swanned around the world pretending to spread freedom of speech and human rights and freedom and democracy etc etc .....when all they were ever truly doing was forming a new global empire based around Wall Street and Washington...and global usury and fraud which "delivered" them the power to run the world.
    The cries of "we don`t want world government" in the USA have only arisen since Americans became aware that China/Russia/India were about to take over the world from them....from THEIR world government which they established throughout a twentieth century that saw Britain and the rest of Europe collapse ...and the USA end that century with the UN and World Trade Center sitting symbolically just a few blocks fom Wall Street!
    As for "British politics".....well surely it`s time we called time on this pathetic exercise in fraud and deception?

  • Comment number 7.

    Whenever I think of KW I think of the South Park episode where Barbara Streisand turns out to be a giant monster that needs to be destroyed for the good of Scotland...

    Oops, typo... I mean, for the good of the town.

    'Nuff said.

    Why does the BBC become obsessed with Heathrow airport when it snows - surely not all BBC types are frequently jetting off on hols due to the lavious salaries at the Beeb?

    There are 60 million people in this country and only a tiny fraction are going to be connected with Heathrow at all during this cold weather. No doubt it is merely the easy option for the BBC - stick a camera on top of a hotel and get lots of shots of snnow-covered planes and empty runways.

    Oh, hang on - send for the expensive BBC helicopter!

    Wouldn't it be cheaper to just get the newsreaders to put on Noel Edmonds and John Craven Swap Shop style sweaters and ask for more photos of snowmen to emailed in?

    Anyhow, can't type anymore as I have to go and watch the 47th hour of the rolling cover on News 24 looking at planes stood absolutely still at Heathrow. Hope I didn't miss anything by logging on in here.

  • Comment number 8.


    "Is that Kirsty Wark`s or Paul Mason`s fault? No....we are virtual hostages in a virtual one party global capitalist state."

    Are we hostages? I just don't watch BBC news and choose other sources. If readers of The Sun rejected the content then precisely because we live in a capitalist society they would adjust accordingly. On the other hand if we lived in a world where a closed system chose our culture for us and I disagreed with it, I'd have to lump it.

    When I went into WHSmith today I felt despair on looking at the Xmas bestseller bios from celebrities. However, isn't this just giving people what they want?

    I heard The Moral Maze the other day talk about XFactor. Whilst I think XFactor is not "the" issue, it was interesting. The critics pointed to how much more intellectual popular books where 200 years ago. Are people not the same but now everyone can afford books and so this "intellectual underclass" (sorry liberals!!) register and indeed tip the scales.

    Did anyone hear that Moral Maze episode? I thought Portillo skinned that academic who thought that everyone's opinion was equally valid. Apparently the academic went home and struggled with the fact that he is paid so much. I bet! Perhaps he will loose his job in the coming bloodbath in "higher" education and have this burden lifted. In general I thought those arguing the case for xfactor-like culture were weak. Not sure if I can draw a conclusion from that though as it could be the guests chosen were unfairly weighted by ability towards high culture.

    Thank goodness for the internet/radio so I'm not stuck in the terrestrial tv ghetto!

  • Comment number 9.

    tawse57 - I have no sympathy :-) don't watch bbc 24. I wouldn't have thought this possible before it arrived, but it's like a poor-man's BBC nine o'clock news.

    ps had to laugh at the queen's head on stamp story. It's ok that our mail system is on it's knees and that we are selling it to a foreign company, but if they change the picture on the receipt, well!

    pps is the snow a good thing so shops can take their lead from the BoE and blame exceptional circumstances for off-target figures?

  • Comment number 10.

    To help the British Public get through the snow angst I notice that BBC Radio stations are frequently playing 'White Christmas'.

    The musical 'White Christmas' is interesting is it not - in it the hotel at the centre of the story was about to go bankrupt due to lack of snow. The climax of the musical being the snow beginning to fall as 'White Christmas' is sung by the cast signalling the arrival of masses of holiday-makers draw by the said snow.

    But the opposite happens in the UK.

    The snow brings the country to a halt and hotel owners, shop owners, and now even etailers, across the nation are whinging to the miseries of having a 'White Christmas'.

    Funny that.

  • Comment number 11.

    I always thought you were a Jack Kerouac man, Paul, I am of a generation that can spot them along with undercover cops.

    I am sorry but I am going to have to disagree in that reading a book is not enough. One has to understand the cultural context in which a book was written otherwise all you are doing is the literary equivalent of a tick box culture.

    To date in life I have three areas of largely historical competence, the Dark Ages in southern England, the English Civil War and the political culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I can also join up the bits in between after a fashion and am now slowly immersing myself in eighteenth century social behaviour. However, I have done all that in order to explain things to myself so that I can understand them.

    Perhaps I am being heavily influenced by the late Sir Herbert Read who argued that art is an expression of culture and not the other way round. So there is always a risk from what he called `bourgeouis academic art' where the intellectual elite become busy admiring their own backsides. Very valid for modern times.

    I appreciate that literature can be seen as a object of itself in much the same way as painting and sculpture, but to me it does not come to life outside a deeper knowledge of its full context. An example which is very close and personal to me is that you cannot understand Nineteen Eighty Four without reading Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia as well. His essays are also a delightful and expressive account of a great intellect hard at work. After that a few histories of the Spanish Civil War and Stalin's purges might not go amiss to ensure that the full flavour is appreciated. This is why the European Left has been emasculated for the last seventy years, seeking solace in social democracy and political opportunism. Now even those have failed.

    Baldwin's Another Country is a wonderful book. I read it on the train and never has a journey been so rapid. Victor Serge is a fascinating character whose work is very round and full, but Paul Foot? Lovely fellow, but without influential friends he would never have got published (my unfair opinion only).

  • Comment number 12.

    Ten Books I loved the first time I read them and then later discovered I hated !:

    1) Call of the Wild - London
    2) The Famous Five - Blyton
    3) How to be Topp -willians and searle
    4) Harry Potter - Rowling
    5) History of Western Philosophy - Russell
    6) The Selfish Gene - Dawkins
    7) The Devil Rides Out - Wheatly
    8) Getting to Yes - Fisher and Ury
    9) I Know you Got Sole - Clarkson
    10) Notes from a Small Island - Bryson

  • Comment number 13.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 14.

    Stanilic..political philosophies are not like can`t "miss" the chance to "catch" social democracy (far less political opportunism)just because they are presently out of fashion....surely?

    Socialism and social democracy "failed" because the Second World War bankrupted Britain.... and we have been in hoc to the USA ever since.

    The Americans made absolutely certain that our attempts at social democracy failed ...while they poured "investment" resources into their German and Japanese (and more recently Chinese)imperial projects.

  • Comment number 15.


    After the day I have had and the content of the post above mr Moderator you have GOT to be kidding me right?

  • Comment number 16. make a good point about our freedom to "not watch" our televisions...but society is not really based on an aggregate of individual viewing decisions.

    And while what our governments do may not be based on an an "average" of public opinion either ...I suspect
    that the popular media convey our culture now just as effectively as a local community did at a time before radio and television existed.

    The soaps probably influence the way our children think and act and otherwise express themselves in the way that parents and schools and local communities (and books?) did a century ago?

  • Comment number 17.

    14 worceterjim

    I would be grateful if you do not read hidden agendas into what others write. This is a thoroughly bad habit which is to be deplored as then time is wasted redefining context. If you don't understand a point then say so, there is no shame in that as communication is not an exact science.

    Social democracy has failed across Europe which is why there are a lot of people and flags on the streets. Socialism has not failed as it never got a chance because the social democrats have been busy barricading the pathway. Do not confuse social democracy with socialism as like Orwell I define the latter as a free and equal society in which there is no exploitation. I have seen little sign of it in Europe since June 1936, although there was a brief spasm in France in 1944.

    Lastly, there is no excuse more feeble than blaming the Americans for everything. It is nothing more than a Pontius Pilate gesture or the war criminal saying that he was only obeying orders.

  • Comment number 18.

    I started Life and Fate earlier this year, but it didn't stick. Maybe I'll give it another go sometime soon.

    50 must-have Books is way too many, and of course lots of the same titles are going to come up over and again, but here are a few that come off the top of my head that might get lost amongst the great gatsbys and so on -
    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - John Le Carre - an amazing picture of cold war Britain
    The Earthsea series - Ursula Le Guin - her science fiction also deserves consideration
    If this is a man - Primo Levi
    The Kraken Wakes and The crysalids - John Wyndham - the first another cold war novel, and the second a post apocalyptic future.
    The Quiet American - Graham Greene
    Anything and everything from Raymond Chandler - perhaps The Little Sister or the Lady in the Lake, to name a couple of specifics

    those are the ones that lept out in the first 5 minutes.

  • Comment number 19.

    Jericoah...what are you on about? If you can`t explain yourself then at least spare us the knocking melodrama!

    Stanilich...please accept my apology for misunderstanding you.I assume from your arrogant and insolent tone that you are some sort of academic given to pontificating without expecting to be challenged or contradicted.

    I am perfectly aware that many British people owe their livelihoods to an unswerving devotion to the USA.If that is true of you then you have my sympathy.

    I stand by my original comment because I believe it to be true.If either of you can point to one policy of the British government that suggests any significant independence from the USA then I shall be interested to hear about it.

    As a matter of interest Stanilich...what was your original comment meant to convey? I have tried to understand it but ....!

  • Comment number 20.

    '7. At 3:23pm on 19 Dec 2010, tawse57 wrote:

    Oh, hang on - send for the expensive BBC helicopter!

    The additional irony of it being deployed in all its carbon spewing glory to show grounded planes as Mr. Huhne returns from Cancun, with his acolytes now talking of 'doing' less and paying more, doubtless not registering where market rate talents see a few hundred grand plus as 'the norm'.

    One only wises hypocrisy was a harnessable energy source. Westminster and most media studios within the M25 could power the world.

  • Comment number 21.

    It is bitterly cold in West Wales this morning. Being snow overnight and constantly ever since.

    Going outside now is breath-taking in that the cold bites through the layers and leaves you feeling breathless. The result being hardly anyone venturing outside.

    The BBC News Channel seems oblivious to this. They are are focussing on that ruddy Heathrow as if the fate of the Universe depends on whether Collette Hume - BBC employee - can get off for her fortnight in Oz holiday. If Collette can't get to Oz then the planet will be sucked into a black hole... allegedly.

    The coverage is simply very poor. I daren't think how many hours that helicopter has hung hovering over Heathrow. We could have paid for a few more hours of fighter flying time with all that money wasted... and if it is so bad in London then why is the BBC reporter standing outside Heathrow able to report wearing no hat exposing his bald head to the elements? Someone send for the BBC woolly hat!

    Oh, hang on - the News Channel is now having a report from Bridgend... oh, it was just to tell us that the shops are full of shoppers... Odd that, bearing in mind that all the bus companies have suspended their services due to the roads being so treacherous.

    I am going away now to meditate and have out of body experience thereby projecting myself to shop in M&S from my armchair.

    Oh no, I now appear to be hovering over Heathrow - again!

  • Comment number 22.

    Paul: that's a wonderful list.

    Here's mine in no particular order. They aren't necessarily the ones I think are the greatest texts, but they are the ones on my mind most.
    1. Sinclair Lewis: It Couldn't Happen Here.
    2. Lewis Jones: Cwmardy
    3. Gwyn Thomas: Sorrow For Thy Sons
    4. Kate Roberts: The World of Kate Roberts (preferably in the original Welsh)
    5. Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows.
    6. Thoreau: Walden - a book that changed my life
    7. Lenin: What Is To Be Done?
    8. Stephen Greenblatt: Learning to Curse
    9. SInfield and Dollimore: Political Shakespeare
    10. A complete Shakespeare, including the sonnets
    11. Stephen Knight's anthology of Robin Hood texts
    12. Y Mabinogion or a decent translation
    13. Chrétien de Troye's Arthurian stories
    14. Marx: Das Kapital
    15. Gramsci: The Prison Notebooks.
    16. Flann O'Brien: At-Swim-Two-Birds
    17. Joyce: Finnegans Wake (the new corrected edition)
    18. The Collected Poems of RS Thomas
    19. Katherine Mansfield: Collected Short Stories
    20. William Morris: News from Nowhere.
    21. Fiona McCarthy's biography of Eric Gill
    22. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (in the William Morris Kelmscott edition).
    23. Alan Moore: V for Vendetta
    24. M. John Harrison: Light
    25. Milton: Complete Works
    26. Austen: Emma or Pride and Prejudice.
    27. Swift: Waterland
    28. Grassic Gibbon: The Scots Quair
    29. Alastair Gray: Lanark
    30. Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory
    31. Jonathan Coe: What A Carve-Up or The Rotter's Club
    32. Pynchon: Vineland
    33. Pynchon: V
    34. Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow
    35. Ballard: Hello America
    36. Ballard: The Drowned World.
    37. Keith Roberts: Pavane
    38. Terry Pratchett: Going Postal
    39. Graham Greene: The Quiet American
    40. Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book
    41. David Peace: the GB trilogy.
    42. Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker's Guide (omnibus).
    43. Shelley: complete works.
    44. Betjeman: complete works
    45. Robert Frost: complete works
    46. William Carlos Williams: complete works
    47. Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass trilogy
    48. Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast trilogy
    49. Eisenstein: The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (everything she said applies to the web etc).
    50. Margaret Atwood: Surfacing

    I'd also want more Austen and some Ann Radcliffe: The Italian or The Mysteries of Udolpho, Mary Shelley - preferably The Last Man, some John Wyndham, some Powell, something by the various Powys brothers, some Zola (good choice of Germinal by the way), some Mauriac, some Stendhal, the Icelandic sagas, some Hardy - difficult to choose between Tess and his poetry… I could go on forever.

  • Comment number 23.

    19 worcesterjim

    Arrogance! The word my brother used to throw at my father long before he learned the cause of it. Sadly, our kindred was corrupted by Master Calvin many generations back so I truly fear his shadow.

    Yes, I am insolent in that sneering puritan leveller way that fails to understand why any person should wish to place themselves above another. I am insolent to authority and I make sure that authority knows that there are those who would wish to bring them to judgement.

    Also I am no academic as my nose is firmly planted in the middle of my face; where it remains. The only way to live a life is to go out and embrace the world in all its nature.

    Lastly, a much respected colleague of mine who is a firm Labour supporter - we debate often and I respect his passion - is very clear in telling me that the UK acquired the NHS despite the wishes of the Americans. There is more than one suggestion that he may be right which rather defeats the point which you are trying to make.

    The point that I would make as an arrogant sneering puritan that with the political will our country could write itself another very different story. But then, since the only political will being expressed in this country seems to involve grabbing as much money as possible before running off to a well paid sinecure in sunnier climes, fat chance!

  • Comment number 24.

    It`s all there in the William and Biggles books you know...if you have some imagination..and you add on a lot of real social interaction and life experience.(Get out more!)

    Could the listaholics explain which of those books truly deepened their understanding of themselves or the world around them... and in what way?

    I would like to start reading and could do with some guidance...but the choice is overwhelming and listening to Radio 4`s "Book Club" leaves me none the wiser and with a sneaking suspicion that it should be called "Fan Club"(?).

  • Comment number 25.

    Stanilic...we did stand out for an NHS because everybody wanted it and it would have been politically impossible not to go ahead...but the Americans exacted a very heavy price ...and while they built up Germany and Japan and created what we now call the EU...they also ensured we suffered for voting in a "socialist" government...and for providing a welfare state that no American citizen could count upon.

    And I am not "anti-american" nor do I "blame them for everything" fact I pity their many millions of unemployed who lack health care in a society that spends trillions meddling in every other nation in the world.

    The financiers (and money lenders and organised criminals and currency speculators) run the USA and much of the so-called "free world"....including Britain!

  • Comment number 26.


    Fine we are now in agreement, Jim. So what are you going to do about it? Vote Labour in again or try something a bit more radical? I think if we came up with the right idea even most Americans would support it.

  • Comment number 27.

    @18 - second your suggestion of Ursula le Guin and Primo Levi.

    Alf Tupper in the Victor made me who I am ...

  • Comment number 28.`s my belief that voting in the hope of getting a half passable social democratic government is now a waste of time .....and a signal to the powerful that we are too naive or stupid to realise what they have achieved....a one-party state which pretends to inhabit the "centre ground" of public opinion (or majority view) wnen it really "delivers" the same barmy global capitalist policies that the Democrats/Republicans impose on Americans for a non-existent "change."

    I protest vote for small parties as the closest approximation to registering my sense of disaffection.But it`s a poor substitute for having a real choice of mainstream parties.

    I`m also aware that we are part of an EU designed (among other things)to spread capitalism to the old Soviet Union at huge cost to us but to the advantage of global investors.See George Soros` Open Society "initiatives" for more details.

    As for immigration I just think we are MAD and doing a great injustice to our British-born underclass....but what aspects of policy the Americans don`t control it seems our well intentioned but fatally misguided liberal humanitarian dreamers do control....and between them they appear to be unwittingly setting up a British genocide or civil war.

  • Comment number 29.


    I agree with your opinion that "we are virtual hostages in a virtual one party global capitalist state".
    This is quite a good way of putting it.

    I feel it's important to understand this global dimension & to not fall into the trap of scapegoating immigrants, like the BNP.

    For the ruling, classes divide & rule is a constant tactic with their 'scronging immigrant' headlines.

    To understand just how capitalist society is & how it reproduces itself is actually quite a mental challenge.

    One of the easier books to start with is Chris Harmen's "Economics of the Madhouse".

    Yes, think things through yourself, but without reading what others have read is to to take a very long, meandering route.
    Short cuts can get you lost, admittedly, but they can also get you there a lot quicker.

  • Comment number 30.

    After nearly thirty years working as a hands on social worker I am not inclined to casually scapegoat anyone Vin...but far more likely to identify people who appear to my jaundiced eye to be truly responsible for the problems we face ....and "we" includes the immigrants who share the sink estates and cess pit suburbs of our post imperial post democratic Alice in Wonderland failing state ...on the edge of the capitalist universe..

    The BNP and UKIP are establishment-tolerated excuses ....whose existence allows our electable parties to avoid the issues that are causing so much legitimate concern among our beleagured lower orders.

    Meanwhile so-called socialists and liberals now studiously ignore the British poor and bewildered underclass .....and swan about the moral high-ground of our overpopulated world "rescuing" millions more culturally incompatable and brutalised and bewildered people.... in the bizarre belief that bringing them here will solve their problems.

    I will read Harmen Vin....thanks...but I am on no "meandering route".

    As a barely educated neglected child I quickly realised what education was really about ....and that my freedom to think for myself would be to a large degree the result of NOT following in the footsteps of others.

  • Comment number 31.


    I agree that the 'left' has let down the poor badly in recent years.
    Rights for every different kind of minority just said to ordinary workers that they were not for them.
    This is the problem with having middle class professors as 'leaders'.

    But for me the central message of Marx is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago - only through class struggle can we change the world.

    As us, the labouring classes (whether we have a job or not) see our lives get worse & worse, we will eventually revolt against the profit-system that enslaves us.
    This will not take us to some utopia, but for me the only other option is the continuing descent into barbarism.

  • Comment number 32.

    By the way...if you want literature that is really relevant to your grandchildren`s futures then anything by George Soros and Parag Khanna might awaken you to just how irrelevant to anything but itself our Westminster party politics really is.

    If you want a true insight into the nightmare world we have unwittingly created for far too many of our children then I recommend "Prayer before Birth" by Louis MacNeice....or the message about personal relationships conveyed by any edition of a modern British soap opera ....or the reports into the deaths of Victoria Climbie and Damilola Taylor and Baby Peter Connelly.

  • Comment number 33.

    Vin...I wish that I could share your optimism about the latent power available to "us" in the form of working class disaffection...but if you think about George Soros` being our new Marx you may begin to see how capitalism has morphed into being both our enemy and an inseperable new best friend our pension funds and government revenues and practically everything else about our financial future is contingent on our credit rating by "the markets" and "the strength of the pound".

    The poor have been made irrelevant ..if they argue then an immigrant can take their place and home courtesy of our welfare state.

    Their revolutionary potential has been sapped by moneylenders and consumerism and "we are all in this together" coalition politics .....and even their democratic ability to "vote in" parties likely or able to reflect their "horrid narrow nationalistic racist xenophobic populist,etc" views has now been removed from them by a liberal humanitarian aristocracy of well meaning naive social idiots who believe in the power of an open society of open borders and mass migration and free market economics as a means to deliver us the New Jerusalem.
    Well it didn`t pan out like that in the last century....but Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that they saved us from our our european folly of wars and holocausts in the last century it`s their turn to create a better world ...based on free market capitalism!

  • Comment number 34.

    #21 tawse57
    latest from delayed as Heathrow runway closed because a mysterious helicopter keeps buzzing the airspace ;) The BBC. Not just reporting the News...making the News.
    Well it could happen couldn't it?

  • Comment number 35.

    That books may be the essence of our belief was Rorty's thesis revealed to us in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity . Books where to be Rorty's backstop to Isiah Berlin's paradox of the contingent belief we nevertheless hold immutable. This left Rorty open to the charge of elitism.

    In her 2009 gloss on Derrida's Writing and Difference , Sarah Brown posed the question - "James Joyce wanted to write books that gathered togethor the potentially infinite memory of humanity. Derrida imagined a writing machine capable of imagining everything that happens, such that the smallest thoughts, the smallest movements of the body, the least traces of desire, the ray of light, the encounter with someone, a phrase heard in passing, are inscribed somewhere : imagine that an electroencephalocardiosomatopsychogram were possible........" What form do you think would be the most longlasting and most sensitive for receiving impressions ? Books ? Film ? E-mail ?

    Bernard Stiegler took Derridas question seriously to formalise a tele-technological theory as " Technics and Time " which added to the already burgeoning pile of failed attempts at codification of "the Other" ( see Andres Vaccari, Transformations #17 2009)

    Perhaps it is Fredric Jameson who best caught the zeitgeist in his response to Spectres of Marx ( Ghostly Demarcations 1999) when he concluded " So it is that Marxism and it's current spectrality..both emerge in some post-semiotic universe of messages and vertualities of the new communications technologies .. a new kind of trembling or shimmering of the present in which new ghosts now seam to be on the point of walking "

    So the ghost of xmas future may be here on the web, rather than languishing unread on bookshelves of soon to be axed libraries. Indeed where else would a new social conscience come from ? and can we deal with it's utter vertigo ?

  • Comment number 36.

    # 1 - It was the usual femino-communist claptrap from Wark. If Harman, Wark, et al, had their way the presumtion of innocence in sexual cases against men would be turned into the presumption of guilt.

  • Comment number 37.

    #19 worcester jim

    to explain

    I was due to fly out of Heathrow to join my family in Brazil on Sunday. I decided to share my experiences of that failed journey and the aftermath here here and use it as a real context to offer some comments on global warming airlines, beaurocracy and Pauls surprising choice of books.

    Sadly such a heartfelt holistic rant fell foul of the moderators, no idea what I wrote now as it was a bit of an emotional stream of consciousness, it was probably incoherent rubbish and the mods have done me afavour now I have calmed down abit.

  • Comment number 38.

    37 Thank you Jericoah...I was quite prepared to accept that MY "heartfelt holistic ranting" had upset you and to apologise but there wasn`t enough information on which to base an apology.

    Happy mid winter festival to you and yours ...and all the rest of the members of Newsnight`s collective cyberunconcious!(Including the unfortunate moderator!)

  • Comment number 39.


    And to yours, sorry about any misunderstanding.

    I was (which has been moderated out) a tad surprised at Paul's selections which I felt pandered to the 'elitist intellectual' rather than the more 'down to earth' type selections I was 1/2 expecting from him given the tone of his output of material and no nonsence northern attitude.

    I was expecting a few curveball 'Fear and Loathing in las vegas' type things to appear on his list etc but it all seems a bit 'Oxford and Cambridge' to me.... but there again he had to get the job in the first place at the beeb and probably had to read all of those and quote from them to 'get in'... :)

    I will be interested to see a compiled list from those whom have posted as it is quite a uniquely selective audience on here.

    What would be the top 10 or top 5 (if not enough repitition)?

    Hopefully, from my perspective, the complete works of Shakespear will not be at no.1, I doubt many of those who quoted it have actually read it cover to cover and understood it in a way that would justify their selection of it. Dont get me wrong I love Shakespear when I have had the proper time and guidance to appreciate it properly i.e. in a theatre or on film in the manner it was meant to be appreciated by the author...

    For example if we did a list of favourite films a couple of mine would be.

    'Much Ado about Nothing' - Kenneth Brammers interp in the early 90s I think.. which is simply a joy which goes beyond struggling to read raw text.


    'Forbidden Planet' - based on 'The tempest' it has non of shakespears language in that particular choice but boy does it pack a philosophical punch if you watch the film and then read a guided text of 'the tempest as I did.

    what the heck top 10 films (in no particular order and off the cuff).

    Forbidden Planet

    Much ado about nothing

    The singing detective ( original tv series)

    Blood diamond

    When harry met sally

    Dangerous liasons

    The Deer Hunter

    High Plains Drifter

    Some like it Hot


  • Comment number 40.

    The Pillow Book

    Oh, yes, definitely.

    Also, Liars' Poker by Michael Lewis, is a better portrait of Wall Street/the City, than Bonfire of the Vanities, imo. And maybe 'The death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, by Philip Auger, as another account of a (dying?) era.

  • Comment number 41.

    Hi Paul,

    Here are my '50 Books That Are Books'.

    Woefully androcentric, I know, but I tried to do it without cheating much (apart from about 5 of them, the rest were done from memory):

    1. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
    2. The Master and Margherita – Mikael Bulgakov
    3. 1984 – George Orwell
    4. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
    5. Kafka on the shore – Huruki Murakami
    6. The Trial – Franz Kafka
    7. The Castle – Franz Kafka
    8. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
    9. Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre
    10. The Reprieve – Jean Paul Sartre
    11. GB84 – David Peace
    12. The Plague – Albert Camus
    13. The Outsider – Albert Camus
    14. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    15. Martin Eden – Jack London
    16. For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
    17. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
    18. Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
    19. Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche
    20. Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre
    21. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
    22. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    23. The Great Transformation: The Social and Political Origins of Our Time – Karl Polanyi
    24. Genealogy of Morals – Friedriche Nietzsche
    25. Search For A Method – Jean Paul Sartre
    26. Das Kapital – Karl Marx
    27. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 – Karl Marx
    28. Nationalism – Benedict Anderson
    29. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: Twenty Years with Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton
    30. Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann
    31. The Prison Notebooks – Antonio Gramsci
    32. The Spanish Labyrinth – Gerald Brenan
    33. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    34. The Town & The City – Jack Kerouac
    35. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
    36. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
    37. Hell’s Angels – Hunter S. Thompson
    38. Burmese Days – George Orwell
    39. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
    40. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
    41. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
    42. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    43. High Fidelity – Nick Hornby
    44. Karl Marx’s Theory of Alienation – Istvan Metszaros
    45. The Sane Society – Erich Fromm
    46. Fairy Tales – The Brothers Grymm
    47. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
    48. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell
    49. The Wasteland – TS Eliot
    50. Collection – Atilla Jozsef

    1. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
    2. The Master and Margherita – Mikael Bulgakov
    3. 1984 – George Orwell
    4. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
    5. Kafka on the shore – Huruki Murakami
    6. The Trial – Franz Kafka
    7. The Castle – Franz Kafka
    8. Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell
    9. Nausea – Jean Paul Sartre
    10. The Reprieve – Jean Paul Sartre
    11. GB84 – David Peace
    12. The Plague – Albert Camus
    13. The Outsider – Albert Camus
    14. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    15. Martin Eden – Jack London
    16. For Whom The Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
    17. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
    18. Bonfire of the Vanities – Tom Wolfe
    19. Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozie Adiche
    20. Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre
    21. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
    22. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    23. The Great Transformation: The Social and Political Origins of Our Time – Karl Polanyi
    24. Genealogy of Morals – Friedriche Nietzsche
    25. Search For A Method – Jean Paul Sartre
    26. Das Kapital – Karl Marx
    27. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 – Karl Marx
    28. Nationalism – Benedict Anderson
    29. Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: Twenty Years with Brian Clough – Duncan Hamilton
    30. Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann
    31. The Prison Notebooks – Antonio Gramsci
    32. The Spanish Labyrinth – Gerald Brenan
    33. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    34. The Town & The City – Jack Kerouac
    35. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
    36. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
    37. Hell’s Angels – Hunter S. Thompson
    38. Burmese Days – George Orwell
    39. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
    40. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
    41. The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
    42. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    43. High Fidelity – Nick Hornby
    44. Karl Marx’s Theory of Alienation – Istvan Metszaros
    45. The Sane Society – Erich Fromm
    46. Fairy Tales – The Brothers Grymm
    47. The Naked and the Dead – Norman Mailer
    48. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell
    49. The Wasteland – TS Eliot
    50. Collection – Atilla Jozsef

    I can't remember what number 50 is called, but it's a poetry collection translated from the Hungarian by Joe Baki (I think, that's his name). I can't find it on Amazon though. Must be a rare book.

    Merry Christmas, etc.

  • Comment number 42.

    Dekko Jo Bahki is the closest I can find on google...but it ain`t Magyar!

  • Comment number 43.

    Found him - it's John Batki

    - That's not the book I've got though, but it's a similar collection.

  • Comment number 44.


    Sorry for stealing anyones thunder but being stranded alone in the UK when I should be in Brazil I have time on my hands and curiosity got the better of me.

    I have not done this particularly thoroughly but I have 'roughed in', as we would say in engineering terms, an intial picture of general outcomes as below.

    I have not examinined each submission carefully (I relied on MS word search facility to pick up repeated answers) so this may be a little wide of the mark in exactitude but should give a general feel for the orientation (lets say) of Idle Scrawl's eclectic readership.

    I have also tried to take cognisance where certain authors (but different named works with a similar theme) appear, Marx being a prime example of this.

    This is what a 'roughed in' list looks like at the moment.

    1) 1984 - appears 11 times

    =2) Marx - Various works - appears 9 times
    =2) War and Peace

    =3) Crime and punishment - appears 7 times
    =3) Animal Farm
    =3)Catcher in the rye
    =3) Pride and Prejudice

    =4) The Trial - appears 6 times
    =4) Moby Dick

    =5) Dune - appears 5 times
    =5) Catch 22
    =5) Anna karenina
    =5) Hitchhikers guide
    =5) Milton (various)

    =6) Gravity rainbow - appears 4 times
    =6) Ulysses
    =6) Germinal
    =6) Lord of the rings
    =6) Grapes of Wrath
    =6) Odyssey
    =6) Master and Margharita
    =6) Ragged Trousered philanthropist
    =6) Origin of species
    =6) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence.

    I glean from the above that collectively Idle Scrawl readership are a bunch of anti-establishment futuristic idealists with a bit of the romantic in us tempered by gritty realism.

    Sounds like a useful combination to me to be honest in the context of what the world needs at the moment.

    I think it is also worth noting that the work of George Orwell, if you include everything (1984, Animal Farm and Ragged Trousered) comes out as being a hugely dominant influence streets ahead of any other influence.


    We should have an 'Idle Scrawl' conference or something in the new year. Speaking personally it would be good to put faces to some of the intellects I have engaged with over the last 2 years or so since the financial crisis hit.

    Respect to you all.

    Jericoa (with time on his hands and slightly drunk)

  • Comment number 45.

    stanilic - good posts.

    Jericoa, excellent analysis and I'd have to agree with your conclusions.

    (although being a pedant I have to point out that George would have written Ragged Trousered but Robert Tressel got in their first, I'll forgive you that one as in the words of the famous lord*, 'I was a little drunk at the time')

    Paul, you wrote a review of a book by Pynchon about 15 months ago, my comments were less than complimentary, as it turns out he is one of your favourite authors, it is only fair that I seek out one of his books and read it properly, this I will do.

    Ben Hecht gave me an HG Wells story I had never read (and I thought I had read them all) so cheers Ben.

    Everybodies lists have given me loads of books that I will try to read
    (I know I won't live long enough to read War and Peace so that's the only one I will never even try) the rest I will read as they come along.

    Lastly, one book that is a book, and is a book about books - Farenheit 451 - and it should be book no. 50

    Merry Christmas to one and all

    *Fast Show
    (Ho! Ho! Ho!)

  • Comment number 46.

    Farenheit last ..a book I HAVE read.and enjoyed...though the film version was disappointing.

    As an ignoramus ...who knows no better ...dare I ask what the point of this exercise is if you don`t say what you drew from these books that made them figure in your top fifty?

    Surely all the left-wing political literature is now just pure nostalgia or social fiction?

  • Comment number 47.

    46 jim

    We are doing this for fun! Remember fun?

  • Comment number 48.


    Thanks for the correction!

    Quite right the odd thing is in the context of your comment is I knew that! For some reason while compiling the list I had confused the authorship of 'Down and Out in Paris and London' with the 'Ragged Trousered Philanthropist' in my minds eye. I Guess Tressle would have wrote Down and out in Paris and london if Orwell had not done so.

    Orwell's predominance in the list remains undiminished non the less I suggest. I think Down and Out in paris and London got 3 nominations. The total number or complete or partial submissions of lists to Idle scrawl is currently 30.


    Not sure there is 'a point' as such except (from my perspective) to get afew ideas for new books to read from the lists, books which I have never heard of, but, by implication from those I have heard of and the general composition of the list would be things which would interest me.

    I also find the 'retro socialism' predominance a bit perplexing as well. I doubt that 'Marx' coming in at No. 2 would be the norm on many if any lists compiled outside of 'socialist worker' type forums.

    I for one do not condider myself to be 'left wing' in the traditional sense, as far as I am concerned ' left wing' and 'right wing' are out of date descriptions for asystem which no longer operates that way. There should be a third axis to better describe the modern world and in so doing transforming the whole debate out of the 2 dimentional and into a 3 dimensional structure.

    With that I am off to buy a copy of 'Gravity Rainbow'

    I Much prefer the lists on here to the ones you can find




    or even here (but this is reassuringly the closest to our list)

    Notable that Marx does not appear on ANY of them.

  • Comment number 49.

    It's wonderful that Marx is so popular.
    However, he's very far from being understood.
    Which isn't too surprising as he's so difficult to read.

    Harman's Economics of the Madhouse is a nice easy way in before going on to Harvey's Limits to Capital.
    This will mean you won't even have to read Marx directly.

  • Comment number 50.

    I have had a root around the bookshelves and suggest the following:

    L.T.C. Rolt `Narrowboat' - industrial archaeology among other things.
    L.T.C. Rolt `Sleep No More' - industrial archaeology with the supernatural.
    M. R. James `Ghost Stories of An Antiquary' - the master of the ghost story and the editor of `The Apocypha' which should be read alongside The Bible.
    Elaine Pagels `The Gnostic Gospels' - heresy
    Steven Runciman `The Medieval Manichee' - more heresy.
    Raoul Vaneigem `Totality for Kids' - the situationist view.
    Len Deighton `The Ipcress File' and anything else he wrote for that matter.
    Colin Wilson `The Outsider' a bit dated now but his later psychological stuff is quite interesting if a bit off the wall.
    Hugh Thomas `The Slave Trade' - if you want to know why the Industrial Revolution happened and why North America is the way it is.
    Keith Thomas `Religion and the Decline of Magic'.
    Whitney Jones `Thomas Rainborowe' this is worth reading for a vision of an alternative England which just might have happened.
    Thomas Cahill `How the Irish Saved Civilisation' - brilliant interpretation of early Irish history.
    Rude & Hobsbawm `Captain Swing'.
    Peter Kropotkin `Mutual Aid'.
    Maximoff `Bakunin'

    Eclectic I know but books are about education and enjoyment. I should also add anything witten by George Orwell but his essays are the very best of his writing. I have a first edition of his Critical Essays and I will never part with it.

  • Comment number 51. this new-fangled "fun" concept past me again Mr Illich....or is this another fine literary mess you`ve gotten me into Stanley? Toodlepip!!!

  • Comment number 52.

    I think you have got the point, Jimbo!

  • Comment number 53.


    Please don't refer to "our overpopulated world" without recognising that it is sheer poverty which forces people to have many children as an insurance against old age and ill health. Rich countries experience declining birth rates.

  • Comment number 54.


    I know your post was directed at me but, I would dig a little deeper and say it is sheer ignorance and complacency on our collective part that we have any poverty at all.

    In the context of modern technology and our understanding of the world, how it works and ourselves and our own biology (and control over it)poverty should not exist. There is no environmental requirement for it to exist anywhere.

    The only requirement for poverty to exist in the modern world is cultural and (paradoxically) religious, but those subjects are 'taboo' , unchallengeable unless you wish to suffer the modern equivalent of the spanish inquisition upon yourself and your family.

    At some point in our future the peace benefit 'cultural tolerance' brings will be outweighed by the suffering it causes, perhaps we are already at that point, it seems the pan keeps trying to boil over but we keep shoving the lid back on and crossing our fingers, but nobody talks about turning off the heat.... not allowed....

    Shameful it is.

  • Comment number 55.

    #54 errata

    Should read NOT directed at me..sorry.

  • Comment number 56.

    @53 Carol...I know this will sound childish....and you do make a fair (if leadenly worthy?) point...but do you seriously expect me to work in footnotes to generalisations about the world scene?

    You appear to think I am criticising the parents of the ninety million extra hungry mouths that currently enter the world each year...which I emphatically don`t....though there are times when I think it might be a useful corrective if a few of them were delivered at the gates of the Vatican rather than find their way into England a few years later!

  • Comment number 57.

    #Jericoa - re: one of your earlier posts

    Shakespeare and his complete works, not really a book you can read (reed) more a book that should be read (red).

    I was lucky, my eldest sister (grammer school girl on merit) was doing Eng.Lit A level and knew there would be questions about old Shaky, but not which play.
    Two weeks to go and she was panicking, she had tried to read the plays but kept getting lost (it is the interaction of the speech of the characters and not the speech [other than the soliloquies] that matters most), my mum* sorted it.

    Each of us four kids (and my mum) were assigned characters, my mum set the scene and the play was read, each character spoken by the assigned sibling. It occasionally got confusing when the characters you had, spoke to each other.

    And so we did the Complete Works of William Shakespeare in two weeks, my sister got an A (when they were worth something) and I got my eyes opened, I was about 9.

    As it turned out my brother (2nd in line) flunked the 11+ as he was more interested in football like my mum (who had played in front of crowds that even David Beckham in his heyday would have been proud of**)

    My second sister (3rd in line) never forgave him this as it consigned her to a irrespective of 11+ results to the comprehensive education system and when he 'caught' communism by reading Marx, she married money. (as it turns out it was for love, they are still married :)

    Anyway, hopefully by the time you read this you are already in Rio (I'm already there in spirit, but sadly frozen solid here in the physical) and that your biggest problem will be in a few weeks when you are stuck in a proper airport with friendly people and pleasant staff in Brazil because the cattle transit station you were held up in in the UK is once again snow/fog/leaf bound (let us know when you are due back and I will sacrifice a sprout to the appropriate diety)

    *she had 'done' Shakespeare in the traditional way as she went to school during the war but I think she had to do a quick skim through each play to minimise the confusion and still ensure my sister got the main parts.

    **google 'Dick Kerrs Lancashire Ladies'

    Anyway, Books that are Books, which is what I came here for...

    Irskine Childers - Riddle of the Sands, I read this on a yacht in Ramsgate harbour whilst waiting for a vital part for the boat* before we moved to Falmouth, it made me want to buy a shallow draft boat and explore the north Holland/Danish coast, the current crash has priced boats (proper boats) at less than a weeks wages for me now (when even 2 years ago it was a pipe dream) funnily enough I'm not far off that part of life where I could spend 10 months drifting in and out with the tide.

    Adlard Coles - Heavy Weather Sailing, I read this one crossing the Bay of Biscay (same trip) A truly terrifying book for a novice sailor, bizzarely, the Bay was flat as a pancake and not a cloud in the sky for 3 whole days as we motored across (we met a small yacht two days off Falmouth who had been marooned for nearly a week), our Captain, who had joined the merchant navy after being a marine had never seen an ocean that flat, it was like a mirror, the gentle atlantic swell (with a period of nearly a minute and a rise and fall of probably over 60 feet) giving a strange feeling of calm. Half way across I was allowed to climb the mast (I'd never done that), it was terrifying, that gentle swell, amplified by the stick I was clinging to threatened to cast me into the sea. But after a while I relaxed and accepted the rythym and took in a view that is hard to describe, I was stood literally on top of the world, a perfect sphere below and all around me, the boat was under power and so we were leaving a narrow wake, the wake spread from the stern to the ends of the earth
    I only wish I'd had the courage to do it at night, as it was, standing on the bowsprit (the pointy bit at the front) on my own at 3am, I've seen the night sky that few modern people will ever see, trust me, there are a lot more stars out there than you could believe, I have seen a universe of stars. And then an irrational fear gripped me as 'The Kraken Wakes' entered my conciousness and I scurried back to the wheelhouse for the safety of a hot chocolate and only 1 hour to my relief.

    The dolphins (porpoise) playng in the bow wave as we entered Gibralter were heavenly, they shot up from under the boat, paused briefly under the bowsprit and jumped out of the bow wave laughing and tumbling into the wake only to do it again.

    Anyway, that's two more, Riddle of the Sands and Heavy Weather Sailing.
    *the vital part being the Captain (my middle sisters husband), he was off somewhere drilling a hole in the earth (like you do)

  • Comment number 58.


    Sounds like the perfect way to learn Shakespear to me. I fly out to Fortaleza on boxing day, so still stuck here with time on my hands, thanks for the sentiment.

    As a parting 2010 submission I found this.

    Which I think is pretty good actually and a useful change of tack from NEF, I (and a few other NEF supporters) had a meeting with them recently and the feedback to them was pretty overwhelmingly that they need to find a way to communicate their message in a more 'mainstream awareness' type way rather than an academic way.

    You need the 'dry' academic back-up for sure but the message needs to be distilled into something which is compelling and easy to digest for someone who may not usually take an interest or understand these issues.

    If the above link is the first example of that then I think they are off to a good start, 16,000 hits on u-tube thus far. Not bad but needs to be 1.6 million really.

    Just got to keep plugging away I guess.

  • Comment number 59.

    #58 Jericoa, sorry to be the bearer of bad news but you are either in or suffering from Purgatory (depending on whose interpretation you fear most :)

    I can't help you there as I don't believe but as far as I'm aware, it's like physics/rocket science and happens anyway as opposed to money or economics which requires cultists to exist.

    Don't worry about missing your Xmas dinner, there will be another one along next year. (depending on who is cooking it, it might taste like the one you missed, just kept warm for a year)

    Hopefully you will be pleasantly surprised and your flight will go a day early, think of it as time off for good behaviour.

    New Year is always loads better than Xmas anyway :)

  • Comment number 60.

    Films that are films.

    I've only got two,

    African Queen (leeches..ugh!)

    Pulp Fiction (this is the film that is film, all the rest are just movies, some very good, but just movies)

    Art that is art.

    If something invokes any kind of response from me, from 'love it' to 'not sure' to 'hate it' then it is art.

    If it invokes nothing, not even 'what?' then it isn't.

    I only included this because the welsh bbc front page has the teaser
    'Poet Clarke awarded Queen's medal' and it caught my attention (so the teaser is art)

    This relates to Gillian Clarke - Welsh poet, you can check out seven of her poems on her website at

    Sadly in my definition, this isn't

    (obviously it is in someones, they gave her a medal)

    I thought the teaser related to someone else,

    I'll give you 36 hours to come up with the correct answer or you will be spending 10 years without a top button.

    Nadolig Llawen (thats welsh by the way, not an anagram of the poet's name :)

  • Comment number 61.

    #60 me

    When I saw the teaser I thought 'cool' (in a surprised way)
    by correct answer I mean the Poet I thought of.

  • Comment number 62.

    #53 Carol

    it's not the money, it is child mortality that is the population driver.

    Money is just a store of effort (+ some natural resource)

    In the West we are malicous, we would rather actively waste our surplus effort than help someone else to become self-sustaining despite the fact that all of our surplus is directly descended from someone gifting a tiny bit of their own effort (harming themself at the time) to us to help us get started.

    This store allowed us to devote extra effort towards our first born's early years which allowed more of them to survive to adulthood, these first borns surviving meant two things.
    1. the normal investment that all children consume was not lost in premature death
    2. I don't have to repeatedly make this investment in new first borns as they are all surviving so there is now spare investment capacity in the system to do other stuff.

    We in the west are directly responsible for global overpopulation because we choose to allow it to continue.

    The irony is in the fact that overpopulation harms the West because we use natural resources and effort to try to mitigate the effects.

    We are both malicious and stupid and it is no wonder that leading civilisations always die out.

  • Comment number 63.

    Bob...less of the "we"..for example..I don`t invite Imams and the Pope to spread their gospels of overpopulation.....and I am not responsible for the Immigration Asylum and Human Right`s industry that makes mass migration a very profitable business.And when I protest I am firmly slapped down for my pains.

    None of this is MY doing....any more than voting in British elections changes anything about what our governments do once they are in charge.

    Just imagine trying to rationally discuss population or migration control in our "free country" to get an idea of how responsible "we" are as peasants in in the post-democratic west!

  • Comment number 64.

    #63 worcesterjim

    I don't mean 'we' in the sense of the personal 'you and I', more in the collective sense, and I don't just mean the ones who are around now, it includes everybody from the last 200+ years or so plus all the ones yet to be here.

    So apportioning individual blame for group outcomes is worse than pointless, it is a waste of effort.

    Overpopulation is defined as insufficient production of the necessities of life by the total population for the total population

    Immigration is the increase in the local population from external sources rather than local reproductive rate increase/lower total mortality rate.

    Emigration is the reduction in the local population to external sinks rather than local reproductive rate decrease/higher total mortality rate.

    These are the only mechanisms of population change that can be applied

    Why the population should be changed, what the direction should be and the method that should be used are questions for the political arena and (now that we have established how population density works) is most certainly open for debate.

    1. Do you think the current population density should be
    a. raised
    b. lowered
    c. remain stable at the current level

    2. What methodology should be used to achieve this goal
    a. External (immigrate to increase, emmigrate to decrease)
    b. Internal (increase or decrease the local reproduction rate)

    You must give a rational reason for each of your decisions

  • Comment number 65.

    I might like to point out that in all likelihood the current government (whether you believe what they say or not and irrespective of whether you voted for or against them or even abstained) is carrying out your favoured policy using your favoured methodology.

    This is nothing personal, it is a probabilistic feature of random individual members of random populations.

  • Comment number 66.

    The "current government" is a combination of interest groups which have in common a wish to carry on overpopulating Britain for a variety of reasons none of which really relate to any methodology of the sort you refer to.It bears no relation to the farcical party political government we are expected to take seriously.

    Examples of their motivation would be things like buying favours from foreign despots by taking their unwanted and undesirable citizens and extended families off their hands as asylum seekers...or keeping the Pakistan government on-side in the "War on Terror"....or indulging George Soros` "open society" fantasies....or trying to keep Sharmi Chakrabarti off the backs of politicians..or pretending they are making us richer by arriving as bogus students....and so on.
    But the major factor is that we are the American people...victims of increasingly authoritarian rule by global capitalists who want to destabilise organised labour and remove border controls to better create one vast capitalist global empire....with the rich firmy in control of it.

    No one sits down and plans migration in the way you appear to imagine .....far too many powerful cultural and political and economic and religious interests rely on disrupting and forestalling anything remotely like rational sensible population control.

    As a Rwandan with fifteen children and no food once said ..."God will provide". Find the methodology in that !

  • Comment number 67.

    "As a Rwandan with fifteen children and no food once said ..."God will provide". Find the methodology in that ! "

    I thought nasty stereotypes like that went out with "The Eternal Jew", and i'm surprised the moderators let it stand, on a site supposedly on the higher end of the philiosophical spectrum. Still, i've always been an optimist I suppose.

    Most of Britain's immigration comes from Christian Europe, not Muslim Africa or the Middle East. Those from Africa that are granted asylum have to endure a racist selection process heavily weighted against them, and while they are waiting they are detained 'at her majesties' pleasure along with their children in internment camps like Colnbrook and Yarls Wood.

    "and I am not responsible for the Immigration Asylum and Human Right`s industry that makes mass migration a very profitable business."
    Yes, i am thankful for small mercies like that, altho i think you and Phil Woolas shared the same ideology, and he got in, so maybe you should go for it?

    "And when I protest I am firmly slapped down for my pains"
    If only that were true.

  • Comment number 68.

    Yes Mafftucks...we have been listening to this sort of no doubt very sincere and well intentioned rhetoric for years...and the evidence that it`s completely unsustainable and a gross injustice to the beleagured British-born underclass seems to have escaped people like yourself....but the frightening social consequences are all about us to see!

    Britain is a failing fading pathetic grandiose second world star.... that long ago lost the capability to provide a civilised prosperous future for it own people ....far less the capacity to provide a welfare state and homes and jobs and public infrastructure,etc for millions of culturally incompatible foreigners ....who flood here only because we have clearly lost our national sanity and sense of collective self preservation.
    I share your surprise that a BBC moderator tolerates my common sense observations...and am thoroughly enjoying fighting back against you misguided folk who would unwittingly sow the seeds of a British Holocaust with your preposterous generosity to everyone but your fellow British people.It`s a long overdue corrective to your absurd ideas.

  • Comment number 69.

    A great piece by Will Hutton in todays Guardian

    Heathrow's chaos is indicative of a wider national malaise

  • Comment number 70.

    #66 worcesterjim

    'The "current government" is a combination of interest groups which have in common a wish to carry on overpopulating Britain for a variety of reasons none of which really relate to any methodology of the sort you refer to.It bears no relation to the farcical party political government we are expected to take seriously.'

    It might be true that that is what they want to do and for the reasons you state but they are doing a really rubbish job of it.
    They are probably corrupt (I've seen no evidence to dispute it) and they are definitely incompetent.

    Reproductive rates in the UK have been falling for years (coinciding with reduced child mortality) this was reversed after the war years for a period (baby boomer generation), this is because the effective child mortality rate increased due to all the young men being slaughtered on foreign fields.
    By the 1960s it had fallen to as low as 1.6
    As an example a repro rate of 1.5 means that the current population in the UK of 60 million will halve in 3 generations (60 years), continuing with that trend, the place would be empty in little over a lifetime.

    They managed to boost the repro rate in the 60s by importing people from the windies (they were brought in to do the jobs no self-respecting local would do such as bus conductor etc.) but the best they could do was raise it up to 1.9 (population halved in 9 generations) but then it started to fall again as the children of the immigrants adopted our repro rate.

    Recently they managed to raise it again by importing people from known high birth rate third world countries, Bhangladesh has a birth rate of around 4.3 and yes it has reversed the decline but their children will adopt our low repro rate within a generation and the problem will raise it's ugly head again.

    The only way to stabilise the population is to encourage the locals who are already here to have 2.2 children but Doh! they just cut child benefit.

    I told you they were rubbish at this.

    You said they were Capitalists who wanted to control the world and take all the wealth.

    On the basis that your slaves have to eat (even if you keep them in complete destitution they still have a cost) then the only way to reduce the cost of keeping them in relation to the amount of stuff they create is to make them rich.

    They are rubbish at Capitalism as well.

    In fact the only way any of these capitalists, religious or idealogical (or any other nutter) can gain the aims they state is to have a happy, healthy, well balanced population who enjoy religious, cultural, and personal freedom protected by the rule of respected law.

    They are a bunch of incompetent and arrogant idiots and the result is the chaos that you see around you where no-one is happy. (this is inevitable)

    I personally find this highly amusing as when you talk to any of these people they always seem very rational.

  • Comment number 71.

    Rational? Not on your nelly! Being rational is about the most dangerous behaviour possible in any society like ours where ridiculous political myths and religious faiths are promoted....and indigenous people are treated like dirt.
    Try going to the superpowers like USA/Israel or China or Russia and telling them they have to give up nationalism and allow mass immigration and multiculturalism etc ....OR ELSE their public broadcaster will call them extremist racist fanatics.....and just see how far you get without a real fight on your hands.

  • Comment number 72.

    BTW Bobrocket...the "science"around population growth/decline projections really needs a lot of scrutiny....and that is the last thing it will get if it appears to suggest that our religions and some cultures or nations should ideally curb their procreating in the overall interests of mankind.

    In the past civilisations grew strong by growing their populations and displacing others.But the future could be a very different place....and numbers may become a curse.

    It`s obvious that our population at the moment is too large...and that precious resources like water and rainforests and stocks of fish cannot keep up with population growth.Yet every year the world`s human population grows by ninety million people ......often in some of the least favourable locations for them having a prospect of living a decent civilised life.

    Britain is MAD...we could HALVE our population and all those remaining would almost certainly have a better standard and quality of life.....yet we allow the immigration industry to dump the world`s cast-offs onto us in some bizarre and impractical exercise in what I imagine is post-colonial guilt(?) or because of laws inflicted on us to suit powerful foreign vested the EU open borders policy pushed through by Blair for the USA.

    Do you ever remember any political parties campaignining on a ticket to encourage more immigration or an EU open border policy?

  • Comment number 73.

    #71 & 72 worcesterjim

    It doesn't matter what the leadership (of any so called nation) define are the goals and it doesn't matter what policies they implement to achieve those goals.

    The end result (which is all that really matters) will be diametrically opposite.

    The very few occasions that this doesn't happen is where the definition of the goal is particularly woolly and the methods chosen to achieve it are a mish-mash rag bag of things that are chosen because they are idealogical or the one with the loudest voice says so.

    You said that the population of the UK could be halved.

    Ok so we will set that as the goal.

    The method chosen (it doesn't actually matter what method we use but we will set one anyway) If you and your family have been here for 5 or more generations then you can stay. everyone else can sling their hook (it could be 4 or 6 depending on how many, the goal is half)

    So we round up all the evictees, march them to dover and tell them to get swimming.

    The remaining population will be halved, job done. Not quite, within 2 generations the population will either have crashed completely and soon there will be no-one here or the population will explode and there will be half as many people again as we have now.

    The only certain thing is that the population will be nowhere near the target

    This is just how it works.

    The period of most stability in this country for over 30 years was in the summer after the Labour government had lost power and before the coalition took up the reins
    This was because no-one was doing anything and no-one was not doing anything.

    Once we knew someone was in control, chaos resumed.

    The only way to actually achieve the goal is to state the opposite ie. "We want to double the population" and set a method to achieve it ie. "We will pay you to live here"

    Everybody will leave in droves.

    Of course you couldn't gain power if you said those were your policies and so that goal will only ever be achieved by accident
    (an unintended consequence of an unrelated goal/policy not doing what it was supposed to)

    You can see why politicians age rapidly.

  • Comment number 74.

    Could you quote a source for these assumptions Bob...I`m not a pedant but the ideas you are expressing about what will certainly(?) follow from politicians adopting certain policies are expressed with a sort of evangelical confidence that makes me wonder how you formed these beliefs and whether you have come across authoritative sources that take another view?
    Politicians do age quickly...but in response to the pressures of rationalising the many U-turns and deceits and humiliations that seem to go with a career in politics...and the haunting feeling that all political careers end in failure.
    I feel sorry for them.How many can look back and honestly claim to have been a success?

  • Comment number 75.


    Easy, I'll pick one that you will be able to see unfold, the deficit.

    The Governments stated aim is to reduce the deficit (the goal)

    The methodology chosen to achieve this goal is spending reduction.

    The deficit itself is not a fixed sum due to the governments ability to manipulate the currency, it is measured in relation to something and this is GDP.

    so the actual goal is to reduce the deficit as a percentage of GDP

    As lots of people brighter and more astute than me have pointed out, if you cut public spending in a recessionary environment, the deficit will fall but GDP will fall faster so the result (which is the thing that really matters) will be, as a percentage of GDP, the deficit will rise. (result diametrically opposed to stated goal)

    For evidence look to the most recent example of public spending cuts - Ireland, what has happened to them ? Or just simply wait for the ONS to give us the numbers.

    It is not like the government wasn't told, check out Pestons picks and Stephanomics from this time last year, lots of posters were saying so.

    Those that have an honest claim on success are those ones who have managed to not make the situation devastatingly worse.

    It is all about control, take a simple situation

    I have a small coal fire burning in the grate and I feel that I want to be warmer.
    The action that I take to make myself feel warmer is to throw some more coal on, simple, the fire gets bigger and I get warmer.

    Makes perfect sense, except the result I get doesn't always match the expected outcome.
    If I just put a whole bag on my small fire in one go then the fire goes out and the result is I get colder.
    If I just poke the fire I get a brief release of heat and then it goes out and the result is I get colder.

    As it turns out what I have to do is add small amounts of coal at regular intervals in order to build the fire up, noting the result of each incremental action I take and modifying my response (add/remove/wait). I have improved my chances of achieving my goal but I have not taken into account any other external factors (amount of coal left in the bag, ambient external temperature change)

    I can design and build three term control systems with a fair degree of certainty of what the result of changing any one control variable will be irrespective of what the other two settings are, three term control is not easy but it is well understood.

    Four terms adds an order of magnitude of complexity and we are entering the realms of rocket science, very hard but do-able

    Each added term adds complexity and the predictability of the result is diminished, because the result is entirely dependent upon

    a. the correct identification of the goal to be achieved
    b. the correct identification of the current conditions
    c. the correct identification of the current position of all the levers
    d. the correct identification of the sequence of levers to be pressed to start the process moving towards the goal
    e. the correct setting of those levers
    f. the correct interpretation of the results of the change
    g. the correct speed of the iterations of this loop

    You are driving your car and you approch a bend, the goal is to reduce the speed of the car so you apply the brakes, you discover you have been driving on ice for a while (as you were going in a straight line on a flat road you hadn't noticed), the wheels lock and you feel that you are accelerating towards certain death and destruction, (in fact you are slowing due to the friction of the tyres on the ice but that's not what it feels like when the car breaks free) you have to apply some actions to save the situation, so you pump the brakes, get your passengers to shift their weight distribution (lean into the corner), ready the steering wheels so that if grip should reappear you won't suddenly lurch off in a different direction, hope there is nothing coming the other way and finally pray to some kind of diety.

    What went wrong.

    Mis-identification of goal - the actual goal is to arrive home safely.
    Wrong control applied at the wrong time - the accelerator pedal when you were on the straight.
    Mis-identification of the starting conditions - you thought you were on tarmac when you were actually on ice.
    Incorrect interpretation of the results of an action taken - you pressed the brake pedal and it felt for a brief moment that you were speeding up.

    The only reason you make it out of the drive each time you get in the car is because you are continually monitoring all the variables and applying various controls to a situation you have broadly assessed correctly. This is why the occasional collision is called an accident (although when assessed after the event, all accidents were avoidable).

  • Comment number 76.

    How to win at politics and probability

    Never specifically define the goal to be achieved, the wollier the definition the better.

    Only take very small actions and only those ones that appear to have a damping effect. (but claim that they are bold and proactive)

    Claim all unexpected/surprising negative results are due to external and unforeseeable events. (unique situation, nobody could have foreseen it)

    Claim all unexpected/surprising positive results are due your own bold and proactive actions. (I am in control, I foresaw it all)

    Try to push the visible results of any actions you do actually take down the road a bit so that hopefully someone else will take the blame. (it would have worked/was working until my successor changed something)

  • Comment number 77.


    a little correction, where I said

    'cut public spending in a recessionary environment'

    I should have said

    'cut public spending in this recessionary environment'

    you said

    'Politicians do age quickly...but in response to the pressures of rationalising the many U-turns and deceits and humiliations that seem to go with a career in politics...and the haunting feeling that all political careers end in failure.'

    Tony Blair was a successful politician by any definition, this is because when handed the reins of power there was not alot he could do to achieve the goals he believed in, his hands were tied by the conditions he inherited and the policies of his predecessor. By the time he could do something he had already learnt that the machine he was in charge of is an unpredictable beast at the best of times and stepped away from actually doing things, only responding to signals and not actively trying to change things. He made the wise decision to just talk about goals he would like to achieve, the hopes and fears of the nation etc. and the machine stabilised. Even Iraq and Afganistan weren't proactive actions on his part, he was trying to moderate the actions of the Americans, at least going in with them gave him early information about what was happening on the ground and he could report these things as goals, lo and behold when the information comes out he can claim success.
    He was very good at spinning the best of a bad job.

    George Osborne is not so good but it is early days yet and he might learn. One of his first statements when gaining power was

    I'm going to achieve X, I will do this by implementing Y and Z and I will measure my success by A .and. B .and. C
    (note the logical ands)

    He is on a hiding to nothing with that, failure to achieve any one of his measures means that X is a demonstrable failure, a wiser politician might have said.

    I would like to achieve something along the lines of X as this is a laudable aim, we are going to use various and timely methods to achieve it but the path may be bumpy, it will be difficult but it is important that we try. Indicators that we are on the right track might include an improvement in A or B or even no deterioration in C, either way this is the kind of thing we would like to achieve. I must warn that there are events out there that are beyond our control but if we all work together we can make this happen.

    And with that simple re-jigging of what he said I have increased the probabilities of it being achieved (still quite small) by orders of magnitude.

    He will either learn quickly and be a success or he will be a failure, if he is a failure it is under the terms he himself has defined.

    He might find that he has to increase public spending (even temporarily) due to events beyond his control, he might have to implement policies he is opposed to just to stop the thing going wildly out of control and sell it as the opposite as if the truth were known his party would throw him out. Nothing he does (whether it accords or opposes his core beliefs) seems to result in his desired results, and unless he pulls it round quickly he will be perceived as a failure, he will feel that nobody understands just how hard his job is and might find he is taking decisions that are just kicking out at the situation out of frustration rather than carefully considered ones. All the while the clock is ticking and the situation is changing in unpredictable directions.*

    note: Tony Blair found his faith and stepped away from the controls, this faith is that there really is someone who can understand 6 billion term control and knows what to do in any given situation, that person would be awesome and would obviously be a diety.

    *having just reread this paragraph, I recognise another recent politician.

  • Comment number 78.

    I am very grateful to you Bob for developing what appears to be a way of explaining why social science in general is perhaps better seen not as science but as a form of gambling crossed with magic.

    Would we be better consulting runes or Nostradamus or crystal balls is my immediate thought about how to get a sense of what the future holds?

    The implications for our faith in democratic institutions and ideas about public opinion being meaningfully involved in how our society responds to the pressures and challenges of a fast homogenising global capitalist world are to say the least worrying!

  • Comment number 79.

    BTW Tony Blair was not "a successful politician by any definition" definition of a successful Labour leader and British politician is one who deviates from the values and approaches of the old Labour Party (which I joined in 1964)in an open and honest way... only after frankly admitting the truth ....that he was either a slave of American capitalism and foreign policy or he was "toast"!

    I appreciate that your definition of a politician comes from the cynical world of the Westminster bubble where honesty and truth are permanent casualties of ruthless ambition and the underling truth that Britain has been a satellite of the USA since the Second World War.

    Perhaps if we had real journalists and academics with integrity ....and a free media ...our political lives might seem less like an endless mystery tour?

  • Comment number 80.

    # Jim,

    glad you are coming to appreciate that the world doesn't work properly nor ever really can and that we are where we are despite all the good and bad intentions of those that would set themselves up as leaders.

    The truly great leaders are those that set the seeds of their own destruction, recognising that this is what they are doing but being prepared to do so in the interests of the greater good.

    One of the best things a leader could do is to instill a sense of fairness, justice (justice is fairness delayed) and acceptance (life sometimes isn't fair, that's ok as long as everyone accepts that the unfairness now will be compensated for in a fair way, later).
    They should try to create an education system that firstly teaches children the basic skills of communication (readind/writing/talking) and maths, the only other thing that should be taught is the ability to form and ask questions, people should be encouraged/challenged to question everything (Einsteins mum encouraged him to ask one good question each day)

    Education should be free for anyone who wants it at any time they want it, each new hard question asked and answer hard won adds to the sum of human knowledge and could last forever. (the pyramids have been around for a long time and will last a bit longer but at some point they will crumble into the sand, some of the knowledge that was in the library at Alexandria was around before the pyramids were built and will survive long after they have gone).

    At some point the Leader will be asked 'Why do we need you are what are you actually for'
    The answer should be, 'you don't need me any more' and 'life can be hard at times and seem unfair, my job is to cheer everybody up during those times of adversity and to reassure everybody that working together as a whole, things will inevitably improve'

    That the current bunch of leaders (and wannabees) seem useless is not really a cause for despair, by their very inadequacy they prompt questions (tyrants usually try to stamp out questioning behaviour in their subjects, this always prompts the question 'why' (a fundamental question) which just demonstrates how rubbish they are at being tyrants).

    The future is bright simply because it is human nature to ask questions and we are never satisfied with the answer.

    Questions, Questions, Questions, only questions have the answer.

  • Comment number 81.

    Er..."Why do we need you are what are you actually for?"...takes me back to my days as a pupil of Professor Stanley Unwin and listening to his more recent incarnation in the form of Count Arthur Strong!

    Is the answer 42 or Plymouth Argyle? (Argyle is such a long way from Plymouth that there was bound to be a degree of cognitive dissonance at half time ...don`t you think?

    Tyrrany is a response to the disillusionment felt by those who imagine achieving prominence will invest them with autonomy and power.

  • Comment number 82.


    1. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman – Laurence Sterne
    2. The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe
    3. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
    4. Ulysses – James Joyce
    5. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    6. The Complete Works of Bruno Schulz
    7. Collected Fictions – Jorge Luis Borges
    8. At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
    9. The Cowards – Josef Skvorecky
    10. The Drowned World – Jim Ballard
    11. The Periodic Table – Primo Levi
    12. Woodbrook – David Thomson
    13. The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
    14. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    15. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    16. In the Skin of a Lion – Michael Ondaatje
    17. The Buddha of Suburbia – Hanif Kureishi

    18. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    19. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    20. Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion – Nathalie Sarraute
    21. The Man Who Loved Children - Christina Stead
    22. Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles
    23. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
    24. The Quest for Christa T – Christa Wolf
    25. Collected Stories – Grace Paley
    26. I’m Dying Laughing – Christina Stead
    27. Nights at the Circus, Wise Children – Angela Carter
    28. Beloved – Toni Morrison
    29. Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories – Angela Carter


    30. The Histories - Herodotus
    31. The Making of the English Working Class – E.P. Thompson
    32. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II - Braudel
    33. Shelley: The Pursuit – Richard Holmes
    34. Eleanor Marx – Yvonne Kapp
    35. The Black Jacobins – C.L.R. James
    36. Live Working, Die Fighting – Paul Mason

    37. Rabelais and his World – Mikhail Bakhtin
    38. Illuminations – Walter Benjamin
    39. The History of Sexuality, An Introduction – Michel Foucault
    40. The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History – Angela Carter
    41. Shaking a Leg: Collected Journalism and Writings – Angela Carter
    42. As Good as Her Word: Selected Journalism – Lorna Sage
    43. Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence – Geoff Dyer

    44. A Midsummer Night’s Dream/Collected Shakespeare
    45. Paradise Lost – John Milton
    46. William Blake: Collected Poems
    47. Collected Poems – Emily Dickinson

    48. For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening – Steinberg & Rothe
    49. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film – David Thomson

    50. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men – James Agee

    In the end this turned out to be a list most definitely not of Greats, but of oddballs, curve balls, sidekicks. I’ve split the books into fiction and non-fiction, the fiction into boys and girls - and while it’s clear many of the women are writing as outsiders or bohemians, it’s not always the case that their ‘outside place’ is determined exclusively, if at all, by sex. Besides, a lot of the men I’ve chosen also write consciously as disrupters of order rather than describers or reinscribers of it (so there aren’t many realists on the list). Some of the books are simply pieces of writing I fell in love with, usually lyrical (Fitzgerald read in the back of the Maths class, Skvorecky, Thomson, Ondaatje); while the Kureishi gets its place because it’s the only novel I can think of which comes close to describing what the world felt like in the time and place I grew up, it’s also funny and has the common touch - the Lucky Jim of its/my day.

    Everything else is bundled into non-fiction and is pretty self-explanatory. The poetry is paltry and there are no letters or diaries, which are among my favourite forms. The Mason isn’t craven, but here as the only book that attempts to connect the then to the now (something we need more of). The Steinberg essays, well, there’s a story there (involving Rosen) that’s too long too tell. David Thomson isn’t infallible, but he writes wittily and cleverly about film and I consult him constantly (he’s also one of the few critics to understand the genius of Cary Grant). Finally, the Agee is brilliant, outrageous and unclassifiable.

  • Comment number 83.

    #81 Jim, like your links :) I remember Unwin on Parky (which makes me feel old :()

    My typo, it should have read "Why do we need you and what are you actually for?"

    I ripped it off Tony Benn who said there are 5 questions you should ask of people in power

    What power have you got?
    Where did you get it from?
    In whose interest do you exercise it?
    To whom are you accountable?
    And how can I get rid of you?

    #82 Kate, nice list but I notice that you (others have as well) included Rushdie, I tried one of his books after all the controversy, I found it awful, I struggled to reach the end and wished I hadn't bothered, I then flicked through the controversial one and wondered how anybody could have read it in the first place to be offended by it.
    It isn't because I found it a struggle to read, I also found 'And Quiet Flows the Don' hard to read (not my style really) but in the end it was well worth the effort.

  • Comment number 84.

    I know the two agendas in this thread sit uneasily in parallel...but has it ever struck you poncy Islington Marxist erudite types that we could develop a modern way to repackage literature into a "contemporary format"....a bit like Lamb`s Tales from Shakespeare for the folk who riot with Paul Mason but lack a narrative to understand themselves?

    Why not comics that bring the myths and legends of antiquity back to life.....or soap operas on old themes in which our "shameless" underclass of all races and cultures get to speak distinctly in real English instead of effing and inniting incoherently like lobotomised morons?


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