MY FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2017
December 15th 2017
Here is a selection of my books of the year. By its nature, this is subjective – made up of books I have read, enjoyed and been impressed by, and isn’t thus an attempt to comprehensively cover every subject. While the vast majority of books listed were published this year, there are a few from late 2016, and a couple published before then.
Scotland: My Favourite Books of the Year
James Robertson, Michael Marra: Arrest This Moment, Big Sky Press
This is a beautifully produced book on a precious talent – musician and artist Michael Marra. Robertson makes this book about Marra on every page, and about something more – the creative muse, modern culture and contemporary Scotland.
Diane M. Watters, St. Peter’s, Cardross: Birth, Death and Renewal, Historic Environment Scotland
A stunning testimony, in text and photograph, to St. Peter’s Seminary by Cardross. The book covers post-war modernism, the hopes behind building St. Peter’s and what went wrong – resulting in the present ruin that the arts organisation NVA hope to make into a space for cultural and public discussion.
Scotland: Life and Society
Peter Ross, The Passion of Harry Bingo: Further dispatches from unreported Scotland, Sandstone Press
The follow-up to Peter’s superlative ‘Danderlust’, ‘Harry Bingo’ collected a similar cast of 40 odd stories showcasing the author’s ear, eyes and empathy for life in its many forms. Many stand-outs including the piece on the late Henry Calderhead (aka Harry Bingo who died after this was published) and one on ‘the Scottish Resistance.’
Magnus Linklater (ed.), Great Scottish Lives, Times Books
The Scottish great and the good by the great and the good: obituary writers from The Times. There are many good essays here from politicians to inventors and cultural figures – but it is a staggeringly unrepresentative Scotland – all-white and with a mere seven women – perhaps a reflection of public lives past, but something which could have been better countered.
James Mitchell, Hamilton 1967: The by-election that transformed Scotland, Luath Press
Fifty years ago Winnie Ewing won Hamilton for the SNP and changed Scottish politics in dramatic style. This short book takes us back in time to those heady times.
Michael Keating (ed.), Debating Independence: Issues of Independence and Union in the 2014 Referendum, Oxford University Press
The nearest we have so far to an academic analysis of the historic indyref. A number of good chapters including one on public opinion before and after the indyref.
Christopher A. Whatley, Immortal Memory: Burns and the Scottish People, John Donald
This isn’t a book about Burns, but instead about the many interpretations and attempts to claim him, from the height of Union and Empire to radicals, socialists and independence supporters. A convincing case, and one with obvious relevance for other icons such as Bruce and Wallace and numerous mythologies.
British Politics: Biography
Gordon Brown, My Life, Our Times, Bodley Head
The Brown autobiography. A fascinating, revealing read, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. Brown has been in Labour politics for forty years and this is an account of his experience, ascent to the top, partnership with Blair and strange sense of self and inner demons. Strangely honest in places in ways presumably the author didn’t intend.
Harriet Harman, A Woman’s Work, Allen Lane
Harman became a Labour MP in a by-election in 1982 (one year before Brown) and has played a major role in equality and feminist politics, as well as Labour since the 1970s. She paints a convincing picture of Labour’s inner culture in her years in senior roles, including its deep-seated (to this day) sexism.
British Politics: the 2017 ‘Snap’ Election
Tim Shipman, Fallout: A Year of Political Hayhem, William Collins
Shipman’s ‘All Out War’ was the political sensation book wise on Britain last year covering the ‘clusterfuck’ of Brexit. This covers the ground from then to the aftermath of May’s disastrous election campaign. Impressive, with the revelation that May’s now disgraced advisers (Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill) openly called Chancellor Philip Hammond ‘the cunt’ (in a manner in which political life now imitates a bad version of ‘The Thick of It’), but less comprehensive than last year’s book.
Tim Ross and Tom McTague, Betting the House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election, Biteback Publishing
This account supplements Shipman and covers well the areas he doesn’t. Good on the historic forces that made 2017 such a surprise, including the Corbyn insurgency. And much better than Shipman on grasping that there is no real British politics, and hence covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland much better.
Anthony Barnett, The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, Unbound
Barnett’s counterblast is true to his iconoclastic and dissenting style, questioning the British (and English) right, but its left as well. Very good on the missing dimension of England, and how discontent and anger was hijacked by the reactionary right, with the acquiescence of large parts of the left.
Paul Stocker, English Uprising: Brexit and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right, Melville House
A complement to Barnett’s book. Stocker homes in on the rise of the far right and how racism, xenophobia and hate politics came in from the cold and found a voice and influence in 21st century Britain. Very compelling on how UKIP and the tabloid media legitimised views once thought unpalatable.
British Politics in Crisis
Michael Moran, The End of British Politics?, Palgrave Macmillan
An essay form book from a respected senior academic surveying Britain today. He doesn’t like what he sees and is damning of the Westminster consensus and bubble and the limited prospectus of reform on offer.
Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Oxford University Press
A calmly written and well-researched rejoiner to the conceits and deceits of the Blair and Cameron eras. Class has always mattered in Britain and British politics, and this study shows how it endures and is still one of the drivers of not just society, but politics. Good analysis on the SNP and Scotland.
James Fergusson, Al-Britannia: My Country: A Journey through Muslim Britain, Bantam Press
A journey through Britain listening to the many faces, cultures and voices of Muslim Britain. Perhaps a bit superficial in places, which is marked when he comes to Scotland, but overall this book is filled with warmth and humanity: qualities missing from how parts of our mainstream media and reactionaries talk about Muslims.
Darren McGarvey, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass, Luath Press
A book and a voice that has made an impact. McGarvey (aka Loki) has an anger, energy and rightful dissatisfaction at the state of things, in Scotland and the UK. It could be an important start to widening debates about power and inequality, but our politics will not want to encourage that.
Nicholas Shakespeare, Six Minutes in May: How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister, Harvill Secker
Arguably the key moment of the last hundred years of British history: the events of May 1940 and the Norway debate that led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain and arrival in No. 10 of Winston Churchill. Critical in this were principled Tories defying party loyalty and whips and the role of the Labour leadership of Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood.
American Politics: Trump and all that
Brian Klass, The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy, Hurst and Company
The threat US President Donald Trump and his disorganised, contradictory authoritarian populism poses to American democracy with all its imperfections. The Trump phenomenon isn’t just about Trump and won’t necessarily end with the demise of his Presidency: a point Klass is very good in underlining.
Europe and Identity
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, Granta Books
Kassabova has rightly won many plaudits for this powerful, poignant book. Focusing in on the spaces and places where the Bulgarian, Greek and Turkish borders converge, it is really about deeper issues of people moving, memories, the ghosts of communities past, and how seemingly impenetrable walls and barriers go up and down throughout history. Timeless and yet topical.
Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History, Allen Lane
A stellar examination of the conflicts and warfare to come. Freedman is knowledgeable enough to know we can never fully predict the future and that previous historians and leaders have fallen into the trap of understanding the conflicts they face through the mistakes of the past: Eden comparing Egyptian leader Nasser to Hitler, and the constant misuse of the term ‘appeasement’.
Lynn Smith, People Power: Fighting for Peace from the First World War to the Present, Thames and Hudson/Imperial War Museum
This is the book of the Imperial War Museum exhibition of the same name – and actually a much more compelling and hard-hitting account of the UK peace movement than the exhibition.
William Taubman, Gorbachev: His Life and Times, Simon and Schuster
The author of an outstanding biography of Khrushchev turns to the last leader of the Soviet Union who presided over its unintended demise. He sees him as a tragic hero with noble aims who ended Soviet totalitarianism and had a profound humanity which stands in contrast to the current Russian leadership.
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941, Allen and Lane
Stalin’s reign is very topical due to Putin and ‘The Death of Stalin’, and the second volume of Kotkin’s three parter covers the years of consolidation. This is the era of vanquishing Trotsky, ‘the red terror’ and forced collectivisation, and then fatal embrace of Hitler (after the West had cold shouldered Stalin in the 1930s). It ends with the onset of Barbarossa.
Shaun Bythell, The Diary of a Bookseller, Profile Books
Shaun is owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, the biggest in the village (and biggest second hand bookshop in all Scotland) and well-known as a character. This is his acerbic tale of a battle against all the elements (including some irascible customers) to keep such an enterprise afloat.
Wolfgang Streeck, How will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System, Verso Books
A study of the state of contemporary capitalism, its relationship to democracy, and the corrosive power of the current economic and social order which Streeck believes has undermined most of our public institutions across the developed world.
Clare O’Connor, Kelly Fritsch and A.K. Thompson (eds), Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late Capitalist Struggle, AK Press
Inspired by Raymond Williams ‘Keywords’ this multi-authored collection examines over numerous contested words such as ‘politics’, ‘class’ and ‘nation’, but also ‘love’, ‘misogyny’, ‘queer’ and ‘trans’.
Michael Goodwin, Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work) in Words and Pictures, Abrams
A history and critique of the discipline of economics from its emergence in early industrial capitalism. Although done through American eyes, this has universal relevance and is good on the influence of British thinkers such as Adam Smith. And told in comic book form with a light touch and sense of humour.
Adrian Addison, Mail Men: The Unauthorised Story of the Daily Mail, Atlantic Books
A history of the Daily Mail. Very good on the early years and its founding by Alfred ‘Sunny’ Harmsworth in 1896, who subsequently became the first Viscount Rothermere. Less convincing on more recent times and the bizarre regime of Paul Dacre.
Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Discrimination, Penguin
Most of us in the West now live in an age of permanent distraction and while it promises unending choice and stimulation, actually it diminishes us and our humanity, and critically, our common humanity.
Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory, Random House
An exploration of how the brain and memories work is the subject of this accessible and challenging book. Shaw looks at how selective, partial and deceptive memory can lead to false memories and even legal injustices.
Julia Samuel, Good Grief: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving, Penguin
Death is part of life and the process of grieving and mourning part of what it is to be human. Samuel takes us through the experience of different deaths and losses – from sibling, parent, partner and your own – in an admirable and lucid way.
Fiction and Fiction Related
John le Carre, A Legacy of Spies, Viking
Perhaps the last word from le Carre. An elegy for a lost world where Britain knew its place, what it was fighting for and who its supposed enemies were. All the more moving for coming from the pen of one of the master storytellers who has explored so compelling the rise and fall of our intelligence services.
Robert Harris, Munich, Hutchinson
A counter-factual history about Munich 1938 where Neville Chamberlain and Hitler agreed to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia (with help from the French and Italians). Harris poses through his knowledge of the participants on both sides a plausible different outcome.
Ernest N. Emenyonu (ed.), A Guide to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Currey
A cultural assessment of the writing and ideas of the Nigerian writer best known for her books, Americanah, The Thing Around Your Neck and Half of a Yellow Sun.
Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History, Granta Books
This is an elegy for council housing in England and even more relevant than when it was written a few years ago – particularly in light of what John McDonnell rightly called (borrowing from Friedrich Engels) the ‘social murder’ of Grenfell Tower.
Wendy Wood, Yours Sincerely for Scotland, The Autobiography of a Patriot, Arthur Baker
Published in 1970 this is about another age of Scotland – one where pre-Hamilton there were few women in politics and public life and where Scottish nationalism and the SNP were associated with mavericks. Wood was a passionate nationalist, but she was also an artist and storyteller and appeared regularly on the children’s TV programme ‘Jackanory’.
Two Late Additions
Carrie Jenkins, What Love Is: and what it could be, Basic Books
This is a brave book. Jenkins is a philosopher who addresses the many forms of love and calls in effect for a love revolution which broadens our acceptance of it to changed social times.
Tim Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, Oxford University Press
Nichols writes mainly from an American experience where in many aspects of politics and policy ignorance has become a virtue, but also references Brexit and other examples.
And my non-recommendations
My one suggestion for a book to avoid is David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, which though it does have a kernel of insight is one vast over-statement about the competing tribes of people living ‘Somewhere’ (global winners) and ‘Anywhere’ (everybody else). It has already been appropriated by disillusioned liberal academics and imported into US politics by David Brooks. A strange collection, and a total curate’s egg, is the Brexit inspired book Goodbye Europe: Writers and Artists Say Farewell (which seems to have no named editor). There are some good pieces, but there are just too many authors and the good ones are frustratingly short. And as is obvious we are going to get many more volumes like this … and I hope better done.
On a Positive Note
And to end on a positive note I would like to celebrate the continued existence of the Scottish football and cultural magazine Nutmeg who made it through their first full year. Now with six issues under their belt (it is quarterly) it goes from strength to strength (full disclosure: I don’t have shares in it, but I have written for it). A subscription can be taken out here: https://www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk/