Books, TV and Films, October 2021

1 October

From the Queen of Detective Fiction (Agatha Christie, as sort of described by AJP Taylor) to the latest pretender to the crime-writing throne — Richard Osman, sales of whose debut novel, The Thursday Murder Club, have been sensational.

I am not normally a fan of ‘celebrity’ writers — or indeed celebrity anything else. Football managers, for example. There’s more than a whiff of unfairness in the air, a sense that their name brings with it massive advantages not available to ‘ordinary’ folk who may well be toiling in the background unnoticed for years and hoping against hope for a lucky break. However, I was intrigued after reading an interview with Osman in the Guardian to promote his follow-up. And besides, there are some great puff quotes on the cover.

And yes, it is maddeningly good. It’s such a relief to read in the acknowledgements that he found it bloody hard work to write.

First off there’s the setting — Coopers Chase, a luxury retirement village — which allows him to assemble a cast of eclectic and eccentric characters who seem to be having the time of their (long) lives. It’s funny too. So many great lines to enjoy: “I’d welcome a burglar. It would be nice to have a visitor.” At the same time there is plenty of scope for gentle reflections on life’s Big Questions — family, love, loyalty, ageing, death.

What’s not to like about writing like this?

There had been a schism in the Cryptic Crossword Club. Colin Clemence’s weekly solving challenge had been won by Irene Dougherty for the third week running. Frank Carpenter had made an accusation of impropriety and the accusation had gained some momentum. The following day a profane crossword clue had been pinned to Colin Clemence’s door, and the moment he had solved it, all hell had broken loose.

from Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club

The Thursday Murder Club is not a novel about Colin, Irene, Frank and the Cryptic Crossword Club. In fact, they are never mentioned again. But it’s just delightful. One paragraph — 67 words — conveying so much information, and I don’t mean about crosswords.

9 October

And what’s not to like about Steven Pinker, whose new book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters is out now. Well, quite a lot, at least according to a rather unfriendly essay on Pinker in the (left-leaning) Guardian‘s Long Read series recently.

My own view is that the polymathic Pinker is an outstanding thinker — my favourite ‘public intellectual’ (ugh) of recent times, certainly since the deaths of Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hitchens. I first got to know Pinker via The Better Angels of Our Nature, his extraordinary book about the decline of violence. Another powerful book was Enlightenment Now, a passionate defence of enlightenment values in these new dark ages. Read my full-length review here. Now we get this companion piece of sorts, a plea for rational thinking.

I don’t read Steven Pinker for the laughs but this, in chapter one, had me chuckling. Discussing the number of Americans who believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, Pinker mentions psychic healing (55%), ESP (41%), haunted houses (37%) and ghosts (32%) “…which also means,” he writes, “that some people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts.”

The book begins with some famous illustrations of the common fallacies, cognitive biases and flaws in the way we think. Take the so-called Monty Hall dilemma. Though Pinker doesn’t refer to it, many readers may recognise it from Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. We also get the Linda problem, a probability question in which more people agree with the statement that a woman with a history of climate activism (for example) will become US president in the next decade than that a woman will become US president in the next decade. That, to be clear, is a literal impossibility.

Pinker talks about ‘tools of reasoning’ that help us, among other things, to weigh up risky choices, assess arguments and claims, and unpick problems and apparent paradoxes. He is writing, let us not forget, in 2021, a year when literally millions of people worldwide are refusing — for a whole variety of reasons, most of them comfortably fitting the definition of ‘irrational’ — to have a Covid vaccination. The science is clear, the evidence incontrovertible. And yet sceptics and deniers continue to attract huge numbers of followers.

I have written before about the danger of this new age of rampant deceit, lying, misinformation and disinformation. Social media feeds on our algorithmically determined preferences and prejudices, generating sensationalist soundbites and clickbait headlines, devoid of context or even of meaning. Lies are peddled as fact; ludicrous assertions are left unchallenged, bouncing around the echo chamber. Yet many people increasingly consume their news via social media or other poorly regulated media outlets that show a similar aversion to evidence, fact checking and sound, dispassionate reasoning.

Just as citizens should grasp the basics of history, science, and the written word, they should command the intellectual tools of sound reasoning. These include logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, the optimal ways to adjust our beliefs and commit to decision with uncertain evidence, and the yardsticks for making rational choices alone and with others.

from Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

As books like Pinker’s Rationality, Daniel Kahneman’s terrific best-seller Thinking, Fast and Slow and Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality all show, we don’t magically evolve into rigorous and rational thinkers. Quite the opposite. And why is all this so important? Well, if nothing else, because reality has an annoying habit of punching us and our irrational thoughts squarely on the nose. Hence my favourite line in Pinker’s book: “We discount the future myopically, but it always arrives, minus the large rewards we sacrificed for the quick high.”

Rationality is the type of book that I need to read at least twice — once at regular pace to take in the overall argument and then a second time, this more slowly, carefully and methodically, to grapple with the tough bits (which for me primarily means the sections dealing with maths and formal logic). After all, there is no shortage of fallacies and biases messing up our cognitive hardwiring.

22 October

The famous sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 occurs near the beginning of Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones’ huge and ambitious new history of the Middle Ages; the rather less well-known sack of Rome in 1527 by the marauding troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V occurs near the end. That’s more than a thousand years of history to wade through.

The book isn’t an attempt at a comprehensive survey of the Middle Ages. You won’t find detailed descriptions of the minutiae of ordinary everyday life — how people lived, the clothes they wore and the work they did. Things like that. This is a book about power and the people and institutions who wielded and fought over it. And what was just as important was the perception of power — “ostentation and courtly spectacle”. Religion, and the Catholic Church in particular, features heavily, of course. There are heresies and schisms aplenty, though, oddly, I don’t remember the word ‘Inquisition’ being used once.

Above all perhaps, it is about the spilling of blood. Lots of it. None more so than by the Mongols, responsible for probably millions of deaths as they plundered and massacred their way across Asia from the East.

The Mongols did not hesitate to level entire cities, wipe out whole populations, ruin vast regions and leave once-busy metropolises smouldering and desolate, either to be rebuilt to their own liking or simply wiped from the map.

from Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones

As Jones himself says, history doesn’t have to be made by nice people — and, in fact, very rarely is.

Powers and Thrones is the type of history book I most look forward to reading nowadays. I think of Dan Jones as one of a group of historians — Tom Holland, Ian Mortimer and Tracy Borman are others who immediately spring to mind — who regularly publish hugely enjoyable and well written history books, mixing an engaging and accessible narrative writing style with excellent factual detail and knowledge of current research.

As was the case with Lauren Johnson’s otherwise excellent life of Henry VI, there is sometimes a tendency in these ‘popular’ histories to stray worryingly close to ‘historical fiction’ territory. I really enjoy a book that is set in the past, as long as it is well written and thoroughly researched. Historical fiction complements history writing, but it is a separate craft and the distinction between the two should not be blurred.

This is the opening sentence of Powers and Thrones: “They left the safety of the road and tramped out into the wilderness, lugging the heavy wooden chest between them.” There is a footnote six lines later, but it merely informs us of how much the chest would have weighed. And then a couple of pages later: “They had walked far enough that the nearest town — Scole — was more than two miles away; satisfied that they had found a good spot, they set the box down.”

The chest he describes contained what is now called the Hoxne Hoard, discovered by metal detectorists in 1992 and displayed in the British Museum. The notes refer to a 2010 book on the Hoxne Hoard by Catherine Johns. But how much of this detail does Jones actually have supporting evidence for — how, for example, does he know that they were satisfied they had found a good spot? — and how much of it is just creative scene-setting, the product of the writer’s imagination?

I was also struck for the first hundred pages or so by the extent to which Jones’ language seemed to be influenced by modern-day matters. There are several references to climate change (the Huns are described as ‘climate migrants’) and consider this (from page 94): “The Roman Empire had once been a super-spreader of classical learning across its vast territories.” Then I twigged — doh! — it is all deliberately done! Hence the references to Constantinople being placed in lockdown, John Wycliffe’s religious ideas going viral and the astrolabe as “a finely tuned medieval GPS system [sic]”.

At times Jones’ parallels with the present day are explicitly drawn. For example, the 20-year Albigensian Crusade to crush heretics in France in the thirteenth century is compared to “the futility of [modern-day] wars against abstractions” like the so-called wars on terror and drugs. There is even a discussion of the spiritual debt owed by rap artists to Dante and the terza rima rhyme scheme.

25 October

The government’s recent Covid vaccination TV advert is reminiscent of those Ready Brek ‘central heating for kids’ adverts in the Seventies, except that it is now a protective vaccine shield rather than the warmth of an internal radiator that cocoons us and keeps us safe. Watching Channel 5’s All Creatures Great and Small gives me a similarly warm glow, the second series as enjoyably heart-warming and picture-postcard perfect as the first. Here’s hoping for another Christmas special.

Enjoyably heart-warming are probably not the first words most people would reach for to describe Stephen, the outstanding three-part ITV drama about the Stephen Lawrence case. These are not happy days for the London Metropolitan Police — whether it’s heavy-handed policing tactics, botched investigations or rogue behaviour by serving officers — and Stephen is another hammer-blow to its reputation. The focus is not the actual 1993 murder and the initial botched investigation that failed to secure a single conviction despite five suspects quickly being identified; it is the long fight for justice that followed.

Stephen picks up the story after years of failure — not just of that initial investigation but also of subsequent investigations into corruption, malpractice and incompetence, none of which enabled the Lawrence family to achieve a measure of justice for the death of Stephen.

The suspects — and in fact only the two men who were eventually found guilty of murder in 2012 — hardly feature at all. Cressida Dick, currently the Met commissioner of course, pops up occasionally, seated behind a huge desk, literally and metaphorically distant from Stephen’s family. It is a cold and unsympathetic portrayal of a senior officer far more concerned to protect the Met than to see justice done. DCI Clive Driscoll, who reopened the investigation in 2006, on the other hand, is everything you want a police officer to be: honourable, empathetic and dogged in the pursuit of justice.

The drama is about Driscoll and the progress of his cold case review which went on to secure two convictions. And above all it is about Stephen’s parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence. We follow Neville as he struggles with the question of whether he will ever be able to forgive Stephen’s murderers, as his Christian beliefs suggest he should. Doreen, meanwhile, is the more publicly visible and outspoken, her judgement of the authorities who have let her down so many times utterly withering. If there is anything at all heart-warming about Stephen it is perhaps the bond that Doreen and DCI Driscoll forge during the course of his long investigation.

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