Saturday, 1 April 2017

More good books - April 2017

A history of Britain's Census may not be many people's first idea of a good read, so you'll be pleasantly surprised by Roger Hutchinson's The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its census, since 1801. It's full of interesting themes and 'fancy that' detail: the 1841 census, for example, was the first to record people's names and ages (the previous ones were effectively just enumerations), but among the details it got wrong was Queen Victoria's birth date ('about 1821') when in fact it was 1819. As Hutchinson says (pp60-1), "If the national census could consistently get wrong the personal details of the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and future Empress of India, what hope had anybody else?".

But that's to do the early census takers a bit of an injustice. In the days when the IT infrastructure was paper, pens and horses, the early censuses got the job done remarkably quickly: first results from the census of March 1 1801 were published in June 1801, and 600 pages of summaries and abstracts in December 1801. I doubt if we could manage the same today. Our technology has improved out of all recognition, but so have assorted deadweight managerial costs and, especially, mission creep. You should see the form that our census enumerators will be using in 2018 to record answers to the religion question, which includes at its most detailed level 167 different 'Religions', 'Beliefs' and 'Philosophies', including Satanism, Maoism, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (aka Pastafarianism).

Some of the recurrent themes remain highly topical. The late 19th century influx of Jews from eastern Europe, as documented in the 1891 census, got the racists slavering: as the author says (p225) "Right-wing populists denounced an 'alien invasion' which was apparently taking British jobs from British workers. Ratepayers were, according to the Manchester Evening Chronicle, being bilked of excessive poor relief" (the rates-financed social welfare of the day), just like today's incoherent reactions where immigrants are supposedly both stealing jobs and bludging on the dole. An inquiry as part of the 1901 census, however, found that in the archetypal Jewish refuge, the East End of London, "The proportions of indoor Paupers [i.e. totally destitute and reliant on workhouse relief] among the general population and among the European Foreigners were 15.1 and 1.7 per 1,000 respectively" (p233). And among those damn job stealers were people like Michael Marks (first counted in the 1891 census), who had the temerity to go on and build Marks & Spenser. Shouldn't be allowed.

We've moved on from that, haven't we? Then you read on Wikipedia that in the 2011 UK census, "Other new questions involve asking migrants their date of arrival and how long they intend to stay in the UK; respondents also required to disclose which passports they held". But no doubt that's all intended to inform sound policy analysis. In any event, you'll find yourself following Hutchinson down all sort of interesting historical side alleys, and learning a fair amount of economic history on the way. It's a good read.

I try to stay in touch with Aussie politics, and my latest foray is David Marr's Faction Man: Bill Shorten's Pursuit of Power, a short portrait of the Australian Labour Party leader that is an updated and extended version of a 2015 Quarterly Essay. Shorten has made it to the top of Labor via the Australian Workers' Union, where he was initially an organiser, then National Secretary from 2001 to 2007, when he became a federal MP. I knew next to nothing about Shorten before this book, which broadly makes the case that he is a rough-house player of Australia's factional politics, with little commitment to any settled philosophy beyond self-advancement: a Paul Keating without a programme. I'll be interested to learn more beyond this initial worrying impression.

I've been having a good run with fiction. Top of the list is debut author Jane Harper's The Dry, a riveting and extraordinarily well written novel about murders in rural drought-ravaged Australia: even if you're not normally a crime/murder reader, make an exception for this one. I came to Jonas Jonasson backwards - I read his later Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all ahead of his earlier (and now filmed) The 100-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared - but they're both good, though hard to categorise (black comedy? satire on modern Sweden?). If time's short, try Hitman Anders and see if you like the style. And I very much enjoyed David Thorne's East of Innocence, where an ex City of London lawyer is now reduced to scraping by in Essex and gets involved with police brutality and the local Essex hard men.

In 'more of the same but just as enjoyable', there's the fourth (Silk Chaser) in Peter Klein's series about an Australian professional better on the horses who finds himself caught up, Dick Francis style, in industry shenanigans, this time the serial murders of 'strappers' (horse grooms). And there's the latest (Tatiana) in Martin Cruz Smith's series about Russian police investigator Arkady Renko, where an investigative journalist falls foul of the Russian powers that be.

Good intelligence/espionage novels can be hard to find, so you might want to try Alan Judd's series about a chap making his way up through the British security service. I've finished Legacy and am half-way through Uncommon Enemy, with Inside Enemy still to come. And then there's the ever reliable Gerald Seymour's latest, Jericho's War, about a semi-officially-sanctioned raid on high value Al Qaeda targets in the back blocks of Yemen. All good stuff. And let's hope that one of the great maestros of the genre, Alan Furst, gets his mojo back into top gear this year.

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