As Westminster and workplaces wind down this week to head for the beaches, we’ve decided to throw our hat into the ring to recommend some of this summer’s best cultural offerings. And because many of the well-versed reading lists that abound at this time of year might be missing out on some terrific output, we also mention a few of the podcasts that have piqued our interest.
What follows is a mix of the serious, thought-provoking and perhaps not-so-serious as we ponder the weeks ahead.
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
In this apparent golden age of owning your own brand and curating your own fan-base, when is there a better time to consider how one should actually be famous? Moran has some pithy and very funny observations on the symbiosis between artist and audience. But the actual humdinger in this book, the don’t-you-dare-miss-it-bit, is the call to arms she gives to every young girl who has ever had or will have a relationship with a total dick, and therefore risk suffering the infamy that becomes all the more likely in our Instagram era.
Buy this for your teenage daughter because it’s a good lesson on why building yourself is more important than building your brand. And buy this because, if enough people get on board, we can End Sex Vampirism in our Lifetime.
East-West Street by Philippe Sands
I’m a bit late to the party in singing this book’s praise. But in a year that has been dominated by questions of the West’s willingness to take in the world’s needy, I can only say it’s relevance has (regrettably) aged rather well. What starts as a family history of a UCL law professor, ends up – quite by accident – as a chronicle of the refugee experience of Poland’s Jewish community, and how ideas like ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ came about in the 1945-6 Nuremburg trials.
Bear with me; I don’t usually reach for tomes on the origins of international law when heading for the beach. And Sands’ timeliness isn’t to warn that 2018 might be repeating the mistakes of 1938. But what he does do is show that previous generations had to navigate the chaotic turns of a globalised world just as we do, ultimately to make it through to the other end. I think there’s a bit of comfort in that.
Call for the Dead by John le Carré
On an impulse buy when short of a book for the train, I picked up Call for the Dead by John le Carré, the first George Smiley novel. Published in 1961 when the Cold War looked like it could get hot any time, the spy thriller appeared to be ancient history three decades on when the Soviet Union collapsed in a heap. Nearly 30 years after that and it seems fresh again, given everything that we’re learning about Russian interference and black ops in the West today. The old USSR and its satellite states were merely the vehicle to protect and promote Russia’s enduring state interests. Old books remind us that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Did you know that around 50,000 years ago there were around six different species of human beings on the planet? Or that, until humans discovered Australia about 40,000 years ago, it was home to a host of animals such as a marsupial lion? Well indeed, nor did I. It is pretty extraordinary what we don’t know about ourselves – even a clever chap like Mr Harari acknowledges that he has to fill in plenty of gaps. What is apparent and worrying is the capacity of homo sapiens for widespread destruction (perhaps including the other species of human) long before we started emitting greenhouse gases or electing Donald Trump. By no means easy reading, but it certainly made me think.
Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why it Matters by Jesse Norman
Adam Smith has had a bad rap. His ideas have been used as either a cheap excuse for the power of unfettered markets and crony capitalism, or to vilify the excesses of economic liberalism. A lot of his ideas have been lost in the middle and, frankly, people switched off.
Sure, everybody’s heard of the Wealth of the Nations. But in this book, Jesse Norman MP makes the case that Smith’s less-celebrated Theory of Moral Sentiments gives a clear indication of the way his economic ideas were intended to work with society, i.e. that markets should work in the interests of the people. Norman is a deep thinker, which British politics could use a bit more of.
This weekly podcast, usually hosted by soothingly-voiced US producer Roman Mars, looks at the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about. It’s great relief from the doom-laden headlines we usually face, and it’s a genuine source of ‘I did not know that’ moments.
Come for episodes like the Laff Box, a deep look into the rise and fall of laughter tracks on comedy shows, but stay for revelations like how Medellin’s system of cable cars has reformed the Colombian city after decades of narco-violence. A topical listen at the moment is episode #301, which looks at historical efforts to change the weather – most notably to try and make it rain.
At around 30 mins long, each episode is a good length for a commute and there are over 300 in the back catalogue.
Reasons to be Cheerful with Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd
“Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband”
David Cameron's words prior to the 2015 election haunt us all in these 'strong and stable' times. I became a ‘Milifan’ far more recently; I think it’s fair to say that frontline politics didn’t play to his strengths, nor show his sense of humour.
Miliband launched his podcast with co-presenter Geoff Lloyd in autumn 2017, with a view to sharing 'reasons to be cheerful'. Each episode looks at a particular policy area, with guest experts presenting policy ideas, along with comedians offering their own suggestions for how to make the world a better place.
You don’t need to be a socialist (I’m not) and you don’t have to agree with all of the ideas (I don’t) to enjoy this podcast. For me, the opportunity to hear from people dedicating their time to come up with solutions to society’s problems is a far more relaxing way to consider politics than watching the news or scrolling through twitter.
An added benefit for those close to the Scottish capital is that the duo will be hitting the Fringe on August 4thand 5th.
The Infinite Monkey Cage (BBC Radio 4/ Radio 4 Extra)
Now in its 18th series, this show hosted by Brian Cox and Robin Ince brings together experts and comedians to explore the world according to science and provide answers to the questions you’ve always (probably) wanted to know the answers to: Science vs. the supernatural; how the teenage brain works; the science of sleep; and should we pander to pandas? Start with the 100th show (current series) and then go where the mood takes you. There’s a soft spot in my household for ‘When Quantum Goes Woo’ (S11).
It’s like In Our Time but without the nagging migraine and colossal feeling of inadequacy at the end.