Monday, 12 December 2016

My top 15 books of 2016

For the last five years I've written down every book I read, partly for the obvious reason that otherwise I'd forget, but also because I'm lazy and it's a really easy way to keep a diary. Looking at the book I was reading on any given date gives me the context to recreate everything else I was doing then - who I was with; where I was etc...etc..

Anyway I read roughly 40-50 books a year so I've gone through this year's list and picked my top 15 in case you're stuck for some holiday reading or a Christmas present. In the order in which I read them....

1) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Written as a letter to his son this short, emotionally-charged book looks at the history of American racism through episodes in the author's life. Inspired by James Baldwin and, I'd say, just as good as anything he wrote, it won the US National Book Award in 2015.

2) The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt

Coincidentally another National Book Award winner this is a history of the rediscovering of Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things" and about 100 times more interesting than that sounds. I knew nothing about the original poem or about the late medieval book hunters who saved such treasures from extinction. I'd have liked a broader discussion about the poem's place in the Renaissance - the recent historiography of which Greenblatt pretty much ignores - but it's fascinating on its own terms.

3) The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim

I've been searching for years for a scrupulously fair guide to Israeli/Arab conflict in a field where so many books are written from a deeply partisan perspective. The best I'd found before was Ahron Bregman's "Cursed Victory" but that only covers more recent decades. The Iron Wall takes us all the way from the founding of Israel to the present day and shows compellingly how the remorseless logic of Israeli politics, combined with the weaknesses of Palestinian leaders has made peace impossible. It's difficult to come away from reading it with any hope that a solution can be found.

4) Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich 

The best book I read this year. One of the best books I've ever read. Alexievich's unique style involves weaving hundreds of interviews into a complex narrative that, in this case, tells the story of Post Soviet Russia. Individually the stories are interesting and moving but somehow she turns the collective into something equivalent to the best modernist literature. It was gripping, beautifully written (and translated) and also taught me more about Putin's success than any number of conventional non-fiction books. 

5) Silk Road by Peter Frankopan

An ambitious history of the world that takes central Asia as the centre of global movements over the ages. Taught me a huge amount about empires and civilizations that aren't mentioned in the English school curriculum including the incredible story of the Turkic Khazar tribe that converted to Judaism in the eighth century and allied with the Byzantine empire against the Persians.

6) King of the World by David Remnick

When Muhammad Ali died in June reading all the tributes inspired me to read this biography of the five years between 1962-1967 when Ali, at the peak of his career, refused the draft and was banned from boxing. As well as great set piece accounts of the key fights Remnick is particularly good on Ali's relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I also read Thomas Hauser's more detailed biography of Ali which covers his whole career. But start with Remnick.

7) On the Move by Oliver Sacks

Sacks' autobiography, completed just before he died last year, offers brutally honest insights into his neuroses and paranoias as well as extraordinary descriptions of the creative process in action. He also crossed paths with any number of fascinating poets, statesmen and scientists which adds to the richness. 

8) Revolution 1989 by Victor Sebestyen 

A great history of the most important year of my life even though I didn't know it at the time (being 8). I knew the basic story of the fall of Communism but this added lots of detail about the differences between each of the Warsaw Pact countries. The complete bafflement of East German leader Erich Honecker as his world collapsed around his was particularly memorable. He even voted for his own sacking to keep up the tradition that all votes of the East German ruling council were unanimous.

9) Submission by Michel Houllebecq

It's impossible to tell how tongue in cheek Houllebecq is being, which is one reason why reading his novels is simultaneously so uncomfortable yet so fun. Narrated by a typically unpleasant misogynist it has a Muslim party winning the French presidency in 2022, helped by the socialists who are desperate to block the National Front. Weirdly it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, garnering it even more attention than Houllebecq usually gets.

10) The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

Another controversial French novel - this one from a few years ago - written from the perspective of a Nazi officer explaining, and excusing, his horrendous crimes. It's about 300 pages too long (1,000 pages in total) and drifts off badly towards the end, but the central section, in which the narrator sets out his experiences on the Eastern front, is as good as any war literature I've read. Don't read it on the train into work though. More than once I found myself sitting in an early morning meeting thinking more about the horrors of Stalingrad than whatever I was supposed to be concentrating on.

11) All out War by Tim Shipman

I have absolutely no idea how Shipman was able to write a fluent, comprehensive, 600 page guide to the crazy events of our political summer in a few months but somehow he did and I'm grateful. Easily the best Brexit book and particularly nostalgic for me as I worked, in a previous life, with the leaders of the Leave campaign (albeit that I was and am a Remainer).

12) A Different Kind of Weather by William Waldegrave

I only read this because John Rentoul kept tweeting sections of it but it's one of the most honest political memoirs you'll find, describing the insane ambition that drives so many in Westminster from the perspective of someone who now realises how daft it all is. It's also extremely well written, which helps.

13), 14) and 15) Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I'm reading Harris' trilogy on Cicero at the moment and it's absolutely wonderful. Harris expertly weaves Cicero's real speeches in with speculation about some of the key events in the history of Rome. Also, as the tale of oligarchs who use whip up cheap populism to smash the key institutions of the state it feels pretty relevant.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

How will GB do in Tokyo?

The performance of the GB team in Rio has been exceptional but not hugely surprising. I had projected they would be third in the medal table with 22 gold medals and 56 medals overall with good chances in over 100 events. For those of us who obsessively follow Olympic sports between games it was clear that GB would be extremely competitive in a wide range of events.

2nd place in the medal table was a bonus caused largely by China's decline since topping the table in Beijing - they've finished nine golds and around 15 medals below projections. And, over the longer term, the collapse of sports administration (and state doping programmes) in former USSR and Warsaw Pact countries.

The decline of China is something of a warning to GB. Both China and Australia followed up home games with strong performances in the following Olympics - though GB is the first to get a higher medal total - but both then declined as politicians lost interest and funding reduced.

So can GB buck the trend and continue to improve at Tokyo? A quick overview of the key sports suggests it's possible:

The athletics team will see the greatest transition as it's unlikely that Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Christine Ohuruogu will appear in Tokyo. As they're responsible for nine out of GB's thirteen athletics medals in London and Rio their retirements will leave a big hole to fill. There have, though, been enough strong performances from young athletes to make it possible. On the men's side Adam Gemili (22) missed out on a 200m medal by thousands of a second. And Matt Hudson-Smith (21) made one of the most competitive 400m finals in history. Andrew Butchart (24) came fourth in the 5k behind Mo Farah becoming the third fastest Brit in history after Mo and David Moorcroft.

On the women's side Dina Asher-Smith (21) came fifth in the 200m and her PB would have won a bronze. She also won a 4x100 bronze alongside two excellent 100m prospects - Desiree Henry (20) and Daryl Neita (19). Cindy Ofili (22) has had a breakthrough season this year and missed out on a 100m hurdles bronze by 0.02 hundredths of a second. Sophie Hitchon (25) won a hammer bronze with the two in front of her too old to make the next Olympics. Katarina Johnson-Thompson (23) clearly has the talent to get a heptathlon gold in Tokyo if she can conquer her nerves and look out for Morgan Lake (19) who reached the high jump final in Rio.

The track cycling team should be more or less the same in Toyko as in Rio bar Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. And there are a whole load of young cyclists behind them waiting to step up in the case of injuries and early retirements. Look out for Lewis Oliva (24) in the men's sprint; Jon Dibben (22) and Mark Stewart (21) in the pursuit/omnium  and on the women's side Emily Nelson (20) and Emily Kay (21). Whether GB is as dominant in Tokyo as in Rio/London/Beijing will depend on the rest of the world's ability to catch up.

The swimming team probably has the greatest potential for improvement. There are 34 golds available in swimming - 2nd only to athletics - and GB have only won three this century (Becky Addlington x2 and now Adam Peaty). GB's performance in Rio was much better that London - increasing from 3 to 6 medals and another 7 fourth places - nearly all achieved by young swimmers who should be in Tokyo. Peaty is just 21 and I'd love to see him try and develop his 200m breaststroke to give him the chance of two golds in 2020. Siobhan Marie O'Connor (20) came agonisingly close to gold in the 200m individual medley and has the potential to be challenging for 3 or 4 golds in four years time.

James Guy (20) came fourth in the 200m freestyle after winning the world championships last year and could be in the mix for 2 or 3 golds in four years time. Max Litchfield (21) came fourth in the 400 individual medley and has improved his PB a lot this year. As did Ben Proud (21) in the 50m freestyle. Duncan Scott (19) smashed the British record in the 100m freestyle and came fifth in the final. And Chloe Tutton (20) came fourth in the 200m breaststroke having broken the British Record earlier in the year (she'd have won a medal if the Russian Efimova's ban had been upheld days before the games). And look out for a few excellent prospects who were a bit young for Rio - Emily Large (just 15) in butterfly and Tazmin Pugh (16) in butterfly and backstroke.

Collectively this is the most talented group of young swimmers outside of the US and they should peak in Tokyo - potentially winning five or six golds.

The gymnastics squad probably had the most impressive Olympics of any GB team in Rio with almost as many medals as GB has won in all previous games. On the men's side the core of the team Max Whitlock (23), Nile Wilson (20) and Brinn Bevan (19) will be peaking in Tokyo. If they can find one more world class gymnast by then they could challenge for the all-around title (look out for Jay Thompson - 20 - to come through into the senior ranks). On the women's side it doesn't seem the US dominance will be challenged anytime soon but Amy Tinkler (16) - who won floor bronze in Rio - is a huge prospect. Look out as well for junior champions Catherine Lyons (15) and Tyesha Mattis (17) to turn the team into a real all-around medal contender.

The rowing team were one of the few in Rio to miss their medal target even though they topped the medal table for the regatta - so certainly room for improvement. Most of the rowers in the winning men's four and men's eight crews are young enough to keep going and should be able to maintain dominance. Helen Glover (32) and Heather Stanning (33) could just about make Tokyo if they want to mount another defence of their title. The main areas for improvement are on the lightweight side where GB won no medals this time having won three in London and sculling where Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley were our only medalists.

Elsewhere most of our Rio champions should be back to defend their titles. Nick Skelton has said he'll retire at 58; Charlotte Dujardin is certainly young enough to compete again but her horse Valegro isn't; Liam Heath is 32 so probably won't make another games; Nicola Adams will be 38 in Tokyo but hasn't ruled out staying on. Everyone else is definitely young enough to come back. Joe Clarke in kayak slalom is just 23. Double diving medalist Jack Laugher is 21 and synchro partner Chris Mears is 23. Giles Scott and Hannah Mills (though not her partner Saskia Clark) will back in the sailing. And Jade Jones (23) / Alistair Brownlee (28) will be able to defend their titles for a third time.

The overall impression is that, as long as national lottery investment continues as roughly the same levels, GB should be able to perform at least as well if not better in Tokyo. If they can maintain dominance in track cycling and push on to five or six swimming golds then a target of 30+ golds and 75 medals should be achievable.