Three Disasters

1. I was sitting up in bed writing my diary about a week ago, when I heard Mr Litlove talking on the phone. Few people ring so late, so I was not surprised to hear he was talking to our son, and making many expressions of deep sympathy. I’ve been channelling Dorothy Parker for a while now, and I confess the phrase that sprang to mind was: ‘What fresh hell is this?’ Though as is the case when trouble hoves into view, I am always looking in the wrong direction. This is how you know what’s real: you could never have guessed it.

It turned out that it was one of my son’s best friends who was in need of assistance and a bed for the night. His girlfriend lives in our village, and he had gone to visit her, only to find that she and her family were out. He sat on the doorstep for a while and then, bored, had gone for a walk. Only to run into a bunch of youths who had assaulted him. Now he was injured, and the family still hadn’t returned, and it was nearly midnight.

I felt both enormously sorry for my son’s friend, and deeply exhausted at the thought of his arrival. I think I’m suffering from compassion fatigue, after all my son’s troubles of late. Plus it was the end of the week in which we had launched the magazine, and I’m still writing a book here and I was just tired. I’ve noticed, though, that when a situation calls for me to be more engaged and nurturing than I think I can manage, it arouses profound anxiety. The thought of this poor wounded child arriving (would he need to be taken to hospital?) nearly gave me a panic attack. Though in fact, when he came, he only had a small cut on his forehead (where he’d been headbutted) and wasn’t the traumatised boy I’d imagined.

We all went to bed, and in the stillness of the night I could hear him moving around in our son’s room. I was lying there, wide awake, trying to reconstruct his movements. I could hear him talking very quietly on the phone. Then more movement. Then he went downstairs and seemed to try the front door. I could feel Mr Litlove beside me, listening too. After another brief call, he went downstairs again and out of the door. Mr Litlove looked out the window and saw a car arrive and pick him up. Either this was the most willing kidnap in criminal history, or his family had come for him. In the morning we found a really sweet note that he’d left us, saying it was his girlfriend’s family who had finally returned and picked him up en route.

 

2. On Monday morning I was driving to work at the bookshop and sitting in the usual heavy traffic, when I saw my hairdresser pass by in his car on the other side of the road. I was so surprised to see him, as one is with people who belong so intrinsically to their environment. But we waved gaily at one another, and in turning around to do so, I stalled the car. And then, when I tried to start it again, the engine was completely dead.

I put my hazard warning lights on and wondered what on earth to do. I thought for one mad moment I should get out and push, before remembering you needed someone at the wheel to do that. I dug my phone out of my bag, though knew Mr Litlove was in a day-long strategy meeting and couldn’t help. All this time, traffic was pouring around me, white vans honking in protest, the buses squeezing through impatiently with millimetres to spare. And then a saviour appeared at my passenger window in the form of a man on a bike with a beard and ponytail. ‘Have you broken down?’ he asked. ‘I didn’t think you could just be sitting there.’ As he began to push, so the window cleaners from the shop materialised and, recognising me, came to help. I was at least now off the main road in a side street, though parked in a doctor’s space.

The window cleaner had a look at the engine and thought it was the battery. He asked me what had happened and I tried to explain my hairdresser’s surprise drive-by, a narrative he greeted with an expression of bewilderment mixed with indulgent contempt. He had packed off his apprentice – over whom he rules with a sort of benign despotism – to finish the job they’d been doing and said that, when they were ready to leave, he figured they could give me a push start and I could make it home. I don’t have any rescue cover, as Mr Litlove is fond of cancelling things that charge against chance; which is fine when he has the luck of the devil, but not fine for me who most certainly does not. I’d thought I needed to open the shop, so that was a complication, but luckily it turned out that someone was in. So I returned to my car to await my unlikely heroes.

‘I’ve never done this before,’ I said when they appeared. ‘So you’ll have to tell me exactly…’

‘Do you want to push?’

‘Yes.’

So I lined up with the apprentice, both of us grinning wryly at each other in acknowledgement of our lowly status, and we pushed and ran and pushed and the engine caught again.

 

3. So on Thursday night I was once again in bed, writing up my diary, when I became aware of a commotion coming from the bathroom. Mr Litlove was yelling for my help, an act that was unprecedented in our twenty years of marriage, and there was the ominous sound of water cascading. I sped over the landing, opened the bathroom door and saw a drenched Mr Litlove, his hands in the toilet cistern, attempting to stem a gushing fountain of water that would have graced Trafalgar Square. ‘Go and get me a screwdriver!’ he begged, and I shot off, not really liking to admit that I could probably only identify a screwdriver under conditions of complete calm and on receipt of a jolly good clue. In any case, as I hunted around our utility room, there didn’t seem to be any tools in evidence at all. I tore back, tripping up the stairs, with the whole (almost empty) toolbox in hand. ‘You’ll have to stop it while I look,’ Mr Litlove said. ‘Put your hand here and flush the loo when the water gets high enough.’

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s out of control water. It seems to symbolise the most powerful forces of nature able to destroy and wreck in blind chaos. I sloshed through the lake that was covering the bathroom floor and stuck my thumb in the dyke, as it were, my heart pounding and trying not to shiver in my thin nightdress. I could hear Mr Litlove running down the garden path to his shed, and then back to the house and up the stairs. When he had a screwdriver, he could turn off the isolator down by the cistern, and the fountain of water died instantly away. For a moment we neither said nor did anything, catching our breath.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Mr Litlove. He had been washing up downstairs when he heard water running down the windows, which he identified as coming from the overflow. Thinking he could effect a quick repair, he’d gone to take the troublesome part out of the cistern, and…I guess it didn’t go so well. We still don’t have a working toilet upstairs, which is okay, we have a cloakroom, but I’m always halfway up the stairs before I remember.

So it seems the lords of misrule are still aligned over the Fens and I am left wondering what will happen next? It doesn’t bear thinking about…

The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.

 

 

It’s Live and Lovely!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245Yes, Shiny New Books went live this morning – we were all there (virtually) for a momentous switch-on at 8am. We think it looks amazing, and hope so much that you do, too. I do strongly recommend that if you want to start an online magazine, you do so with Annabel, Harriet and Simon. They are such talented and hard-working people. But now of course it’s over to you. Visit, read lots of reviews, leave your comments and don’t forget to enter the competitions – oh and if you’re a keen reviewer, think about writing for us, too.

Now, I promised you all a tale of disaster, wrought by my own two hands… So for this we have to go back to early February, when we were in the thick of finding our books and sourcing reviews. Whilst we editors have our individual sections for which we have final responsibility, we all help out with reviews across the board. I was thinking about the non-fiction section and wanting to get a bit more variety in there, when Ms Thrifty, my friend in the book shop, happened to mention that her husband was reading and enjoying Why Nations Fail, a big socio-economic title. Now, I had a mental flashback to seeing the book on the new shelves in Heffers, and I thought, hmm, what an interesting bit of variety that would provide. So I asked Ms Thrifty if Mr TH would be so kind as to give us a review. I knew he liked writing and is a very intelligent sort of chap.

Well, Mr TH thought about it and said he would. He’d been given the book for Christmas, so I had a quick look at dates on amazon, saw that it was a February release, and figured that the paperback would soon be out. And onwards we went. The copy deadline neared, Mr TH gave up television watching in the evenings so he could finish the book and write his review in time, we editors did all sorts of editorial things, and then the review arrived. Fantastic! Only Mr TH dropped me a line in an accompanying email saying: I’ve just noticed this came out in 2013. Uh-oh.

I checked the dates and read the whole thing this time. In my excitable haste on the previous occasion, I’d only looked at the month. And indeed, the paperback came out in 2013, and the hardback in 2012. Not so shiny-new, then (heaven only knows what I hallucinated on the shelves of Heffers). Of course this had to happen with the one reviewer who did not have a blog of his own and had written the review specially for us. So, with no further ado, I will give you below the review of:

 

Why Nations Fail

by James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu

Reviewed by Edward Leigh (editor of The Reformist)

 

why nations failIt is notable how many books have been published in recent years on the topic of why civilisations flourish or wither. Jared Diamond, Ian Morris, Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson and others have written extensively on the subject, citing a wide range of candidates for drivers and impediments to social development: geography, climate, natural resources, infectious diseases, culture and ideology, rulers and government, war, migration, science and discovery; the list goes on.

The authors of this book make the bold assertion that just one of these candidates is of primary significance: the nature of a nation’s economic and political institutions, in particular whether they are ‘inclusive’ (that is, serving the majority of citizens) or ‘extractive’ (serving an elite).

Now even if this is not the last word on the subject (and it surely won’t be), it is nevertheless a highly instructive lens through which to view history. What is most exhilarating about reading this book is its historical and geographical breadth, encompassing the Spanish conquest of South America, the Glorious Revolution in England, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and diverse other case studies.

The authors anticipated a sceptical response to their thesis and so begin the book with examples of where geography and culture cannot be the primary factors in determining progress, where two geographically adjacent or culturally homogeneous peoples diverged markedly following a historical inflection point or ‘critical juncture’ (to use the authors’ terminology). Nogales is the name of two cities that have grown up either side of the 1853 US-Mexico border: Nogales, Arizona, ranks far higher in terms of economic and social development than Nogales, Sonora; yet the people share the same ancestry and geography. Similarly, since the division of Korea along the 38th parallel in 1945, the two countries have diverged drastically: according to the UN’s GDP figures, South Korea now ranks 15th in the world; North Korea 119th. The Black Death (around 1350), which decimated the population of Europe, was followed in western Europe by peasant revolts that led to the end of serfdom, better pay and working conditions, and ultimately greater participation in government; whereas in eastern Europe there was a resurgence of serfdom, which held back social progress until the Napoleonic invasions in the 19th century.

The point is this: events that change the course of history, such as wars, plagues and famines, do not in themselves predetermine the outcome. The authors refer to these events as ‘contingencies of history’, which may seem trivialising, but their theory is that the outcome is actually determined by the societal institutions that pre-exist such an event, or that grow up in response to it.

One of the keys to progress is ‘creative destruction’, the displacement of one industry or methodology by another. Arkwright’s water frame could spin 100lb cotton in 300 hours, something that previously took 50,000 hours. The invention inevitably put many workers out of a job, but it also created new jobs that required different skills. One of the cornerstones of the authors’ theory is that political and economic institutions that permit creative destruction thereby permit progress and adaptation; whereas institutions that protect the narrow interests of an elite, be they government cronies, landowners, capitalists or well-organised workers’ unions, may progress for a while, but ultimately regress, often precipitously, as in the case of the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) and the Soviet Union. This may seem self-evidently true, but what is interesting is the authors’ analysis of why some monarchs and governments were able to resist creative destruction, whereas others were not.

The strength of any theory lies in its power to predict and explain, and the authors do a convincing job of proving their theory. Their analysis of post-colonial Africa is especially insightful. The (literally) extractive institutions created by colonial powers were taken over at independence by indigenous rulers. Almost all of them, most notably Congo’s Joseph Mobuto, Sierra Leone’s Siaka Stevens, and Zimbawe’s Robert Mugabe (who even rigged a national lottery so that he won the top prize), felt little inclination to dismantle those institutions, which quickly enriched and corrupted them, their cronies and successors, at terrible cost to their citizens. Only really Botswana stands out as a beacon of social progress in sub-Saharan Africa.

China will be a major test of the authors’ theory. In contrast to most political commentators, the authors believe that China’s rise is not inexorable: the market-based reforms of Deng Xiaoping have created more inclusive economic institutions, but the political institutions remain as extractive as they were under Mao Zedong—just how extractive is well illustrated by this statistic from What’s gone wrong with democracy? (The Economist, 1st March 2014):

“The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.”

At some stage, which may be sooner rather than later, China’s continued development will require creative destruction and greater pluralism, which is something that the Communist Party will resist, possibly to the bitter end.

The book reviewed:

James A. Robinson & Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1846684302, 560pp, paperback.

Other recent books on this subject:

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive (Penguin: London, 2011). ISBN 978-0241958681, 590pp, paperback.

Ian Morris, The Measure of Civilisation: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations: The Story of Why the West Rules for Now (Profile Books: London, 2013). ISBN 978-1781250198, 400pp, paperback.

Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (Profile Books: London, 2012). ISBN 978-1846682575, 608pp, paperback.

Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (Penguin: London, 2012). ISBN 978-0141044583, 432 pp, paperback.

 

Finally, I Can Tell You

There have been good and bad reasons why I’ve been so quiet in the blogworld lately, and finally I can tell you about the good reason.SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’ve been involved in getting a new online review magazine off the ground, and on Monday 7th April, Shiny New Books will be going live, ready to tell you what to read next and why.

When we first began thinking about the magazine, we thought there was an absence of a) places that brought lots of book bloggers together and b) nowhere that you could read up on all the latest releases that you see all the time in book shops and libraries, without knowing if they are any good or not.

So we decided to publish a quarterly magazine (covering new books out from January to the start of April in the first edition) and have picked only those to review that we loved, enjoyed and were entertained by. We’re based on UK publication dates, but the book world is so globalised these days that they aren’t so very different to anywhere else.

The first edition carries over 70 reviews, features, interviews, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of writing and publishing. We’re covering as wide a range of books as we can, and as wide a range of publishers too. There’s also going to be some pretty fantastic competitions (I want the prize myself for the first one). The only thing we’re not doing is supporting amazon.

The editors behind Shiny New Books are all bloggers you will probably know – Annabel, Simon, Harriet and me. But we couldn’t have done it without the fabulous bloggers who also contributed reviews – a huge thanks to them. We’ll be looking for more bloggers to write for us, because we also want to make the magazine a showcase of the best book writing on the blogosphere.

So, do sign up for our newsletter, which will alert you to each edition when it appears. We’ll have a mini-issue in May with additional reviews, and the email newsletter will be monthly-ish with competitions and discussion threads and all sorts of booky goodness. To sign up, do visit Shiny New Books, or like our facebook page, or twitter feed.

It’s been a really rocky few months chez Litlove, and I have been pretty thankful at times to have such fine distraction as looking at the nth version of a logo, deciding how to organize menu bars and figuring out possible channels for publicity. I’m here to tell you that nothing focuses the mind like a pile of seven books that need to be read and reviewed to a deadline. I must say a big thank you to the other editors, too, who have been a joy to work with, and not nagged me once for being a bit scatterbrained at times There was one big boo-boo that I made, but I’ll tell you about that next Monday when we launch.