My Favourite Books of the Year 2021
Scottish Review, 15 December 2021
2021 has been a dramatic year – defined by COVID and the incompetence and deceit of Boris Johnson’s Tory administration. For myself, the year was divided between the first eight months on Glasgow’s Southside followed by moving to Kirkcudbright for the rest of the year and beyond. That entailed packing eighty plus boxes of books, then unpacking them and putting them on newly built shelves – as well as thinning them out.
Unconnected to all this (so it is claimed!), within two months of moving an independent bookshop opened a hundred yards or so from my front door – Gallovidia Books run by the impressive Elizabeth and Stewart.
Here then are my books of the year; starting with Scottish related titles, the UK and wider world, history, culture and music – and more.
Section 1: Scotland
Break-Up: How Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon Went to War, by David Clegg and Kieran Andrews (Biteback)
The drama that dominated Scottish politics and the SNP for two years. A serious, properly researched book and one from which none of the participants comes out well (the women complainants excepted).
The National Movement in Scotland, by Jack Brand (Routledge)
Few books have studied the SNP and its relationship with the wider movement, but Jack Brand did so in the 1970s; this book being a timely reprint of his 1978 volume.
George Mackay Brown: Beyond the Swelkie, edited by Jim Mackintosh and Paul S Philippou (Tippermuir Books)
A beautifully produced collection containing so many gems and perspectives on poet, dramatist and writer George Mackay Brown on the centenary of his birth. In a year with several GMB publications, this is a great place to start appreciating his work.
Atlas of Scotland: A Vision of a Nation, by Andrew Barr (The Scots Curator)
After his stunning book on the Declaration of Arbroath, Barr returns with an alternative tour of Scotland, finding illuminating stories and voices – all of which are presented in a book designed and laid out by the author with care and craft.
Scotland, class and industry:
Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialisation in Post-war Scotland, by Ewan Gibbs (University of London Press)
Too much writing about the coal industry in Scotland is filled with caricature and bleakness. One of the strengths of this book is that it reasserts the humanity and complexities of the workers in mining and their wider communities. A powerful social history filled with insights and a suitable corrective.
Class Rules: The Truth About Scottish Schools, by James McEnaney (Luath Press)
A challenge to the insider class who run Scottish education and those who defend them. Scottish school education is increasingly failing too many young people and needs change, and McEnaney fearlessly takes on the evasions and complacencies.
Cardinal Sin: Challenging Power Abuse in the Catholic Church, by Brian Devlin (Columba Books)
Devlin is a former Catholic priest and this is a book about power, lack of accountability and faith. Devlin tells his own story and a wider one which had to be brought to public attention.
Sea State, by Tabitha Laskey (Fourth Estate)
A book supposedly about the oil industry but that is really about oil and men, and the lies some men tell, lack of commitment and hurt. Beautifully told, it defies definition and even at times focus.
A Working Class State of Mind, by Colin Burnett (Pierpoint Books)
A glimpse into working-class life in Leith in all its shades and kaleidoscopes. This is Burnett’s first book and he has talent, a rare voice and way with characters which is compelling and at times spellbinding. One to watch for in future.
Section 2: UK
How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations, by Gavin Esler (Apollo)
A rich exploration of the slow decoupling of the UK covering so much more than politics, taking in culture, literature, ideas and the everyday experience of people.
The Break-Up of Britain, by Tom Nairn (Verso Books)
Nairn’s classic text from 1977 reprinted with a new introduction by Anthony Barnett. This ‘Break-Ip’ is not just about Scotland or constitutional politics but about the slow demise of Britain as an idea and the emergence of English nationalism and its problematic relationship with Europe (yes Nairn wrote that in 1977).
The British Prime Minister in an Age of Upheaval, by Mark Garnett (Polity Press)
If you think Boris Johnson’s travails are just about his own limitations then Garnett’s book will make you think twice. The post of PM has become an impossible one: strategic leader and micro-manager, while the UK political class refuse to come to terms with the UK’s relative economic decline: hence we end up with charlatans like Johnson.
UK capitalism and industry:
Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays for It? by Brett Christophers (Verso Books)
An important book on understanding British capitalism; not just the dominance of finance capitalism but a rentier version about owning, selling and living off assets and the income from them. This has spawned a whole industry, class and people who service them; this new rentier class are not the entrepreneurs mythologised but rather a group who passively accrue monies from scarce resources (land, housing) and monopolies, as well as contracts.
Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister (Pluto Press)
An original take on the UK, industry and geo-politics through the power and commerce of oil. In particular, the authors focus in on the major multinationals – Shell and BP – and some of the most inglorious episodes in their history such as Nazi Germany and Nigeria.
The Diaries: Volume One: 1918-38; Volume Two: 1938-43, by Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, edited by Simon Heffer (Hutchinson Heinemann)
First published in heavily edited and censored form in 1967, now the near full force of these diaries of Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, Tory MP for Southend West, come to light. They are riveting as an insight into social class, the political elite around Neville Chamberlain, and the horrendous misjudgement of the British establishment about Hitler and the Nazis (which pre-1939, with Channon and others on the right, was sympathetic to the Nazis).
Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Capitalist Lackey, by Andrew Mitchell (Biteback)
Another generation and another tale of a Tory establishment figure rising through privilege and networks. He makes it into the Cabinet as International Development Secretary, is defined by the Downing Street scandal of ‘Plebgate’, and earns a reputation as a champion of overseas aid.
Britain and its military:
The Changing of the Guard: The British Army since 9/11, by Simon Akam (Scribe)
A damning indictment of the British military – all the more relevant after the Afghan debacle. The UK military have leadership, strategic and operational long-term problems, but despite repeated disasters, they avoid ever being properly held to account. A book the military tried to stop being published.
Section 3: Big Stuff
Culture is Bad for You: Inequality in the Cultural and Creative Industries, by Orian Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor (Manchester University Press)
A devasting counterblast to the official narrative of culture wrapped in the language of ‘creative industries’ when the reality has been shaky contracts for many and the increased elitism of those posts, with prestige and good terms and conditions for the few.
The Melancholia of Class: A Manifesto for the Working Class, by Cynthia Cruz (Repeater Books)
A book of rage, fury and indignation – and we need more of these. In many respects, it promises more than it can deliver, being at times very particular to Cruz’s experience in the US as a poet and writer. Strong on class, inequality and the importance of solidarity.
Understanding Our Times:
Post-Capitalist Desire, by Mark Fisher (Repeater Books)
The late Mark Fisher was one of the great writers on all things cultural (if in doubt, try ‘k-Punk’, covering from hauntology to British soaps) and this collects his last lectures. A labour of love on how we live in late capitalism and affect change. Fisher challenged how many of us think of this world and this is a powerful coda. Respect to Mark Colquhoun and Repeater Books for bringing this into being.
The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World, by Joe Keohane (Penguin/Viking)
A book about how we interact with strangers and the importance of strangers: a timely theme in a world of isolation and loneliness – and that was true pre-Covid and even more true since the pandemic began.
Section 4: History
What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher (Biteback)
The phrase (‘what a bloody awful country’) comes from Tory Home Secretary Reginald Maudling on a visit to the province in 1970; Meagher provides a succinct and indignant history of this part of Ireland the UK kept in the partition of 1921-22; there are many villains and a few heroes in this but chief among the former is the UK Government.
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole (Head of Zeus)
A history that is political, economic, social, informed and personal, covering post-war Ireland from the year of O’Toole’s birth. This is the story of both economic and social liberalisation and learning the limits of the former.
The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political Leadership, edited by Iain Dale (Hodder & Stoughton)
After covering UK PMs, Dale turns to US Presidents. Timely and impressive and attempts to understand the office and rate the men. Declaration: I cover Grover Cleveland: the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms (and let’s hope that remains the case!).
There is Nothing For You Here, by Fiona Hill (Mariner Books)
An autobiography covering three countries: born in working-class England; a career in the States and an expert on Putin’s Russia. Hill came to international attention in the first Trump impeachment process giving evidence. Her accounts offers insights into three dysfunctional societies.
Economic Change and Global Shock:
Shutdown: How Covid Shook the Global Economy, by Adam Tooze (Allen Lane)
Tooze is a global historian who does detail and the grand tides of history, and here he tries to understand Covid as a pandemic of the globalised world and order, with all its multiple connections and exclusions, as well as power imbalances.
World War Two:
Blood and Ruins: The Great Imperial War 1931-1945, by Richard Overy (Allen Lane)
A fresh take on World War Two putting it in the context of the clash of rival imperialisms and empires, and taking as its starting point the Japanese invasion of Manchukuo (now Manchuria) in 1931.
Truth and Lies in the Middle East: Memoirs of a Veteran Journalist, 1952-2012, by Eric Rouleau (American University in Cairo)
One of the greatest chroniclers of post-war Middle East over six decades. Eric Rouleau was born in Cairo and became a legend in the French media and across the region, particularly with his writings about the 1967 and 1973 wars.
How Social Movements can save Democracy? by Donatella della Porta (Polity Press)
An Italian writer tries to come to terms with the multiple challenges to democracy through the rise of social movements. A bit of a broad sweep but underlining that a blanket defence of the status quo and current state of democracy will not stop populism and fascism.
Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising against Globalisation, by Nadav Eyal (Picador)
An eyewitness account of popular resistance to globalisation across the political spectrum examining Greece, Germany, Japan, India and Syria, as the author talks calmly to people from the radical left, to populist nationalists and neo-Nazis.
Section 5: Music
Joy Division: Juvenes, by Kevin Cummins (Cassell)
The iconic band seen through the lenses of Cummins. Joy Division only existed for three short years (1977-80) but they left behind many photographs and images – many taken by Cummins. And the music which still stands the test of time.
Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours, by Tony Oppedisano (Scribner)
An insider account of Frank and his life. Oppedisano had a front set in Frank’s world from the early 1970s to his death in 1998, and this is a touching and loving account of the autumnal years of the greatest singer of the 20th century. A book which very much humanises Frank.
Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Travelling the South with the Drive-By Truckers, by Stephen Deusner (University of Texas Press)
The Drive-By Truckers are one of the most important American rock bands this century and in Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley they have two gifted composers trying to document ‘the South’ and America beyond the caricatures. Southern Rock Opera, their breakthrough album from 2001, still stuns: about growing up in the South, race, class, the mythology of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the power of rock. A fitting tribute to a great band.
The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present, by Paul McCartney (Allen Lane)
McCartney opens up about his songs and music in this beautiful two-volume collection. In lieu of an autobiography, this is the closest we will ever get to understanding McCartney in conversation with poet Paul Muldoon; in the process we learn about his love for John and Linda, his parents, creativity, memory and loss.
1874-1960: Against the Tide, by Sheila Hetherington and Katharine Atholl (Aberdeen University Press)
Once upon a time, some Tory MPs took a principled stand for democracy and against fascism. One was Katharine, Duchess of Atholl, MP for Kinross and West Perthshire 1923-38. She opposed Hitler and Mussolini’s aggression, visited Spain during the civil war and opposed Franco, and translated Mein Kampf into English. For all this she was deselected by Perth Tories, stood as an independent in a by-election in December 1938 and lost by 1,313 votes to the official Tory. A Scottish and internationalist pioneer.
Ones to miss:
One autobiography I was looking forward to was A Difference of Opinion: My Political Journey by Jim Silllars (Birlinn). But sadly the book has little on the past 30 years, bar the indyref, and concludes on a sour note in dishing climate change, making the case for Brexit and being soft on Putin; much better to revisit his earlier autobiography Scotland: The Case for Optimism.
Another strange book was the collected speeches of Nicola Sturgeon – Women Hold Up Half the Sky (Sandstone) – but as this is only made up of contributions she made as First Minister it is hence filled with officialesque.
To end on a more upbeat note, next year sees the publication of the final volume of Henry ‘Chips’ Channon’s Diaries covering the years from 1943 on. They may be long but they are explosive and damning of the social and political world of Toryism then and an insight into the contempt many Tories hold for most of us – a constant which runs to the present day – and infects the party beyond Boris Johnson.