My Favourite Books of 2020
Scottish Review, December 16th 2020
Since 2014, I have compiled an annual list of my books and publications of the year (as well as music), and for the first time this year have undertaken it for Scottish Review. My rules for inclusion are that I have read the book over the past year and think it worth commending; I have a bias towards books published in the past twelve months but include some older titles as I have read them during this year.
Section One: Scotland
Murray Stewart Leith and Duncan Sim, Scotland: The New State of an Old Nation, Manchester University Press.
Contemporary Scotland needs informative one volume guides which take the reader through the state of our politics, society and the economy. This is an accessible and illuminating book, worthy of a wide audience and discussion.
Ben Jackson, The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland, Cambridge University Press.
An examination of how the debate on independence has been reframed in the past 40-50 years. Jackson does not write from a pro or anti-independence perspective, instead following the intellectual discussion from the 1970s. He makes the critical point that unionists have consistently misunderstood independence – thinking it about flags, symbols and emotions, rather than democracy and democratic legitimacy.
Maria Fyfe, Singing in the Streets: A Glasgow Memoir, Luath Press.
Maria Fyfe was a Glasgow Labour MP from 1987 to 2001 who died earlier this month just as this was published. This book tracks her formative years as an activist and campaigner, challenging the dinosaurs of the party in the City Chambers and nationally. A moving and powerful testimony of a pioneer.
James Mitchell, The Scottish Question Revisited, Jimmy Reid Foundation.
A short examination of some fundamentals of the Scottish debate. Mitchell argues that there is a plurality of Scottish questions and that underneath are the big drivers – independence versus interdependence and our relationship with the rest of the UK which will never reach a fixed, final destination but always be evolving.
Oscar Marzaroli, Street Level Photoworks.
Oscar Marzaroli was one of the chroniclers of the changing face of Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s, and earlier this year saw a fantastic retrospective of his photographs at the Glasgow gallery: Street Level Photoworks. This short book captures the photos of the exhibition as well as the history and context of his work.
Val McDermid and Jo Sharp (eds), Imagine a Country: Ideas for a Future, Canongate.
Near to one hundred short perspectives on imagining the future of Scotland. There are many gems in this text – and some great words and poetry. A small point is that the book is not divided by themes which would have helped appreciate the quality of many of the contributions (full disclosure: I have a contribution to this volume).
Scott Hames, The Literary Case of Scottish Independence, Voice, Class, Nation, Edinburgh University Press.
Scotland as an idea and words, as Hames explores the contribution of writers over recent decades remaking the notion of what the nation is. A thoughtful thesis with much to commend – putting writers, culture and ideas centrestage although perhaps in its eagerness over-states their role and impact.
Murray Armstrong, The Fight for Scottish Democracy: Rebellion and Reform in 1820, Pluto.
An astute study of the 1820 uprising, its politics and importance. History which needs to be remembered and radical voices which need to be reclaimed, as well as the brutal repression and violence of the authorities.
Archie MacPherson, More than a Game: Living with the Old Firm, Luath Press.
2020 marked the 40th anniversary of the infamous Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Rangers which ended in a riot. Macpherson who has defined much of the game in broadcasting for decades, uses this to offer a history of the ‘Old Firm’, the two clubs and rivalry on and off the pitch.
Page Arnott, A History of the Scottish Miners from the Earliest Times, George Allen and Unwin.
An important history and from another age – published in 1955 – just after the coal industry was brought into public ownership. Scottish miners and the NUM are an important part of working class and trade union history in this country and Page Arnott’s book gives them the respect and importance they deserve.
Ian Godden, Hillary Sillitto and Dorothy Godden, Scotland 2070: Healthy Wealthy Wise, College Publications.
A fifty-year vision for Scotland: Scotland 2070. There is lots to commend in this book which is buzzing with ideas and intelligence about a post-oil economy, the challenge of climate change, and our future as a northern nation. A welcome contribution to the sort of futures literacy we need more of.
Val McDermid et al, Future, Scottish Book Trust.
A warm, inviting book published put together by the force for good that is the Scottish Book Trust. Numerous essays – mostly from first time published authors – investigate the Scotland of the present and future with humanity and humour. Free from bookshops and the Book Trust.
Saskia McCracken (ed.), South Glasgow Heritage Trails: A Guide, South Glasgow Heritage and Environment Trust.
The COVID-19 lockdown made us revisit the neighbourhoods, towns and cities we live in, and how we walk and experience places. This is a friendly guide to the heritage of Glasgow’s Southside – from well-known buildings and spaces to the less well-known such as former Synagogues and the old villages of the area.
Kingston Bridge and Approaches: Celebrating Fifty Years, Glasgow Motorway Archive.
A publication from the great resource that is Glasgow Motorway Archive who chart the transformation – for good and bad – of the city. This is a tribute to the much used and often seldom loved Kingston Bridge. Hopefully the first of many publications from the Archive.
Section Two: Wider Politics and History
Iain Dale (ed.), The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History, Hodder and Stoughton.
UK PMs – from Walpole to Boris Johnson – offer a history of the UK, politics and leadership. The book covers changing politics and extension of democracy as politics shifted from domination by the aristocracy to something accessible to, and shaped by, the middle and working classes. Full disclosure: I contributed a piece on to Earl Grey, architect of the 1832 Reform Act.
Sasha Swire, Diary of an MP’s Wife, Little, Brown.
Sasha Swire is married to Hugo Swire, a minister in the Cameron government. She has a political intelligence and pedigree – John Nott, Thatcher Defence Secretary being her father, and her diaries – covering nearly a decade from 2010 – captures at close range the conceits of the Cameron inner social circle. This book tells you about the top echelons of the Tory tribe and the contempt they have for the vast majority of people.
Democracy and Big Questions
Peter Geoghegan, Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, Apollo.
A timely book on the crisis of democracy in the UK and elsewhere. Geoghegan charts the corrupting of politics and what passes for democracy, the rising use of dark money and dark arts campaigners, identifying what has gone wrong and some of the principal villains. A wake-up call that something is deeply wrong and rotten in the heart of British politics.
David Shimer, Rigged: America, Russia and 100 Years of Covert Electoral Interventions, William Collins.
Rigged elections have never been given more media attention – real and fake. Shimer takes us through various attempts to manipulate and overthrown election results – from the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War to the present by the US and Russia – including the new-found enthusiasm of the Putin regime for destabilising the West.
Michael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite, Atlantic Books.
Lind lays out a convincing critique of the unhealthy state of what passes for democracy, and the failures of neo-liberalism and the left and liberals. This has contributed to a massive concentration of power and wealth into few hands. Lind has many good points but tries to address too much in an essay-length book which falls short in its conclusions.
Oliver Letwin, Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster, Atlantic Books.
Oliver Letwin was a senior Tory minister under Cameron, and responsible for assessing the risks to national security of once separate systems converging into one infrastructure (and highly vulnerable) system due to the internet. Letwin could not get government to take this threat seriously making this book – part fact, part fiction – even more alarming – although he isn’t exactly the best writer of fiction.
Mary L. Trump, Too Much Is Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Simon & Schuster.
There have been so many books on the Trump Presidency but this is one with a difference: a book by his niece who is a qualified psychologist and because of this a book Donald Trump tried to stop. The picture she paints is a frightening one of a man with no compassion or care for others, for rules, the law – and democracy.
Edmund Fawcett, Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, Princeton University Press.
One of the defining political battles of our age is for the soul of conservative politics – one which has seen the degeneration of the right into authoritarian populism and eroding checks and balances. Fawcett outlines the evolution of the right and the current faultlines between economic liberalism and nationalism which will continue long after Trump and Brexit.
Brian Stelter, Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth, One Signal Publishers.
A central pillar of the Trump revolution and the right-wing populists in the US was the rise of the Murdoch owned Fox News. This created an alternative political universe of rival facts – one which has now not been loyal enough to Trump incurring his wrath and that of his fanatical supporters.
Lionel Barber, The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times, W.H. Allen.
Former editor of the Financial Times provides a diary account of his fifteen years as editor. Full of insights and candid observations about the global elite – many of which don’t paint them or Barber in the best light.
Section Three: Ideas, Culture and More
Sue Palmer (ed.), Play is the Way: Child development, early years and the future of Scottish education, CCWB Press.
A timely book on early years and education in Scotland, filled with a passion for change and wanting the best for our children. It contains numerous suggestions for how to close the ‘attainment gap’ and give those children currently failed by our education system a better chance in early life.
Alastair McIntosh, Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being, Birlinn.
An alternative prospectus and call to arms for the environmental movement. We are in a climate crisis, but are not yet changing our systems and institutions; while green politics have not yet advocated the importance of ‘the survival of being’ which calls for a recasting of what it is to be human.
Nathalie Olah, Steal As Much As You Can: How to win the culture wars in an age of austerity, Repeater Books.
A blistering and much needed polemic. Even pre-COVID-19 the cultural sphere had become the redoubt of the privileged and privately educated and because of this cultural enclosure. Olah brings a rightful anger and rage to this state of affairs which has contributed to a banal and homogeneous culture wary of experimentation and new ideas.
Philosophy of Life
Edith Eger, The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save the Future, Rider.
A small treasure of a book. Eger, now in her nineties, is a survivor of Auschwitz and subsequently became a psychologist – devoting her life to understanding and healing. Full of penetrating and human insights including how to confront ‘The Nazi in You’.
History, Conspiracy and Myth
Richard J. Evans, The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, Allen Lane.
Conspiracy theories are all around. Evans looks at this via engaging with the continuation of conspiracies about Nazi Germany such as the death (or not) of Hitler in 1945 and Rudolf Hess and his ill-fated flight to Scotland in 1941.
Angus Calder, The Myth of the Blitz, Jonathan Cape.
A tour de force published in 1991 by Edinburgh based Calder. Calder tackles national myth and mythology and the power of a reactionary, insular British nationalism obsessed with 1940 and World War Two that he optimistically thought was on the wane. Thirty years on this book reads like it was written yesterday.
Paul Gorman, The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography, Constable.
Malcolm McLaren was a cultural Svengali who ‘created’ the Sex Pistols and put himself at the centre of a generational revolution in 1970s Britain. Not content with that he managed Adam and the Ants, promoted ‘world music’, played a role in remaking fashion (with Vivienne Westwood) and shook up Britain. A figure deserving a serious biography.
Architecture and World History
Lukasz Stanek, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa and the Middle East in Cold War, Princeton University Press.
A book about architecture, modernity and the world system of ‘actually existing socialism’ in the Soviet bloc and its allies. With rare photographs and designs Stanek takes a tour through the forgotten world of the future society and cities architects planned and built.
Ian Moss, 100 Unhip Albums That We Should Learn To Love, Empire Publications.
A labour of love without irony and guilty pleasures as the author discusses (110) albums he genuinely loves from Wings to Slade, David Essex and Gilbert O’Sullivan with a bit of a tilt towards the 1970s but including albums up to the present.
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain, Picador.
Winner of the Booker, Glasgow-born Douglas Stuart has struck gold with his first novel set in 1980s Glasgow which borrows on his own experience. The macho and miserablist overtones are balanced by the main character’s mother Agnes which brings welcome colour and contrast.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Ministry for the Future, Orbit.
The earth in the near-future faces environmental crisis and has to address how to face up to change. Starring an Irish former minister and an inter-governmental forum the book explores issues of finance capitalism, terrorism and geo-engineering, and poses big questions which need to be asked.
Katie Mack, The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), Allen Lane.
Everything has a season and an end including the universe. Mack addresses the end of the universe and hence not just ourselves but ‘everything’. This makes not for a depressing read, but a liberating one which puts our current troubles (which are many) in perspective.
In 2021 I am looking forward to new thinking required post-COVID on the economy, society and democracy – themes flagged up in my collection with Simon Barrow Scotland After the Virus. One historic publication which will be fascinating in the early part of the year is the unexpunged edition of MP Chips Channon’s diaries – in three volumes, the first covering 1918-38 – offering a dazzling insight into Tory and high society in the years leading up to war and subsequently.