Reading on the train

I’m off in a while to Bath to speak at the Literary Festival about GDP: A Brief But Affectionate History – both delighted and mildly surprised at the continuing interest in the subject. To read on the train to and fro, I’m dithering between The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism by David Kotz and Pinkoes and Traitors, Jean Seaton’s history of the BBC over the years 1974-1987.


The former looks like an economic version of the political history of the creation of the “free market” economics described so well in Daniel Stedman-Jones’s excellent book Masters of the Universe. At a couple of gatherings of people who are ‘masters of the universe’ recently, it’s clear to me they think the writing is on the wall for the model from which they’ve profited so much. What’s odd about today’s political discourse is that politicians won’t acknowledge (in public) that a big structural change is under way – hence, I guess, the general despair about politics as usual and appeal of populists.


The Jean Seaton book covers my formative years as a teen and young adult. I loved Joe Moran’s cultural history of British TV, Armchair Nation, not least for the reminders of the shared culture that shaped me. At the time I was completely unaware of BBC corporate issues, as most people are most of the time. At the end of April I get to the end of my nine year stint as a BBC Trustee, so am in reflective mode and might go for this book first. (After the end of April, I can reverse the opinion-ectomy anyone linked with the BBC has to undergo because there is always some moron who thinks one’s personal views reflect organisational “bias”….)


Indians, Turks and Homo Economicus

There are still a few of my holiday reads I’ve not yet posted about. One was Amit Chaudhuri’s Calcutta: Two Years in the City, the author’s reflections on moving back to a city he had known well as a child, his conversations with people he met in the streets and in other ways, on Bengali culture (virtually unknown to me save for a couple of Satyajit Ray films and what bits I’ve picked up from reading Amartya Sen, for example in The Argumentative Indian). There is little about the economy in it, although plenty of observation. Chaudhuri writes:

“Will someone in the social sciences write a dissertation on how the rise of individualism in Bengal (in contrast to the West) destroyed rather than energised entrepreneurship, at least on home ground; how, in India, caste and community drive capital and the free market?”

I presume somebody has but don’t know – maybe a reader can give some pointers?

I read, too, Orhan Pamuk’s early novel Silent House – out in a new English paperback, although it was his 2nd novel, written in 1983. I’m a huge fan of his work. This one is set at a time 30 years ago of political and social tension between modern, affluent, urban young people and their poor, rural, unsuccessful counterparts – so well worth reading now. Like Snow, it achieves the great imaginative accomplishment of helping the reader completely understand how some people come to hold such different, and unappealing, views.

I thought both books were great – good reads and able to give the reader a real sense of another world, where people think and behave differently. A reminder of the importance of culture to social science, and an antidote to the (sometimes useful) assumption of homo economicus.

Classics for economists

I’ve been brooding about the depressing popularity of Jane Austen, so have decided to offer my own list of classics for economists and others who’re not part of the sentimental frocks-and-romance brigade. Here’s my Top 10 list (actually it’s 14+), in no special order. As ever, other suggestions welcome.

Nostromo (or virtually any other of his novels), Joseph Conrad: the heart of colonialism

Germinal, Emile Zola: the fuel of the Industrial Revolution – coal and human life

North and South or Mary Barton, Mrs Gaskell: the social effects of industrialisation with a special eye on women. Mary Barton is set in my home city, Manchester.

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov: the murderous insanity of Soviet dictatorship – Professor Woland, Game Theorist? I’ve only just read this, having seen the truly, madly, deeply brilliant Theatre de Complicite staging earlier this year.

The Charterhouse of Palma, Stendhal: pre-unification Italy and European politics

The Leopard, Giuseppe de Lampedusa: The Risorgimento, and modernity.

The Leopard: Revised and with new material (Vintage Classics)

The Whirlpool, George Gissing: in fact anything by Gissing – as he summed it up, “Not enough money,” in Britain’s newly industrialising cities

Middlemarch, George Eliot (or again, pretty much anything by her): astute political and psychological analysis of 19th century social change. Bonnets and frocks without the saccharine.

Roxana, Daniel Defoe: the economic status of women, by one of the unsung feminist heroes, who was also a famous economic journalist in his day. (Tim Harford, where is your first novel?)

Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (Oxford World’s Classics)

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin: collectivism, conformity – the dark side of the early 20th century. Another recent discovery, courtesy of Nick Reynolds.

We (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo: need I say anything? I even loved the recent musical movie version

Les Miserables (Classics)

My Antonia and O Pioneers, Willa Cather: the harsh life of the American frontier, and the strength of women

O Pioneers!

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald: the Roaring 20s in a glamorous nutshell. I haven’t yet seen the new Baz Luhrmann movie version.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressel: not the greatest literature but a novel that still speaks to working people struggling for money.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Wordsworth Classics)

Embarrassment of Riches

The Financial Times this weekend had a wonderful article by Simon Schama about the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He writes: “In an age of interchangeable international art fairs, all flogging indistinguishable contemporary art, there is something deeply stirring about a great art institution being unafraid to reassert the distinctiveness of its national culture and history, and to make it a cause for popular rejoicing rather than uncool embarrassment.”

The article sent me back to Schama’s 1987 book The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age.

It’s a brilliant account of the feedbacks between cultural innovation and confidence and economic strength, although Schama doesn’t express it in those terms. Still, the country had by the 17th century a troubled and war-torn recent history, nor is it without geographical disadvantages (small and potentially very wet). Its military and economic success calls for explanation.

The revamped Rijksmuseum sounds fantastic – can’t wait to visit. Here’s what the website says about Amsterdam’s age of prosperity.

Culture in austere times

In the evenings I’m still reading Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency: Britain 1970-74, a book too big to carry around on the tube (although I’d never read it on an e-reader). A passage about the resurgence in high culture against the background of an ailing economy and bitter strikes struck a chord. Sandbrook quotes David Lodge in 1971 saying there was “unprecedented cultural pluralism which allows, in all the arts, an astonishing variety of styles to flourish simultaneously.” It was a rich era for British fiction, for blockbuster exhibitions like the Tutankhamun show at the British Museum (I queued for hours as a schoolgirl to get into that), or Turner and Constable at the Tate. In classical music, the 70s brought operas by Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett was at his peak, Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies came to prominence. The Observer in 1975 commented on the mass enthusiasm for “sales of LPs, prints and paperbacks; the viewing statistics for opera, ballet and drama on television.” It added that there was a surge too in amateur dramatics, Sunday painting, community arts centres and other indicators of eagerness to participate.

The chord this struck was with an excellent book about the 1930s, Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation 1919-39. He too made the link between economic upheaval and huge enthusiasm for seriousness in the arts and books. Overy highlighted, for example,  the astonishing popular success of the Left Book Club, and political and literary publications.

Are we experiencing the same kind of phenomenon now? One aspect that stands out for me personally is the growth of huge audiences for modern dance and classical ballet – I’ve been attending performances for years, and while these were considered challenging, minority interests 20 years ago, they’re tremendously popular now. Another is the passion so many people have for serious debate – lectures and debates are packed. The Festival of Economics at the weekend was one manifestation of it. There is certainly an appetite to understand what’s happening in the world.

So, another parallel between the 1930s, the 1970s and the 2010s: a cultural revival in austere times?