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Books read in 2018

  1. First Confession, by Chris Patten
  2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
  3. In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree, by Catherine Withenay
  4. Wuthering Heights, by Emile Bronte (not finished)
  5. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
  6. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou
  8. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
  9. Cry Freedom, by John Briley
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
  11. The Bridegroom Messiah, by Colin Hamer
  12. The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
  13. Easy Motion Tourist, by Leye Adenle
  14. Bella Figura, by Kamin Mohammadi
  15. The Tony Payne Collection, by Tony Payne
  16. 12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson
  17.  A Call from France, by Catherine Broughton
  18.  How to walk into church, by Tony Payne
  19.  A Castle in the Backyard, by Betsy Draine
  20.  Wrinkles, Wit and Wisdom, by R. Jarski
  21.  Montaillou, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
  22.  The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper
  23.  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
  24.  Speak Gargantular, by Irenosen Okojie 
  25.  A Destiny in the Making, by Boudewijn Mohr
  26.  In the Year of our Lord, by Sinclair Ferguson
  27.  When they go low, we go high, by Philip Collins
  28.  Free Trade’s First Missionary, by Philip Bowring

Surprising my children

On Monday evening after work, I’d managed to get into the house without the children noticing. Usually they pick up the sound of the gate opening, and are singing and dancing by the time I park my bike. But this time, they were absorbed in playing a computer game with mum on their tablet.

So, I sneaked through the kitchen, silently greeting our maid, and then peaked around the corner on the other side of the lounge. They were totally absorbed in the game, shouting excitedly. I moved a little closer, standing next to the fireplace. It was then I noticed an interesting thing. My daughter, 3.5, had her back to me, and had her hands behind her back, one hand in the other. My wife is often remarking that the children take on the body language of their father, especially hands on hips, or looks of concentration, or walking with their hands behind their back. Then I realised that I was holding my hands in EXACTLY the same position, even down to having the right hand sitting inside the left hand. I got that fuzzy feeling watching my children unobserved. They’re really my offspring!

Career goals

This past week has been the time for the annual personal evaluation at work – a rather painful process. It’s also often the moment for the supervisor (in my case, the head of the office) to offer career advice.

One thing I find interesting about this process, that I wanted to mention here, is that underlying the advice I received, and a lot of such advice, is the assumption that one’s career path should look to be plotting moves to get up in the hierarchy and in posts with even more attention and greater power.

I came very close to stopping my supervisor short, and saying that really what I wanted was just to continue working in interesting places, as long I was allowed to live with my family, the team were friendly and the work wouldn’t be life-consuming. He might have fallen off his chair if I’d said that. In fact, he almost left me worrying that if I suddenly announce that I’ve accepted a post in some less important country he’ll be disappointed.

I do get that being closer to power can be more interesting. I enjoy that in my current office I’m frequently part of teams working on the most important things, and working closely with senior management. But I think at base, I haven’t tied my job to the centre of my life’s ambitions. In fact, I care much more about what people might think of my role in the Ivory Coast community, or in academic/journalistic/writing circles, than whether in my current industry I’m considered a top dog. I do want to have a reputation of being a good worker and attaining excellence, but I feel quite acutely the fact that on the day after I leave the industry, other things will seem more significant.


As an addendum to the above, I also discovered this week that if I move to a higher grade in the system, my salary will actually go up very little even if I’ve risen from the middling ranks to the more senior folks. If I go and work in a tiny insignificant country, the monetary reward will be basically the same.

A sprint

The office recently headed up country en masse for the annual two-day retreat. A time for important reflection, but also a bit of fun – and centre stage was the sports afternoon. In the 4x100m mixed relay I was at second base. We already had the lead when the baton was passed, but it was such good fun sprinting down the side of the football field. The exhilaration was to accelerate for the first 30m and then find that there were still more in the tank, so it felt like I was getting faster and faster almost all the way through.

I’ve never done any proper sprinting, though on my now occasional jogs I like to finish with a sprint. There’s something primeval about it though – just running as fast as you can over a short distance. It makes you feel young and athletic as you push your body to do something it’s intricate autonomy is put together to accomplish. In a couple of decades sprinting will be something I dream about rather than do, but how many of us give-up prematurely on these youthful and simple pleasures?

Weight loss

For a few years now I’ve been a fairly consistent 83-85kg, and the marathon training in 2013-14 did almost nothing to change that. I never thought of myself as a fatty, but it has been an objective for a while to try and get below 75kg which was my normal weight in my late teens and 20s. I felt that my weight was greater than what was best for me, and it seemed that the power was within my grasp to get closer to an ideal weight, so why not.

I’m happy to say that I’m now under 75kg, and ten kilos less than I was in March last year. My approach was to set a target (75kg by Christmas), and then set-up a monthly objective of losing 1.5kg. My method was the 5:2 diet, which seems to work for me because with two days of discipline, you spend the rest of your life eating normally.

It’s great to hit my objective (a month late), though technically I think under 73kg is the ideal weight following the BMI scale. I’ve now set-up a sort of control valve system – if I’m over 75kg on a Sunday morning, I follow the 5:2 diet (500 calories on a fast day). If I’m 74-75kg then I fast just once (the Wednesday), and otherwise, I don’t have any reduced calorie days. What I haven’t yet done is got rid of some bad habits like eating too much, always eating everything on my plate, pigging out when food is free… But the control valve system does set-up a simple reward system for eating well and keeping control on things, and hopefully means my current weight level will be maintained.

The CAR chapter

I was going back through old career files last week and came across my supervisor’s feedback from my three month deployment in the Central African Republic in 2014. The feedback was positive, but that period seems such a long time ago (is 18 months really such a long time?). It pushed me to reflect on that period – it seems like such a discreet chapter of life, unlinked to anywhere else. I developed good new friendships with work colleagues, but these almost all but ceased when I left. I was able to develop a good reputation within the office, but now I no longer work for the same organisation or the same people. So it feels like whatever I achieved there is now closed and has no relationship with what I do now. Isn’t it strange to build something and then start from scratch a few months later? Anything you did to establish relationships, institutional knowledge or a reputation remains in a closed box marked ‘CAR’. All you take with you are some experiences, some skills, and the knowledge that you can through a test.

Maybe it’s a bit like life. You work so hard for certain goals and ideals that seem very much part of the world you live in, and then when you move on, you realise that from another perspective what’s important seems very much different.

King Leopold’s Ghost

Last week I finally finished Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a book that was a must-read when I first flew to Congo in 2005, but which I’ve only recently got around to reading. The remarkable book highlights the outrageous tyranny of King Leopold’s regime in what is now the DR Congo, and the utter savagery of the colonial project there. We forget these things far too easily.

An encouraging part of the book was the role played by Anglo-Saxon Evangelical missionaries in denouncing the abuses, something that is well stated in the main text, while in the end notes the author says that with hindsight he should have given even more prominence to the subject. It’s fair to say that in the secular circles I move in you hear a lot of negative criticism of these sorts of people, and many of the churches here are indeed appalling. But good to know that people of good character were part of the story as well.

Ah, to be middle aged again

We’re told that life is for the young, that youth is everything and that after that it’s downhill.

For me, that really doesn’t seem to fit. Yes, I enjoyed my earlier years, but I’m enjoying my current ones as well. Life was more contingent in those days, and frankly that was a bad thing. There was a lot of doubt about whether things would work out in a variety of areas.

– What job would I do in life? Would it be in an exciting and interesting part of the world? Would I enjoy going to work on a Monday morning?
– Would I ever find someone to marry – would they be beautiful and with great character, and would we still be deeply in love years after our wedding day?
– Would I still have my Christian faith or would I have given up?
– Would I still have my student debt and little in the bank?
– Would I still have my health, and be active?
– Would I be a father?
– Would I own my own home?

The answer to all those questions is that things worked out really well (atheist readers might disagree, lol). If life is a roll of the dice, then from my position it looks like one die after another has come out at a high number. That’s not to be self-satisfied, and certainly not to think ‘that must be because I’m great’, but I’ve a huge amount to be thankful for. From the perspective of life here on earth, things didn’t seem a forgone conclusion. Doing a history degree, doesn’t seem like a sensible career choice. My first 28 years of life didn’t really set-up the promise that dating would actually lead anywhere. Yes temporarily life can be pretty dull away from the family, but that’s a short blip soon to be resolved, let’s hope.

Review: The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty is a remarkable film telling the story of a 65 year old Italian culture journalist, Jeb Gambardella. He wrote a book decades back after a young romance, but since then has settled for the life of a socialite in Rome.

– You can excuse great films being long, but a few scenes could have been cut here. I’m really not sure on the justification for the opening scenes of a choir singing next to a classical fountain, an Asian tour party, and a Chinese-looking photographer-tourist who shoots the Rome skyline and then has a heart attack. In many films, re-watching these unfamiliar faces at the start would suddenly make everything click (“wow, the woman who later does X, was there at the start reading that newspaper”) but as far as I can tell, no-one in the opening scenes ever appears again. Sure it’s very arty. Is the poor tourist simply overcome by the great beauty of the capital? This isn’t Hollywood, and the girl you see in scene 3, doesn’t need to reappear in scene 24 as a decisive character. Sometimes people are just there in European cinema for no reason; just for the beauty and poetry of the moment. But still, some things didn’t seem to contribute much except confusion.

– As an unrelated point, it’s awful when the tourist starts snapping away with his camera. He’s so obviously ACTING at taking photos. It’s so common to see bad acting when it comes to people in films taking photos – showing they almost certainly have never used a camera before. But what’s odd is that this isn’t a skill like playing the piano. They are actors on a film set, surrounded by camera enthusiasts! Can’t someone just show them what people really look like when they’re taking pictures?

– The dance scene that properly introduces the key characters is one of the most remarkable cinematic scenes I think I’ve ever seen. It is totally over the top and riotous. The quick cuts and up-sound make for an incredible mix.

– One of the key point of the film seemed to be way people use high culture to boast and be snobbish. We see inflated egos talk about their love for Proust, never watching tv, adapting plays, doing venerable work. As is said at the end, there’s just so much ‘blah blah blah’. Reference is twice made to Flaubert’s reported attempts to write a book about nothing, hinting that this is a film about people who are vacuous. Rome in itself is treated as a symbol of this – several of the characters came to Rome, and failed to achieve their dreams or produce real art. Getting away is what can save them. Rome is a trick. Rome and its high life makes people ‘fall’ from the greatness they could otherwise achieve. Jeb doesn’t have an answer when a child says he is nothing. The congo dance at Rome’s parties are described as the best because they don’t go anywhere.

– There’s a lot of ridicule for the contemporary art scene; from the aqueduct actor who can’t explain what she’s doing, to the child painter, and perhaps also the magician and the stylised botox injections. But art is not entirely dismissed – the photographic exhibition that Jeb visits is seen as genuinely remarkable.

– The lead character’s clothes were incredible. It made me want to go out and visit the tailor, being sure to stuff a handkerchief in my breast pocket.

– Other things I liked – the sweeping camera movements, the little scenes of detail, some incredible and eclectic music.

– As with so many journalists in film, this one is clearly doing well for himself. His luxurious apartment directly overlooks the coliseum. In short he lives like a millionaire. I’m not sure journalists in real life live so well.

– Technology is frowned upon – when his initial love interest talks about posting pictures on Facebook it strikes a discord with the classical Italian beauty of the piece, and spells the end of her chances. The playwright who tries to impress the girl finds that at the end of his masterpiece, she’s staring into her smartphone. We know where the film director’s sympathies lie.

– This being Italian cinema, the Catholic church plays a central role, though as in Dolce Vita, it is really a complete mystery to the lead characters – a mix of crooks, eccentrics and non-rational mystics. The traditions and religious art have a power, but anything religious is a chasm away from our high society characters, and church figures have no answers to give. There’s a sense of incomprehension.

– Africa-watchers will probably be less than amused. The continent gets three stereotypical mentions (that I noted) – it is the place where the straw clothed tribal people come from, it is the place ‘The Saint’ works and saves the poor, and it is the place Viola goes to after the death of her son, selling all her possessions to the church. Then there’s the line (below) about ‘Ethiopian jazz’.

– In a way, the film tries to say that Jeb does find some redemption. He learns briefly to love again. He plans to start writing again. He learns that there is some life beneath the blah blah emptiness. He got lazy in the partying for a few decades, but we leave him thinking that maybe he will return to love and art.

– Jeb appreciates that deep down all the characters (all of us?) are failures; the worst is when you don’t see your own lies. One of the most edge-of-seat scenes is when a friend at a party challenges him to explain what lies she tells about herself, and Jeb goes for the jugular and exposes her life for the sham that it is.

– The script was frequently exceptional (and I’m sure even better in Italian). Lines I liked (I have paraphrased, not taking down the lines exactly):
o “Why doesn’t he talk?” “Because he listens.”
o “Rome makes you waste a lot of time”
o “Rome has disappointed me.”
o “The jazz is good!” “Not really. The Ethiopian jazz scene is the only interesting scene nowadays.”
o “What job do you do?” “Me? I’m rich.” “The best job there is!”
o “In this country, to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously!”
o “I didn’t just want to go to parties. I wanted the power to make them fail.”

Point of View

After three months in the Central African Republic (CAR) without iTunes, the list of downloaded unheard podcasts is on the long side. On Thursday, i was working my way through the Point of View podcast series from the BBC, which in my mind is one of the best out there, especially when Wil Self is essay-ing. You get such a dense series of thoughts on a diverse range of topics.

Podcasts and other radio programmes are a good way for me to feel part of a community, even if it hardly qualifies as a real community (the conversation being rather one-way). I’m often struck by how Radio 4 news programmes can see people like Rousseau dropped into informal conversation, and everyone knows the point being made. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in physical company where Rousseau’s work is known, understood and referred to, while on high-brow radio it seems like the most normal thing. The other day I heard a new book on the Chinese political economy as something that ‘of course everyone has read’.