Category Archives: Review

Review – Amitav Ghosh’s “The Great Derangement – Climate Change and the Unthinkable”

Ghosh’s non-fiction, short book on climate change The Great Derangement is a departure from his forte – the great Asian historic novel. It has all the classic Ghosh hallmarks with meticulous research: instancing the use of coal, oil and gas in pre-colonial Burma and China; a keen understanding of science previously revealed in his novel The Calcutta Chromosome; and the virtuoso use of language we expect from him.

The question the novel poses is why literature has been so perfunctory in its engagement with climate change. The evidence of clear-and-present danger from climate chaos has been with us for decades. As Ghosh observes, first hand in the case of a Delhi tornado, extreme weather episodes are becoming more common place despite their statistical non-likelihood. This could provide a human backdrop for any budding author of climate change fiction.

Ghosh’s explanation of literature’s silence is one of artistic viewpoints and time-scales. Classic novels have a small number of actors and the action occurs over periods extending from a few days to a few decades. Few novels attempt to handle people en masse or engage with time frames of centuries which is the horizon over which the impact of heightened greenhouse gas levels will fully manifest. Would Life in a Gulag been as successful as A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

But, according to Ghosh, few authors have attempted the great climate novel. Ghosh’s list – Atwood, JG Ballard, McEwan, Le Guin, Lessing – puzzled me because scarcely any of the books listed were about climate change, they were largely big literary figures’ journeyman efforts at dystopic/alt-future novels. For instance, JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) quite understandably given its vintage doesn’t go into the science of why London is submerged. Lessing’s excruciating Canopus series uses sci-fi to unsuccessfully examine many social issues aside from climate change. McEwan’s Solar is a “McEwan” book starring a scientist working on solar energy. You could search and replace “solar” with “herpetology” and not notice any disruption to the plot.

Novels have engaged with climate change. My own novel The Rising Tide is more firmly rooted in climate science, in its consideration of the aftermath of collapsing Greenland ice-shelves, albeit fast-forwarded, seen through a teenage prodigy’s eyes. Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 writes of a post-sea level rise world which engages with how the human spirit will continue, after the climate fall. The YA book After Tomorrow talks about by refugee flows and monetary collapse triggered by climate change.

The last section of Ghosh’s book is a quirky textual analysis of two decidedly non-fiction documents produced in 2015, the hottest year on record, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter Laudato Si’ and the UN-FCCC’s Paris Agreement. Literature’s disengagement is all too evident 2016’s Booker was awarded to a book about someone selling weed and water-melons!

For someone like me who works on climate change and energy issues as an economist, policy wonk and author the book was a fascinating exposure to some different perspectives on familiar material. Ghosh’s main weakness was the incomplete efforts to engage with the sci-fi genre which is the style of literature that best engages with long term social issues.  Thoroughly recommend.

1 Comment

Filed under Environment, History, Review

Some great clips of Prince

I’ve been a big fan of Prince ever since When Doves Cry was a hit back in 1984. I took it with me on a trip to India and it became the sound track for the holiday. I’ve got 15 of his albums and I was lucky enough to see him live, twice – the second time I was just a few rows from the front. That said, over the last few years I’ve not listened to his music so much.  But that all changed since he died and I’ve spent an unholy amount of time on youtube listening to his performances. Here’s some of my favourites.

Prince is brilliant on so many different instruments

Prince on guitar at the Rock and Roll induction playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps –; contrast it with Eric Clapton who played on the original recording I know which I prefer.

Prince bass medley including  Sly and Family Stone, Time  –

Prince jamming Summertime on keyboards –

Prince effortlessly accompanies Sheryl Crow –


Prince is brilliant playing live 

Rock and Roll induction 2004

At the Brits in 2006

Entire gig –

but not so good at interviews

My favourite concert footage brilliantly capturing his energy. (He also plays drums when Sheila E decides fancies a quick dance)

Some recollections of and tributes to Prince 

Usually I’m a sucker for Ann Wroe obits in the Economist, but for once hers was not the definitive one. Check out the fantastically well-informed and honest one from the FT by Janan Ganesh. Clearly a real fan:

Tribute –

Comedian Kevin Smith’s recollection of his weird encounter with Prince – No one ever said Prince was normal.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Review

Review of “Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood” – Martin Booth

GweiloJust finished reading Martin Booth’s autobiographic book, the third of the Gweilo canon I’ve read these past few months. The three books couldn’t be more different. John Lanchester’s novel Fragrant Harbour covers the period between the end of the first world war and the turn of this century. He skilfully weaves three narrators and three narratives into an intergenerational saga.  James Clavell’s Taipan is a swashbuckling story of  an early Victorian privateer who outwits mandarins, pirates and business rivals to found an enduring business dynasty that loosely based on  the Jardine story. Gweilo is set in the two-year stretch of time between 1952 and 1954 as seen through the eyes of the 8 to 10 year-old Booth. Booth’s father is a low ranking civil servant and his mother a vivacious and wise homemaker.

Reading it you realise a place is not so much geographic location as a period of time and a human perspective. So while you can spot familiar place-names which only another local might know – Old Peak Road, Mount Austin, Sham Shui Po – you also realise you’re reading about an entirely alien country. The Hong Kong being described in this book still has opium dens and people spitting in the street. The excellent public transport system is still in its gestation. Sha Tin and Tai Po are sleepy fishing villages accessed by single track roads already fully utilised by unswerving farmers herding their geese and cows. Nowadays both New Towns are settlements with quarter of a million residents each reached by MTR from Kowloon in 20 minutes. The Hong Kong people are colourful refugees fleeing the Mao’s communists’ predation of Chinese petite bourgeoisie. There is a hilarious description of a well-meaning relative who sends the family food and toiletries from a post-war rationed UK unbelieving of their pampered and sumptuously catered expat lifestyles.

Booth regards every fettering of his right-to-roam as a challenge. On being told he should not enter the notorious and lawless Kowloon Walled City: “To utter such a dictum to a street-wise eight-year old was tantamount to buying him an entrance ticket.” KWC has since been reformatted as a bucolic park and his description of the kindly triads, and brothels seems unimaginable . Surely even the most casual reader must see the contrast between Booth’s colourful childhood and the shopping mall-grade 8 viola lessons-Dr Spock maths crammer class existence that passes for childhood in Hong Kong these days.

The other striking feature of the book is the Oedipal complexity of his relationship with his inadequate, bullying and ultimately hated father. It’s an honest and often uncomfortable account of how a bad parent slips off their filial pedestals in their child’s eyes.

The book ends with the family boarding the boat back to England. There is a tantalising hint of a second book in which Booth and his mother return to HK sans father, but sadly the author dies soon after Gweilo is published so the next chapter remains untold. Curiously, I too spent the two years of my childhood between ages of 8 and 10 away from the UK, in India, when my parents tried to make a go of it back in the “mother country”. I only wish my recollections were as vivid and my days in India as eventful as Booth’s.

Leave a Comment

Filed under History, Review

Review of “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” – Paul Mason

PostcapitalismMason is best known to Brits as a broadcast journalist on BBC and Channel 4, and as a professional northerner-Trotskyist purveyor of political balance on the interview couch. He has drawn on an eclectic mix of economists, psychologists and futurologists to substantiate his obituary of neo-liberalism.
The book’s key argument is that several megatrends make it likely and desirable for traditional capitalism to collapse. Markets are becoming increasingly irrelevant in many of their key functions like the allocation of capital, price discovery and matching supply and demand. In a world of quantitative easing and dematerialisation of production there is excess capital rather than lack, digitalisation has meant that marginal production costs for many classes of goods are virtually zero, and the Internet is increasingly making geography irrelevant so the markets for many goods have become tournaments with a single supplier like Expedia or Amazon dominating the sector through unassailable network economies.
There is reference to a fascinating essay by Marx Fragment on Machines written in 1858 in Kentish Town (near my home) in which Marx argues that innovation in organisation and technology greatly increases labour productivity, more so than the simply accumulation of capital – and machines have the potential to cheaply displace the working classes. But as we know Marx dropped this line of reasoning and the first volume of his opus published in 1867 was called Capital rather than The Terminator. We had to wait 117 years for the other great seer James Cameron to finally identify the threat posed by machines.
The book also features a slightly quixotic discussion of an economist I had never heard of Kondratieff who reached the politically uncomfortable conclusion, at least in Joseph Stalin’s Russia, backed up by painstaking statistical analysis that capitalism instead of dying and being replaced by socialist utopia always survived its internal crisis, through increasingly traumatic structural shifts – like the 1930s crash – which took place every fifty or so years. This was roughly the interval of time that the collective human brain allows hubris to overcome caution.
Mason’s book could be criticised for its rather quixotic selection of writers and events to cite, but this would be missing the point. Mason is not projecting into the future, simply into a future if you buy into his thesis. But compared to his fire-in-the-belly analysis his policy recommendations are rather tame, and some naïve. Does anyone seriously believe that if his first recommendation “Model first, act later” that macro-economic crisis could be averted; that somehow cranking the wheel on some tired old model infested with dodgy data and prejudices dressed up as structural equations would provide us with actionable insight. His other recommendations similarly feel a bit like he’d reached the end of the analysis and was left struggling with how to finish. Unlike me.

1 Comment

Filed under Economics, Review

Netflix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger: Sword of Destiny

Crouching_Tiger,_Hidden_Dragon_Sword_of_Destiny_posterUnlike most of its reviewers I watched the second instalment of the Sword and Calligraphy epic last week and loved it. It’s shorn of the original director Ang Lee and star Hong Konger Chow Yun-fat, but gorgeous Michelle Yeoh is in. If you like fighting scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in the Royal Ballet or Cirque du Soleil and a cast of chivalrous warrior-clerics you’ll enjoy it too. My favourite scene was a fight on a frozen lake. The thought of being trapped under ice scares me silly but as these guys keep on with their pirouetting flying side kicks in the moon-light as the ice collapses under them.

The film debuted not in the cinemas but on Netflix (and also a few IMAX screens). Netflix entered the Hong Kong market just a few weeks ago and is having difficulties getting subscribers. None of my co-workers  see the point of subscribing. Most of the shows Netflix subscribers from USA and UK expect can’t be shown as the Asian rights have been bought-up some other companies. So the schedules are still a little thin. There is also a longer term cultural challenge for Netflix. Colleagues are just so used to downloading free films that the concept of paying for content genuinely confuses them.

The day after the Sword of Destiny’s Netflix debut was announced US’s largest cinema chain Regal announced they would not screen it. The next day the other big cinema chains followed suit. The economics are fascinating. Monthly subscription to Netflix is about the same price as a single adult movie ticket. The cinemas have declared war on Netflix. So far Netflix has free-ridden on the movie companies buying content for cheap, since the costs of production have already recouped from cinematic or TV subscription audiences. Whether its business model can withstand the costs of the originating high-cost material will be interesting. As Sun-tzu points out in Art of War – successful military campaigns require limiting the cost of competition and conflict. Perhaps originating new movies is too pricey a tool!


Filed under Review