I’m reading… “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” by James Rebanks

It seems appropriate to start this post by defining my own relationship with the countryside. I am basically a townie, but it’s more complicated than that.

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I’ve never been a city person although I now live in somewhere called a city. I have always lived in towns, and nearly always on the edge of towns with a significant amount of countryside around them. The secondary school that I went to was a combination of town people and country people; we mixed quite well and I would cycle out of town to visit a friend who lived on a farm. My first experience of driving was in a tractor.

I’ve always loved to be out in the countryside, as you may have picked up from my instagram timeline, but I’ve never regarded the English countryside as a picture-postcard place, I’ve always seen it as somewhere that has been crafted and maintained by generations of people. This crafting is especially true of the English Lake District where I love to walk.

My wife’s family are lakeland people, her father was born in a small hamlet above Derwentwater where her grandfather was a fell farmer. There are relatives who live and make their livelihood there to this day. I’ve walked the fells around the farm with my wife’s dad and soaked in the stories of the life that they led there; stories of harsh winters, stories of dry-stone walling, stories of hunts, stories of visiting catalogue salesmen, stories of pig slaughter and blood for black puddings, and stories of summers spent sleeping in the barns so that paying visitors could have a bed in the house. In short, stories of a countryside shaped by people and a people shaped by the countryside.

James Rebanks (Herdwick Shepherd) is the son and grandson of lakeland fell farmers. Farming is in his blood and was all that he wanted to be as a child. He lives a way of life that has existed in the northern Lake District for centuries, taking on changes as they have been needed, but continuing to use many of the tried and tested practices. The traditional Herdwick sheep, which he shepherds, characterise the Lake District for many, but they aren’t there for show, they are people’s livelihoods and have been there (probably) since the Vikings brought them over in the 10th or 11th century.

This book is an autobiographical walk through James Rebanks his own upbringing whilst also stepping through the shepherd’s year. I love to read books about other people’s lives, it opens my eyes to the diversity of our ways of life are. Herdwick Shepherd lives just over a hours drive away from my home and yet he lives a life that is in so many ways different to mine. I’ve never rescued a sheep from a snow drift, participated in a livestock auction, delivered a lamb or judged the quality of a tup. Yet, there are many connections with my own story, that of my father-in-law and other lakeland folk that I know. I suppose that’s the power of biography, the differences that interest us and the similarities that connect us.

This isn’t a sanitised, National Trust, portrayal of the Lake District, this is a book that talks about the tragedies of life as well as the wonders of the environment. The sections that talk about the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 are bleak and nearly had me in tears. The descriptions of times in the fells are wonderful.

Many of us have lost the connection between the food that we eat and the farmers and land that produce it. We see so much of our food as a commodity that we want to be cheaper each time we visit the supermarket. One of the lessons from this book is that our drive for cheap risks the very things that we value.

If you are one of those people who love to visit the Lake District, and millions do, then you will learn a lot about what makes this place what it is and it will improve you appreciation of the place on your next visit.

I’m reading… “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country” by Helen Russell

I’m quite happy with where I live, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what it’s like for different people to live where they choose to live.

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I’ve been to Denmark several times, mostly to Copenhagen, and always loved the country.

Helen Russell is a lifestyle journalist who is, at the start of the book, based in London with her husband. They work, they eat, they sleep, and not a whole lot more. Then her husband gets a job in Denmark at that landmark organisation Lego.

This book documents Helen’s journey during those first twelve month of living in Denmark. Helen finds a country that works very differently to London, and it has to be said, to the rest of the England. I say England, and not Britain, because I think that there are parts of Scotland where much of what Helen found is present, but for the most part we operate very differently.

Not only does Helen find a country that works differently, but Denmark is also regularly ranked as the happiest country in the world, so what is it that makes it happy? Not surprisingly it’s not a single thing, it’s many things. I suspect that it’s all of it that makes it a happy country, I didn’t read something and say, “if we only did that in England we would be much happier”, but I did think, “if only we did that, and that, and that, and weren’t like that, then we’d be happier”. It’s difficult to change one thing in a whole nation, it’s almost impossible to change the whole thing. For starters, the population of England is nearly ten times greater than that of Denmark, there are one and a half times as many people in London alone, and population size is a factor in happiness.

Having said that, this book shines a light into some English orthodoxies that tell us “we’ll be happy if…” and exposes them as problematic, at best, and downright untrue at worst. In England we believe that long work hours show that you are committed to your work, and that has to be a good thing? In Denmark the working week is significantly shorter and yet they are significantly more productive than we are. In England we tend to believe in small government because we are suspicious of everything that government does, Denmark’s government is significantly larger than ours and yet they are happier. In England we downgrade tradition, always looking for the new thing, in Denmark tradition is highly regarded and seen as the bedrock of much of what they do. In England we regard the accumulation of more possessions as a good thing, it’s not the same in Denmark where things are so expensive that they focus on a few high-quality things.

We have much to learn.

I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.

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What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.

I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.

Weapons of Math Destruction explores some of these algorithms and their impacts on individuals and society in general.

Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.

Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?

In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.

The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.

I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.

I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.

I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected:

I’m Reading: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning: 1947 Cover

I have certain books that have sat in my “I must get around to reading that” list for a very long time.

Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the books from that list.

In this book Victor Frankl talks through his experiences in the Concentration Camps during the Second World War and from those experience how he developed a school of psychological therapy.

It’s a book of huge insight that is derived from the most awful situation. This isn’t a morbid book, or even a bitter one, it’s full of gems that each of us can apply to our normal lives, but it is full for dreadful details.

A few quotes that struck me, although I hesitate to use them, because each one stands within a context for which the overall meaning may be missing by taking them out of that context:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future.”

“The salvation of man is through love and in love”

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.”

For me the greatest thought is one that I already knew, but one I need to continually relearn and that is that I have control over my response to situations and that in that response is my strength. I don’t have control over the situation, only my response to it.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I’m reading: “Wainwright: The Biography” by Hunter Davies

For lovers of the English Lake District there are a set of seven hand drawn and hand written guidebooks which have become synonymous with the hills and mountains of the region – The Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells by A. Wainwright.

Wainwright: The Biography

For a long time the author of these books was little known and the books published by a small publisher using the printing capabilities of the local newspaper.

The first of the guides was published in 1955, it wasn’t for another 11 years, in 1966, that the seventh and last was available to buy. During that time the books grew in popularity, but A. Wainwright remained a little known figure.

The strange thing was that Alfred Wainwright was quite well known in his local community, not for the books, but because he was the Borough Treasurer. This is a role which required him to attend civic functions and interact with the public. Apparently few people put A. Wainwright and Alfred Wainwright together as the same person.

Since their publication climbing the 214 hills documented in the Pictorial Guides has become a target for many, myself included.

This biography isn’t really about the guides it’s about the man who wrote the guides.

A man who came from Blackburn, a Lancashire mill town, but fell in love with the beauty of the Lake District.

A man who we all know as silver haired and old, not as someone with red hair, which he had for most of his life.

A man who had a difficult home life, much of it his own creation.

A man who scrapped the first hundred pages that he created because he preferred a fully justified writing style to the left justified one he’d started with.

A man who preferred low living and high thinking to high living and low thinking.

A man who became frustrated by the popularity of the Lake District, a popularity that he had a significant role in creating.

A man who despite being quoted as saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” rarely went out in poor weather and didn’t wear specialist mountaineering equipment, preferring instead to wait until the weather improved before venturing out.

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A page from the Pictorial Guides

A man who didn’t appear on the television until the 1980’s when he was well into his 70’s and around 30 years after the first guide was published.

A man who never learnt to drive and did much of his work by public transport.

A man who closely guarded his privacy, yet put a self-portrait in each of the guides.

The guides are masterpieces but I’m not sure how much I would have connected with the man. There are all sorts of lessons in his life about dedication and sticking to the task for the long run, but those things come at a high price.

It was great to learn something more about the man from the writing of Hunter Davies who knew him.

I’m Reading: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

There’s some literature that is assigned the category “children’s books” sometimes that limitation of audience is appropriate, but often the constraint deprives adults of wisdom and delight, that’s the case with the Jungle Book.

I’m approaching my sixth decade and haven’t interacted with Mowgli since my children were small and the Disney remodelled characters filled the screens. I don’t remember reading the Rudyard Kipling books as a child so when an audiobook became available for £0.99 I decided that it was time to meet the original characters.

We always enjoys the Disney Jungle Book and watched it often, but the original characters are multi-layered and deeper because of it.

I was surprised to find out the Kaa was really an ally of Mowgli’s. I loved the wisdom of Balloo. Mowgli is more cunning than a cartoon allows. All in all a great read/listen.

More “children’s” books will be going on the list.

“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”

Rudyard Kipling

I’m Reading: The English and Their History by Robert Tombs

Do you know your history?

I thought I knew something about British and English history having previous read a couple of books on the subject, but there’s always more to learn.

The English and Their History is an epic, the paperback has 1024 pages, and not something I would normally get the chance to read, so I employed the technology and listened instead. Stephen Thorne’s rendition is 45 hours and 31 minutes long! That must have been quite a reading session.

The book is described as the “first full-length account to appear in one volume for many decades” which pretty much sums up a book that starts in the 5th and 6th century AD and finishes quite close to the current day. It’s amazing to think that the name England – or, rather Englalond – is over 1000 years old.

The English are an interesting breed, regarding themselves as a nation that occupies a land, neither of which are easily described and rarely universally agreed upon. I regard myself as English, but my ancestry is more complicated than that which is evident in a surname that derives from Flanders, but I’m quite typical of many English people. We are surrounded by nations with a much more definable heritage and identity, but we are mostly comfortable with our variety.

The land around me is littered with battle locations, each of which could have significantly changed the nation that we call England today. Not far away is a river where the Romans created a strategic fortification near a crossing, surrounding it today is a small town that was mostly built from the rocks used to build those fortifications. Those Romans are long gone, but their impact is still visible. Within walking distance the buildings of the industrial revolution have been redeployed to new uses that disguise their former significance; a call-centre now occupies the space where weavers would work the cotton from America. Around those building is a community that is only their become of the British Empire and the cross-continental connections that it created.

I say these things to highlight the effects that English history is still having today. As I listened to The English and Their History I was struck by how many times I could relate attitudes and biases today to things that happened hundreds of years earlier. The Brexit debate has so many parallels in our history that it’s amazing that anyone was surprised by the outcome of the vote.

I was also struck by the impact that my own history had on my own thinking processes. Pick any of the labels that I give myself and the history behind it impacts upon what that label means. As a northerner I have a certain perspective on a north-south divide that has existed for hundreds of years. As a protestant I am impacted by the shift that this nation took under the rule of Henry VIII. As an office worker I know the impact of the industrial revolution and the creation of companies.

That, for me, is the power of studying history, understanding myself and understanding others. The 45 hours I spent getting a better understanding of myself and others is already yielding a high return.