2021. Not a vintage year, that’s for sure.
I guess you could call this newsletter a bit of a “year in review”. I make no apologies for my navel-gazing (or sending this out past the mid-point of January).
Best Writes of 2021
I’ve never really been a prolific writer, but I’m proud of everything I scraped together in 2021. If I achieve the same in 2022 I’ll be delighted. These are some of my favourite pieces from last year:
“Cheems Mindset”- If you’re subscribed to this newsletter, chances are you read my post on cheems mindset. For the uninitiated, cheems mindset “is the reflexive belief that barriers to policy outcomes are natural laws that we should not waste our time considering how to overcome. I think this is an important phenomenon for understanding both politics and many peoples’ approach to life more broadly. I hope to write about this more this year.
“Natalism for Progressives”- In the summer I was asked to write for my friends’ excellent Works in Progress website. While I somewhat regret the title of this piece- both the use of the words “progressive” and “natalism”- I stand by my argument that “helping people have the children they want” is one of the most important problems society faces.
“After Brexit, we need an Iron Maiden Britain”- All the best writing starts out as memes. This piece for Cap-X argues that post-Brexit Britain should learn from Iron Maiden, the UK’s greatest cultural export: be unafraid to be cringe or disliked; throw off the shackles of slow numbing decline and pursue a pro-growth agenda. I hope someone in Government absorbs this vibe this year.
“Don’t overfit the Local Elections”- I’m fascinated by overfitting in political commentary. Bundles of opinions become articles of faith, often with little link to reality. A case in point: in September, Labour were screwed; the Prime Minister was unassailable and in complete control of his party. Fast forward to today and the opposite is true. This piece was an attempt to get ahead of the overfitting after the local elections. I largely think I got things right.
Best Reads of 2021
A few years back I made a commitment to read more. There’s endless good books in the world, but I realised my then rate of reading meant I only had 500 or so more left in me. I found this revelation intolerable, so I committed to waste less time and read more.
I still waste time, but at least I’m slightly more literate.
The Lord of the Rings- JRR Tolkien- Somewhat embarrassingly, I never got round to finishing The lord of the Rings. I love the films, but the books always eluded me. Age 12 and buoyed by the Hobbit- which I loved- I made my first attempt but lost my way as Frodo, Sam and Smeagol took the Ring east through Ithlien. A decade later, I failed again, stifled by the journey to Rivendell. What a fool I was.
I appreciate that this is news to nobody, but what an unbelievable book this is. It’s not just the story, but the very material it is built with- the writing- is sublime. If you’ve never read it, do.
Cicero Trilogy- Robert Harris: Cicero is one of the most divisive characters of ancient history. To some he was a hero, an upholder of the norms and values of Republican Rome against tyranny. To others, he was a prototype of the modern career politician: slippery, changeable, in it for himself.
Written from the perspective of Cicero’s slave Tyro, Harris’s portrayal of Cicero in his trilogy is sympathetic, acknowledging his flexibility as a political actor while also portraying him as principled- someone largely acting fo the good of his republic. In my view, this is one of the greatest series of historical novels ever.
That said, as with other great historical authors like Mantel, there is something upsetting about comparing Harris’s subtle, understanding depiction of Cicero with his 2020’s FBPE-brained tweets. A phenomenon I’d love to explore more.
The Remembrance of Earths’ Past- Cixin Liu: I differ from some of my friends in my view of fiction. I firmly hold that the best fiction can tell you far deeper truths than almost all factual books. Data and empiricism are all well and good, but humans are designed for stories.
Evidence for my view is the “Dark Forest” concept in the second book in this trilogy by Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu, a concept so powerful and shocking that I felt unwell for days. Such is the power of fiction.
While some of the writing in this trilogy is clunky, the themes and ideas explored are unbelievable. A strongly recommended series.
The Hot Hand- Ben Cohen- For the uninitiated, the “hot hand” is a phenomenon by which a person who is successful at something feels they have a greater chance of success in subsequent attempts. The classic example is of a basketball player who scores and feels like their next shot will also go in. We’ve all felt a version of the hot hand… but does it exist?
Cohen’s book explores the question, looking at research into the hot hand phenomenon to try and establish an answer. Along the way, in what serves as a parable to wider problems with psychological research, Cohen realises that it is all genuinely more complicated than it initially seemed . A worthy companion to my pal Stuart Ritchie’s book Science Fictions.
Stubborn Attachments- Tyler Cowen: One of my biggest intellectual developments in 2021 was a crystallisation of my views on growth. I’ve always felt growth was important, but hadn’t grasped it intellectually until terrifyingly recently. Cowen’s case makes the moral case for growth. We can live in a better world, we just have to grow it