Book Review: Airhead ~ The Imperfect Art of Making News

Image: Deadline

Emily Maitlis is rather topical in the UK at the moment because of her framing of the Dominic Cummings debate on Newsnight. Maitlis opened the current affairs program with,

“…He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to assume the can now flout them.

The Prime Minister knows all this but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his back benchers, the dramatic early warning from the polls and a deep national disquiet – Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it…    

(You can see the full opening statement here.) In my opinion, her statement did not break “impartiality” regulations but there we go, some are always bound to think otherwise.

However, funnily enough I was actually reading her book before this started. I’ve always admired Emily Maitlis for her approach to broadcasting and this was largely inspired by her brilliant interview with Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal last year. As someone who wants to go into journalism, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Review

Title: Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Author: Emily Maitlis, British journalist and presenter of Newsnight

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Maitlis’ Airhead is premised as an autobiography of her experience as one of the UK’s leading British broadcasters. In hosting the current affairs program, Newsnight, she is often at the forefront of breaking news. This book documents a range of interviews she has conducted, from President Donald Trump, to the Dalai Lama. Each chapter is structured as a specific interview, or peppered with a particular experience in her career – such as when the BBC got arrested in Cuba, or when she took her twelve year old son to see the Chippendale’s in a Las Vegas strip show.

Although the interviews were interesting to read, I found they were largely driven by pure narrative, and each chapter had the same structure and format. In a sense, it was quite repetitive and lacked substance. Some chapters were better than others, and I did enjoy reading her experience as the interviewer – one that stands out is the interview with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, days after the Grenfell tower tragedy. Her writing reveals to the reader that indeed, no interview is ever perfect and a lot of the time, due to constraints they are haphazardly glued together in the moment, for the purpose of fulfilling the “breaking news” agenda.

Before reading this I thought it would focus more on the ins and outs of news making and the philosophies of journalism itself. By this, I mean who does news making aim to please, the morals and ethics of breaking news reporting, and how instant reporting via social media has undergone a revolution in recent years. Also, the impact that breaking news has on history making and our conception of events. These are all things Maitlis has been in the thick of over the years, and I was therefore, surprised they weren’t really discussed. Perhaps I expected too much?

Maitlis integrates some of this ever so slightly, but only in the final chapter,

“A huge amount of thought goes into what we do. Interpreting moments of history whilst they are still unfolding is both deeply rewarding and endlessly challenging. Television news is messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – and sometimes you just nail it.”

Emily Maitlis, Airhead

I felt that she had saved the best until last – this reflection on the art of making news should have framed the entire book, and she could have gone deeper into this and been more selective with the amount of interviews included.

The book is marketed as an “autobiography” but it certainly doesn’t read like one, we don’t receive details of her early life, childhood, or how she got into journalism, just snapshots of favourite moments in her career that when reading, feels more like a diary entry. Don’t get me wrong, the interviews were interesting and funny at times, but I found the book lacked depth she could easily convey, considering her remarkable career.

There’s a lot to be said about news making and the ethics of broadcasting, and Maitlis is one of the best people to discuss it, but it’s a shame she didn’t make this more of a feature, perhaps she is saving it for another title!

All in all, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone that is interested in broadcast journalism and wants to read about it from her perspective. But don’t expect too much from the sub title, “the imperfect art of making news” as this isn’t given the attention it deserves.

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Book Review: The Bullet Journal Method

I’ve dabbled with the bullet journal over the years, only to abandon it in the past as I’ve ended up finding it too time consuming. However, upon reading this book, I have realised that is exactly the opposite of what bullet journaling should be. With more time on my hands, and spending more time journaling in general, I decided to read the official guide to learn more about it.

What is the Bullet Journal method?

The Bullet Journal method was conceived by designer, Ryder Carroll, when he was searching for a more productive means to manage his life. It is a type of journaling which aims in the most simplest forms, to give space for your tasks, thoughts, and anything else in-between. In being a “bullet” journal, it provides a fast means to note down everything in your head. Using a specific set of symbols the user can have all their to-dos, thoughts, events and ideas in one place. In using an Index system, the user can easily find information from any month of the year.

It describes itself as a type of “mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system” and stresses the importance of the physical act of writing in our digital age, to achieve a sense of mental clarity. It is not meant to be complicated, time consuming or “pretty” (despite what you find on a quick social media search using “#bulletjournal” or “#bujo”) but a practical accompaniment to dealing with the strains of modern day life.

This book, “The Bullet Journal Method: Track Your Past, Order Your Present, Plan Your Future” is the official guide, written by its founder, Ryder Carroll. In true bujo style, I will conduct the review in brief bullet points so you can get a sense of what it contains.

Title: The Bullet Journal Method

Author: Ryder Carroll

Genre: Non-fiction, guide

My rating: ★★★★

The Review

  • This book is a ‘how to’ guide for setting up a bullet journal. It covers the origins of the method, why it’s different from other productivity methods, and gives step by step instructions on how to create your own.
  • Within the step by step instructions are snippets of commentary on the philosophies of life and the importance of mindfulness. Carroll believes this type of journaling and the act of writing things down is a type of mindfulness in itself.
  • The book stresses the importance of practicing mindfulness throughout – in framing it as a necessity for coping with the modern world and detoxing from social media.
  • It contains diagrams and illustrations on setting up a bullet journal and examples of monthly, weekly and daily “spreads” (a.k.a the pages of your journal).
  • These are incredibly useful as sometimes the text is quite bogged down in detail, it is handy to have pictures to see what the pages are supposed to be set up like.
  • It is very informative and takes you through step by step. For anyone thinking wanting to start a bullet journal, I would definitely suggest reading this cover to cover.
  • I left feeling a tad overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in the book, but I think its a guide you can flip back to again and again as you go along. I will definitely be re-reading certain sections.
  • I really appreciated the background on the creation of the bullet journal, as it made me understand its purpose.
  • As for the method itself – I have always seen the value in writing things down as it makes my mind feel more at ease – but this method is important as it stresses journaling in its most minimalist form. (where it can be most useful to de-clutter your mind)
  • A very good guide to understanding and learning about the practice of bullet journaling, the history of its conception and why it is important in the digital age.
  • It is a tad pricey in physical form, if you have a Kindle I’d suggest buying a digital edition, which will only cost you £3.99 in the UK!

Putting the ideas into practice

Now, I’ve been awkward with this and only started half way through the year but I thought it might be interesting for you to see a few of the pages I’ve done since reading the book. I haven’t followed the symbols strictly, but I will when I start a new notebook. I really recommend the practice if you’re like me and get very overwhelmed with your emotions and thoughts – it can act as a quick form method of writing a diary, as well as increasing your productivity.

I mainly use it to track books that I read and books that I want to read. Although I use the weekly spread quite a lot too. As always, thank you for reading! 🙂

April Wrap Up

Hello! Hope you all had a good month, despite everything that has been going on in the world. It was a month of up and downs for me but one thing is for sure, I definitely was able to enjoy reading.

I’m glad that this month I seem to have re-discovered my love for non-fiction, as well as reading some classics which have been on my TBR for ages. There were a few books I was disappointed with, but on the whole I had some great reads!

What I read this month

Hiroshima John Hersey ★★★★

John Hersey provides a harrowing account of the tragedies of Hiroshima, told through the eyes and ears of those who lived through it. Not one for a light read, but nonetheless an essential one for understanding the past and how it influenced our present world.

Machines Like Me Ian McEwan ★★★☆☆

I had been eagerly awaiting for this to be released in paperback but was left incredibly disappointed. It raises some interesting themes about humanity and the future of AI but it’s delivery was somewhat lacking, and I didn’t think the alternate history added anything to the novel. Interesting, but not the best McEwan out there.

The Flatshare Beth O’Leary ★★★★

This was exactly what I needed to read during lockdown. It is a lighthearted, uplifting and funny story about a woman who opts in to share a flat with a man she never plans to meet. It left me feeling warm and bubbly inside and is a read I’d recommend to anyone!

Call Me By Your Name Andre Aciman ★★★★

A hot and steamy love story I wasn’t quite prepared for, but one I enjoyed all the same. I loved Aciman’s prose and his ability to take you away to endless summer days in the Italian Rivera. I questioned his portrayal of love but nonetheless, think it is a great read and an important one.

The Past Is Present John Markowski ★★★★

This is the first book I read for Reedsy Discovery and I was incredibly impressed. The book was fast paced and driven by excellent character narratives which alternated between the turn of events. A classic page turner. Due to be released on 8th May, you can see my review here.

Why I Write George Orwell ★★★★★

Orwell makes the ongoing case for socialism crystal clear, in this short collection of essays written against the background of rising Fascism across Europe in World War Two. Essential then, but all the more now. An enduring message written with conviction and coherency.

Lonesome Traveler Jack Kerouac ★★★★

Travel writing at its finest – I really needed this bit of escapism. Follow one man as he travels across America, Europe, Morocco and a desolate mountain top. Hard to follow in places but nonetheless, a classic Kerouac featuring beautiful, poetic prose.

The Graduate Charles Webb ★★☆☆☆

Disappointing from start to finish, the characters were inauthentic and the story lacked any depth or coherency. This could have been an interesting novel about post-graduation life, but I felt that the way the novel was written limited its impact. Film is probably better.

What I’m currently reading

The Library of Lost and Found Phaedra Patrick

I picked this up as a bit of light relief from some heavy books I have been reading recently. I’ve seen it around a lot and thought I would give it a go. It is mainly told through the perspective of one woman, Martha, who one day, receives a parcel on the doorstep of a library she works in. The parcel is a book inscribed by her grandmother, who died years before the date it was written in. Martha attempts to unravel the mysteries surrounding this book and in the process, rediscovers herself and what it means to really live.

I’m really enjoying this book so far and am close to finishing it. A review will certainly be up soon!

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, Robert Tressell

This book has been on my to read pile for as long as I can remember, and now in isolation I’ve finally had the chance to read it. Deemed as the favourite book of both George Orwell and Jeremy Corbyn alike, I felt like I had to read it to further broaden my horizons on the necessities of socialism and its origins.

The book is told through a variety of perspectives of men who are overworked and exploited – but who cannot face up to the extent of their own poverty. The main narrator, Owen, is the only one who can see the reality of their poor working conditions and the wider problems. He tries to explain socialism, inequality, wealth redistribution and poverty to his peers – but with little luck. I’ve read around 300 pages so far and am very much enjoying it, I am learning a lot. A review is definitely on the horizon.

What’s on my May TBR?

I’m bound to change my mind if I commit to reading certain titles next but again, there’s so much I want to read! But I have a few ideas, for non- fiction I’d like to have a go at:

  • Fully Connected: Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Overload by Julia Hobsbawn. This book looks at the way human society and interactivity has changed with the arrival of the internet, 24/7 media coverage and social media.
  • Airhead by Emily Maitlis. After her stunning interrogation of Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal, I have become a fan of Emily Maitlis. She is a brilliant broadcaster and journalist and I can’t wait to read this autobiography.

For fiction, I’d like to read:

  • The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. I have read The Secret History and absolutely devoured The Goldfinch and loved every word, so I am holding out high hopes for this one too. I have no idea what it is about but as always with Tartt, I do feel a little intimidated by this book due to its size, but then I remember how much I devoured The Goldfinch
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Have seen and read great things about this novel, including great praise by Barack Obama so I can’t wait to get stuck into this too!

My reading stats

  • Total pages read: 1,819
  • Total books finished: 8
  • Average rating: 3.75

Final thoughts

April has definitely been a strange month and probably one that I will remember for the rest of my life. In the UK, we have been in lockdown for over a month and life still isn’t due to return to normality for a while. I experienced highs and lows throughout the month, but nonetheless I am so happy I have found the time to read and write again.

What did you read in April? And what are you looking forward to reading next month? Please let me know in the comments! And wherever you are in the world, how is the virus affecting you?

Hope you are all well and in good spirits 🙂


Book Review: Why I Write

Title: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1946/2004

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview

Why I Write is an extended essay by George Orwell, that discusses a range of topics. Orwell begins the essay with outlining his motivations for writing. Famously, Orwell wanted “to make political writing into an art”. (Hence Animal Farm and 1984…)

Orwell gives the historical and political background to England, writing during the context of World War Two, with the rise of Fascism across Europe. He discusses the ‘Nation’ and why it fails as a concept in England – mostly, he argues, because England has forever been a country of equal wealth, thus we can never be regarded as a common entity.

Orwell also discusses socialism in the practical and ideological sense. In simple terms, economic socialism believes all commodities and ownership should be regulated by the state, rather than private companies and individuals. In theory, this should reduce the inequality that capitalism naturally produces, when wealth is in the hands of a few. Socialism also promotes equality, freedom, and opportunity for all.

Additionally, Orwell focuses on the influence of the media in shaping political opinion and includes the construction of language in this. The use of language is deliberate and its connection to politics is undeniable – it influences political understanding through the construction of events. Orwell argues, it has a strict purpose, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” – any of this starting to sound very relevant?…

Orwell ends the essay with a set of writing rules to avoid creating false meaning, which is often fostered by political rhetoric.

Orwell’s writing rules
Source: Rough House Media

Above all, this essay makes the imperative case for socialism, set in the context of World War Two. Although miles apart from today, the sad endurance of his argument reigns true.

Review and analysis

I’ll say it straight away – I loved this essay and wanted to commit every sentence to memory. Orwell has the capacity to say everything with such coherency that I always almost think about giving up on the ambition to be a writer… Will there ever be a greater communicator than Orwell?

It was the relevance of this essay that made me enjoy reading it so much. Although it was written a long time ago, and in an incredibly different context, the message for political change is something that transcends time. Orwell argues for the necessity of socialism, something I also believe in, but he does so in such an eloquent and damning way, that I think even the most staunch Conservative could get behind him… (possibly!)

Orwell outlines the reasons for why the general public are against socialism and identifies this as its failing point, if socialism can never be mainstream, then how is it ever going to achieve change? I found myself making stark similarities to today’s political climate in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the most ardent champion of socialism in the Labour party for a generation, was unable to win a General election (twice) – but the party’s membership was the largest its ever been.

Labour Party Rally
Source: Labour List

In the last election (2019) Labour had a massive defeat and was criticized for failing to get the masses on its side, as the election was overshadowed by Brexit. This and voters’ opposition to socialism resulted in another Tory majority. Orwell argues that people are opposed to socialism as they perceive of it as taking away from their livelihood (in the form of paying more taxes). People think in terms of individualistic economics, rather than the greater good. And what has changed there?

Orwell also includes a four point program for political change, which has striking similarities to Corbyn’s Labour manifesto’s.

On his agenda is nationalization, limitations of income and a minimum wage, educational reform and the dismantling of private education, and an alliance of equality with India. The last point is an anomaly, given that Orwell is writing before de-colonization, this was the only thing I had a problem with. He isn’t radical enough about India and destabilizing the Empire – as he disagrees that India should have free reign from Britain. But again, context is key. This kind of paternalism enforced on other nations, was still in mainstream thought at this time.

As well as outlining the merits of socialism, Orwell describes the failures of capitalism in its creation of unequal wealth, which is unable to allow the progression of the masses. This results in vast, historic, class inequality in Britain, and negates the idea that Britain is a, ‘nation’ of solidarity, but in fact, a country hugely divided by wealth and opportunity.

Orwell goes on to outline the problems with achieving political change and the inherent obstacles that are in the way – most notably, privilege. This is embodied within the origins of mainstream politicians, journalists and lawyers that run the country. Thus, it appears, we are still raging the same battle, which is depressing, but just goes to show how Orwell’s ideas transcend generations.

Furthermore, the failures of socialism are also discussed, the main one being the lack of mass appeal. Which I have always thought is ironic, as socialism is about the masses. However, Orwell makes a valid point in that unless socialism becomes the political mainstream, change will never happen. Centrist Labour policies are essentially a continuation, and thus, socialism needs to be at the centre of any Labour agenda (RIP Corbynism…)

Finally, I found the link Orwell makes between language and politics fascinating. He argues that, “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language…” in the sense that language can distort truth, and influence the political consensus. He brings to light how the language of nonsense and “fluff” can be used by politicians to distort reality and detract from blame.

Lack of understanding is therefore deliberately constructed to deliver false meaning. (*Coughs* Boris Johnson… *Coughs* Matt Handcock…) Which becomes pertinent when thinking about our mainstream, Conservative politicians we have the pleasure of sharing evenings with in the UK, for our daily COVID-19 briefings….Just listen to one of these, and Orwell’s argument about language and politics will be demonstrated.

Too often politicians use the language of buffoonery which alienates their responsibility of answering the question and facing up their reality of failure. Therefore, the public are left in the dark and truth is obscured.

This is a classic Orwell essay, with a message that reigns true. Which is both worrying on the one hand, but on the other, pays homage to the efficiency, clarity, and enduring message of Orwell’s thought. It transcends historical and political contexts and puts forward the type of change we still need today.

“it is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free.”

Book Review: Hiroshima

Title: Hiroshima (1946)

Author: John Hersey

Rating: 4/5

Synopsis and history

As one of the first Western Journalists to arrive in Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, John Hersey was soon commissioned to write a feature. As a war correspondent, Hersey already wrote for Life magazine and The New Yorker. His masterpiece, initially published in a long essay format, became an instant success, whereby changing the American perspective of the tragedy.

…”they were the objects of the first great experiment in the use of atomic power, which (as the voices on the short-wave shouted) no country except the United States, with its industrial know-how, it’s willingness to throw two billion gold dollars into an important wartime gamble, could possibly have developed.”

This was one of the first works to embody the ‘New Journalism’ emerging in the mid-twentieth century, as Hersey combines non-fiction with storytelling type prose. Following the experience of six survivors and how their lives intertwined with each other, Hersey demonstrates how techniques of fiction writing can be adapted to suit non-fiction purposes. It is told as a story, but the content is so poignant and revealingly told, there is no escaping the reality.

During the end of the Second World War, the US released nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945. Estimates for the death toll vary but are in the region of 129,000-226,000. Many died instantly, but many would suffer in the years after from emerging cancers, infertility problems, cataracts, and the impact of keloid scaring.

A pacific war had been going on between Japan and its allies and the US decided to release the atomic bomb on Hiroshima to force Japan into surrender. The dropping of the first ever nuclear weapon, instantly killed 70,000 and the city was destroyed. The impact would go on for decades to come.

The book focuses on the experiences of six people who lived through Hiroshima. It features two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a female factory worker and a German Catholic priest. The structure of the book is chronological and follows the unfolding of the events, each told through a different perspective. Hersey constantly jumps back and forth between characters, but demonstrates how their lives were connected in the final section. Each section, containing a different perspective on the experience, adds another dimension to the horrific imapct of the bomb.

Review

It is hard to coherently review a book like this, as I feel like no number of words or thoughts could process this reading experience.

I remember first learning about Hiroshima when I was in secondary school, I was in an R.E (religious education) lesson, and we were exploring the morality behind humans having the powers of destruction. I remember my teacher telling us, humans are often the creators of their own destruction, he wasn’t wrong. As someone who didn’t live through this, it can be hard to understand the fear, anxiety and astonishment behind these events. But this book offers a valuable insight into the lived experience of survivors and I now feel more educated.

The use of different narrators who all experienced the same event was interesting. At first I found this confusing and slightly hard to follow, but then reading on, I realised that it all connected, as the people featured all knew each other in different ways. I think having a multitude of different perspectives is essential when re-telling an experience like this. As after all, historical events are experienced differently by the individuals that lived through them, it would be reductive to write a book documenting the event through the eyes of just one or two survivors.

Hersey importantly doesn’t shy away from describing the sheer brutality of the impacts of the bomb on the people that lived in the city. He describes the health implications gruesomely, but this is essential, in order to fully comprehend the impact. Some descriptions were enough to make my stomach churn, but then reality kicks in when you remember this actually happened to people, through no fault of their own. Hiroshima impacted the ordinary civilians, and it is so important that their experience is put to the forefront.

Hersey also doesn’t completely focus on just the experience of the bomb, he details the immediate aftermath and then the long term impacts. This allows the long term impact to be protruded into the reader’s understanding and reveals the complete picture of this tragedy.

Despite its very immediate impact, the after affects were something individuals had to live with for the rest of their lives. Not just physically, but mentally. Each survivor featured, had to try and re-build their lives after such a horrific experience. What is shown, is that although they were lucky enough to survive, they could not escape the health implications nor the mental strain of living through such a bleak moment in history. Life went on, but they could never forget.

I was hesitant to read this book, as I like to read to escape reality. But nonetheless, I am very glad I read this. Like most people, I only ever comprehended Hiroshima in terms of the figures and facts, and as a historical event, but this book and the perspectives it provides, really hones in on the humanness of tragedy.

It is not a book to take lightly, but nonetheless an essential one. It is easy to read, once you get the hang of the alternative perspectives, and very enlightening. It is a hard read, but one that everyone should have a go at if they want to be more informed of the lived experiences that were the sheer horrors of Hiroshima.

My top 3 non-fiction reads

Non-fiction isn’t a realm I delve into enough. But I do aim to read more non-fiction this year. But I thought I would share with you my current top 3 non-fiction reads.

The Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, James Rebanks, 2015

I read this book in 2019, as the Lake District is one of my favourite places to explore. This book was so interesting for the alternative insight it offered – one that was not through the eyes of tourists, but through the farmers that tend the land we so love and admire.

James Rebanks offers a personal insight into his life and the history of his family on a small farm in the Lake District. He talks about the impact of tourism and the dying art of farming in the UK. He structures the book through the changing farming seasons and often offers an insight into the everyday beauties he witnesses on his doorstep.

He also talks about his personal battles with wanting to branch out into the world of academia as a young student, who is expected to take over the farm for the next generation. This ongoing, generational expectation is one many farmers and landowners still have to battle with.

It made me rethink our relationship to this popular landscape and not only appreciate it for its beauty, but for the hard work and commitments that go on behind the communities that make it. I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone. (5/5)

This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Ben Judah, 2016

This is the book that made me want to consider branching into investigate journalism. As a regular London tourist/day tripper, I often gave little thought to the people who live in London with constant struggle. This book gives a voice to those who are often forgotten amidst the central tourist hot spots that we all go and see.

In an incredible, exploratory work of investigate journalism, Ben Judah speaks to those who have felt marginalized, kicked out of, and not respected in the city. He goes beyond Leicester Square, Regent Street and tourist London. He speaks to ordinary people, hears what they have to say, and pays homage to the variety of experience of living in the big city.

Judah gives a voice to the immigrants who have often been forgotten and marginalised, to the sex workers trying to make a living and to those who are living on the streets. It serves as a brutal reminder of the many problems the city faces, which are often invisible in day to day, and tourist life. (5/5)

The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank, 1947

This is something that everyone should read. I have read it countless times, but it is an account I always turn back to.

Everyone knows Anne Frank and her story. Many go to visit the house in Amsterdam on tourist weekends to the city, but many may not have actually spent the time to read her diary in full.

Written as a thirteen year old in hiding, during the Nazi occupation of Holland, Anne writes about the struggles of family life in isolation, the fears of no return and more often than not, ordinary teenage struggles. It is eye opening and serves as a reminder to the horrors of that time in history, but also, a testament to staying positive in times of desperation. Despite living through a horrific experience, Anne always tried to remain positive and see the beauty in life,

“I’ve found that there is always some beauty left — in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you.”

Her account offers something that the history books cannot rival. An honest, down to earth account of life as it was lived during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of Holland. One that despite its countless tragedies, acts as a homeage to the spirit of humanity and togetherness in times of need.

It was also a book that inspired me to keep my own diary, which I have done for many years. Anne’s voice and the way she writes and sees things, makes you realise that she would have gone on to be a brilliant writer. It also makes you feel like you’re connected to that sliver of history which she describes and documents so well. An essential read.

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t

Book Review – Minimal: how to simplify your life and live sustainably

Image: Amazon

Author: Madeleine Olivia

Rating: 5/5 stars

Publisher: Ebury Press, Penguin Books

I’m kicking off 2020 with my first review being non-fiction… Shock horror! But seriously, I loved this book and I think it can be applicable to anyone and everyone.

I started following Madeleine Olivia online many years ago, when she just had a few thousand followers. I began watching her on YouTube as I loved her food content and general outlook on life, which shines through so much in this book. An initial disclaimer – I am not a vegan but am interested in making sustainable changes where I can.

Synopsis

We are facing an urgent climate crisis and we must all take action now. However, it can be difficult to know where to start when bombarded with overwhelming facts and statistics every day. We all want to make a difference, but what can we do?

Minimal makes simple and sustainable living attainable for everyone, using practical tips for all areas of everyday life to reduce your impact on the earth. Leading environmentalist Madeleine Olivia shares her insights on how to care for yourself in a more eco-friendly way, as well as how to introduce a mindful approach to your habits. This includes how to declutter your life, reduce your waste and consumption, recipes for eating seasonally and making your own natural beauty and cleaning products.

Learn how to minimise the areas that aren’t giving you anything back and discover a happier and more fulfilled life, while looking after the Earth we share.”

Review:

First of all, although I read this book on Kindle, I have seen it in print and everything about its design is beautiful and as perfectly minimalist as I had imagined. There are cute illustrations for each section which really add a nice touch. There is also space (if you have a physical copy) to add in your own thoughts and potential changes to your lifestyle, where appropriate.

What I loved about this book was that is was not just a straight up vegan bashing bible, it is so far from it. It is a book which covers all aspects of everyday life; from home and de-cluttering, to mental health and the importance of digital detoxing. Madeleine importantly champions that making any changes, little or small, can make a difference. The value is in everybody‘s effort and collectively, and this can make a big difference. Additionally, she crucially points out that making an error does not make you a bad person,

“And small misgivings such as using a plastic cup or buying fast fashion aren’t going to ruin the world alone…”

Madeleine Olivia

Madeleine’s book covers all physical and mental aspects of life and how to simplify and make them more sustainable (if you can). Chapters include topics such as opting to travel more mindfully and slowly, by using trains instead of planes, to the importance of establishing an effective bedtime routine that can benefit our mental health, it is a book that everyone should read. I went into the book worrying that it wouldn’t apply to me, but in every section there were things I learnt and have taken away.

I have already started a Depop page for selling my old clothes, rather than throwing them away. I have plans to buy some reusable vegetable bags, and I have vowed to myself that the next time I need to buy something I will look secondhand rather than jumping to find it brand new.

Madeleine’s book was a joy to read from start to finish. Every section was informative, yet personal and insightful, and contained a reminder that even the small things do make a difference. It provides a refreshing outlook on being more mindful, which I have found to be lacking in conversations about sustainability and veganism. Often, I have found it hard to engage in the debate when it is presented as so polarizing. But in this book, Madeleine has crafted a resource which is open to all and something anyone and everyone can turn to if they want to simply be more informed, or to start making changes.

I most of all loved the sections about travelling mindfully and not being in a rush to see anything and everything, but taking the time to take everything in,

“But on this journey we have to remember to stop and just stay still. Take a moment to just soak it all in.”

Madeleine Olivia

As a nervous flyer I am glad that finding other means of travel is now the new sustainable option! I loved the section on fast fashion; it really opened up my mind to the sheer amount of waste involved and what a difference it can make if we all chose to look in second hand shops first. Above all, I loved the focus on mental health, and how minimalism (digitally and physically) can be used as a tool to champion positive mental health and well-being.

Throughout my life, I have been a sucker for consumerism and buying new things. I find myself always on the look out for a new top, or another pair of socks I don’t need. I forget what I have in the cravings for something new and shiny. However, this has meant I have hoarded a lot of stuff over the years and now feel (slightly) overwhelmed by the process of becoming more minimal. However, Minimal, has provided me with the inspiration and guidance to embark on this journey.

Wonderful! This is a book I will be returning to again and again.