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Summer Reading

November 1, 2009

Summer Reading

The following article was published today in the magazine of Mark’s local Association, Blueprint.

As I have included with this Blueprint a collection of some of the financial writings and speeches that I have made over the last eighteen months I wanted to write in a more cheerful way about the opportunity that the summer recess affords an MP to reflect on broader matters. Reading books rather than newspapers and watching television is a welcome change and this summer has yielded some useful insights from a wide variety of authors.

Unusually my love of reading only blossomed after I left university. Until then books were strictly for learning rather than pleasure. By contrast, in adult life I invariably have two or more books ‘on the go’ at any time.

One of the unsung joys of being an MP is the opportunity to settle down during the August portion of the summer recess to research for future articles and speeches. Needless to say my reading list for this summer was individualistic but in the midst of some pure enjoyment I have also had an eye to carrying out some useful background reading for the year ahead.

My favourite book of the past year has been the titanic Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, the Harvard historian who is probably now better known as a photogenic and articulate TV presenter.

Hot on its heels is Douglas Hurd’s sympathetic but insightful biography of Robert Peel. Though this book was first published a couple of years ago, it had unforgivably gathered dust on my bookshelf until this summer. Peel came to international prominence as the first Conservative Prime Minister to hold office after the momentous Reform Act of 1832. The period Hurd charted in the book reveals interesting parallels with today’s upheaval to normal parliamentary process brought about by the MPs’ allowances/expenses scandal. Following the collapse of trust in our banking system, we have witnessed an explosive level of public anger at this nation’s political and economic institutions. Parliamentary reform in the 1830s came about in response to a decade long period of perceived corruption in two of the other established institutions at that time, the monarchy and the Church of England.

Alistair Campbell’s diaries, The Blair Years, emphasise the frenetic activity at the heart of political life. What struck me most, however, was that the Prime Minister’s communications supremo seemed to have derived considerably more joy getting to Downing Street than during his tenure there. I guess this is an important lesson to learn for the Conservative administration that many of us hope will be in place during the forthcoming year.

In an Ashes summer I was never too far away from either the Daily Telegraph’s Book of Cricket (an excellent collection of writings going back to the 1880s) or the Wisden Anthology 1978-2006. At a thousand pages, the Anthology is not a book to browse on a sun lounger, but nevertheless provides an enthralling account of the great change in the international game over the past three decades.

As autumn will soon be upon us, my heart ? and that of millions of others ? will turn to the ‘other’ national game. I reread Harry Harris and Steve Curry’s book on former England football manager, Terry Venables, which I bought on its publication in 1995 and reflected on the increasing influence that money has had on the game in the interim. In the modern era when even run-of-the-mill Premiership players command salaries of over £1 million a year, it is sober to reflect that when Venables started his footballing career in the late 1950s, even the best known internationals were paid a maximum wage of £20 a week.

Clive Aslet, the former editor of Country Life, gave me a copy of his wonderful book, The English House, when we were guests of honour at the Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens AGM last March. This beautifully written book charts the development of the English house as a home and while more about history than architecture, it will appeal to scholars of both.

Maureen Waller’s book, 1700 ? Scenes from London Life, shows how three hundred years ago the Capital was our constituency. It gives a fascinating insight into the intricacies of day to day life for those living and working on the very ground that we tread today.

As you may have gathered from what I have already written, I am not a great reader of fiction. However I rattled through a couple of first class thriller novels by Canadian journalist-cum-writer, Linwood Barclay, No Time for Goodbye and Too Close to Home. They even won the Richard and Judy Book of the Week award ? the highest accolade indeed!

By contrast, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead ? with over 700 pages of close text ? cannot be described as an easy read! The financial crisis has meant that Rand’s subsequent masterpiece Atlas Shrugged is now back in US bestseller lists over half a century since its publication. Fountainhead was her first novel introducing the individualistic philosophy of Objectivism – published in 1943, it put forward a daring and uncompromising defence of capitalism at a time when the conventional wisdom was firmly in the opposite direction.

Last but not least in my summer reading list was a famous book written as long ago as 1889. I must confess that I had never read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome before. In my case I have slightly less excuse for this omission for I am distantly related to the author. He was the uncle to my grandfather’s second wife. Jerome’s most famous novel shows a passion for the River Thames similar to mine ? I was brought up in Reading, educated at Oxford and have now been ensconced here in Central London (first in Chelsea, now in Westminster) almost since graduating in the late 1980s. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the book. Much of its humour has a timeless appeal and whilst inevitably it is a little dated 120 years on, it is clear why this book has become a perennial English comedy classic. It just shows that it really does pay to buy raffle tickets at Association events ? I was the lucky winner of this particular novel at a Bryanston and Dorset Square ward fundraiser!