Monthly Archives: January 2018

Review, Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby

You can see Stephen Westaby in action here in this clip from Your Life in Their Hands.

This book is a bit like Grey’s Anatomy with each chapter and case study emotionally gripping and heart wrenching (pun not intended). Heart surgeon Stephen Westaby is humble in his arrogance and self-effacing in his success. He knows exactly what he is all about and how to get the story out without getting lost in the details. This last part is hugely important because he also doesn’t scrimp on the technical language and bits and pieces of the body that gets sawed through and dropped and battered while being fixed and occasionally failed.

He has an incredible way of placing things in their context while never knowingly telling a straightforward story. I never knew which of the patients was going to die and the point he was making was that heart surgeons don’t always know either.

This gripping account of heart surgery kept me up for three nights in a row and I got through a lot of tissues. His stories make for an amazing read and I hope that now he has retired (a bit) he will find time to write more. Well, to write more for the general public. He is already well-published having written the chapter on Ballistic Injuries of the Chest for the British military’s textbook of emergency medicine.

He asks the political questions too and we alongside him watch young healthy people die because of the underfunding of the NHS and political decisions made away from the doctors. He asks “Should a First World health-care system use modern technology to prolong life? Or should it let young heart failure patients die miserably like in the Third World?’ He has travelled and operated and revolutionised heart surgery and brought in artificial hearts all around the world. He knows the effects.

A lot of the work he writes about was funded through charity and this is a reflection on neoliberalism and not just the latest Conservative (plus one) government.

No surprise that for a man this accomplished he has done an excellent work in conveying it in a gripping and emotional way, even though he points out that it’s important for surgeons not to stress and not to get too involved with their patients. His humanity shines through despite that.

Fragiles Lives is now available. See Goodreads reviews.


Rough sleeping in Bristol up since last year

The number of rough sleepers in Bristol has gone up 16% from 2016 and almost 11-fold from 2010 with 86 rough sleepers counted and reported in the latest figures. The number in 2010 was 8.

At 0.44 in every 1000 residents, the rate in Bristol is just over twice the English average 0.20.

From people sleeping the crevices of the City Hall’s building to doorways of shops and residences, it’s no easy to miss the horrifyingly ever-increasing problem of people sleeping rough in our city. There are at least three men (and it is mostly men, 64%) who show up at our doorway. Ian, a man in a wheelchair who is near our house most days, lost one of his legs from DVT when he was a crane driver. When he finally came out of hospital, he’d lost his flat too. He sleeps in a friend’s shed in the garden and any notes he’s given he saves for a deposit on a flat. He spends the coins.
The Rough Sleeping in England release of information provides national summary information on rough sleeping counts and estimates carried out by local authorities between 1 October and 30 November 2017.

Rough sleeping counts and estimates are single night snapshots of the number of people sleeping rough in local authority areas. Local authorities decide on the best method to use in their area, a street count or an estimate.



Ex-Bristol West MP Stephen Williams and Communities minister said in 2015 that homelessness was due to immigration rather than housing shortage, before losing his seat to Labour MP Thangam Debonair. He’s still wrong. 54% of homeless people recorded were UK citizens, while only 24% were EU or non-EU residents. The rest were unknown.

The Bristol council house stock had been reduced over the years leading to mayoral pledges to build new houses in Marvin Rees’ term of office.

   2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
New homes built 70 6 0 8
Sold under right to buy 97 142 194 161
Sold – other than right to buy 17 12 29 41
Decommissioned / demolished 98 4 26 2

Despite needing to find £108m of savings from council spending over the next five years, Mayor Marvin Rees’s administration is planning to spend £277 million on housing (p.25 Cabinet Budget Report, 22 January 2018).

Review, Before this is Over by Amanda Hickie

A disappointing book in many ways. An epidemic takes over the world and this story focuses on what one family does to get through it. The kind of interesting part is that the mother, who is the main character, had cancer eight years previously and is now paranoid about any kind of risk to her family. When news of an epidemic starts, she begins to panic and seems paranoid to everyone until what she fears comes to pass.

Now that could potentially be an interesting story but there is no plot and the main character herself is not likeable at all. I finished the book because I was reviewing it but I disliked the mother and would rather have been anywhere else but in that house.

By the end, maybe there was some attempt to show that she had learnt to let go of her paranoia a bit but it didn’t really come through. I mean, if you’re going to be paranoid, at least do it well. Stock up properly and get provisions that will last. Be like Branch in Trolls. Now there’s a character who gets my respect.

I spent most of the book hoping she would get the disease and from many of the comments on Goodreads, so did most people. I imagine the book was signed up because Hickie was a debut author and so could get a cheap deal, and the topic was easy to market. It would be easy to turn into a movie too.

Skip this one.

Before this is Over available now.

Book Review, Of Women

Book cover of Of Women“It is autumn again. That shouldn’t matter and yet somehow it does”, starts Of Women and instantly I love this notion that we are involved in our world and its cycles far more than we imagine or than is mentioned. The weather and its personal associations becomes more relevant as Chakrabarti later on writes of how bailiffs are not meant to kick people out of their homes when it’s raining.

I thought of this as I listened to a council meeting on our upcoming budget where our Finances Director Denise Murray and Deputy Mayor Asher Craig talked about bringing bailiff services in-house in a way of providing a more ethical service for families. They were shunning the inclusion of private companies who were just in it for the money. There was also an ever-increasing need for bailiffs.

Our council is battling the effects of austerity and the 90% reduction of our central government fund that helps us pay for local services such as roads and schools and charities and children in care and children in nurseries and community police officers and a myriad other functions. Bristol has to find a way to make up for £108 million of further cuts over the next five years and this is a direct result of government policies.

Yet, Of Women doesn’t deal with that. The inequalities, subjugations and suffering of women are presented as some kind of inevitable vague structural outcome that is as amorphous as it is unnamed. Sales tax on tampons is criticised and yet the process and policy of its imposition — it is in fact the lowest possible taxation the governments in power could impose after EU regulations on tax had been settled — are not mentioned.

I am surprised at how disappointed and impressed I am by Of Women at the same time. It’s a tough task to cover every theme that affects women and Chakrabarti does a pretty good job of identifying those at least. Each topic could be a book all of its own and the issues are in danger of being oversimplified when managed within only a few pages.

She also includes some personal observations and also statistics from international bodies in order to encompass the whole world. This isn’t easy and either the ignorant or hypocritical nature of the assessments come shining through when she can state that the failure of Clinton (H) to come to power was the result of sexism and that much of the developing world’s problems come from poverty and inequality, without equating US imperialist tactics with the cause and effect of these situations.

In the metaphorical activist’s handbook, the weakest call to arms is that of ‘someone should do something‘ and unfortunately, Chakrabarti’s inability to delineate the forces that have led to women’s inequality, and more importantly to class inequality, leads us directly to this statement.

Someone; somewhere.

The great invisible forces that she does not name are neoliberalism, the patriarchy, and US imperialism.

Chakrabarti laments the housing sector, the lack of mental health support, the elimination of free school meals and the school and social situations for many girls and women but does not state that neoliberal policies are specifically designed to strip money away from public services in order to benefit corporations and the 1%.

We have to rely on Oxfam,  among others, for a better attack on neoliberalism,.

Those who advocate for the strictest neoliberal policies are the Conservative government and before them the coalition government (and ‘New Labour’). The austerity program that slashes spending on public services, directly contributes to women’s inequality and yet Chakrabarti’s only mention of the Conservatives is to point out what a great friend Baroness Warsi is and how she has written about Islamic feminism. Nevermind that Warsi voted for tuition fees and for raising the amount to be paid. Nevermind that tuition fees disadvantage the caring professions and the women who are more likely to study locally rather than be able to travel.

Chakrabarti even mentions with no apparent sense of contradiction that in the movie I, Daniel Blake, with which Ken Loach quite explicitly calls out the ‘conscious cruelty‘ [YouTube] of the Conservative Government policies, a woman has to decide between food for her children and sanitary products for herself.

The call for better public services is made through Of Women over and over again: “Worldwide, women have even greater need of safe streets, public transport, adequate social and affordable housing, policing and access to real justice”; “Work in the caring professions should be better valued and remunerated and we should aspire to greater gender balance therein”; “we need to the see children, the elderly and the disabled as our shared societal responsibility”; “Police and law enforcement authorities around the globe should be better resourced”; “the struggle for gender justice asks for a social engagement of a completely different order. It is not a ‘single issue’. It cannot be separate from politics and economics in the deepest and broadest sense.”

Chakrabarti says “Gender injustice is structural, social and economic” but does not refer to what those policies are and how to overcome them.

We come away thinking ‘something needs to be done by someone‘ but she provides no roadmap for how things got to this state and, therefore, there is no implication for further action. This is really a work of pointing out inequalities and then stepping aside and saying ‘nothing to do with me’.

The most damning part of the book, for me, was the lack of discussion on Hilary Clinton’s role while in power. When a woman can attract “upwards of $225,000 for a speech to Goldman Sachs” then she is not just an ordinary woman who is the victim of sexism.

Journalist John Pilger writes on the fake feminism of Hillary Clinton, and this is ever more relevant in Of Women, because it has a worldwide approach. Chakrabarti tries to cover all women.

In The New York Times, there was a striking photograph of a female reporter consoling Clinton, having just interviewed her. The lost leader was, above all, “absolutely a feminist”. The thousands of women’s lives this “feminist” destroyed while in government – Libya, Syria, Honduras – were of no interest.

Chakrabarti writes about Isis and the oppression of women and yet as we read from Pilger:

The leaked emails of Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, revealed a direct connection between Clinton and the foundation and funding of organised jihadism in the Middle East and Islamic State (IS). The ultimate source of most Islamic terrorism, Saudi Arabia, was central to her career.

[emphasis mine]

The article by Pilger is worth reading in full, as are his other works. The role of a woman who had a hand in destabilising the Middle East and causing untold suffering for millions of refugees is left out of Of Women. Instead, we hear just of the refugees who face sexual abuse and danger in their passage out of their torn countries. The author talks of mothers putting young children in boats to get them out of the country, without knowing if they’ll ever see them again, but not once does she talk about the causes that led to these refugees. This is an appalling and offensive omission.

Chakrabarti talks about poverty in Colombia without mention of US imperialism’s hand in wreaking havoc in that country. There is no sense that female inequality has a structural basis from her writing, and this lack of engagement with context limits what we think we can do. If inequality just happens, rather than is a byproduct of policies worldwide that seek to destroy public services and infrastructure in pursuit of profit for the 1% then there is nothing we can do. We can wait for the affirmative action lists and hope that men stop hitting women after being educated for a few years.

Of Women fails women in a way that the world has failed us since politics/Politics began. Our private struggles are not linked to politics at the structural or public level. Conservative and neoliberal policies and US / UK imperialism harm women all around the world. We need better ways of saying this and better methods to combat it.

My solutions are simple; information and engagement with political processes starting at the lowest levels. Then vote the Tories out and — after the Labour Party are in power — get the Greens in. [I’d say vote Green right from the start but people don’t have enough faith yet.] Then we can have equality. The Labour Party’s support for neoliberalism gave us the Tories’ version of austerity although now apparently Corbyn will change that. We’ll see.

All I know is that the policies that put people on the street are those same policies that put refugees on the boats and let them drown as they crossed. Oxfam and much of the world has a name for it but Of Women does not.





Of Women was provided by NetGalley for review. Published 26 October 2017.

TBR pile opportunity 2018

New books are so much shinier and nice and I know this to be true because I’ve just bought about 20 over Christmas. I took advantage of many £1 ebook deals and filled up my Kindle. Thinking back, it could be 30-40 or more. I also have the ereader books on the library app too. I have plenty to read but some old books have been sitting around for a very long time and I love them too (it’s a different love).

I’ve carried Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions to different cities and houses with me since 1998 when I first graduated university. It’s on my bedside table and thinking about it made me want to take part in Roof Beam Reader’s TBR challenge. The word ‘challenge’ makes me think of getting through something with grit and determination and I don’t want to just read them to get through them. I’m calling mine the TBR pile opportunity.

Some essential rules are as follows:


1. Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year. This means the book cannot have a publication date of 1/1/2017 or later (any book published in the year 2016 or earlier qualifies, as long as it has been on your TBR pile). Caveat: Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the “can’t get through” pile.

2. To be eligible, you must sign-up with the Mr. Linky below. Link to your list (so create it ahead of time!) and add updated links to each book’s review. Books must be read and must be reviewed (doesn’t have to be too fancy) in order to count as completed.

Check back to Adam’s post, though, for all the details if you want to join in.

My TBR list

  1. Chomsky, N.  Necessary Illusions (I bought this after my law degree. I was inspired to change the world but have been waiting to finish the book first. Maybe this year.)
  2. Boleano, R. 2666 (I started reading 2666 around the time I had my first daughter and then quickly fell into ‘motherhood’ stuff so didn’t finish. It’s intense.)
  3. Monbiot, G. The Age of Consent. (Bought years and years ago in Colchester. It’s travelled to Bristol with me but still hasn’t been read.)
  4. Extence, G. The Universe versus Alex Wood. (There was a read-a-long at our library and this was given out free. I didn’t get a chance to read it at the time. The librarian I spoke to really raved about it.)
  5. Strathern, P. Dr Strangelove’s Game. (The title is a reference to Dr Strangelove: How I learnt to stop worrying and started to love the bomb. Much of Stanley Kubrick’s movie was based on the reality of the game theory machinations behind the cold war. Game theory is still one of my favourite subjects.)
  6. Fisk, R. The Great War of Civilization (a bit of a heavy tome I am determined to get through.)
  7. Palast, G. The best democracy money can buy. (As Palast said about the UK voting for Blair: at least the US voters didn’t vote for Bush.) 
  8. Wacquant, L. Body and Soul. (I saw Wacquant, an eminent ethnographer, talk at the University of Bristol, years back about being a skinny little white guy learning to box in the south side of Chicago. Body and Soul is an ethnography of his time there.)
  9. Satrapi, M. Persepolis. (I love this book so much that I didn’t want to finish it but that means it’s been left unread. Well not for much longer!)
  10. Pynchon, T. The Crying of Lot 49. (It’s Pynchon.)
  11. Foster Wallace, D. Infinite Jest. (DFW is fantastic and I worry about finishing his works and there being none left to read. This worry has stopped me finishing any of them, which seems counterproductive, so this year I’ll finish this.)
  12. Moskos, P. Cop in the hood. (An ethnography of a year in the Baltimore police district. The authentic version of the David Simon’s Homicide that led to the Wire).


  1. Mulvey-Roberts, M. Literary Bristol: writers and the city.
  2. Backwith, D., Ball, R., Hunt, SE., Richardson, M. Strikers, Hobblers, Conchies & Reds: A radical history of Bristol 1880–1939.


To join in with the TBR Pile Challenge / Opportunity, see the original post by Roof Beam Reader.