Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:01 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 16:01 | SYDNEY

My books of the year


Hugh White

23 December 2010 09:16

This year I've been thinking about a few related ideas; rising power, appeasement, containment, negotiation and political leadership. These themes show up in the books that have made the biggest impression on me this year.

In Greece in spring I reread Thucydides from cover to cover for the first time in many decades, and was rather taken aback by how good it is. I also read a wonderful little book called Why Socrates Died, by Robin Waterfield, which gives as good a picture as I've found of the workings of 5th century Athenian society and added a lot to my grasp of the whole deal.

In Munich I found a book called Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis, by David Faber, which freshened up my thinking about this much-abused historical metaphor and has lots to tell us about present predicaments. Also a very interesting biography, Stanley Melbourne Bruce: Australian Internationalist, by David Lee of DFAT's Historical Section, which has a lot to say both about appeasement as a policy, and about Australia's remarkable efforts to shape British policy in the 1920s and 30s.

Thinking about how to deal with a rising power led me to read – for the first time, I'm ashamed to say – John Lewis Gaddis' Strategies of Containment, which explores the complexities of America's approach to the Soviet Union in great detail and with great insight. And that led me to Coral Bell's old classic, Negotiation from Strength, which is, in its clarity and power, rather a model of strategic writing, and very pertinent to our present concerns.

Finally, an idle whim to chase up the quote that forms the title led me to read Like the Roman, Simon Heffer's biography of Enoch Powell. I'd always suspected there was more to Powell than was suggested by his bogey-man image from the 1970s. He was, after all, the author of that marvellous line, 'All political careers end in failure.' 

Heffer's sympathetic treatment fails to dispel the distinct air of oddity and some deep questions about Powell' political and social values. But it also conveys a remarkable picture of what would today, when the species seems extinct, be called a 'conviction politician'. Powell's sense of what was good for Britain was deeply and in some ways repugnantly awry, but the way he developed and promoted his ideas in defiance of political convenience is remarkably interesting.

Finally finally, I should confess that in recent years I have fallen prey to the middle-aged man's penchant for crime novels. This year, apart from rereading everything written by Peter Temple, I've discovered with immense pleasure Eric Ambler, Shane Maloney, and a wonderful new Irish writer called Stuart Neville, whose Ghosts of Belfast is really excellent.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.