what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Are the Grown-Ups leaving us?

I readily confess that one of the first things I turn to these days in The Guardian after the main news items are the Obituaries pages which, as the paper puts it, “traditionally describe and celebrate the lives of the great and good, the famous and infamous”.

But The Guardian has a very nice additional feature – “Other Lives” – to which members of public write in order to honour 

another type of life that deserves noticing: people less in the public eye, or lives lived beyond formal recognition

My own father was such a person whom I celebrated a decade ago

Despite its rather sexist title, Britain is no Country for Old Men is one these rare sites which is generous in its praise of people doing remarkable work. And not just when they have died. – which is all too often the only time we publicly recognise good works

poignant article sparked off by John le Carre’s death has me musing about how well we prepare for our mortality. Freedland’s own father had died a couple of years’ earlier (in his mid 8os) and he wondered whether that was a factor in the strength of his reaction to the news of le Carre’s passing. The article finishes by referring to a feeling I’ve long had – that 

“we will have to face the future alone, without these older, wiser minds around to light the way….The grownups are leaving, one by one. From now on, it’s only us – guided by the lessons they taught us and the memories they left behind. And comforted by the thought that, perhaps, they once felt exactly the same way”.

The author is 57 and belongs, therefore, to the generation previous to mine (for what it’s worth I was 26 in 1968). The article's last sentence raises the very good question of nostalgia – for example are politicians the pygmies they are currently made out to be? Or do we judge them in less deferential ways – because of increased education, transparency and expectations??

We are certainly much more aware of our fragilities and vulnerabilities these days – not just as individuals but as a species. So perhaps it’s time to offer again a table I put up in 2019 – a brief overview of books about the approach of death

Books about Ageing and the approach of Death











 The American Way of Death; Jessica Mitford



Analysis of the crematorium business

Her updated version of 1996 can be read in full here

On Death and Dying; Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross

click to get the entire book



The book that gave us the “five stages of grief”

This extended interview with the author is quite superb 

The Coming of Age; Simone de Beauvoir

1970 French


Breaks all disciplinary barriers!

The classic

Excerpts available on this Amazon version

The Denial of Death; Ernest Becker


Cultural anthropology

A “psycho-philosophical synthesis” – all 330 pages

Hyperlink on title gives full book

The Loneliness of The Dying by Norbert Elias



A short rather general book by an underrated Anglo-German  

Note on his life and work. Click title for full book

The End of Age – BBC Reith Lectures by Tom Kirkwood



Link on the title gives podcasts

Recent book review by Tom Kirkwood

Ammonites and Leaping Fish – a Life in Time Penelope Lively



Interview here

First chapter can be read in summary form here

Nothing to be Frightened Of; Julian Barnes


Extended essay

Good on references

A rather gentle way into the subject nicely reviewed here

Somewhere Towards the End; Diana Athill



Marvellous writer covers latter stages of a long life

Click the title for the entire book

The Long Life; Helen Small



Written by a Professor of English language and literature

Compendium of writing about ageing over 2000 years. A good review here

You’re Looking very well – the surprising nature of getting old; Lewis Wolpert


Popular science

Professor of Biology

Age 80 when he wrote it

Good interviews here and here

got stick from this reviewer for having too many facts and quotations and insufficient analysis 

Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation” Stephen Cave



Philosopher who knows how to tell a great tale

Click on title for full book

good review here

Out of Time – the Pleasures and Perils of Ageing; Lynne Segal



Almost an update of de Beauvoir!

Good review here

Being Mortal – illness, medicine and what matters in the end; by Atul Gawande


Reflective medical

a very literate and humane American surgeon,

See comments in Intimations of Mortality and Facing up to our Mortality

Growing Old – the last Campaign; Des Wilson



was the most famous British campaigner of the second half of the century.

The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life; Raymond Tallis



retired British gerontologist, poet and polymath

See this Spiked Online review

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life; by S Solomon, J Greenberg and T Pyszczynski



American psychologists update and popularise Becker’s thesis about our repression of death

see this interview

British philosopher John Gray reviewed

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium” Caitlin Doughty 



Review here

My Father’s Wake – how the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die; Kevin Toolis



Poetic but doesn’t deal with issues

With the end in mind – dying, death and wisdom in an age of denial; K Mannix



A “palliative” doctor profiles in depth her patients

A review here

The Way we Die Now; Seamus O’Mahony



A Consultant “Gastroenterologist” 


Other Resources

Joseph Epstein penned this magnificent ode to approaching 80


this first part of a series







Thursday, December 17, 2020

Do we have Agency – or not?

I have never understood those who used the language of revolutionary change – they seemed to live on another planet. I was actually a young Fabian – even before I learned about Karl Popper’s falsification principle and read his “Open Society and its Enemies”.

My theory of change was once expressed as a simple “pincer” one – “get them from both above and below” but then moved to that of the “windows of opportunity” expressed initially thus -   

• “Windows of opportunity present themselves - from outside the organization, in crises, pressure from below
• reformers have to be technically prepared, inspire confidence – and able to seize and direct the opportunity
• Others have to have a reason to follow
• the new ways of behaving have to be formalized in new structures.

And then developed a more detailed formulation which put more emphasis on the individual, moral responsibility – 

“Most of the time our systems seem impervious to change – but always (and suddenly) an opportunity arises. Those who care about the future of their society, prepare for these “windows of opportunity”. And the preparation is about analysis, mobilisation and trust.

·         It is about us caring enough about our organisation and society to speak out about the need for change.

·         It is about taking the trouble to think and read about ways to improve things – and

·         To help create and run networks of such change.

·         And it is about establishing a personal reputation for probity and good judgement 

·         that people will follow your lead when that window of opportunity arises”.

I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell but his popularisations have included the important notion of the Tipping Point -  where he suggested (in 2010) that there were three key factors which determine whether an idea or fashion will “tip” into wide-scale popularity - the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. The “Law of the Few” proposes that a few key types of people must champion an idea, concept, or product before it can reach the tipping point. Gladwell describes these key types as –

·         Connectors,

·         Mavens, and

·         Salesmen.

(And a maven – in case you didn’t know - is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from the Hebrew, via Yiddish, and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge).

But I have never been able to get my head around complexity and systems theory – perhaps because it offended by sense of human agency. I have never been able to accept the fatalism that seems embedded in it. I certainly agree that effective change doesn’t come from the “ya-boo yo-yo” system of adversarial power blocs of the UK and USA – it comes from a combination of sustained dialogue; coalitions of change; and grassroots activism and protest.

And, often, it starts with an experiment – rather than a grand programme…Take, for example, what is now being called the Dutch model for neighbourhood care – started by Buurtzorg a few years back which is now inspiring people everywhere. That is a worker cooperative model… which, quite rightly, figures in Frederic Laloux’s  Reinventing Organisations.

I last wrote about this a couple of years ago – when I had pulled titles from my library (real and virtual) which appeared to deal with the issue. These, I emphasised, didn’t claim to represent anything except the vagaries of my purchases and interests. They do, however, seem to reflect important stages in the very slow understanding which has overtaken us in the past half century that we have allowed a perverse linear/mechanistic model of society to occupy our minds…….

The date of the first book is 1967……. That’s 50 years ago….a long time for an idea to gestate and develop….


Titles from 1967

Clarity Factor


full book?

The Costs of Economic Growth; EJ Mishan (1967)


The first time an economist warns of this – accessible here


The Limits to Growth; Club of Rome (1972)


The book which made the warning global

The Sane Alternative – a choice of futures; James Robertson (1978)


“Small is Beautiful” (1973) was seen as partisan, if not extreme. James Robertson’s book put the case in more balanced terms


The Whale and the Reactor – the search for limits in an age of high technology; Langdon Winner (1986)


Amazingly prescient book -


The Fifth Discipline; the art and practice of the learning organisation; Peter Senge (1990)


Made the concepts of systems and of “the learning organisation” fashionable

The Development Dictionary – a guide to knowledge as power; ed W Sachs  (1992)


A powerful challenge to “the western view”


The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook; Peter Senge 1994


The sub-title says it all - strategies and tools for building a learning organisation

The Web of Life Fritjof Capra 1996


A well-intentioned presentation of systems thinking – but tough going

Deep Change; Robert Quinn 1996


Quinn’s first draft of what became the superb “Change the World”

Leadership and the new Science – discovering order in a chaotic world Margaret Wheatley 1999


An early classic in the attempt to present a new world of complexity

Dialogue and the art of thinking together; William Isaacs (1999)


One of many focusing on dialogue…

Change the World; Robert Quinn (2000)


I simply don’t understand why this book is so seldom mentioned….perhaps because it makes a moral case?

The Ingenuity Gap – how can we solve the problems of the future? Thomas Homer-Dixon (2001)


A fascinating book which focuses on the complexity of the contemporary world – with a powerful narrative

Towards Holistic Governance – the new reform agenda; Perri 6, Leat, Seltzer and Stoker (2002)


Cooperation in government is an important topic but is dealt with in an over-confident and technical manner by these academics

Systems thinking – creative holism for managers; Michael Jackson (2003)


Very comprehensive but – at 378 pages – not immediately user-friendly….


Critical Mass; Philip Ball (2004)


A popular attempt to look at systems issues which probably tries to cover too many areas

Building the Bridge as you walk on it – a guide for leading change; Robert Quinn (2004)


Note quite as good as his “Change the World”


An End to Suffering – the Buddha in the World; Pankaj Mishra( 2004)


A delightful idea and easy read

Presence – exploring profound change in people, organisations and society; P Senge et al (2005)


A conversation between 4 friends which reflects their uncertainties. Just a bit too self-indulgent and self-referential

The Dictionary of Alternatives – utopianism and organisation; ed M Parker, V Fournier and P Reedy (2007)


A nice idea – which I have still to read

Accessible here


Thinking in Systems – a primer; Donella Meadows (2008)


the discussion about “leverage points” is an immensely important one. The early pages are a delight to read –


Exploring the Science of Complexity; Ben Ramalingam et al (ODI 2008)


Almost incoherent – but see “Aid on the edge of Chaos” below


The Master and His Emissary – the divided brain and the making of the Western World; Iain McGilchrist (2009)


Apparently a very important read but, with more than 500 pages, too big a challenge for me….

Deconstructing Development Buzzwords (2010)




Power and Love; a theory and practice of social change; Adam Kahane (2010)


Most authors would avoid a title like this - but Kahane’s south African experience makes this a great story, read here  


The Dance on the Feet of Chance; Hooman Attar (2010)


A bit too technical – but honest

Mastery; Robert Greene (2012)


An important topic, nicely presented by a craftsman of his trade. Read here


Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Ben Ramalingam (2013)


A very comprehensive treatment of the various strands but ultimately (at 450 pages) indigestible

Embracing Complexity – strategic perspectives for an age of turbulence; J Boulton, P Allen and C Bowman (2015)


At first glance, wonderfully clear

How Change Happens Duncan Green (2016)


With its focus on the marginalised of the world, this may not immediately attract but it’s one the best discussions of change…


Can We Know Better?; Robert Chambers (2017)


What could be final reflections from the development scholar who wrote “Whose Reality Counts? putting the Last First”…


Doughnut Economics – seven ways to think like a 21st century economist; K Raworth (2017)


Didn’t seem part of this discussion – but the clarity of her exposition of how certain ideas first came to be developed blows you away!!

Commanding hope – the power we have to renew a world in peril; Thomas- Homer-Dixon (2020)


One of the first books which takes the environmental crisis as a given and concentrates the discussion on the reasons why people resist the message – or don’t follow thro in actions