The best books covering a wide cultural spectrum for an inquiring mind

Who am I?

Tim Madge is a well-established award-winning published author, historian and former journalist of over 45 years standing. He has written on a wide range of subjects, a cultural history of cocaine being one, resulting in White Mischief. It’s a fascinating story involving a murky mix of politics and race, as well as criminals and Sigmund Freud.

I wrote...

White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine

By Tim Madge,

Book cover of White Mischief: A Cultural History of Cocaine

What is my book about?

Starting with the Incas, who used coca leaves to stimulate the brain, alleviate high altitude sickness, and to stay alert and awake, the innocuous Coca plant was transported to Europe where it was revved up, a thousand times, into the chemical we know, love and hate, as cocaine. The story is beyond parody as the new-found stimulant was heavily pushed by Sigmund Freud, and used early on by Coca-Cola (the name’s a giveaway) who, in effect, stole the drink idea from an Italian entrepreneur.

White Mischief concentrates on cocaine, but inevitably and necessarily ranges across the wider history of drugs and drug-taking, from historical times until the present day. It delves into the relationship between drugs, race, and racism, particularly apposite where the USA is concerned – to this day.

The books I picked & why

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Sixty Somethings: The Lives Of Women Who Remember The Sixties

By Nicola Madge, Paul Hoggart,

Book cover of Sixty Somethings: The Lives Of Women Who Remember The Sixties

Why this book?

The swinging sixties are commonly thought of as hedonistic days (if you remember them you weren’t there). It was a period when young people threw off the trappings of their parents and, allegedly fuelled by drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, set out to put the world to rights: a time without precedent.

But was it really like that? What are the women of that generation up to now; and what do they remember of those times? Is sixty the new forty?

Despite pursuing careers, raising families, with quite a few as grandparents, others caring for their own aging parents, could it be true that the once hipsters – a few now with literally new hips – have an undiluted appetite for life?

This fascinating book looks back over the lives of 67 women in their sixties, all of whom lived through ‘The Sixties’, to explore these questions through their own recollections and words. What did they expect from their lives, back then and were those expectations so very different from their own parents? 

This is a well-researched and clearly written book, for both women and men, whether you were there nearly sixty years ago, or not.

Raising the Skirt: The Unsung Power of the Vagina

By Catherine Blackledge,

Book cover of Raising the Skirt: The Unsung Power of the Vagina

Why this book?

This is a simply astonishing book, one to be read by all women but, perhaps more importantly, by all men. To say it was a revelation to read is a bit of an understatement. It is described as a revolutionary book, providing a new understanding of what it is to be female. It’s gynaecological, historical, cultural, anthropological, and evolutionary in its massive scope. 

As the author says, the vagina is actually a muscular marvel of engineering, sensitive and strong, fluid and flexible. Far from being passive vessels, female genitalia control the most important ‘role’ of all: the survival of the species.

Dr. Blackledge is a scientist, sex educator, and fertility campaigner, and her book has sold over 100,000 copies and been translated into ten languages. Jeanette Winterton says of Raising the Skirt, ‘it is completely fascinating’.

Much more than that, it throws into sharp relief the oppression of women through many millennia by men, frightened out of their wits by the inherent power women have, because of their critical place in reproduction. She deals with, inter alia, that oldest of tropes, monotheist (male) religion, which we can safely say was invented by old men (with beards) to subjugate women.

The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

By William Dalrymple,

Book cover of The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire

Why this book?

The East India Company, founded when Elizabeth I was on the throne, may rightly lay claim to being the world’s first global corporate power that, in little under a century, from the early 1700s to around the time of Waterloo had, in effect, conquered an entire sub-continent and laid the foundation for the British Empire, oven-ready for the Victorians, you might say.

The way it did this, suborning both Mughal Emperors and reluctant British governments, is the warp and weft of this magnificently researched and meticulously written book. It is not an easy story to follow and one is minded of how much a story of this complexity, and told with such vigour and in detail, needs a proper book, not the jejune and hard to reference e-version.

It is perfectly clear that Dalrymple loves his true subject, India, and that his scrupulous attention to detail is a part of that. The need to unpick and to understand this murky tale of opportunism, violence, shamelessness, and greed which demands this level of concern from any historian. 

But the story, wow, what an extraordinary fable, unfolding in the Mughal courts, dripping with wealth beyond the wildest dreams of any writer of fiction; unfolding too, in the Palace of Westminster and in The City. At one point, ‘John Company’ had managed to inveigle and embroil the British Government so much in their dirty dealings aimed, frankly, at robbing and plundering India blind, that they risked bankrupting the entire British state. It doesn’t get more dramatic than that.

Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus

By Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott,

Book cover of Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain's Battle with Coronavirus

Why this book?

The authors work for the Sunday Times Insight team and the book they have produced is, you might say, a public inquiry of the kind we won’t be getting from any government, now or in the future. We’ve all been living through this nightmare and the concept of journalism being a first rough history of events is more than adequately demonstrated by this excellently researched text.

Unless you’ve been asleep, or visiting another planet during the past 15 months, you’ll be painfully aware of how badly the pandemic has been handled in the UK. Coming on the back of Brexit, the big event that caused the Government to never have its eye on the Coronavirus ball at the critical moments in January and February, 2020, the pandemic was at first ridiculed, then fatally downplayed by Boris Johnson.

Worse, as we all know to our personal and collective cost, was to follow (and it ain’t over yet, by a long margin). The book charts in gripping, gory detail mistake after mistake (it’s still happening, folks), by a prime minister who, by background and character, could not be worse fitted to deal with a pandemic. He has surrounded himself with weak yes-men (and very few women) who have all contributed to the UK having an appalling death toll, and an equally bad record on testing and tracing. Such testing and tracing is the sine qua non for getting and keeping any virus under some form of control. 

Gloomy reading, yes. Vital to understand what’s been going on: most assuredly.

The Conquest of Bread

By Peter Kropotkin,

Book cover of The Conquest of Bread

Why this book?

Kropotkin was a remarkable man with remarkable ideas and this book, written in Brighton and first published in 1892 remains a gem in the canon of historic anarchist literature.

In the 130 years since it was published, communism has demonstrably failed (China is less communist, more sinister state gangsterism, like North Korea); socialism looks to be on its last legs. On the left, then, there is only anarchism remaining. This is nothing like the idiotic street antics of modern youth – more nihilism than any coherent political position – but thoughtful sets of ideas around governance without the presence of a central authority.

If it is anything, anarchism is rooted in a concept of collectivist, cooperative, local communities. This is what The Price of Bread explores. Yes, it is wildly idealistic, utopian in intent. It was written before the horrors awaiting us in the 20th century, epitomised by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot; now Xi and Kim.

It is worth quoting (Prince) Kropotkin: ‘So utopian are we that we go the length of believing that the revolution can and ought to assure shelter, food, and clothes to all – an idea extremely displeasing to middle-class citizens’.

This book is profoundly optimistic; we could do with more of its upbeat tone right now. Well-written and cogently argued, the ideas herein are due for a revival. Incidentally, this book was a big influence on the garden city movement in the UK.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in communism, the East India Company, and England?

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