I’ve read a lot of new books this year but haven’t got round to writing up little reviews of them like I was doing last year. So I thought I might try and catch-up with posts about the standouts over the next few months.
The grime scene started in Bow, a mile or so away from where I live in East London. You can see the ‘three flats’ in the photo on the cover of the book from our window. The book is the story of grime from about 2003 through to the current day.
The headlines would have you believe that grime was just about gangs, guns and knives but it was also a creative outpouring about how badly politicians and the people who ran London at the time misjudged the impact of their policies on the lives of poor people (particularly poor black people) in East London. People in the grime scene were persecuted by the police, the city and politicians — in a way that was only thinly veiled racism.
The music was (and is) incredibly claustrophobic. Lots of the early lyrics focused on a few square miles around Roman Road and Bow. Dan Hancox contrasts it with the expansive, epic ‘Empire State of Mind’ by Jay-Z about New York which is full of wealth, bling and private jets. Grime is about what it feels like to have no hope of escape and Hancox thinks Dizzee Rascal called his album ‘Boy in Da Corner’ because he felt trapped. The urban music scenes in the US and UK scenes were very different. These days people from both scenes are multi-millionaires but the music came from very different places.
I remember going to grime nights in Shoreditch in 2005/6 and having no idea what was going on. Ten years later and some of the people who were there are some of the most successful artists in the UK music industry. Not only have they become successful themselves but they’ve changed the way the music industry is organised. Grime was about being an outsider and independent which meant that it took them ages to actually break through — as Hancox points out, grime wasn’t really commercially successful until 2016 (except for a few artists who had to morph their style to get mainstream acceptance). Now the independence that grime artists hung on to is much more the norm. The music industry has been transformed.
The book is a fantastic story of some of the people who hung on in there for over a decade while the music they loved gradually gained acceptance. Take Wiley who is interviewed throughout the book — you get the feeling he believed it it would be big from one day. He was always building up people, and helping out younger artists. There’s a hint of satisfaction in the later interviews with him, that a bunch of poor black teenagers from an estate in East London made their mark. You can’t help but root for him. Against the mainstream, against discrimination, against politics, against the police, their message finally made it — like he always knew it would.
There’s some great science fiction around at the moment. I’m not sure what’s going on but something about the present is inspiring great writing about the future. One of the best books I’ve read this year is Seveneves by Neal Stephenson — minor plot spoilers ahead so beware.
The novel starts with the Moon blowing up. It does so in a fairly matter of fact way — one minute it’s there and the next something (we never find out what) has caused it to disintegrate into many smaller parts. It takes a short while for scientists to realise that this is very bad for Earth dwellers and will eventually lead to so many pieces of rock entering the Earth’s atmosphere that the surface of the planet will become a firey mess and uninhabitable for thousands of years. The novel is the story of how human beings try to survive.
Weighing in at 880 pages, it’s hardly a short story and Stephenson manages to use that to give the most plausible version of life in space that I’ve read. There’s no warp speed or magic device for creating gravity. Food is scarce and death is random and frequent. The ‘Seven Eves’ of the title are the only survivors (down from seven billion) capable of reproduction five years after the surface of the Earth has become uninhabitable. Ingenuity is all that the human race has on its side. Robotics become one of the most invaluable technologies and in the end, other than physics, the thing that threatens humans more than anything is our inability to agree on anything.
It’s not perfect and some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional (the young Hillary Clinton like US President I found difficult to believe), but it’s an amazing piece of writing that draws you into a version of the future I think we do need to understand.
based on Diane Coyle’s recommendation. Like Diane, I sped through the book in a couple of sittings and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a wonderful, authentic, honest story about how Guy unlearned some of the unfortunate things an elite formal education can instill in you and then learned some new, more positive approaches to living life and doing business. These were mainly inspired by Warren Buffett but the book is full of all kinds of useful references to books and people that helped Guy think things through along the way.
I’m spending a lot of time at the moment thinking about the kind of investor I want to be and I learned a huge amount from the book. There are a couple of things that are different for me though — firstly, I’ve taken to investing because I want to help new things into the world — usually startups. Hence you could never really call what we do at BGV ‘value investing’ which is entirely focussed on businesses that have been around for a while and have safe, predictable cashflows. And secondly I want to help those ventures to have a positive social impact — Guy has mainly surrounded himself by people who see a disctinction between their day jobs backing businesses that act ethically but are also profitable (fundamentally they aren’t out to change the world for the better) and charities that ‘do good’. I see much less of a distinction and want to try to support ventures that do both.
It’s a great book for anybody who is interested in having a happier, more fulfilling work life and bravo to Guy for the honesty and openness he shows throughout.