Flowers next to a book


Why projects fail, how to be a maverick, US dynasties and the shadow Beijing is casting over all of us

Published: 3 May 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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Book cover, The Modern Maverick

The Modern Maverick by Ed Haddon, (Bloomsbury, 2023)

The author (Oriel, 1991) has successfully run a life coaching business and, yes, this is in every sense a self-help book with little sections where you can jot notes and reflect on your life.

But it’s better than that sounds (there are too many such books, obviously).

The sub-title, Why writing your own rules is better for you, your work, and the world, is not an invitation to anarchy or tax fraud but rather a personal stock-taking that separates out real success from worldly burn-out, a common theme of discussions held at Oxford University’s careers centre on Woodstock Road.

It brims with the latest wisdom, always wielded deftly, summarising all the areas of a successful life from the way that small money habits can lead to financial freedom to the latest science on gut flora, ultra-processed foods and what alcohol actually does to affect your sleep patterns.

Ultimately, says Ed, we all want to achieve a greater sense of freedom and agency in a world where the illusion of those values is constantly beamed at us through corrosive models of material consumption and social media comparison.

The idea of a ‘modern maverick’ probably isn’t much different from what it might have been twenty, fifty or a hundred years ago. In fact it feels very Oxonian to this reviewer – people who see through the nonsense, aided by a good education, and take life by the scruff while minding to the basics and not forgetting their pilates lessons. There’s more besides and quite a lot about childhood trauma, and fair enough, but the core message is always the same: no one is watching your movie so make sure the role you assume is the one that you want. Most deathbed regrets rest on having been stuck acting out someone else’s script.


Book jacket for How Big Things Get Done

How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors Behind Every Successful Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration, by Professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner (Macmillan, 2023)

This book is flying off the shelves and it’s so easy to see why. It wears a lifetime’s research so lightly that the reader gets treated to a buffet of stories, many of them told with a wry sense of humour, anchored in a deceptively simple book structure amounting to wisdom potentially worth billions of dollars. Yes really. The Chair of Major Programme Management at Oxford, Professor Flyvbjerg originally began to collect data on large projects ranging from bridge and tunnel building to nuclear power stations, Olympic games and latterly IT projects. A couple of hundred case studies eventually bloomed to 16,000. The insight is that just 0.5%, or one in two hundred projects, come in on time, budget and claimed benefit. Meanwhile everything got much worse with technology, so that IT projects often go colossally wrong where a tunnel or a bridge might just be abysmally wrong. The prose style is humourous without trying too hard. When it was opened in 2004, the Scottish Parliament Building was three years late ‘and a bag-pipe exploding 978 percent over budget.’ As these cases mount up, and they include ordinary couples replacing their kitchens and getting it wrong most of the time while not being able to say why, we all watch with semi-detached amusement mixed up with (I’m going to guess) rueful self-insight.

Each chapter explores a different dimension of the Great Fail. But that data base offers a salvation called Reference Class Forecasting (RCF). This is dealt with in Chapter 6. It sounds dreadfully dull but it turns out to be utterly brilliant. You want a nuclear power station or an aircraft carrier? The data base turns out to be an oracle of sorts because it will frame your neat little plan in the harsh world of hindsight and experience. Dozens of governments and organisations have adopted it and the measure of ‘failure’ has fallen by on average 30%, equalling, we can surmise, many billions of dollars. An addictive read.


Book jacket for Morgenthau

Morgenthau: Power, Privilege, and the Rise of an American Dynasty by Andrew Meier (Random House, 2022)

We are a bit late to this magnificent volume, published last year. A dozen years in the researching by author Andrew Meier (Univ, 1986) it runs to just over a thousand riveting pages of global history told through the enlightening lens of an American dynasty, that of the Morgenthau family. It is also a rags to riches story; an immigration story; a German Jewish story; a New Yorker story; a World War story (both 1914 and 1939); a real estate story and above all a legal story, Robert Morgenthau serving nine successive beats as District Attorney in New York before retiring in 2009, then going to work each and every day until his death age 99.


Book jacket for Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons

Passionate Mothers, Powerful Sons; The Lives of Jennie Jerome Churchill and Sara Delano Roosevelt by Charlotte Gray (Simon & Schuster, 12 September 2023). 

We are a bit early to this magnificent volume, which will be published in September, but it’s a balancing act for Morgenthau and it looks at the women rather than the men. A double biography of two women who were both born in 1854 into New York’s wealthy elite, but were complete contrasts in personality. Despite the restrictions of the times, each demonstrated impressive agency in their own lives, and formed a powerful relationship with her son. Charlotte’s (St Hilda’s, 1966) book is a well-researched and lively re-examination of the lives of these two formidable women, who have often been denigrated by their sons’ biographers.


Book jacket for Beijing's Global Media Offensive

Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s uneven campaign to influence Asia and the World by Joshua Kurlantzick (Oxford University Press, 2023)

The author is a Senior Fellow at US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations and the book has the air of an extended briefing. But it’s very important and anyone who believes in a free society with a free press might commit to reading it.

By 2020 China was holding more reporters in jail than any other country in the world, while there has been a sharp increase in direct collaboration between Beijing and Moscow to promote open disinformation regarding subjects such as Ukraine. Social media platforms like TikTok and WeChat are poised for a starring but deliberately opaque role in promoting a Beijing-shaped view of the world, while some of the clumsier censorship of the past is being joined now by clever, West-aping media content that remains, out of sight, state-owned and controlled.

One example of the latter is state-owned Shanghai Media Group’s English-language channel Sixth Tone (2016-) loosely compared by some to Vox. It purports to be critical, open and free, probing an environmental abuse or even occasionally a provincial government. But it’s all carefully orchestrated if you drill down. The author openly asks if, say, Fox News is much the same, owing to a wilfully manipulated agenda. His detailed answer is that it’s not great no, but it’s a false equivalence to equate Fox and its equivalents with purposefully controlled state media.

The book is about far more than just journalism. There is an invaluable stock-taking that takes us back to the pre-Xi Jinping days in the not-so-distant past – the noughties and the early teens.

Remember the Confucius Institute Project that began in 2004, with sponsored Chinese language and cultural programmes on campuses everywhere from Thailand to the UK? It was a slightly-alarming charm offensive but by and large the money was happily taken by schools and universities, resulting in 1,074 classrooms by the late 2010s. Towards the end of the book the author returns to this specific higher education example. He says there is no need to force the Confucius Classrooms to close. Instead, they should be held to domestic rules and ‘transparent about their governance in Beijing.’ If they can’t be transparent then they should be ‘shuttered.’ He continues, ‘…and thus in democracies most of these institutes likely will be shuttered.’

What else can the West do? Law-makers could be far more engaged in social media platforms and how they work. They could read this book and be better informed. They should bring themselves up to date on the rapid rise of Chinese ‘sharp’ power as opposed to ‘soft’ power – actively creating (often opaque) havoc or coercing institutions and individuals, rather than merely portraying China in a good light.

But above all they need to understand and support good journalism at a moment in history when the internet has both undermined traditional news outlets while social technology platforms offer trouble-makers a huge opportunity for mischief. None of this is especially new and the author is fully aware that ‘the West’, where we mean ‘democracy’, is itself under stress, suffering all sorts of indignities and corruptions. The UK is mentioned in this frame and so of course is the US, the latter fallen from 89 to 83 between 2017-2021, for its Freedom House ‘Freedom of the World’ score – placing it alongside Mongolia, Croatia and Argentina ‘and other countries one does not necessarily associate with robust democracy.’

But China is the main subject here and the book makes plain that there is much to be concerned about. It is an invaluable, timely and impeccably-sourced guide and it deserves a wide and urgent audience.

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