culture, history, literature, Personal story

NEW BOOK! Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat

My new book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat, is now out!

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat: Writing on Governing, is both memoir and essay collection. I think it breaks new ground because lowly, literary failed bureaucrats, like me, don’t publish memoirs. It will change how you see government, politics, working life, and bureaucrats. I reflect on politics, government, power, and the most challenging social and political issues of our time, from democracy to political crisis, from mental health to child sexual abuse, and from alcohol to the pandemic. It includes updated and revised posts from this and other blogs, together with much other writing that has never before seen the light of day. This book reveals the hidden life of a thinking government official. It will show you how we are governed, and how ordinary virtues can govern democracies better.

You can buy the book as an ebook or paperback at Amazon, and other retailers such as Booktopia, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. Prices vary… I don’t know why.

Over the next 13 workweek days I will provide little snippets here to give you a taste of each chapter of the book, each of the thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat.

Day Three of Thirteen Days of Looking at a Bureaucrat

The third chapter of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat is the title essay, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat’. It plays with Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’, and seeks to open up the reader’s mind to the many unexpected, even poetic ways you can look at this plain, humble, even despised personality, the bureaucrat.

I wrote on day one that I wrote this book in response to finding no good books on bureaucracy. Here is a brief excerpt from the book that expands on why I turned to Wallace Stevens to help me.

But these representations of life in the bureaucracy have never really registered with me as genuine engagements with the life of the mind as it is practised in our government offices. Yet, it is that very culture, with its foibles, traps and few moments of genius, that I have dedicated the greater part of my working life to. It is that life of the mind in which I have experienced problems as deep, ethical dilemmas, and in which I have made thorny, practical judgements as meticulous as any second-rate university research seminar. But the world would not know this, because bureaucrats do not write essays.

So maybe they should, and maybe I should, and maybe I have already begun. Adam Phillips is an inspiration to me in this task, this attempt, this essay, in more ways than one. He has stepped outside the sterile code of his profession and lifted from its place, discarded on the floor, one of the traditions that exceed the profession’s histories. After all, Freud was a great essayist, perhaps a greater essayist than a psychologist (the opposite may be said of his disciple, turned rival, Carl Jung). And within my profession – with some flexible interpretation of its boundaries across a long and diverse global history – there have been some great essayists, some great investigators of the human spirit as it is tested in the public life of the mind. There are the Chinese ancients for a start. Confucius was, after all, a public official dismayed at the demoralisation of conduct in public office, who roamed the country for years with his teachings that sought to inspire a nobler spirit of duty. There were the great Byzantine scholar-bureaucrats. Indeed, there is the extraordinary Anna Comnena and her portrait of her father, Alexiad. There is Francis Bacon; although we might grant him the title of statesman and grandee, still government official he was. His essays speak still across the centuries to the peculiar obligations, duties and privileges of the bureaucrat who offers advice to a modern-day prince. “The greatest trust, between man and man,” Bacon wrote around 1600 “is the trust of giving counsel.”

So if Bacon’s essays can endure these 400 years, and preserve a wisp of this peculiar, secreted and yet all too human life that I have led as a government official, surely I should honour this tradition by picking it up from its dusty corner and finding a new reinvention of the essay form to speak of the true experience of bureaucracy.

Long ago – maybe ten years ago – I took it into my head to write one such essay about the real life of the mind of bureaucrats – at least the kind of public official that I aspire to be – that would take its cue from Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” Over the years the yearning to express the true spirit has grown stronger as I have watched public institutions and public culture decay around me, and read other testimony of such decay, as in Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay. The first impulse of this essay was to speak as a wistful, even comic, challenge to the many “stakeholders” I had met over the years who had treated me and other faithful public servants with sneering contempt. Take a look at the world through my eyes for a minute, if you will. Think of me as Stevens’ manifold blackbird, and do not fixate on a cardboard cut-out image of who I am, what I do, and, especially, how I think.”

Day Two of Thirteen Days of Looking at a Bureaucrat

The second chapter of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat is Silenced Voice of the Bureaucrat. The second way of looking a a bureaucrat is to see a subtle mind that has been gagged, and who, if that code of silence were released may have something interesting to say. In this chapter I have essays on how speech codes or free speech restrictions impacted me and other public servants. I also write of my long oscillation between writing on governing and wanting to renounce political life. These essays stretch back to 2010, and include essays on Havel, Machiavelli, Leo Strauss and the Chinese and Japanese traditions of letting go of the political world.

Day One of Thirteen Days of Looking at a Bureaucrat

The first chapter is the first way of looking at a bureaucrat, and is entitled, Entering the Maze of Power. This first chapter is a kind of overture, containing themes and premonitions of my path out of the Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy. You will read my story, how I felt torn between a career of bureaucrat and a calling of writer, why I describe power as a maze, and how I chose to write a rare good book on bureaucracy to leave behind that maze.

Please consider buying Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bureaucrat at your preferred outlet.

If you are curious about my writing, please take a look at my collection of essays on culture, history and literature, From the Burning Archive, and subscribe to my free weekly newsletter at

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