He is a gifted storyteller with a genius for unearthing the unexpected, and the brief lives — some famous, most not — that make up the bulk of his book are ideal for audio listening. His examples of the “power of decency” include how Danny Boyle ensured that his 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was such a spectacular surprise; an ex-Roedean debutante fighting a rearguard action against the Japanese with a loyal band of Indian guerrillas in the Second World War; how the Empire State Building was completed in a year thanks to fair-minded working practices; and the making of Game of Thrones without any Weinstein nastiness. Roger Davis, a fine producer as well as narrator of audiobooks, tells the tales with jaunty, can-do chutzpah. “The path to greatness doesn’t require crushing displays of power or tyrannical ego. Simple fair decency can prevail.”
Bodanis is a superb storyteller and his account of these two transitions is riveting. His description of the techniques Goebbels used — discrediting the press, calling democratic institutions “fake”, silencing dissent — is chillingly familiar and shows how easy it is for things to go horribly wrong. His account of Roosevelt’s new-found empathy for the disadvantaged also shows us how things can go right.