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Kevin Watkins: Save the Children CEO shares his reading list

I try to listen to an hour of the BBC’s Today radio programme before I leave home, usually while I am mopping breakfast-related items off the floor. We have children aged nine months and three years, so my day starts pretty early — I get up with them and leave at about 7:30am.

I live in Telegraph Hill in south-east London and work in Farringdon, north of the river Thames. I cycle in about half the time and I have a couple of good backstreet routes; my bike is a clattery old thing that won’t get stolen. If it is raining I usually take the Overground.

The train is always busy in the mornings and I have a mini-ritual. Between New Cross Gate and Canada Water stations (where it is difficult to get space) I go though emails and try to clear as many as I can. A lot of people change at Canada Water, so between there and Whitechapel, I go through my schedule on my phone.

Before I get to the office, I try to sneak a quick look at the Spurs football blogs and the BBC website. On the way home, I like to clear my head and think about other things, so I usually have a novel on the go.

I travel a lot for work. North-east Nigeria was the last place I visited. On a flight out, I try to absorb the brief so that I can be useful when I get there. On the way back, when I am pretty exhausted, I will either read, watch movies or listen to radio programmes.

The Books

Save the Children is a big, complicated organisation with 1,200 staff and many different functions, and I think a lot about that. I am currently reading The Silo Effect by Gillian Tett. It is about how large organisations often fail to share the right type of information internally, which makes it hard for them to achieve their external goals.

Save the Children is running school tents and play areas for children in one of the camps in Iraq for people displaced from Mosul. It will be expanding to two more camps in the coming weeks.

I am keen to improve my understanding of the Middle East, so I have read Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History and I am working my way through the follow-up, The Fall of the Ottomans. They are historical books but Rogan narrates them like brilliant stories and they are about the lives of people.

Because of the migration issues we face, I have been reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is about the great migration of African Americans from the south to the north of the US. It is an extraordinary story and, given some of the language being used about Mexicans today, it is important to remember that 40 to 50 years ago, there were the same frictions inside the US.

Radio and Films

I keep radio programmes on my iPad. I listen to them when flying home from work trips. If my brain is struggling to take in the written word I go for BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. It is very important for what we do — Melvyn Bragg gets three experts together and forces them to tell a story in a way a generalist can understand. I recently listened to one on Muslim Spain.

Not long ago I watched The Tree of Wooden Clogs on a plane, and I have a long list of old movies I can watch any number of times. I am also addicted to early John le Carré adaptations, such as Smiley’s People. They are very dark, sparse and incredibly powerful.

This article was originally published in the Financial Times.

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