5 things about this week (7 October 2019)

by Stephen Tall on October 7, 2019


I solo-hosted the first live ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast this weekend. Regular co-host Mark Pack was husting to be Lib Dem party president (a fact the party had failed to mention to him until the week before) though thankfully Sean Kemp, a former No.10 advisor and head of political communications for the Lib Dems during the coalition government, agreed to stand in alongside our long-planned guest, Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of Demos and Nick Clegg’s former director of policy.

I try and prepare any live event in front of an audience pretty carefully. It’s all too easy for your mind to go blank, so I like the security blanket of a sheaf of notes in front of me. (The memory of a speech I gave at a Lib Dem conference event – at which I only had to speak for 5 minutes, but realised after 3 minutes I had nothing left to say – is seared on my consciousness.)

And I was glad I did this time. Because while I’ve chaired many events over the years, the format has been familiarly standard: panellists speak for a few minutes each, you take a couple of rounds of questions, you wrap up, job done.

But a podcast is meant to be, should be, looser, more spontaneous, conversational; yet there also needs to be some basic structure – a sense the discussion is moving along – to avoid it becoming an hour’s meandering waffle. Plus there were questions I wanted to ask, points I wanted to make. All while sticking to our allotted hour’s time-slot.

Which is a long way of saying… (1) it’s a lot harder than it looks and I have new-found respect for interviewers and debate hosts, and (2) my apologies to the audience – I’d genuinely intended to bring them in, through straw polls and inviting questions to the panel, but failed utterly in the pressure of the moment.

However, while I’ve not listened back to it, I think it’ll still be a really good listen. Polly’s confession to a “toxic part” of her she can’t suppress that hopes no-deal Brexit does happen and is a disaster which wakes deluded Leavers up is self-awarely candid and amusing. And I also enjoyed Sean’s reason for declaring Dominic Cummings a genius: “he’s convinced everyone that any and all government chaos is deliberate… I wish I’d convinced everyone the Lib Dems getting rubbish press proved how great I was at my job.”

Subscribe to ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ through your usual podcast app and it’ll be ready for you as soon as it’s uploaded.



Polly’s Brexit answer was in response to my question: “What do you personally want to happen now?” Which was my deliberate attempt to get beyond the official Lib Dem policy – revoke if the party wins a majority; second referendum if it doesn’t – which both Polly and Sean agreed was the right policy electorally; but were also uneasy about (because democracy) in the incredibly unlikely circumstances the party were in a position actually to implement it.

I find myself similarly conflicted. My Brexit journey is easily summarised.

Immediately after the referendum result, I was gutted, but (of course) accepted democracy has to be respected, and hoped for a soft Brexit option of a ‘Norway-plus’ model. Then I was a very reluctant defender of Theresa May’s deal as ‘the best deal possible within the arbitrary red lines the Conservatives have drawn’. However, I wasn’t sorry when it was voted down, both because I didn’t much like it and because the fact it was rejected by Conservative ERG diehards excised me of my residual adherence to the original referendum result. After all, if its own supporters can’t agree what Leave actually means, then I don’t see how they any longer have a mandate to speak for the will of the British people.

As a result, I guess I’m a radicalised Remainer, who now hopes the UK can stay within the EU (after a referendum). At the same time, I can’t help feeling it might be better if we left, came to our senses as a nation, and then re-joined enthusiastically. That feels morally better. But it comes at a very real cost: both the economic hit we’ll take outside the EU, and that we’ll lose the present preferential membership agreement hard won by Mrs Thatcher and John Major.

See, I’m a typical liberal: fence-sitting even on the biggest issue of the day.



Confession: I love reading but I’m quite rubbish at finishing books. There are, for example, 16 books on my Kindle currently showing as started-not-completed. Result: I read, as in get to the last page, about 8-10 books a year.

This makes me a ‘moderate’ reader according to the definition offered in a survey by the US National Endowment for the Arts, reported by The Atlantic, which found that, of the 53 per cent of Americans who said they had read at least on book in the previous 12 months:
– 23 percent of American adults were “light” readers (finishing one to five titles per year),
– 10 percent were “moderate” (six to 11 titles),
– 13 percent were “frequent” (12 to 49 titles), and
– a dedicated 5 percent were “avid” (50 books and up).

I can aspire to ‘frequent’, but know myself better than to aim for ‘avid’… unless we can include ‘books started’, of course.



And talking of reading, please do make time for Zadie Smith’s essay, Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction, in the New York Review of Books. It’s an incredibly thoughtful response to being a writer (or reader) of fiction in our age of the ‘problematic’, in which “the old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”

What would our debates about fiction look like, I sometimes wonder, if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not “cultural appropriation” but rather “interpersonal voyeurism” or “profound-other-fascination” or even “cross-epidermal reanimation”? Our discussions would still be vibrant, perhaps even still furious—but I’m certain they would not be the same. …

… we seek to shore up the act of writing with false defenses, like the dubious idea that one could ever be absolutely “correct” when it comes to representing fictional human behavior. I understand the desire — I have it myself — but what I don’t get is how anyone can possibly hope to achieve it. What does it mean, after all, to say “A Bengali woman would never say that!” or “A gay man would never feel that!” or “A black woman would never do that!”? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds? (It is to be noted that the argument “A white man would never say that!” is rarely heard and is almost structurally unimaginable. Why? Because to be such a self is to be afforded all possible human potentialities, not only a circumscribed few.) …

Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all. One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA, that it was the product of compassion.

Read the whole thing here, now.



I actually went to the cinema (first time since Murder on the Orient Express last year: welcome to a life of having young kids, so never leaving the house except for parents’ evening) and watched Tod Phillips’ Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. I don’t really understand why it’s become so controversial – the tired old ‘glorifying violence’, ‘copycat killers’ clichés – but, as a definite non-fan of comic book-inspired movies, I thought it was terrific. Phoenix in particular is just sublime. But the political narrative is cleverly layered. The music and cinematography is top-notch. So, ignore the ‘hot takes’ and just enjoy a really well-made movie.

Talking of hot takes… I’ve just watched the first season of BBC1’s Killing Eve and I can reliably inform you that yes, you were all right, it is terrific. I don’t know why I doubted you and I’m sorry I put off watching it for so long.


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Milo's been cycling for ages but wanted to keep the stabilizers on because speed. Then he realised other children were cycling without them. So today was the first non-stabilisers cycle. And he soon discovered he could still do speed.

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