Review: The Trial by Franz Kafka

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2017

kafka trialThe Trial, Franz Kafka

This is the twelfth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. It’s the one which surprised me most so far.

I guess, because I already knew the basic plot — Josef K. is charged with a crime but is never told what he is accused of or how he can defend himself — I’d assumed The Trial would be quite a serious, righteous, outraged novel. And on one level it is; but it’s style is far more comic absurdism, as K. embarks on the uncompletable task of trying to prove his innocence.

He makes impassioned speeches to the court — the kind we all fantasise we’d be capable of — but then realises it’s inconsequential; he randomly finds men being flogged in the store room of the bank where he’s a clerk; he starts an affair with his lawyer’s nurse, almost literally under his nose, while supposed to be discussing his case; he discovers the man who knows most about proceedings is a court painter, Titorelli, who advises him that his only options amount to the same thing — to live in the continual shadow of his assumed guilt.

The book is episodic, disjointed, unfinished. The character of K. is by no means wholly sympathetic — he is, by turns, rude and exploitative — even if his situation is. Somehow, though, none of that matters; it’s a compelling read because the issue it raises — how state oppression of the individual can become commonplace — is timeless.

Review: The Siege by Helen Dunmore

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2017

dunmore siegeThe Siege, Helen Dunmore

This is the eleventh book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. The question ‘The Siege’ asks is blunt and raw: what happens when you starve a city for 2½ years? Leningrad found out, from 1941 to 1944 — an astonishing 872 days — when the Germans laid siege to it.

We see what happens through the eyes of one disjointed family, the Levins: Anna, the nursery worker, and sister/mother to 5 year-old Kolya; their father, Mikhail, a writer dangerously unable and unwilling to toe the Stalinist line; and Marina Petrovna, an old flame of Mikhail’s impelled by necessity into the family bosom.

And we witness their gradual, inevitable, harrowing descent into bare survival, as the vicious pincer of Hitler and a long winter makes their lives unimaginably unendurable. What stands out most are the domestic details: the cups of tea made out of plain water with a dash of salt or sugar; cooking Kolya’s papier-mache fort to release a few essential calories; those who freeze to death waiting in the bread-queue.

If it sounds grim, it is. It was. Yet there is, of course, hope. Anna finds love. She also discovers unknown resilience and how mis-shapen families bind each other together. Gripping, in every sense.

Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2017

Penelope-Lively-Moon-TigerMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively

This is the tenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. It is — let me cut to the chase — superb. I have long loved Penelope Lively’s writing, and this was one of those rainy day books, long-owned but put aside because I knew I’d want to relish it, which prompted me to write my list and get on with actually reading it.

If Lively were a bloke — say, one named Martin or Julian or Kazuo — she’d be fêted as one of the greatest British novelists of the last half-century. As it is, she’s acknowledged (this book did, after all, win the 1987 Booker Prize) yet rarely acclaimed. She’s held to be just a little too middle-brow, too ‘housewifey’, too Radio 4 to be that good. But she is. She really is.

The book is centred on Claudia Hampton, a clever, caustic, glamorous, wilful septuagenarian historian. When we first meet her, she is dying of cancer. Hers, though, has been a life lived to the max.

From her intense (and, it transpires, incestuous) relationship with her brother, Gordon; to her one true love, Tom, whose death in war-torn Egypt robs her of so much of what-might-have-been (and whose anti-mosquito device gives rise to the book’s title: as it burns, it turns to ash: as we live, we fade); to her on-off fling with Jasper that brings her a daughter she has little time for (in stark contrast to her ‘adopted’ son, Laszlo).

She could be a deeply unsympathetic character; yet, in Lively’s hands, she is too vivid to be anything other than magnetically, magestically interesting.

We flit through time. We see Claudia’s story told from multiple perspectives. But it’s not Lively’s writing style which transfixes (though it is brilliantly done), but the ideas and observations which fizz. Here’s my favourite passage (among many):

‘We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes. Our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous.’


Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’ – sign the petition, write to your MP

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2017

I’ve spent the past 24 hours watching events unfold in the US, feeling angry, horrified – and helpless. 

Two small (I’m well aware) practical things I’ve done are: 

(1) sign that petition – it’s not really how I’d have worded it, but sometimes that’s not really the point;
(2) written to my MP – which puts Donald Trump on a par with Southern Rail. If that comparison doesn’t hurt him, nothing will. Text below. 

I’m not sure what either will achieve. But it’s a little bit more useful than angrily doing nothing. 

Dear Mr Quin,

I have been horrified watching events in the US this weekend. 

For President Trump to blanket ban individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including those who are British nationals, with no warning and without good reason is shaming for his country. 

What is shaming for this country is that our Prime Minister should take so long even to disagree with his executive order (let alone condemn it). 

It is hard not to conclude that the UK’s desperation for trade deals post-Brexit is blinding your Government to the dangers posed by the Trump administration to the good name of western liberal democracy. 

I ask you to make representations to your party leader to make it clear that the UK should oppose President Trump’s policy, which does such damage to any claim the US might have to be the ‘leader of the free world’. 

I understand the Prime Minister has a duty to talk with democratically elected world leaders irrespective of her own views. I hope, though, that in future when it comes to dealing with the Trump administration she will take her own advice: “engage but beware”.

Thank you in anticipation of your careful consideration of this matter. 

Stephen Tall

On coming out as a feminist

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2017

I’ve long fought shy of the term ‘feminist’. On the occasions I was asked if I was one, I’d brush it aside: “I don’t want to be one of those try-hard guys who uses the label as bragging rights.” There was some truth to that.

There’s also some truth that I find it a bit presumptuous to say “I’m a feminist.” (Why should anyone care?)

But probably the biggest single reason has been that, at least until relatively recently, I wasn’t a feminist. At least, not explicitly.

If I was anything, I guess I was an implicit feminist. I believed in equal rights (genuinely) and reckoned that was enough. Women, I would muse in the abstract, should be free to do whatever they like; and thankfully, I’d add, their rights are now protected by law.

It was a complacency rooted in my own experience. My mum had a career she loved (teaching) to which she happily returned; after which it was my dad, whose hours as a church minister were flexible, who did the school-run. We all did our share (ish) of house-work, especially after my mum got chronic fatigue syndrome. My professional life has been in education, about as female-friendly a sector as you get, often for women bosses, which I’ve enjoyed.

Truth is, while I’m sure I must at times have been simply oblivious to it, I suspect I’ve been pretty insulated from sexism.

Then, gradually, I’ve become more aware that my previous experience isn’t a universal.

From little things; such as trying to buy my nieces presents which weren’t just dolls and princesses and glittery from the PINK half of the toy shop. To big things; such as my partner having to find a new job when she went back to work after our son was born because her company (female boss, incidentally) were utter shits about her hours.

And then once you see it, you notice it (the patriarchy!) EVERYWHERE.

Seriously. From dads failing to pull their weight at home; to Hillary Clinton’s horrific mauling by the media for the same things her male predecessors habitually did without attracting comment (yes, including the emails); to women being held to blame for being sexually assaulted if they wear what they want. (There was another example of that latter one just today; it’s what prompted this rant.)

So… I still don’t feel comfortable with the label, still a bit self-conscious of it. But sexism is still all around us. And the only thing needed for it to triumph is for wishy-washy blokes to do nothing because calling yourself a feminist makes you feel a bit weird.

So, sod it: I’m a feminist.

What Vote Leave said about UK membership of the single market

by Stephen Tall on January 18, 2017

So this morning I tweeted:

I got a fair few replies to this and to my blog-post yesterday, in which I wrote:

I can’t feign the outrage I’ve seen expressed today about our departure from the single market. Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result.

So here’s my all-purpose response to those who disagreed in various ways…

It’s true that various Leavers said different things in the run-up to the 23 June referendum. Then again, there was scarcely unity in the Remain camp either: the visions of Cameron, Corbyn and Farron of the future of the EU were very different (even if they were mostly suppressed during the campaign itself).

But the official Vote Leave campaign was clear: exiting the EU meant leaving the single market. Check out its official site or any of the reports from the campaign, such as that FT headline in my tweet.

And if you don’t want to take it from the Vote Leave side, what about checking out what Remain’s Stronger In campaign had to say here? There are regular attacks on the Leavers for saying the UK should no longer be members of the single market.

Now, as I said in the excerpt from my blog, above, I think Vote Leave were deliberately, even misleadingly, ambiguous about the distinction between membership of the single market and access to it. Its leaders would doubtless disagree.

Remainers should, though, be cautious before accusing others of questionable campaigning: after all, the early recession many of us expected hasn’t materialised. Sure, we warned of the economic risks in good faith. But maybe we should consider Vote Leave argued to get out of the single market in good faith, too?

Beyond the principle of it, by the way, there is another reason why Vote Leave openly supported the UK leaving the single market — it wanted to avoid being portrayed by Remain as being in favour of a Norway-style model of associate EU membership (paying a membership fee but not making the rules) as that would have torpedoed its three principal lines of attack: that the UK would be £350m a week richer outside the EU, that we could control immigration, and that we should ‘take back control’.

One final point. I’ve previously been a supporter of referendums for settling key issues. I like the idea of a participatory democracy. The 23rd June has made me think again – and not just because my side lost (though I suppose I’ve thought about it more because it did).

There was a fundamental flaw and structural imbalance in the referendum campaign. Remain had to defend the EU, not an easy gig after two decades of full-frontal media assault. Leave’s job was purely oppositional: to say the UK could be better off out of the EU. But I like the maxim ‘no opposition without proposition’.

So, if we are to have future referendums in this country, we should expect both sides to produce manifestos which set out their plans for full scrutiny — as, to be fair, the SNP did in advance of the Scottish referendum on independence.

Theresa May’s Hard Brexit: politically and tactically smart

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2017

It’s official: it’s a hard Brexit. We’re not just exiting the EU, confirmed Theresa May today, we’re also exiting the single market and probably the customs union also.

Now, I’m a Remainer and last year’s 23rd June result left me pretty numbed. Not because I’m emotionally attached to the EU — I’ve long counted myself a liberal Eurosceptic who’s actually pretty embarrassed by the way too many Lib Dems fetishise the EU — but because Vote Leave owed its majority to naked xenophobia.

We don’t know exactly how many of the 52% belong to the send-the-bloody-foreigners-back-home brigade. But I’m pretty sure it was enough to be decisive. The votes of racists counted equally alongside the votes of those who just wanted to ‘take back control’.

So I was angry then. But, ultimately, that’s a wasteful and futile condition (see Twitter passim). And, honestly, I was more impressed than I expected to be today by the Prime Minister’s speech. Though I wouldn’t have started from here, her’s is the speech I’d have made if I were standing in her kitten heels.

First, it’s politically smart. Mrs May has earned a lot of capital today from Ukip, the Tory right and the Daily Mail. Like it or not those audiences matter to her. The optimistic ‘Global Britain’ tone will likely prove popular with the public, too, with those continuing to fight the ‘Remain’ side risking sounding like unpatriotic moaning minnies.

Secondly, it’s tactically smart. The Prime Minister is about to enter the toughest and most complex set of negotiations this country has had to undertake in over 70 years. She can’t do that on the back foot. She needed to offer a clear vision, one which strikes a deliberately independent pose, to anchor the British position in a way which avoids ambiguity or hostages to fortune. I think she largely succeeded.

That’s why I can’t feign the outrage I’ve seen expressed today about our departure from the single market. Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result.

But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge.

It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark. That might well mean years of fumbling around unable to find what we’re looking for and knocking over something really valuable by mistake. But it might also mean our eyes adjust quicker than we’re expecting and we’re able to navigate the obstacles in our path without tripping over (much). Only time will tell.

Why 2016 was a good year

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2016

Well, actually, it wasn’t, so ‘scuse the click-bait headline.

But the worse politics has looked (at least to those of a usually sunny, liberal disposition who don’t enjoy pointing an accusatory finger at foreigners for all the wrongs of the world) the better have been the prospects of the Lib Dems.

The party’s unpresidented unprecedented success in local council by-elections this year and rapid membership growth were straws in the wind for the typhoon that was the Richmond by-election triumph.

It’s hard to imagine that six months ago 41% of the public people would be predicting 2017 would be a good year for the Lib Dems. I wouldn’t. And yet:


Still, as pro-cake and pro-having it is the collective default mode at the moment, let me end by hoping that 2017 is both a better year for politics and also a good one for we liberals.

Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

by Stephen Tall on December 20, 2016

220px-the_little_stranger_sarah_watersThe Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

This is the ninth book plucked from my #40booksby40 list. I’ve read all Sarah Waters’ other novels, loved each of them in their different ways, but had put off The Little Stranger: ghost stories aren’t really my thing.

But I should have realised that, though this is an homage to the genre, Sarah Waters isn’t really telling a ghost story. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War this is a story about that very British obsession, class, and our inability to feel at ease with it.

It’s told by Dr Faraday, who – like his scientist namesake – is working-class ‘made good’, yet plagued by guilt at the sacrifices his parents made, feeling uncomfortably precarious as a middle-class professional, and remains brittly envious of the upper classes (represented by the Ayres family), no matter that they’re on their uppers.

As a child, he chiselled a decorative acorn from the moulding at the family’s Hundreds Hall, where his mother was in service. As an adult, he returns to ‘haunt’ it, literally if not figuratively.

Called in to treat a malingering servant, Betty, who complains of the house’s atmosphere (ironically she remains a something of ghost at the house for the rest of the book), Dr Faraday establishes himself as a trusted friend and confidante; as, simultaneously, the three surviving Ayres’s meet different, tragic, unexplained ends.

His vanilla demeanor and bland descriptions are at odds with the chaos that is unleashed by his presence in their lives. Is his the one voice of rational sanity in a world gone mad? Or is he an unreliable narrator of events he’s somehow set in train?

Waters is too canny an author to indulge the reader who wants to know for sure. Instead we are left frustratedly hanging with an unresolved and deliberately enigmatic ending, reading into it what we want, filling in the gaps according to our own assumptions. Just like people do in ghost stories, in fact.

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

by Stephen Tall on December 13, 2016

brief-historyA Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

This is the eight book plucked from my #40booksby40 list. And I’ll get straight to it: there are books I admire more than I enjoy, and this is definitely one of them.

I understand why it won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The story is told in first-person by more than 75 different characters, each with their own, distinctive, vibrant voice. Its scope is ambitious, spanning three decades and the inter-relationship of Jamaican domestic and US foreign politics. It will, I imagine, make for a brilliant HBO series (its rights have been snapped up).

With all that going for it, what are my problems with the novel?

First, it’s over-long. There are three-and-a-half compelling characters: gangster Josey Wales, journalist Alex Pierce, and groupie-turned-survivor-chameleon Nina Burgess (/ Kim Clarke / Dorcas Palmer / Millicent Segree); the half is tortured gay coke-head, Weeper. When the focus is on them the story comes alive. When it’s not, the story drags, especially in the ponderous first two-thirds.

Secondly, it’s really, really hard work. Not just wading through the vast tracts of extraneous interior monologuing; not just the Jamaican patois; but mostly understanding the core of the story as the bitter power struggle between Jamaica’s two dominant parties, the JLP and PNP (exemplified by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley which is both central, and curiously irrelevant, to the novel).

I don’t want to be too down on it, though. There is some superb writing: Bam-Bam being buried alive is told excruciatingly well. There is also some sharp, dry wit — such as Josey Wales’ savvy playing-to-type when speaking to his FBI contacts, remembering ‘to say at least one no problem, mon … just so he leave thinking he find the right man’. And the pace definitely picks up towards the end.

But, boy, do you have to bumbaclot commit.

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