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.

Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

by Stephen Tall on December 12, 2016

orwell-cataloniaHomage to Catalonia, George Orwell

This is the seventh book plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

I have a bit of a love-hate thing for The Other Mr Blair. Animal Farm was one of my GCSE English Lit set texts (along with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea), which simultaneously meant I studied it cover-to-cover while ensuring I’d never want to read it ever again. I also tried to read 1984 as a 13 year-old, in a silly teenage attempt to impress my English teacher, which, again, killed my enjoyment.

Orwell’s inclusion on my list is, therefore, partly to atone for spoiling him for myself; but it’s also why it’s the only non-fiction entry (I still can’t face another Orwell novel).

It’s a fun, pacy read. Which may not seem an apt description of a raw inside account of the Spanish civil war, but it’s true – for example, his detailed, fascinated description of being shot: “roughly speaking, it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion”.

It’s also at times genuinely funny, such as his affectionate swipe at Spanish mañana temperament: “Few Spaniards possess the damnable efficiency and consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs”.

And it includes a timeless motto, especially apt for our post-truth zeitgeist: “I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.”

I’ll admit to skimming the chapters dedicated to acronym-heavy dissections of the leftist splits which caused Orwell such pain – his free-spirited revolutionary socialism was antithetical to the Stalinist communists, for all that they supposedly were on the same side. But the description of the mind-numbing boredom and futility of much of the ground-war is vividly authentic.

I’m still not up for another Orwell novel just yet. But I’ll happily give his journalism another go.

3 quick thoughts on the Richmond Park by-election

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2016

The last two times I’ve gone to bed reasonably confident my side would win an election, I’ve had a rotten, sleepless night.

Last night I went to bed reckoning my side would fall just short and Richmond Park would be added not to the list of great Liberal by-election triumphs (Orpington, Eastbourne, Brent East) but of near misses (Birmingham Hodge Hill, Henley, Witney).

And to think liberals are supposed to be optimists… 2016 has, though, severely tested our usually sunny disposition.

Anyway, huge congratulations to Sarah Olney for over-turning Zac Goldsmith’s 23,000+ majority. A 22% swing isn’t a record; though it may be if you factor in the campaign was only five weeks’ long.

Three quick thoughts on its implications:

1. Boost to Lib Dem profile

Ever since the May 2015 electoral catastrophe, the Lib Dems have been regarded by much of the media (print and broadcast) either as a joke or an irrelevance — or both. The Richmond result won’t stop that altogether, but it might give some pause for thought.

Diane James’s brief sortie as Ukip leader achieved top-item billing on the news programmes; by contrast, the election last year of Tim Farron, now the longest-serving national party leader (!), merited just a few seconds towards the end of the BBC News at Ten.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Richmond Park will mean the media gives the Lib Dems a fair chance.

2. Forget the policy, feel the campaign

I’m, not a big fan of the Lib Dems’ Brexit strategy. I explained why here. I think Brexit will happen, indeed has to happen. I’d prefer us to be practical about how it happens.

But maybe I’m wrong (it’s been known). For a sensible Brexit to take place, there needs to be a contest of views. Labour, wholly self-absorbed, looks to be hopelessly incapable for the forseeable of providing any leadership on the European issue.

That leaves the Lib Dems as the only national, mainstream, unabashedly pro-European (too much so sometimes) party with any clout. If the Lib Dems don’t resist the ‘hard Brexiteers’ and their jingoistic folly, who will?

I still don’t think the Lib Dem Brexit strategy — a second referendum once the deal’s terms are known — is likely to succeed. But, perhaps, this time that simply doesn’t matter. The debate needs some Remain anchoring and that task is now the Lib Dems’ duty.

The fact it also appears to be a pretty canny campaigning strategy is just a bonus.

3. The Scotland analogy

This is tentative. There are lots of — obvious — difference between the current national political picture and the earthquake in Scottish politics this past decade. (Not least of which is the sensitivity of the electoral system.)

And yet…

The SNP has secured a dominant position, at least for the moment, as the doughty defenders of national interest. Ditto the Tories at a UK level.

Meanwhile Labour is falling between two stools: in Scotland it is neither quite pro-union nor pro-independence; on Europe, it is neither quite pro- or anti-Brexit. That’s mostly because these issues divide its voters most viscerally in its heartlands; it’s also because of a pattern of weak leadership both north and south of the border.

Which leaves Tim Farron as the English Ruth Davidson. At this point I admit the analogy strains, but stick with it…

The Tories have rescued themselves in Scotland, elbowing Labour aside as the opposition, because of the opportunity which fell to them: to be the unequivocally pro-union principal opposition to the separatist SNP.

I’m not for a moment claiming the same could be replicated imminently in England: Labour’s strength is too entrenched, the Lib Dems still too battered and bruised.

But what I am saying is that a Lib Dem revival which even six months ago looked like being the hard graft of a quarter-of-a-century might just be a lot more rapid.

My must-reads this week November 18, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week November 11, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Nate Silver, Donald Trump and the polls (AKA: question data, doubt certainty)

by Stephen Tall on November 9, 2016

I’m shocked, stunned and just a little bit scared. So I’m not going even to attempt to write something coherent about President-elect Trump.

While Brexit made things uncertain for the UK, the US election has made things uncertain for the world. Maybe “only” for four years. But that’s a heck of a long time.

So a brief something I can be emotionally detached about: pollsters and forecasters.

I don’t think I’m alone in having spent much of the past couple of months refreshing Nate Silver’s every couple of hours to check his latest reading of the runes. Now Nate has taken a lot of stick over the past few weeks for sticking stubbornly to his model which showed Clinton’s chances significantly lower than others.

In a story which will come to rival the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey beats Truman”, the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim took him head-on: ‘Nate Silver is unskewing polls — all of them. And he’s panicking the world‘.

I doubt Nate’s feeling cheery about the outcome but he’s still got the last laugh. Because what he consistently argued turned out to be scarily prescient: polling errors are pretty common and this contest, because of its high number of undecided voters and unconventional Republican candidate, was extremely uncertain. Here’s how he summed it up:

As I write, it looks like Clinton will secure a narrow win in the popular vote, but, having lost the battleground states, is defeated in the electoral college. The exact scenario posted a few weeks’ ago: ‘How Trump Could Win The White House While Losing The Popular Vote‘.

It took some guts for Nate Silver to adhere to the model and while pollsters and forecasters are taking a half-deserved bashing (the national polls were close; the state polls not) it feels right to give him some kudos.

Final point: I like data. I find it fascinating in politics. We also use it intensely in my day job at the Education Endowment Foundation (generating evidence from randomised controlled trials in education). But it’s also right to be cautious, even sceptical, about data. Don’t trust it blindly, but question it intelligently. One trial in education doesn’t prove (or disprove) anything. Look with an open mind at the weight of existing evidence and then apply some critical, professional judgement when interpreting its findings. Few things are certain: “everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere”, as Dylan Wiliam is fond of noting.

And anyway, uncertainty feels like the best bet right now. Otherwise all I’ve got is an inevitable dread of the next four years.

The US election: 4 things that strike me which aren’t simply “The Donald is awful”

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2016

We are just a day away from whole democratic world going to hell in a handcart. Potentially. I mean, of course, the chance (a roughly 1-in-3 chance) of Donald Trump being elected US president.

I can’t be bothered to write, and I’m sure you can’t be bothered to read, yet another post exhausting the infinite reasons he is unqualified in every possible way for this responsibility. So here are four things about this election campaign which have struck me which aren’t that:

1. ‘Is Hillary a flawed candidate?’ is a banale, flawed question. The answer, obviously, is yes, she is. She is disliked by a significant chunk of the electorate, spanning Alt-Righters to Feel-the Bern-ers. Case closed. However, the more interesting question is, ‘Is the view that Hillary’s a flawed candidate fair?’ To which I’d answer a resounding no. I’d go further: virtually every critique of Hillary I come across is either explicitly or implicitly gendered. Much of it has its roots in the intense dislike 1990s’ Republicans had for Bill and his ‘co-president’ Hillary. This vilification has sometimes resulted in a cagey over-defensiveness by Hillary (one of her biggest flaws) which further fuels that hatred. I’m not saying she’s purer than pure. But she’s no grubbier, despite having her every action scrutinised more than any other living politician. She is, though, more experienced than any other recent candidate — First Lady, senator, Secretary of State — and you can bet your bottom dollar if she were a bloke that would have been judged to outweigh the case for the prosecution.

2. Much has been made of the comparison between Brexit and Trump, in particular its appeal to ‘left behind voters’, those who we’re told haven’t benefited from globalisation. Perhaps, though this ignores two things: (1) the working population voted to Remain but were out-voted by the non-working population; and (2) Trump voters earn on average more than Clinton voters (especially those who are Hispanic or black – and isn’t it strange how we don’t hear so much from them?). The closer comparison between Brexit and Trump is discomfort with foreigners, ‘otherness’. Sometimes that racism is implicit (as with Vote Leave’s ‘Stop the Turks invading’ slogan), other times explicit (Trump labelling Mexicans as rapists). This doesn’t mean, by the way, that Leavers or Trumpkins are automatically racist — there are legitimate reasons for choosing those sides — but it does explain why they’ve assembled a mass movement those legitimate reasons alone wouldn’t have garnered.

3. One of the saddest pieces of archive film footage that’s been doing the social media rounds is a clip of the 1980 Republican primary face-off between Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. There you have two Republicans, both of whom would go to win the presidency, discussing illegal immigration in compassionate, practical, conservative terms — the polar opposite of Trump’s demands for border walls and deportations. What has the GOP come to, that it should shrug off any wish to lead but instead pander to the basest mob instincts?

4. I remember how important the 2004 Bush-Kerry election seemed at the time. Here, after all, was a chance for America to deliver a slap-down to its neo-con president. Matthew Parris wrote a typically shrewd article arguing that a second Bush win was the best outcome, that his ideas had to be allowed to reach their logical, failed conclusion so that voters could see they’d been tested to destruction. Indeed, his victory set up Obama’s in 2008. I say that to console myself in case Trump wins. Sometimes bad things happen for a reason (or, more rationally, Good Things follow Bad Things because reversion to the mean). Besides if we think the 2016 election has been gruesome, think how much worse 2020 might be. Chances are Hillary will be a one-term president. Chances are, if she wins tomorrow, the presidency will revert to the Republicans after 12 years of Democrat incumbency. Then imagine a Trump with some self-control, a Trump capable of pivoting, a Trump who understands how to organise a campaign. And then keep your fingers crossed a Republican emerges who can put Trump’s proto-fascism back in its box.

My must-reads this week November 4, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Stephen Tall on November 2, 2016

ishiguroThe Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the sixth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list. And what I’m about to write pains me because Ishiguro is one of my favourite writers… but The Buried Giant is a crashing disappointment.

I should say, at the outset, I’m not a fantasy fan-boy. If tales of ogres and she-dragons in Saxon Britain are your bag, then perhaps you will wring more enjoyment from this book than me.

Of course, this is Ishiguro: so the novel’s form is merely a device for subtly exploring the themes which power all his work: memory, loss, identity. Previously, though, he has done this by creating characters we care about in situations with which we can identify. Not this time. Instead we get a sledgehammering, throat-ramming parable which is utterly unengaging.

The protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, are on a quest to find their son, but are hampered by a ubiquitous mist which robs they and everyone else of their memories. Along the way they meet a warrior and a knight, inevitably named Sir Gawain, and discover the cause of their forgetfulness is an Arthurian el pacto del olvido designed to keep the peace.

To be fair, the last 50 pages rattle along pretty nicely, but its scant recompense for the preceding 250.

The original meaning of the three Rs

by Stephen Tall on October 28, 2016

We all know what the three Rs stand for, don’t we? More accurately, we know what they stand for now. ‘Twas not ever thus…


So if, like me, you end up desperately searching for YouTube videos to show you how to do even the most basic things, like drill a hole or bleed a radiator, you know what to blame: the Great Exhibition.


From: ‘Is vocational education for the less able?’ by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas in Bad Education: Debunking Myths in Education, Philip Adey and Justin Dillon (eds) (2012, McGraw Hill)

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