Review: Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2016

wintersonOranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson

This is the fifth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

If you know it only as a “coming out novel” or, worse, “that lesbian book”, you are missing out, bigly. Jeanette Winterson’s Künstlerroman is many things: rawly personal, laugh-out-loud funny, gorgeously big-hearted, seriously wise, indulgently surreal, and, yes, brilliantly written (she was just 26 when it was published).

I recall watching the BBC adaptation, which I loved though remembering it always makes me sad: Charlotte Coleman, who played 16 year-old Jeanette, died far too young. But what the TV series couldn’t convey was its Biblical structure: each chapter is named after one of its books, with Jeanette’s life-story framed by it, even as she starts to reject her oppressively evangelical upbringing.

There are scenes which will strike a chord with anyone brought up in a religious family (though, to be clear, mine was much more liberal): the goldfish-bowl social life, friendship, jealousies and judginess can be found in even the mildest Anglican congregation.

Ultimately, Jeanette is reconciled to her mother, to her upbringing, underpinned by acceptance of what is:

Families, real ones, are chairs and tables and the right number of cups, but I had no means of joining one, and no means of dismissing my own.

Universal basic income: nice idea, but that’s as far as it goes

by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2016

Six months’ ago I wrote a blog-post, 3 policies I support in principle, but not in practice, one of which was the universal basic income.

I was prompted by an email I received from Someone I Respect taking me to task for having glibly listed it as a Good Liberal Thing:

“The cheapest rent for a studio in Oxford seems to be c. £750pcm, or £9k per year. Plus council tax, and utilities. So probably £11k a year. Plus food, etc. Are you really going to give that to everyone? You need really, really high rates of tax to get that back. No-one in the party has ever been able to give me a numeric example of a citizen’s income.”

But Tyler Cowen today makes perhaps an even more important argument against its political acceptability:

It’s fair to ask whether a universal income guarantee would be affordable, but my doubts run deeper than that. If two able-bodied people live next door to each other, and one works and the other chooses to live off universal basic income checks, albeit at a lower standard of living, I wonder if this disparity can last. One neighbor feels like she is paying for the other, and indeed she is. It’s different from disability payments, which enjoy public support because they require recipients to pass through a legal process certifying that they are not able to hold down a job.

An unaffordable policy which is regarded by most voters as falling foul of the free rider problem probably needs a bit more tweaking before its manifesto-ready.

Why I’m pleased Labour is standing in the Richmond Park by-election

by Stephen Tall on October 26, 2016

‘The Liberal Democrats have vowed to make the Richmond Park by-election about Brexit, not Heathrow,’ says the BBC. This is, as I suggested yesterday, strategically sensible:

I’m also pleased to see in the same report that Labour is going to stand:

Labour says it will field a candidate despite three of its MPs urging it to consider standing aside to maximise the chances of a Tory defeat.

“Wait, what”, I hear you say (albeit silently). Doesn’t that increase the chances of a split anti-Tory vote letting Zac back in?

To which my answer is: yes, it does. But so what? I dislike the trend of political parties second guessing democracy on the voters’ behalf.

It happened last week in the Batley and Spen by-election when the 48,353 voters who didn’t vote Labour in 2015 and didn’t want to this time were left with no mainstream candidate to back; an odd (if well-intentioned) way to honour the memory of an MP, Jo Cox, who died in the service of democracy.

I don’t see why Labour voters in Richmond Park should be similarly disenfranchised by their leadership.

I’m sure they won’t be short of leaflets from the Lib Dems urging a tactical vote this time, and I hope they choose to do so. But that should be their choice, and theirs alone.

‘Why real creativity is based on knowledge’

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2016

That was the title of the talk given by former CentreForum chief economist – these days chief scientific advisor to the Department for Education – Tim Leunig. I’m usually a bit “meh” about Ted-style talks and their over-simplistic attempts to cram nuanced arguments into “wow!” gobbets. But Tim is the real deal and this is an excellent riposte to the trite Ken Robinson-esque critique that schools somehow kill kids’ creativity:

Heathrow, Brexit and the Richmond by-election. Why I’m grateful for Zac

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2016

Zac Goldsmith’s resignation as Conservative MP for Richmond Park in protest at his Government’s decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow is, at least on the face of it, good news for the Lib Dems. A Tory-Lib Dem swing equivalent to that achieved in Witney last Thursday (19%) would see the seat, which Jenny Tonge then Susan Kramer held from 1997 to 2010, re-gained.

The Conservatives’ tactically savvy but politically cowardly decision to give Zac a free run as an independent Tory makes the Lib Dem task trickier. And all the candidates will, of course, be against the expansion of Heathrow. Which means Brexit will be to the fore, as Zac was a Leaver in a constituency which voted solidly to Remain.

On both issues I find myself in something of a quandary.

I’m not against airport expansion, so long as it can be done within our internationally agreed carbon limits. My gut instinct is to favour Gatwick (to create greater competition in London) while allowing more expansion at regional airports. Heathrow already sucks enough economic growth into London and the south-east. But I’d probably favour Heathrow expansion over no expansion at all.

And on Brexit, while I think the Tories’ apparent decision to hurtle towards a hard Brexit outside the single market is bonkers, I’m not much convinced the Lib Dem pledge to offer a second referendum on the negotiated terms is anything other than a tokenistic feel-good policy designed simply to attract a portion of the 48% Remain voters (an understandable enough ambition for a party still polling in single digits, I accept).

So, on the two big issues that will dominate this by-election, I find myself at least partially at odds with my party.

But as the Tory-in-all-but-name candidate will be Zac Goldsmith — whose borderline racist campaign to be London mayor destroyed his reputation for being a supposedly small-l-liberal moderniser — any lily-livered qualms are quickly assuaged.

Screen-time for toddlers (aka all things in moderation)

by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2016

A relief to read this on the BBC:

The American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) has announced new screen time guidelines for children aged up to two. It had recommended that children have no screen time before the age of two. But it now says children aged over 18 months can use video chat with family, and 18-month to five-year-olds can watch “high quality” programmes with parents. However, it also says physical activity and face-to-face interaction should be prioritised.

My 19 month-old is already an iPad addict (iPaddict?). He scrolls happily though YouTube, exploring its nursery rhymes, flicking from version-to-version of ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ — enjoy the slash-fic version, below — singing along, skipping the ads (which he does with a dexterity that would terrify marketeers).

It’s handy when we need half an hour’s respite, and I guess the hand-eye coordination training at least is better than simply goggling in front of the telly. In fact, he doesn’t like watching the TV much: it doesn’t do anything when he presses it.

Review: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

by Stephen Tall on October 19, 2016

Too Much Happinessmunro, Alice Munro

This is the fourth novel plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

I’m going to start with the one negative: reading a collection of short stories one after the other isn’t (at least for me) a great way to enjoy them. It’s wearying. Better by far to dip in and out; but that’s a lousy way to get through a list, so, reader, I rattled through them.

(There is, incidentally, a wonderful quote from a character who disdains a books when she realises it’s a collection of short stories, not a novel: “It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”)

The positives are overwhelming. Munro takes the most sensationalist stories imaginable – sex creeps, child murders, child murderers, self-mutilation – and deftly unwraps them with a genteel but unsparing economy of language.

Occasionally hints are dropped to prime final-page reveals; more often the stories are left hanging, unresolved, yet it’s impossible to feel cheated. How can you when, in 30-or-so pages, you feel like you inhabit the protagonist?

The final, title story is something else: a mini-biography of a real historical figure, Sophia Kovalevsky, a C.19th Russian polymath, which imagines her life in back-and-forth swirls. The effect is dizzyingly, tragically brilliant.

My must-reads this week October 14, 2016

by Stephen Tall on October 14, 2016

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

Review: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

by Stephen Tall on October 5, 2016

fitzgeraldOffshore, Penelope Fitzgerald

This is the third novel plucked from my my #40booksby40 list. Fitzgerald’s been on my should-read list for ages. A Booker Prize-winner (beating Naipaul, Keneally) whose first book was published when she was 58, recently biographed by Hermione Lee, but still a little out of fashion (most of my friends looked blank when I mentioned her).

Offshore is a surprise, both good and bad. Good because it’s a quick, enjoyable read (just 140 pages). Its central character is Nessa, a 30-ish mum of two precociously articulate daughters, estranged from her husband and living on a leaky barge with a small group of other esoteric houseboat-dwellers in a then-still-grim part of Kensington and Chelsea in the early ’60s. All are misfitish characters, the awkwardness of their lives captured by their abodes: not quite on dry land, not quite all at sea. Fitzgerald’s trope is taut, sparse writing and she conjures an intriguing cast and crew.

But then (and this is the bad thing) it stops, abruptly. We never quite get what makes them tick. Even Nessa (who has the best scene when she defends her marital conduct to an imagined prosecuting magistrate) is under-sketched to the point where her behaviour is actually quite irritating. As for the others — in particular male prostitute Maurice and steady, dutiful Richard — they remain frustratingly out-of-reach.

In short: I liked it. But I wanted more of it. And, if I’m honest, felt a bit short-changed.

Review: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

by Stephen Tall on September 30, 2016

slaughterhouseSlaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut

Second up on my my #40booksby40 list. Friends had told me I’d love it — this classic, post-war, anti-war, semi-autobiographical, absurdist novel — that it’s a quick, easy read.

If I’m honest, though, I struggled with it. I tried to figure out why, because it’s not that it’s not brilliantly written. The sliced-up narrative of Billy Pilgrim’s account of the Allied bombing of Dresden and its impact on his life, is simultaneously disorientating and coherent.

And it’s not that it’s not powerful. The low-key matter-of-fact drudgery of war — the hunger, cold, squalor — which ridicules humanity (Billy ends the war dressed in blue toga and silver shoes, hands in a muff) counter-points ironically with his fantastical escapism in Tralfamador as a zoo exhibit with abducted movie star Montana Wildhack.

And it’s not that it’s not, at times, deadly funny. So it goes.

And it’s certainly not that it’s without purpose. Whether in its implicit denunciation of warfare; its discussion of free will (“All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist”); or our relationship to time and space, morality, the blurred lines between the realities we make up and the fictions we live.

Perhaps, then, it’s the combination — the denseness of style, content, intent — which weighs it down, makes it hard work. I didn’t especially enjoy reading it first time. I think it’s well worth reading a second time, though.

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