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.

My must-reads this week September 30, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 30, 2016

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

My must-reads this week September 23, 2016

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2016

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

Review: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2016

age-innocenceThe Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

And so I plunged in. For no particular reason, I selected The Age of Innocence as the first from my #40booksby40 list. It turned out to be a strangely apt mid-life choice, all about the dutifully dull transition from energetic youthful idealism to reflective sober making-do.

Newland Archer loves May Welland. Or at least he’s romantically devoted to the idea of being in love with her. But also worried that she’s too staid, stultified by the conventions of 1870s’ Manhattan. Enter stage left his cousin, the quixotically European, Countess Ellen Olenska, suffused in liberté, égalité, fraternité. Suddenly all else is lustreless by comparison. But how to balance this passion with society’s strict moral code of appropriate behaviour: their struggle dominates the novel.

And, ultimately, duty overpowers their love. Ironically, it is May, whom Newland thought to be too innocent to remain interesting, who manipulates the rupture, telling Ellen she is pregnant (before she is sure), and so driving her back to Europe, alone. The final, poignant chapter, a touching near-reunion 30 years later, leaves the widower Newland sitting outside the widow Ellen’s Paris apartment contemplating what has been and what could have been.

I see when The Guardian reviewed it in 1920, they found the book to be “careful, studied, temperate, but it is dull with detail which does not create illusion”. But I loved it. There is an elegant, dry wit, but also an unabashed message: the yearning for a life not just of the mind, but also with purpose; that new and modish manners will inevitably usurp the current and old-fashioned; that societies which are closed and stifling need to become open and adaptive.

Brexit: the problem with promising a second referendum

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2016

I get why Tim Farron has promised the Lib Dems are committed to holding a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

There is a good principled reason for doing so. Regardless of what you think of Vote Leave’s campaign and its mendacious, swiftly abandoned, promise to spend £350m a week more on the NHS, the Leavers never set out their alternative. Deliberately so, as they knew they wouldn’t be able to agree with each other on what a post-EU Britain would look like.

Some, the ‘hard Brexiteers’, are perfectly happy to sacrifice single market membership in return for greater sovereignty (aka: keep the foreigners out). Others, the ‘soft Brexiteers’, think single market access/membership are crucial and are happy to sacrifice a bit of sovereignty in the break-up negotiations to retain it.

As yet, we don’t know Theresa May’s preference is, though we can guess, as a reluctant Remainer, it’s closer to ‘soft Brexit’. More importantly, we don’t know what deal she’ll end up with, given she’ll be under considerable pressure from the ‘hard Brexiteers’ in her party, two of whom (David Davis, Liam Fox) she appointed to key cabinet positions.

If what we end up with is ‘hard Brexit’ – no longer part of the trading community we signed up for in 1975 – it’ll be a very long way from what the Leavers promised just a few weeks ago.

In short, there’s no mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. Under those circumstances, a second referendum isn’t just a legitimate ask, it should be a requirement.

HOWEVER… there’s a problem. That pesky Article 50, which Theresa May will need to trigger at some point in order to start negotiations with the EU. Once triggered, the UK immediately cedes control of what comes next.

Article 50 sets ticking the two-year countdown clock to full and formal Brexit. Officially the UK has to do a deal with the EU by then (‘soft Brexit’) or it will be out on its ear (‘hard Brexit’).

However, it’s likely that, with enough goodwill and pragmatism on all sides, a more sensible timeline and process will be agreed. This might then allow for an as-sensible-as-you-can-get Brexit deal, perhaps involving a phased UK withdrawal from the EU.

And that deal, argues Tim Farron, is what you would put to the British people in a second referendum.

The problem is, though, that the alternative the Lib Dems want – our current membership terms – won’t be an option by that stage.

Or, at least, the only way* that could be the case is if all 27 other EU member states agreed the UK could put both options to the voters. But why would they agree to us retaining our rebate and opt-outs and current preferential status after all the late night deal-making and gruelling summits the UK has forced on them?

It’s not impossible, but it doesn’t seem at all likely to me.

Which means that the Lib Dems have committed to arguing over the next few years for (1) British voters to over-ride their 23 June vote to Leave, and (2) the UK to retain EU membership on worse terms than those put to voters in the first referendum.

Good luck with that, guys.

* There is an argument the UK can un-trigger Article 50 itself, but legal opinion is divided on whether this is possible.

Tackling child poverty: a liberal approach

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2016


I was one of the speakers at last night’s fringe meeting – hosted by the Child Poverty Action Group and the Education Policy Institute – alongside Alison Garnham (CPAG’s chief executive), former Lib Dem MP Jenny Willott and Lib Dem London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon. The topic was ‘Turning the Tide 2020’, and what’s needed to stop the projected increases in child poverty during this parliament. Here’s (more or less) what I said…

Thank you to both the Child Poverty Action Group and the Education Policy Institute for convening this very timely debate. Timely because child poverty – which inevitably means family poverty – gets to the heart of some of the biggest issues we’re currently facing, including Brexit, the rise of Trump, anti-immigrant sentiment – even the Tories’ nostalgia throwback to grammar schools. I’ll try and briefly set out how for you here…

Overall our recent global history is one massive strives forward in banishing poverty. Johan Norberg’s just published book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, highlights some of those big steps:

We’re wealthier: In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37% in 1990 and less than 10% in 2015.
We’re healthier: 68% of the world’s population have modern sanitation, up from 24% in 1980.
We’re smarter: Americans scored, on average, 100 points on IQ tests just after the second world war. By 2002, using the same test, this had risen to 118, with the biggest improvements in answers to the most abstract problems.

The explanation for this worldwide advance is down to a range of factors, but the two biggest are: better nutrition and better education.

I’m starting off with this global view because it encapsulates the argument I want to make. Too often debates about poverty and how to solve it get trapped by a false, unhelpful binary: that we have to choose between equality of outcomes and equality of opportunity.

That somehow there’s an either/or between governments only and simply creating the conditions in which individuals are able to make the most of their talents – ie, equality of opportunity – or governments having to take steps actively to re-distribute from the wealthiest to the poorest to ensure a civilised society – ie, equality of outcome.

I’m guessing it’s not controversial in this room (though it would be outside) to say we need both.

However, I’m also starting, quite deliberately, with these worldwide advances because the clear implication is one that, I suspect, will be more controversial in this room: globalisation has worked and is making the world a better place. Countries and continents that once faced widespread poverty are now much better off than they were.

That’s not just true of the emerging economies. It’s also true of the established western economies. A couple of weeks’ ago, the Resolution Foundation published a very interesting analysis of household income from 1988-2008. What it showed was that in western economies over those two decades even low- and middle-income families saw income growth of 50%, a little over 2% a year. Maybe not as high as we’ve all been used to, but not stagnant as we’re so often told.

There are, however, exceptions. The US for a start, which has seen poor income growth, with what there has been accruing to the richest. There’s the rise of Trump explained, right there.

And the UK is a partial exception. Not because there’s been, as often said, rising inequality. There hasn’t. Inequality rose in the 1980s and hasn’t worsened since.

The UK has, however, undoubtedly been affected by globalisation. Competition from Chinese exports, for example – great for us consumers, less good for manufacturing workers – has hit some areas hard. Much more so than immigration, though you can guess which of those two factors gets the blame! And it’s no coincidence that those were the places which voted most heavily for Brexit.

There is no contradiction in saying that globalisation works for most people, most of the time, in most places; while also recognising that some folk get left behind in the process.

The point I want to make today is that these problems are solveable: and therefore we should be optimistic and ambitious in tackling working families’ poverty.

The Resolution Foundation report identifies two of the biggest reasons why income rise in the UK have been slow in the past decade or more. Pre-crash, the rising cost of housing and our failure to build enough houses was already having an impact on living standards. And of course the post-2009 decline was the result of our poorly regulated banking sector collapsing.

Housing and banking regulation: those are difficult but fixable issues – and our failures there are no reason at all to turn our backs on globalisation, the liberalising of trade which has created so many other benefits to some of the poorest countries in the world.

Here’s an interesting stat… Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite. We’re liberals, which means we’re optimistic – at any rate we should be optimistic, even now – about the future.

So what we need to do is not rail against those who voted Brexit because they feel wronged by the modern world. We need to do more, much more, to fix their everyday problems. And that means pushing for both equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.

To finish, two quick policy examples…

Equality of opportunity: ensuring kids leave school able to read and write is the basic we should expect. Of course there’s more to a well-rounded education than literacy and numeracy and 5 good GCSEs – but you try getting a decent, stable job without them!

And the reality is that by age 19, some 170,000 students — last year, this year and next year — leave compulsory education having not achieved a good standard of recognised qualifications in English and maths. That figure includes more than half of all students eligible for free school meals, those from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Of course, some will buck the trend and make great successes of their lives. But most will not. They’ll be more likely to start off NEET (not in education, employment or training), and end up in insecure, minimum wage jobs. That’s a personal tragedy for them. It’s a scandalous waste of human potential at a national level.

It’s not impossible to tackle the attainment gap at schools — there are schools up and down the country already doing it but we need to invest, as the Lib Dems successfully did with the Pupil Premium. And that’s by the way, a far better use of public money than opening up more grammar schools.

Equality of outcome: it’s estimated by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that poverty costs the state £78 billion every year, through additional spending on healthcare, school education, justice, children’s and adults’ social services and housing, and lost tax revenue. It also leads to £70 billion of spending on social security dealing with poverty. That is more than we spend on education, and one-fifth of public service spending overall.

One of the key drivers of the expected increase in child poverty is driven by planned benefit reforms affecting families with three or more children. It’s a pretty typical Tory proposal: identify a group you can pin the blame on – the stereotypical Jeremy Kyle-esque, Shameless-style work-shy family with unruly kids – and who don’t vote for you anyway, and cut their benefits.

But, whatever you think of their lifestyle (and for many of course it was never the plan, but changed circumstances), we as a society shouldn’t punish the children for what we deem to be the mistakes of the parents. If we want to break the vicious cycle of poverty we need to ensure families have a minimum income standard, one which isn’t just about stopping them being destitute but one which gives them genuine choices over their own lives.

It’s not only the smart and right thing to do: it’s also how we build a liberal society.

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