15 December 2014

Could David Miliband do a Boris (part 2)

Previously on Western Independent: 

Back in August I pulled together two stories in the UK press to address the question “Could David Miliband do a Boris?”.  Boris Johnson had just announced his intention to stand as Tory candidate in the 2015 election and The Times had run an article on 7 August, Still smiling, but it hides the battle of an alien in New York, about David Miliband which suggested that things weren’t all that they might be over there:
… Despite being in the midst of a complex and difficult reorganisation of a big international charity, as well as the usual problems of settling a family into a foreign city, Mr Miliband still pays close attention to British politics down to the fine details. etc, etc.
A few days later the Observer ran an “exclusive interview” with Miliband, possibly to get the record straight:
"Both Ed and I want the other to succeed," he said. "Strongly, passionately. And we also both work hard to keep personal lines open and private. I'm focused in succeeding in my job … and I want him to succeed in his job. And I'm sure it's the same for him." Yet on the subject of whether the Ed-led Labour party will win next year's election, he was not emphatic: "I think that it's really open. I think we can." Then he hedged. "I never say we will win. Because I'm a protagonist, not a commentator."
On 20 August The Times Red Box came up with another twist:
Labour MPs hoping to bring David Miliband back into the fold have an idea for his brother Ed. They say that Ed should make David British ambassador to Washington if he wins the general election, as reported in The Times Diary this morning.  It would be the ideal way of rehabilitating him, paving the way for a later return to British politics after a spell in the US capital, they say.
Boris Johnson is now the Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But four months later, we seem to be going around the same buoy again with Miliband D. The Financial Times has selected the charity he directs (the International rescue Committee) as its charity of the year. (Miliband had told the Observer that it was a $500 million organisation, but no doubt every little extra helps). So its deputy editor, John Thornhill, went to New York for Lunch with the FT with Miliband as guest*, and authored the feature on 13 December. Personally, I find this weekly format a tired and tiresome way to report an interview:
He opted for a simple salad to start while I go for the kale salad. “It’s much more edible than you think. It’s not like chewing cardboard,” he reassures me.
But later:
As I sample my mound of kale, sprinkled with a few roasted nuts [$16.00], I conclude he was wrong about the cardboard.
Never trust a politician! Eventually:
Now that we are on to the red meat, I ask him about the bloody issue of British politics. … I ask him who he thinks is going to win the next election. “I passionately want Labour to win – and Ed to win,” he says. And would his brother make a good prime minister? Without hesitation, he shoots back: “Of course. I would know that better than most.” What are his qualities? “What I would say is that the clarity, the vision, the determination, those are all important qualities. But, equally, I have made it a rule not to insert myself into the political dynamic for two reasons. One, I have got a job that requires me to work with the current government. And, two, I am trying to run a charity, not a political party. My experience is that anything I say gets taken out of context. While it might not be twisted in your hands, it will be twisted in the re-spinology that goes on. So we should probably leave it at that.” 
Miliband drinks a double espresso while I sip on a green tea and ask him whether he could ever envisage a return to UK politics. He says he has made a big commitment to join IRC and is fully dedicated to his job. But, he adds, he does not intend to become an American citizen and spend the rest of his life in the US. Life is unpredictable, he suggests. Two years ago, he had no idea he would now be in New York running the IRC. “You just don’t know, do you?” 
It seems unlikely that someone who has devoted most of his adult life to Westminster would be content to see his political career finished before the age of 50. Perhaps, I venture, it would be a good thing if British politicians had multiple careers — as is so often the case in the US. “Tony Blair and John Major have said that they wish they’d done their post-premiership jobs before they became prime minister,” he says. 
Maybe, I suggest, he is learning from their experience and doing a pre-premiership job outside politics? He guffaws with laughter. “That’s not the way I conceived it.”
Comparing the FT interview with the Observer one, and both are, presumably selections from what was said, albeit one would like to think unvetted, David seems more enthusiastic about Ed than in the summer. There is little point in speculating at length as to why this might be the case. But currently the odds are just about on Ed Miliband as PM. If that were so, putting David in the Washington embassy might offer parallels with Churchill’s despatch of his rival Halifax in 1941. However, in the event of Hilary Clinton, who has a high opinion of David, becoming 45th president in 2016, that might put him in too powerful a position. And would it be appropriate anyway for a former Foreign Secretary to take up an ambassadorial post, even in Washington or Paris?

But what if Ed isn’t PM next May? He might not go, nor may his party want him to. For example, if Labour fail to secure the seats they need because of the rise of the SNP, it would hardly be Ed’s fault. Or if Cameron cobbles together a tottery government with Ulster Unionist and/or UKIP support? On three occasions since 1945 there have been general elections soon followed by another to resolve an unworkable situation: 1950/51, 1964/66, and 1974/74. But if he failed to become PM after a second election Ed would certainly have to go . No wonder David is happy to go on record as thinking life is unpredictable, “You just don’t know, do you?”.

*At the David Burke Kitchen, 23 Grand Street, NY10013.




13 December 2014

Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’

This post is a bit late in the day for the UK where Mr Turner went on general release on 31 October. However, I believe the limited US release (outside film festivals) will start on 19 December, so some readers there may find it of interest. 

Mr Turner is a biopic of the English painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), famous for his land and seascapes. I’m no expert on Leigh’s work, but I think that his only other film which is historical, and also biographical, was Topsy-Turvy about Gilbert and Sullivan. This film, set earlier in Victoria’s reign, follows the life of Turner (Timothy Spall, erstwhile Mikado) over the period from not long before his father’s death in 1829 to his own death. Much of the cinematography is sympathetic to Turner’s style and subject matter and the film is as good to look at and as well-acted, as the critics say. Many of the cast are long-term associates of Leigh. How well-founded Spall’s grunting interpretation of Turner may be, as opposed to just idiosyncratic, I can’t say, but it worked convincingly in his relationship with Marion Bailey’s Mrs Booth, Turner’s Margate landlady and companion in his later years.

Leigh’s film is essentially a sequence of vignettes, undated and unlocated, which also offer few clues about some of the characters. Not everyone may know that Turner’s first mistress and the mother of his two unacknowledged daughters was Sarah Danby, a woman 15 years older than himself. Or that his housekeeper was her niece, Hannah Danby, a psoriasis sufferer. Or that his great patron was Lord Egremont of Petworth House in Sussex where Turner, when not abroad, spent most of the 1830s. And there may be other things, for example about John Ruskin, or John Constable and the other eminent painters of Turner’s day or the Pre-Raphaelites who came after them, which it might be helpful to know about before seeing the film, rather than discover them afterwards from Wikipedia or from some of the knowledgeable commentary, not all of it uncritical, which the film has generated. Otherwise the 150 minutes (surely one death bed scene too many) might drag a little. Some background pieces which I liked:

A brush with Mr Turner, in the Guardian by Andrew Wilton, chairman of the Turner Society.

John Ruskin: Mike Leigh and Emma Thompson have got him all wrong, also in the Guardian, by cultural historian and defender of Ruskin, Philip Hoare.

Mr Turner: Recreating the Royal Academy Show of 1832, Amy Raphael’s interview For Christieswith the film’s production designer Suzie Davies. (below)


Impressions of Mr Turner, again in the Guardian, by the film’s researcher, Jacqueline Riding.

I found the portrayal of Turner’s father by Paul Jesson unconvincing, his being only 10 years older than Spall, who looks all of his 57 years, probably didn’t help, and Jesson's Mummersetshire accent might have been more appropriate for Constable’s East Anglian father than Turner’s Devonian one. On a West Country note, anyone searching for the location of Mrs Booth’s house in Ramsgate should instead try the most south easterly part of Cornwall with its views east across Plymouth Sound, not the Channel!

More filmic licence applies in the scene when a clunking link is made between two of Turner’s most famous paintings: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, (1838 below top) and Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844 or earlier, below lower).


But then Turner never witnessed Temeraire under tow to the breaker’s yard. Pre-release, there was a lot of publicity about the effort Spall made in learning to paint, eg How I became Mr Turner (BBC) and Timothy Spall spent two YEARS learning to paint like Turner in order to play him, (Daily Mail). I don’t recall seeing that much paint being applied, nor am I any judge of the effect all this effort achieved, but Grayson Perry (@Alan_Measles on Twitter on 8 November) certainly is:
Just seen Mr Turner. Very good, but he holds his brush like a shovel and his pencil like a spoon, which disturbed me.
Spall won Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. In France Turner is an exception in being a British painter who is well-known - how much the debt which Monet and the other Impressionists owe to Turner, Constable and Whistler is appreciated is another matter. It will be interesting to see how Mr Turner gets on in the 2015 Oscars.