31 December 2011

United States of Anglophonia

In a recent comment piece in The Times (£), David Aaronovitch, no doubt with tongue firmly in cheek, proposed that the UK, having given up on Europe, should join the USA rather than go it alone. His proposal was that:
… the nations of the United Kingdom become the 51st, 52nd, 53rd and 54th states of what might be known as the United States of America and the East Atlantic.
Joining the US would mean Prince Charles not succeeding to the throne after his mother, but would also suggest that this was nothing personal. The Royal Family would continue in theme-park fashion, with hundreds of millions of additional fans in the other states.
which in part matches someone else’s predictions. He concluded:
Reader, as we enter 2012, please say that you too can see by the dawn’s early light, catching the gleam of the morning’s first beam, the contours of our Atlantic destiny.
Switzerland? Meh.
I don’t think Aaronovitch would make much of a negotiator. Consider. The population of the USA is about 313 million and that of the UK a bit over 62 million. Our accession would therefore represent a 20% increase in the number of US citizens and so would justify the number of states in the union increasing from 50 to 60. The population of a state is about 6.2 million on average but ranges from that of the smallest, Wyoming with just over ½ million, to the largest, California with nearly 38 million. So Aaronovitch’s proposal that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each become states seems quite reasonable (see table below).

However, England would then need to be divided into the remaining seven states, and while this might be problematic (to put it mildly), the existing nine regions provide a basis for this to be done as the diagram below shows.

The obvious two candidates for removal are the North East by merger with Yorkshire and the Humber, together a respectable 7.5 million population, and the East Midlands by merger with the West. But the combined Midlands would be 8.7 million, so shedding Worcestershire and Herefordshire to the South West would be in order. The latter could be raised further to about 5 million population if the bloated South East were to lose Oxfordshire. The result would be a set of seven states-to-be with populations between 5.3 and 7.4 million, nicely straddling the US average.

And finally, on a parochial South Western note, in his article Aaronovitch suggested that Wales would take on the nickname of the Dragon state. Here in the state of South West England, although Plymouth was the final departure port of the Pilgrim Fathers, we would probably have to make do with Mayflower state (after their ship), Pilgrim being already in use for Massachusetts.  Also, there might be an interesting first senatorial race in a part of the UK which up until the last election had become mostly split between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. If all the Conservatives (blue in the UK) become Republicans (red in the US), and Labour (red) moved entirely to the Democrats (blue), would the Liberal Democrats just stop being Liberal so Democrats would win both Senate seats? As they used to say in these parts, a pig would win with a blue ribbon!

Great fun, but it ain’t going to happen! Anyway Puerto Rico and Washington DC are ahead of us in the queue.

(UK population statistics 2010/11 from ONS, here)

27 December 2011

European exchange rates – now and 70 years ago

The BBC website has recently posted a helpful guide, What really caused the eurozone crisis? Although not attributed to a particular author, reading it one starts to hear the unmistakable tones of Robert Peston, the BBC’s Business editor, though surely Stephanie Flanders, the Economics editor was involved. One of the most interesting graphics in the guide shows the trends in the trade balances of the major eurozone economies since the currency union was established in 1999. Germany’s is now nearly 6% of GDP in surplus. After investing huge sums in the modernisation of the former East Germany in the 1990s, Germany seems to have ensured it could put that investment to work. The initial Deutchsmark/euro rate was set at a level low enough to favour the pricing of German exports to the rest of Europe and the world.

Seventy years ago, exchange rates were set in Europe to favour Germany, but in the opposite direction. In 1979 Len Deighton published one of his non-fiction military histories, Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. In the concluding section he provided this description of the economic consequences for the French of their defeat in 1940:
German soldiers were provided with occupation marks. The French and Belgian francs and the Dutch florin were pegged artificially low - the French currency about 20 per cent below its true value - and issue banks were forbidden to devalue.
This not only had the effect of draining everything - from champagne to real estate - into German hands at bargain prices, but it prevented German goods leaving Germany, except at bonanza prices. It was a subtle form of plunder …
In addition, each defeated country was made to pay for the maintenance of the German occupation forces. In the summer of 1940 France began paying 400 million francs per day as a 'contribution to her defence against Britain'. …
(p361 Triad/Granada edition 1981)
From 1940 to 1944 the economies of both Vichy France under Pétain and occupied France were ruthlessly exploited so that resources of all kinds could be directed to the Nazi war effort. Insufficient rationed goods of all kinds were available to meet the French domestic demand with inevitable results. For example, the government-set price of butter in 1942 was 43 francs a kilo. On the marché amical (relatives and friends) it sold for 69 francs, and on the black market for 107 francs.

Eventually about 2/3 of the population could not afford to buy the minimum ration diet (1400 calories a day) due to a combination of declining wages and steadily increasing prices. People who had assets like small antiques, porcelain, pictures and so on sold them for what they could get, ultimately to finish up in the occupiers’ hands and be taken back to Germany. Presumably what wasn’t blown to smithereens during the Allied bombing offensive, or sold to the occupying forces in Germany after 1945 is still there. There always seems to me to be a paucity of antiques, antique dealers and so forth in France by comparison with the UK, which avoided Nazi occupation (apart from the Channel Islands). The inadequate nutrition of children, adolescents and women of child-bearing age during the Second World War might explain why, at 6 feet (1.8m), I seem so much taller than most Frenchmen over 50, markedly less so with the under 30s.

The wartime statistics above are taken from The Civilian Experience in German Occupied France, 1940-1944, Meredith Smith , Connecticut College, January 2010; see pages 17 and 24 for the supporting references.

23 December 2011

Joyeux Noël et Bonne année

The map dates from 1846-48, judging from the extent of the South Devon Railway’s progress under the supervision of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Two Paris Exhibitions

Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, and it was in Provence that many of his most celebrated works were produced. However, encouraged by his school friend, Émile Zola, he first travelled to Paris in 1861 and would return there many times to paint in the city or in the surrounding countryside (Pontoise, below). About 80 works from in or around the capital provide the theme for Cézanne et Paris, currently at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Cézanne now seems to be classed as a Post-Impressionist rather than as an Impressionist (“un peintre déjà sorti de l’impressionisme”, said Renoir), and many of the works in the exhibition (portrait of Mme Cézanne, left) hint at later developments by other artists, particularly Cubism . He is often called the father of modern art ("notre père à tous" said Picasso or Matisse, or both of them). Nonetheless, Cézanne had exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés and at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 when his works were among the most disliked.

The son of a banker, Cézanne had no financial need to sell his work and it was only after the solo exhibition put on by the dealer Ambroise Vollard (right) in November 1895 that his reputation became established. Cézanne died in Aix-en-Provence in 1906. By this time some wealthy young Americans had come to live in Paris, and their art collection is the subject of the second exhibition, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… L’aventure des Stein, in the Petit Palais, across the Seine from the Musée du Luxembourg.

The Stein family were of German-Jewish origins and had become wealthy through the San Francisco tramway business co-owned by Daniel Stein. Daniel died in 1891 at the age of 59, three years after his wife who had died at 46. This left their four children, aged between 17 and 26, to pursue lives that, but for their intellectual inclinations, might have been labelled trustafarian in Britain a century later. Leo Stein (1872-1947) was the first to develop a serious interest in art. In 1900 he was studying 15th century Italian art in Florence under the influence of Bernard Berenson. However, while there he met Roger Fry (who was to introduce Post-Impressionism to Britain in 1910) and saw a Cézanne for the first time. At the end of 1902 he moved to Paris. In 1903 he purchased a Cézanne and was joined by his younger sister Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). By 1904 Leo and Gertrude had bought more works by Cézanne, as well as by Gauguin and Renoir. That year they were joined by the oldest Stein brother and would-be paterfamilias, Michael (1865-1938), and his wife Sarah (1870-1953). In the years that followed all four Steins were to make substantial purchases of works by these and other artists.  Hung in their two Paris apartments (Michael and Sarah's, left; Gertrude and Leo's, right) the paintings were to be admired during Saturday soirées held for Paris’s artistic avante garde.

Picasso became a close friend of Gertrude and painted her famous portrait  in 1905-6 (below), (photographed together by Man Ray in 1922). Gertrude had by then started her literary career and became a supporter of Picasso during his development of Cubism. She famously remarked of Picasso:
He alone among painters did not set himself the problem of expressing truths which all the world can see, but the truth which only he can see.

The exhibition brings together some of the exceptional works which passed through the Steins’ hands, and are now dispersed in museums and private collections around the world. Michael and Sarah collected many works by Matisse only to lose some of the best during the First World War while on loan to a gallery in Berlin. In the late 1920s Le Corbusier designed them a Modernist villa near Paris but they were to leave after a few years when the rise of fascism prompted their return to the US. By 1914 Leo had taken himself and his preferred pictures, mostly Renoirs, to Italy. This left his sister and her companion, Alice B Toklas, to be the core of the American literary and artistic community in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, (recently portrayed in Woody Allen’s comedy, Midnight in Paris). 

After the First World War, Gertrude could no longer afford to buy Picasso’s work and, although she continued to act as patron to emerging artistic talent, her later acquisitions turned out to be much less significant. The expensive exhibition catalogue (63 euros for the English edition) makes little mention of her experiences in France during the Occupation of the Second World War (she and Alice had been highly regarded for their American Red Cross work during the First). However, as Barbara Will has shown in Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma, Gertrude's judgement in becoming an apologist for Pétain’s Vichy France, particularly by translating his speeches for US consumption, was questionable, even if it ensured the preservation of her art collection. 

Both exhibitions contain works of the highest quality and are rewarding to visit. Cézanne et Paris is the more straightforward as a retrospective on one artist, whereas L’aventure des Stein has to weave together the works of four major artists (63 Matisses, 43 Picassos etc) and many others and the histories of their collectors, a complex task skilfully done.  Cézanne et Paris continues to 26 February 2012. Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… L’aventure des Stein has been extended to 22 January (check!) and then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1 February to 3 June 2012). It started at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May to September 2011).

The Ladies Not For Tidying

Each week, for the benefit of its upmarket AB readership, the Spectator’s Mary Killen “answers readers' queries on the finer points of social etiquette in a question-and-answer format, offering insight into the problems that can occur”, to quote Amazon’s description of her Book of Etiquette published in 1993.

The problems posed by modern life and Mary’s advice as to how to proceed can provide unintentional amusement, for example recently:
Q. At continental saunas I have noticed that women now ‘tidy up’ a normally unseen area, while my own extravagant disorder attracts disapproving looks. The same seems to be happening at my London gym. Are we now to pay as much attention to grooming there as we do to our eyebrows?
—S.B., London SW6
A. Do not submit to fashion victimhood. This sort of tidying is by no means compulsory in civilised circles. Indeed it risks signalling a presumption that inspections of the zone in question are likely to be serially carried out. For this reason it is best to leave things as nature intended.

Admirably euphemistic, but as I read “inspections … serially carried out” and wondered quite what Mary could have meant, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Rue des Moulins, (now part of the Chester Dale Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC), inappropriately came to mind.
Surely Mary is failing to address SB’s concerns? SB is already encountering serial inspections by way of the impertinent glances from her fellow-gymnasts which presumably are preceding the disapproving looks. Her problem is that of choosing not to conform to peer group pressure. This is something which usually brings censure in one form or another which will just have to be ignored, if SB chooses not to be, as Mary says, a fashion victim, .

18 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died on 15 December at the age of 62. So much has been written in the last few days by people who knew him, (for example Ian McEwan, [but not yet it seems] Martin Amis, and Simon Schama and, of course, his brother, Peter,) that there is not much left for the rest of us to say. When I was reading his memoir, Hitch-22, I found, rather to my surprise, that we seemed to have a few things in common. One was obvious, also we were both born in the late 1940s and had 1950s boyhoods, and went to not dissimilar sorts of school. But not much after that, as is to be expected in the land of CP Snow’s 'two cultures'*. And the small point that he was exceptionally talented.

Most of us in now our sixties didn’t go on the ‘political journey’ which David Aaronovitch in the Times (£) describes Hitchens as having made – obviously from the ‘Left’, the word appearing 10 times in the article, but where to? Surely not to the ‘Right’, which isn’t mentioned. It seems more like a journey from Trotskyism to Neo-conservatism, but how many neocons are atheists?

Hitchens was a very elegant writer, but I stumbled on one sentence in Hitch-22 when he was describing an interview not long after Oxford for a traineeship at the BBC:
I wasn’t stupid enough not to realise that he wouldn’t have asked that question if he didn’t already know the answer to it.
which I reckon to be a quadruple negative, and not to be attempted by novices!

Hitchens’ death seems to have induced a ‘Diana moment’ among the literary intelligentsia in London and on the East Coast (judging from here). But probably not a global one like Steve Jobs’ passing at the age of 56 in October. In Paris Le Figaro covered Hitchens’ death briefly, describing him as a “polémiste réputé dans le monde anglo-saxon”. The political intelligentsia in London had had their Diana moment in November when New Labour’s polling expert Philip Gould died at the age of 61.

Our expectations of life expectancy are now such that any death under 70 seems to induce a sense of loss. Not least because of the things that these three men in particular might have done if they had worked for another 10 years or more. Gould could well have influenced the outcome of the next general election in the UK. Both Hitchens and Gould died as a consequence of the relatively rare cancer of the oesophagus, associated with tobacco smoking and heavy alcohol use.

* For a recent view of this, see ‘CP Snow’s Two Cultures Revisited’, the 2009 CP Snow Lecture given by Professor Lisa Jardine (Jacob Bronowski’s daughter) downloadable here.


A thoughtful piece about Hitchens by David Goodhart has now appeared on the Prospect Magazine website.
(Personal hobbyhorse: the US, not the UK, had babyboomers.) 


On 20 April 2012 a memorial service for Christopher Hitchens was held in New York. Martin Amis delivered the eulogy which Vanity Fair (to which Hitchens was a contributing editor) has made available.


Martin Amis in an interview with Joseph Weisburg of Slate on 29 August offered “reflections on the life and passing of his dear friend, Christopher Hitchens.”

7 December 2011

George Grosz at PMQs

Watching PMQs today, perhaps it was David Cameron’s remark:
... Labour would put Britain in such a bad position that the tax changes would be written not by the shadow Chancellor, but by the German Chancellor.
but for some reason an image of the honourable members

suddenly made me think of the art of George Grosz. Most unfair, it must be the poor lighting in the Chamber or I need a new TV.

Grosz (1893-1959) painted in a Dadaist then Expressionist style in Weimar Berlin until he emigrated to the USA in 1933.

6 December 2011

Independent – Yes, really!

The main story in 6 December’s Independent newspaper (London) describes how:
An undercover investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, published in The Independent today, has taped senior executives at Bell Pottinger:
* Claiming they have used their access to Downing Street to get David Cameron to speak to the Chinese premier on behalf of one of their business clients within 24 hours of asking him to do so;
* Boasting about Bell Pottinger's access to the Foreign Secretary William Hague, to Mr Cameron's chief of staff Ed Llewellyn and to Mr Cameron's old friend and closest No 10 adviser Steve Hilton;
* Suggesting that the company could manipulate Google results to "drown" out negative coverage of human rights violations and child labour;
* Revealing that Bell Pottinger has a team which "sorts" negative Wikipedia coverage of clients;
Later in the article:
Joint events could be held with influential think tanks close to government, such as Policy Exchange, the firm suggested. Another strategy would include passing information to key academics "so that they are then blogging the right messages out there – so it's coming from an independent,"
A presentation shown during the meeting said it could "create and maintain third-party blogs" – blogs that appeared to be independent. These would contain positive content and popular key words that would rank highly in Google searches.
I doubt whether Bell Pottinger’s false flags, if they exist, would be so daft as to call themselves ‘independent’, but just to reassure readers – this blog really is independent and I’m on my own with my own views. You may well think that is all too apparent, and also that nobody in their right mind would pay me for this stuff.

Though I wouldn’t mind knowing how to rank more highly on Google. A recent search for Sarah Helm Loyalty found my recent post ranked 142nd. The much respected Normblog’s contribution on the same subject was 50th, the highest for a private blogger as far as I could tell. So probably I should just learn to face up to my own intellectual shortcomings!

2 December 2011

Landscapes in Oxford and Bath

In a post back in August I remarked in passing “should France ever leave the Eurozone, which may seem unlikely”. Now we are being told that the breakup of the euro is the subject of contingency planning in finance ministries, embassies and the headquarters of multinationals across the world. What could be a better way to escape briefly from the encircling economic gloom than two visits to Arcadia?

The Ashmolean in Oxford is showing Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape, the first major exhibition of his work in over a decade. Claude Gellée (c.1600–1682), spent most of his working life in Rome, but his origins were in the commune of Chamagne in the Duchy of Lorraine, (now in Vosges (88) in France; never Champagne as the Ashmolean press pack states, perhaps wanting to inject some fizz). His biographical details are unclear, he may even have been trained originally as a pastry-cook, but by his thirties he was settled in Rome and had begun to make a name for himself by painting port scenes and landscapes. During his long artistic career he had the patronage of royalty as well as popes and cardinals.

The exhibition is organised in three sections: firstly, sketches and drawings from the Roman countryside; then thirteen paintings mostly with classical (Aeneas and Dido in Carthage, left) or religious themes, all providing the enchantment promised by the show’s name; finally, etchings including the fascinating series of the fireworks in Rome in 1637.

Claude’s work was encountered and collected on the Grand Tour by the English aristocracy who later laid out their parklands in the spirit of his pastoral idyll. One English artist he had some influence over was Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) whose landscapes are the subject of the Bath Holburne Museum’s second major exhibition since redevelopment, Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations. Although only six paintings are shown, these were well-chosen and helpfully complemented by drawings and prints, all skilfully curated by Susan Sloman. Gainsborough’s fame and livelihood came from his portraiture, particularly during the years 1759-74 when he lived in Bath, but as he said:
I’m sick of portraits and wish very much to take up my viol de gamba and walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.
Perhaps this shows in his portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews (below) in the National Gallery, London, which, although telling us all we might want to know about them, still manages to be 50% landscape.

Gainsborough painted a romantic view of the countryside around Bath but populated it with more realistic inhabitants, Peasants Returning from Market (left) or looking after pigs, than Claude’s paintings feature. The exhibition reminds us of our encircling economic realities when it explains that Bath’s popularity as an all year spa and resort depended on winter heating provided by the coal mined a few miles to the south of the city.

Economic reality may also be intruding in the way that shows are increasingly augmenting a relatively small number of paintings with drawings, etchings and so on (Table below). In so far as these lesser works add depth and focus and encourage a more scholarly approach in visiting exhibitions, this is probably not entirely a retrograde step. Anyway, given that paintings are inevitably more expensive to transport and insure, we are probably going to have to get used to it.

Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape continues at the Ashmolean until 8 January and then can be seen at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt from 3 February to 6 May 2012. Gainsborough’s Landscapes: Themes and Variations will be in Bath until 22 January and then the appropriate parkland surroundings of Compton Verney from 11 February to 10 June 2012. Let’s hope the eurozone will survive for both.

30 November 2011

Setting Hampstead Ablaze

Checking a link for a recent post about the Iraq Inquiry, I read again the story in the Observer on 16 October which had predicted the Inquiry’s report being postponed to summer 2012. It also said:
Intriguingly, Chilcot is known over the summer to have attended a performance of Loyalty, a play about the build-up to the Iraq war that was performed at the Hampstead Theatre. Written by journalist and author Sarah Helm, the wife of Tony Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, the play provided a rare insight into the psychology of those involved.
Some scenes, including a phone call from Rupert Murdoch to Blair on the eve of the war and another suggesting British officials harboured doubts about the sources behind claims that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD, are close to the truth, say Whitehall insiders.
Private Eye magazine reported that Chilcot had demanded to review some of the evidence presented to his inquiry after attending the play.
Loyalty ran from 14 July to 13 August, so some time had elapsed before Private Eye ran its story (see below) in the 14 October issue. The Hampstead Theatre seats about 325 and there were, it seems, 30 performances including matinees, so only about 9750 people at most saw the play. By comparison in September BBC2’s Page Eight (MI5 as envisaged by David Hare) was watched by nearly four million (high for that channel, but ITV’s hit Downton Abbey series was getting about 11 million). I wasn’t one of the 9750, so I decided to buy a copy of the text, published by Oberon Books, and read it.

It doesn’t take long for the main challenge presented by Helm’s play to emerge: not so much one of loyalty as of veracity. On the cover Loyalty is described as “A fictionalised memoir”, and, on page 7, a Note states: “This play is a work of fiction”. The Foreword, written by Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles (who has appeared in this blog before), sets out to clarify this:
Sarah Helm's remarkable play …
… documents real events of great historical importance. Of course, it is a play, it is fiction. Yet it is also a roman à clef in which we all know that Laura is really Sarah Helm, Nick is her partner Jonathan Powell (Tony Blair's Chief of Staff), Tony is Tony, Alastair is Alastair (Campbell), and Jack is Jack (Straw), and so on.
So in one, and perhaps the most important sense, it is an upclose, insider's, account of what it felt like to be living with the daily agonies of deciding to invade Iraq, and then finding out that the original justification for the war - that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction - did not exist, and had been based on false intelligence.
… Even if the plot is not literally true, the characterisation is authentic - alarmingly so.
and closes with:
The first and last question most people will ask about Loyalty will be 'Is it true?' Only Sarah Helm herself can answer this. But my guess is that Loyalty must be at once true, and not true, and somewhere in-between. Not everything in it can be literally true - it is not a documentary - though many or most of the details are remarkably accurate. Paradoxically, however, it uses fiction to get at some much deeper truths, about the reality of the Iraq war, and about how human beings relate to each other.
One could well imagine some of the assessments of Saddam’s WMD capabilities as having been equally categorical.

As for the play itself, the reviews seem a bit lukewarm on the whole (aggregated at the Omnivore, and ongo.com ). In any case, reading the text is a poor basis for judging how it might have seemed on the stage. The first Act is set in LAURA and NICK’s home (like the text, I will put Characters names in capitals) in early 2003, and reminded me of the domestic scenes in BBC R4’s Clare in the Community, as if scripted by Hare. Most of the second Act is set in 10 Downing Street in September 2004. Although no-one should expect cinematic realism on a stage, after a while that feeling of observing a parallel universe set in, often induced by Hare or Stephen Poliakoff dramas. The anomalies eventually undermine the required suspension of incredulity. For example, the RAF has no decoration called a “DFO” (page 80). The PM’s Outer Office has “a vast TV screen showing Sky News” (page 79) whereas Jonathan Powell, no less, describes it as having several (The New Machiavelli, page 48). In the civil service the job title “Clerk” doesn’t always involve clerical duties (or Secretary, secretarial ones, come to that).

But rather more disconcerting is when, in Act 1 Scene 3, LAURA tells us:
At one point a BBC reporter, called Andrew Gilligan, thought he’d got a scoop on the intelligence but instead he botched it up; and there were tragic consequences (page 46)
PETE, “an unidentified government figure”, announces on page 47/48 that “Andrew Gilligan”’s source, “Kelly”, was “A junior official” and “Too junior to have known anything”. Why this “Andrew Gilligan” and “Kelly” are brought in at all in March 2003 is unclear. Curiously for a roman à clef, there are no clues as to the identity of PETE, but he can’t be ALASTAIR, the Press Secretary.

Later, in Act 2 Scene 8, DAVID (C), the "Head of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)", says “Look I told the inquiry all this” (page 99), perhaps referring to Lord Hutton’s [Report of the] Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly C.M.G. Dr Kelly died in late July 2003. Or was he referring to Lord Butler’s 2004 Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction? In the real world the Chief of SIS gave evidence to both. Then on page 100, C says “It wasn’t me who wrote that dossier”, which the reader has to conclude must be the September Dossier of 2002, never mentioned by the omniscient LAURA (in whose world there seems to be no Joint Intelligence Committee).

Also in Act 1 there was no end of business with “the Brent”, NICK’s special secure phone (“very antiquated in appearance”), forever being unpacked and put away. In fact, it’s Laura’s listening-in on the phone’s second earpiece which makes her so well-informed about affairs of state. But something odd happens in Scene 4 when Nick and Laura listen in to a conversation between PM TONY and RUPERT, “a newspaper proprietor”. On page 50, at the beginning LAURA “sits up next to [NICK] and hears on the ordinary landline. We hear the conversation with TONY is already underway”. At the end, NICK “Puts the phone down. NICK starts putting it back in its box.” So was RUPERT on “the Brent” or not? And if so, where was he, having been “speaking today to Rumsfeld”?

In the end, the MacGuffin is not “the Brent” but an intelligence source with the codename Daisy. Sarah Helm is the author of A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Lost Agents of SOE, published in 2005 (and LAURA, of course, had been working on something similar, page 36). One can’t help thinking that Daisy sounds more like one of SOE's codenames than, say, Curveball.

But is there any point in spending time on these or other minor, or not so minor, details and discrepancies? Well, many of the Hampstead theatre-goers, and most of us who will ever read the play, inevitably find themselves lost in a no man’s land between Cowper-Coles’ “not literally true” and his “many or most of the details [which] are remarkably accurate”. We are hardly helped by him also telling us:
Naturally the details of the play's plot are fiction, and have to be, not least for legal reasons.
so we are left to our own devices in trying to make any sense of it all.

There is an unprecedented amount of official and other documentation in the public domain about the Blair government and Iraq to pore over, even before Sir John Chilcot’s report next year. Not only is Powell’s own book available (and several of LAURA’s narrations align with incidents he describes less dramatically), but Lord Hutton’s Report can easily be downloaded, and similarly Lord Butler’s Review (and, of course, evidence to the Iraq Inquiry). Lastly, Gordon Corera’s well-regarded, The Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service, might provide rather more insight into what went on than Loyalty, which, come to think of it, is the opposite of Betrayal – shame Pinter got there first.

Alongside this welter of information, Loyalty may be doomed to fail as a roman à clef because it tries hard to get close, but inevitably ends up being tangential. In the end it’s neither documentary nor metaphor. Adam Lang, the subject of Robert Harris’s The Ghost, is Blair-like, but in neither his book nor Polanski’s film are we left in any doubt that we are engaging with a fictional thriller, from which we can draw wider moral lessons about the nature of modern politics if inclined to do so.

If forced to draw conclusions, I would be reluctant to accept that Jonathan Powell habitually breached the rules for custodianship of official secrets like Nick Beeching did. I’m also uncertain as to how much credence to give the Observer and Private Eye stories about the effect on the progress of Chilcot’s inquiry of a play which clearly declares itself to be a work of fiction. On the other hand, Powell in The New Machiavelli mentions “my future brother-in-law, the journalist Toby Helm” (page 68) who may be the same Toby Helm as the Political Editor of the Observer – if so, things become even less clear. To be honest, like I suspect nearly everyone else, I’m in the same position as Alexander Armstrong’s Geordie window cleaner, the one who always concludes his monologues with "but what do I know?":

PRIVATE EYE 14 October 2011 (Issue 1299, page 5)
When Sarah Helm’s play Loyalty opened at the Hampstead Theatre this summer much was made of the fact that she is married to Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell. Since the drama featured Downing Street discussions before the invasion of Iraq, as the Observer noted*, “the question that will be asked in Whitehall is to what extent the play is art mirroring life”.
Sir John Chilcot seems to have asked himself the same question when he saw the play in August. Certain scenes - such as a conversation between Tony Blair and MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove - included details that hadn't been mentioned by Dearlove himself when he gave his testimony (in private) to Chilcot's Iraq War inquiry. After his night at the theatre Sir John asked Whitehall to supply him with more secret files, even though Dearlove and co had supposedly already handed everything over in a spirit of full cooperation.
Chilcot has now obtained the new files - and they confirm what Helm revealed in Loyalty. Although the play was billed as fiction for legal reasons, it appears to have been rather: more informative than some of the evidence from the spooks!
*“as the Observer noted” is a reference to an article on 15 May written in advance of the staging of Loyalty.

22 November 2011

Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern

A recent post here about Degas at the RA touched on the subject of the impact of photography on painting, which is an unavoidable issue when visiting Gerhard Richter: Panorama at Tate Modern. This is a major retrospective coinciding with the artist’s 80th birthday, and, as with Tate Modern’s Miró retrospective earlier this year, it is impossible to dissociate the artist’s work from the turbulence of 20th century European history.

Richter was born in Dresden in 1932 and grew up under National Socialism followed by Soviet-enforced communism in East Germany. In 1961 he escaped to the FDR and began painting photographs from a family album (“… painting from a photograph seemed to me the most moronic and inartistic thing that anyone could do”). Subsequently his works addressed the Nazi past and bombed cities, but also responded to the art he was seeing in the West – in 1965 Ema (Nude on a Staircase) followed an encounter with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No2 from 1912 (below right and left).

Once settled in the West, Richter’s work moved in various directions. The Tate show includes many works which are abstract, for example the Colour Charts and later Squeegee and Roller Paintings. But in the 1980s Richter produced images of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group based on press photography. And other representational work exhibited includes two haunting portraits of his daughter Betty from 1977 and 1988. These exhibit Richter’s ‘out-of-focus’ technique with edges softened by brushing across the wet paint.

As well as explorations like his 1974 work 4096 Colours, Richter is interested in optical effects – two constructions explore the reflections provided by parallel sheets of glass. 4096 Colours has a mathematical basis recognisable to anyone familiar with binary numbers. The square is of 64 x 64 elements; each of the 1024 shades appears four times. Each shade was generated as a unique combination systematically made from red, blue, yellow and grey (one source says green). He revisited its theme on a larger scale in 2007 for a new stained-glass window in Cologne Cathedral (below right, 4096 Colours left – but neither well).

Meryl Streep, in London for advance publicity of her film The Iron Lady (release 6 January) reportedly said that “she would like to go see Gerhard Richter at the Tate but thought she would be mobbed.” Perhaps the Director of Tate Modern will assist if she returns in January, although Streep must be more capable of adopting an anonymous persona than practically anyone else – so perhaps she’s already been unrecognised. Lesser mortals have until 8 January. In the meantime, Richter’s website is excellent.

18 November 2011

Iraq Inquiry Update

The last reference to Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry on this blog was on 17 October in the form of an update to an earlier posting. The Observer had learnt that the Inquiry report might not be published until June 2012. Late on 16 November, there were media reports of the following statement, now available in full on the Inquiry’s website:
… The Inquiry has advised the Government that it will need until at least summer 2012 to produce a draft report which will do justice to the issues involved. Very considerable progress has already been made, but there is still much to be done.
As well as drafting the report, the Inquiry will need to negotiate the declassification of a significant volume of currently classified material with the Government, to enable this to be quoted in, or published alongside, the Inquiry’s report. That process has begun, but there will be a series of further major requests as drafting progresses. The Inquiry has made clear that it will need co-operation from the Government in completing this in a satisfactory and timely manner. …
which confirmed one aspect of the Observer story, except ‘at least summer 2012’ might well be interpreted as later than June.

Coincidentally, the Inquiry had been mentioned earlier on 16 November by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in an address, Securing our future, about ‘the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy’. As well as the use and importance of the Intelligence Agencies’ contribution, he:
set out what the Government is doing to tackle the lessons of the past, and to strengthen the independent and Parliamentary oversight of the Agencies for the future
and he later stated:
This Government believes that Britain’s national interest is served best when diplomacy is informed by Intelligence, and Intelligence is balanced by diplomatic assessments.
This means that Intelligence is weighed and assessed alongside all other sources of information available to us including diplomatic reporting and the insights of other government departments; judged in the context of the Government’s overall strategy and objectives; and brought together to make careful decisions which are considered in the National Security Council.
We also recognise that serious issues have been raised by the events of recent years that have to be addressed decisively and with clarity.
Intelligence throws up some of the most difficult ethical and legal questions that I encounter as Foreign Secretary, with which my predecessors in this position also have had to grapple.
Some of them relate to the past use of Intelligence in reaching and justifying decisions in foreign policy – the most controversial instance of this, the Iraq War, is currently the subject of an Inquiry.
He went on to deal with allegations of UK complicity in extraordinary rendition, and, should such matters come to court, put forward
:… proposals to ensure that cases involving national security information can be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts, and that we protect British interests by preventing the disclosure of genuinely sensitive material. This includes intelligence information shared with Britain by intelligence partners overseas.
He then went on to make the point:
The ability of other countries to share Intelligence with us without fear we will have to disclose it here or overseas is absolutely vital to our national interest. This is managed under the Control Principle, a strict rule of intelligence sharing whereby any further use or disclosure of intelligence requires the agreement of the Agency that provided it in the first place. If we cannot uphold the control principle and others do not share information with us, the very real risk is that our security will be jeopardised.
And to underline this:
Intelligence really is like a jigsaw in which we very rarely have all the pieces, and rely on others to share the pieces they have with us just as they often rely on us to help them in the same way. It is the analysis of information from our partners along with our own intelligence that enables us to piece together each snippet of information with others to create the fullest possible picture of the threats to our national security and to act against them.
He said the Government intends:
to make the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory Committee of Parliament, reporting formally to Parliament, and to enable it to take evidence from any Department or body in the wider intelligence community. It also proposes careful consideration of extending the Committee’s remit to include retrospective review of certain operational aspects of the work of the Agencies where there are matters of significant national interest. We also propose that the Committee be given the power to require information from the Agencies, bringing it more in line with Parliamentary Select Committees, but with this power subject to a veto only from the Secretary of State where national security so requires it.
Together, these statements suggest that the Iraq Inquiry may have its work cut out if it is to ‘negotiate the declassification of a significant volume of currently classified material with the Government, to enable this to be quoted in, or published alongside, the Inquiry’s report’. Also, if there were a need for a similar Inquiry to Chilcot’s in the future, presumably it would fall under the remit for retrospective review of the statutory Intelligence and Security Committee.

17 November 2011

Politicians and Twitter – “just like me” or you?

The Telegraph magazine on 12 November carried an article, Too Big to Fly?, by Joe Hagan:
While Twitter struggles to impose order on the 200 million messages a day that cascade through its servers, the battle to make the company profitable has become a race against time.
The article concluded that the potential for profitability exists, but a way has to be found to introduce advertising without turning the tweeters and their readers off the whole thing. Hagan’s article contained a lot of interesting material, some of it particularly so:
To attract and hold the audience, and to attract the talent, Twitter needs the media as its accomplice. In 2008, Twitter hired Chloe Sladden, a former executive at Al Gore’s TV network, Current, to work with news agencies and cable networks. An attractive and animated speed-talker with bright, flashing eyes, Sladden was tasked with convincing old media that Twitter was the handmaiden to their future. … 
The impact of all this hand-holding was not only to help the media but also to help the media help Twitter. To make Twitter seem inevitable, it got people with large organic followings, like newspeople and celebrities, to use it and draw in more users - what social-media investors call ‘viral looping’. Sladden is in charge of schooling these adoptees – television’s talking heads, reality television producers, newspaper columnists - in the ways of Twitter, which is, in essence, about giving followers that ‘magical feeling’ of being inside with the insiders. Sladden’s message is that to build an audience, you have to draw back the curtain on your life, or appear to. In Sladden’s view, this is perfectly in step with broader developments in the culture. ‘We’re changing to this more quote-unquote authentic media experience,’ she says, and everything is caught on tape. And that was a big part of the mission here, making it a two-way experience.
The key to this ‘authenticity’ is the use of the word ‘I’. The first rule of Twitter is that talking about yourself makes the tool work better. The upshot is a narcissism so democratized that users don’t have to feel guilty about it and, in fact, barely notice it.  
In 2007 Twitter hired Adam Sharp, a former aide to Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, to promote Twitter among the political class. Working closely with new-media staffers in the congressional caucuses, Sharp held private events to teach senators and congressmen why and how they should use Twitter, promising that they can ‘build a deep echo chamber to have a continuing dialogue with these people, who then go into their communities and they can say, “I was tweeting with Senator So-and-so last night.”’  Sharp figures three-quarters of Congress have signed on to Twitter. Sharp says, ‘If they can make that connection – “Oh, he’s a family man, he’s just like me,” or “She’s a working mother, just like me” - the candidates realise that the “just like me” is the most effective foundation for engaging in the political conversation.’
So, when we read tweets from British politicians, like Ed Balls’ about his culinary achievements, or Louise Mensch’s on going to Asda, and if we experience a ‘magical feeling’ of being insiders in their lives, we should bear in mind that it’s just possible that they (or their staffers) have had private training in how to build ‘deep echo chambers’. Remember, politicians are by definition not “just like me”, or you, at all.

Hagan’s article, which is well worth reading in full, doesn’t seem to be on telegraph.co.uk, but his similar piece published on 2 October, Tweet Science, is available on the New York magazine’s website.

15 November 2011

Grayson Perry at the British Museum

In 2009 many people had the chance to see the Hayward Gallery’s touring exhibition, Unpopular Culture, which had been curated by Grayson Perry drawing on the Arts Council Collection. Perry is well-known for having won the Turner Prize in 2003 and for his transvestism. Most of his work consists of large decorated pots, and he can be dismissed as a potter rather than an artist. But I thought that the selection of British art he made for Unpopular Culture was informed and informative, and that the thoughts and opinions which accompanied the exhibition and that he inscribed on his pots revealed a sharp and knowing mind. Unpopular Culture had been preceded in 2006 by The Charms of Lincolnshire (left) where he put some of his own work alongside historical artefacts selected from the county’s museums.

Grayson has now curated The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, an installation of some of his new works alongside objects from the British Museum’s collection. On entry visitors are confronted by You Are Here (below left), covered in images of people like themselves and captioned to suggest that Grayson takes a realistic view of his audience’s motivations for coming. What follows provides a dialogue between Grayson’s craftsmanship and that of his anonymous predecessors over the centuries. He has a good eye for an interesting artefact and his own contributions reveal his intelligence and industriousness. His Rosetta Vase, (below right) covered with mid-2011 mots du jour and a satirical map of the contemporary art exhibition scene, amused me (in view of recent posts) with its inscriptions ‘babyboomers’ and ‘post-post-modernism’, as well as a quotation from the now somewhat forgotten Jacob Bronowski – presumably Grayson may have seen his television series, The Ascent of Man, (and counterpart to Lord Clark’s Civilisation), when a teenager in the 1970s.  

Some people may find Grayson’s feminine alter ego, Claire, and his teddy bear/personal god, Alan Measles, off-putting, (the latter had ample coverage in BBC1’s recent Imagine) but I think they should put that aside and look at the creativity of his work before forming an opinion. The BM exhibition continues until 19 February.


The Tate has recently made available one of its Bloomberg TateShots of Grayson in his studio during the making of Rosetta Vase.


Decca Aitkenhead interviews Grayson Perry at the Guardian's Open Weekend.

Postmodernism at the V&A

US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously admitted in 1964 that while he couldn’t define hard-core pornography, “I know it when I see it”. After visiting Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, you might come to a similar conclusion about postmodernism, at least as far as design and architecture are concerned.

This exhibition follows on from previous shows at the V&A: Art Deco: 1910-1939 in 2003 and Modernism: Designing a New World: 1914-1939 in 2006. If postmodernism is definable at all (and the V&A avoids doing so directly), it is probably as a reaction to the latter. The show follows the movement from its attacks on modernism and on subordination of style to functionality through to its commercial success and acceptance.

I found the objects (eg furniture, a surprisingly large number of teapots) and the architecture more convincing than the cinema (Blade Runner) and the music. I mentioned in an earlier post the “monstrous carbuncle” problem in adding a modern extension to an existing building, so it was relevant to be reminded that London’s most prominent postmodernist building is Venturi and Brown’s Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Perhaps objectors should consider what they wish for.

Some people might argue with the dates the curators have used to bracket this show – one argument is that postmodernism was largely pre-internet and that the quest for modernity has now moved on. Certainly, one of the cult objects of the present moment is the iPad, but surely its design seems to represent a continuation of modernism. The exhibition catalogue includes a remarkable chart by Charles Jencks (pages 276, 267) on the various strands of pluralism from 1960 to 2010. He also argues that post-modernist (he keeps the hyphen) architecture continues to flourish, for example the John Lewis store in Leicester.

There is a generous amount of information about postmodernism on the V&A website, and the show runs until 15 January. If you go, perhaps like me you will find it exceeds your expectations. You might even come to view Stewart’s remark as postmodern itself.

10 November 2011

British Second Homes in Europe

Every week, the Spectator’s Barometer column presents facts which illuminate the previous week’s news. On 5 November this item appeared:
A place in the sun
HM Revenue and Customs announced a 200-strong team of officials who will track down income from undeclared overseas properties. Where should they look?

                     Source: Savills
I thought this was interesting for reasons which will become apparent later. However, although the numbers of second homes were presented to the nearest thousand, it seemed unlikely that they would be the same in two pairs out of five countries. Was the answer to be found on the Savills website?

Savills Estate Agents has a much-respected research department, and the views of its Director of Residential Research, Yolande Barnes, are often reported in the press. Among the publications listed on their website, is a Market snapshot UK second homes overseas, 2009. This reported an online survey of 1200 UK overseas second home owners that Savills International Research had conducted with HomeAway.co.uk. The numbers supporting the Spectator’s table are on page 3, specifically an estimate that there are “almost 430,000 UK households in possession of overseas properties” and a percentage breakdown of their location referencing the Survey of English Housing.

However, in 2011, HomeAway.co.uk and Savills Research conducted a ‘survey [published as UK second homes abroad Spotlight Autumn 2011] of almost 1,700 UK holiday home owners from a cross-section of the market, who have invested overseas over the last decade and currently let their properties to tourists’. The relevant data on the Number of UK households that own overseas properties were provided in Figure 1, and the locations in Figure 3. It appears that there are now about 475,000 such properties, so, with the location data extracted from the column graphic, a replacement for the Spectator table can be provided:

which supports the conclusion on the cover of the survey: ‘Enduring appeal France has retained its popularity with buyers’. The numbers don’t look intrinsically unreliable, either. The Savills report also shows that the number of overseas second homes more than doubled between 200 and 2008, but that the purchase rate has fallen recently to much lower levels.

So, currently the total number of properties in Europe is not far off 370,000. The number of properties in those countries which are not (or not yet) members of the EU (Norway, Switzerland, Croatia, Iceland, Macedonia, Montenegro, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia) is likely to be small, with the possible exception of Turkey. A conservative estimate of UK residents’ ownership of EU properties might be about 350,000.

However, it should be noted that the Savills survey identified properties which are let to tourists. In fact its collaborator, HomeAway.co.uk, describes itself as ‘the UK's no.1 holiday rentals website with over 250,000 properties worldwide’. Not everyone who has a second home lets it commercially. Instead they may well keep it for their own use, and perhaps that of family and friends. While such people are not of much interest to the new HMRC team described by the Spectator, they certainly own properties. At a guess, and probably an underestimate, one could assume there are 150,000 of them, making 500,000 UK-owned properties in the EU as a whole.

Many of these properties are likely to be owned by couples, and since most people’s priority in early adult life is to establish themselves in a first home in the UK, second homes are likely to be acquired later on. Second home owners are also likely to be from the higher socio-economic levels, A to C1. At this point, some key electoral facts of life need to be considered, bearing in mind that the overall turnout at the 2010 election was 65%.

On this basis, one can safely conclude that the likelihood of second home owners turning out to vote is higher than average. So what would happen if there were a referendum on the UK leaving the EU? In the referendum on AV in May 2011, just over 20 million votes were cast with an overall turnout of 42.2%, higher than expected, but boosted by turnouts of over 50% in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Perhaps for an EU referendum the turnout would be as high as 65%, as in the 1975 referendum on remaining in the EEC, so about 30 million votes. It seems highly likely that the EU second home owners and their family members would vote, amounting, at two votes per property, to about 1 million.

Furthermore, every British citizen who has been registered to vote in the UK within the last 15 years but is now resident abroad is eligible to vote in UK Parliamentary (general) elections, European Parliamentary elections and referendums in the UK. According to C4News Factcheck in April 2010: ‘There are 748,010 Brits living in the EU, according to Eurostat, the European Union’s official statistics office’, and 133,678 of them were living in France. However, at the time of Sarkozy’s visit to the UK in 2008, the Independent reported that ‘There are 250,000 British people living in France, mostly middle-aged, retired and living in rural areas’. In 2006, IPPR, in a report, Brits Abroad, estimated that there were more than 5.5 million British nationals living overseas permanently, 1.5 million in the EU excluding Ireland. In 2010 they updated the first of these figures to 5.6 million, - as they want £15 for the full new report, we will have to make do with the older 1.5 million estimate.

So a high turnout of those with UK second homes in the EU, combined with a lesser turnout of British nationals in the EU, might be the source of as many as 2 million votes in 30 million, or say 7% of the votes cast.

No doubt there are turkeys who think there is something to be said for Christmas, and others who wouldn’t turn out to vote for its abolition. But these 2 million votes are unlikely to be cast in favour of leaving the EU. If nothing else, it could be to the financial disadvantage of these voters: for example: UK pensions are not uprated for pensioners outside the EU; EU countries cannot levy property taxes on non-resident citizens of other EU nations while exempting their own nationals. Additionally, spending time in a European country, and travelling there more often than most people (38% haven’t taken a foreign holiday in the last three years - data in a previous post) would probably lead to an outlook which would rather see the UK as part of Europe, rather than isolated.

It’s worth looking at a recent ICM opinion poll (21/23 October) on staying or leaving the EU. Overall, 40% would probably or definitely vote to stay in, 49% probably or definitely vote to leave, 10% didn’t know (DK).

Interestingly, the two groups with the highest propensity to turn out and vote, the over 65s and the ABs, have sharply divergent views on leaving the EU. The C1s and 35-64s, also groups who tend to vote more than the younger and lower levels, are substantially in favour of leaving. Both are large segments of the electorate as the pie charts show. It would be very interesting to know whether the expansion of overseas second home ownership in the 2000s extended to the C1 group or whether it was confined to the ABs. It would require about 5% of the electorate to change their opinion to produce a referendum in favour of staying in, say about 1.5 million voters, fewer than the EU first and second home contingent arrived at above.  (Presumably the 1003 people in the ICM survey were all resident in the UK).

Should there ever be a referendum (and assuming there is an EU which remains worth voting about) the ‘Stay’ campaigners would do well to convince the EU property owners of the need to play safe. Similarly, the ‘Leave’ campaign might want to consider how to provide reassurance that the status quo of property ownership in Europe won’t change for the worse.

4 November 2011

George Clooney’s ‘The Ides of March’

George Clooney has directed four films and has written the screenplay for two of them. I haven’t seen Leatherheads (2008, US pro-football) or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002, TV producer who claims to be a CIA hitman) and suspect I may not have missed too much. But I liked his 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck, which he co-wrote and acted in, and gave an account of Ed Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism in the 1950s.

In The Ides of March, which he directed and co-scripted, Clooney plays a Democratic presidential candidate, Governor Morris, during the Ohio primary (presumably in March) which is essential to his selection. The other key characters include his experienced campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a younger, clever but naïve staffer (Ryan Gosling). The plot follows the staffer’s unsentimental education as to the nature of politics and politicians. I thought it very well-acted, had high quality cinematography, was more insightful than Primary Colors and, reassuringly if you aren’t obsessed with American politics, was less nerdy than The West Wing. The play, Farragut North, on which The Ides of March is based, took its title from the Washington Metro station on the Red Line. It serves the area where the think tanks and political lobbyists have their offices, hence the references in the film to K Street.

Don’t be put off by the fact that on 31 October John Prescott (former British deputy PM) tweeted that he thought The Ides of March was the best film he’d seen this year. This led to a response from Alistair Campbell (@campbellclaret):
Agree with @johnprescott Ides of March terrific film. Clooney good but Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman top drawer.
Something to ponder after seeing the film - surely Campbell isn’t so vain as to be jealous of Gorgeous George, who I thought turned in a well-nuanced performance as Morris? Or are the Gosling/Hoffman characters the ones he identifies with most? Or has he seen too much behind the front of good-looking actor-politicians ? I thought that Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of the out-of-her-depth young intern was very convincing (she was the ditsy Melodie St. Ann Celestine from Mississippi in Woody Allen’s Whatever Works).

In France, The Ides of March has been released as Les Marches de Pouvoir - The Steps of (to?) Power. Les Coulisses du Pouvoir (The Corridors of Power) was the French title of Sydney Lumet’s film Power released in 1986 – all about a political consultant in an Ohio senatorial election … Now a cliché, ‘corridors of power’ (probably on John Rentoul’s Banned List) was first used by C P Snow in 1956, but his Strangers and Brothers novels, although certainly constituting a roman fleuve, don’t seem to have been translated into French.

3 November 2011

Constructivists at the RA

Back in June I posted about the 2011 Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition which had included works by Naum Gabo. Gabo and his wife moved to Cornwall from Hampstead at the outbreak of war in 1939, but Gabo had been born a Russian in 1890. He studied in Germany, returning home after the Revolution in 1917. Avant-garde art, in particular the Suprematist movement led by Malevich, had already appeared in Russia. After the Revolution the associated Constructivist movement in art and architecture, which Gabo joined, embraced the Communist cause. It did so by drawing on the non-bourgeois abstract language of Suprematism and by adopting new materials and three-dimensionality.

The Royal Academy exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935, examines the Russian avant-garde architecture which its designers intended to reflect the energy and optimism of the new Soviet Socialist state. As well as some Suprematist pictures, the exhibition shows black and white photographs and drawings of the buildings when newly-constructed alongside excellent large-scale colour photographs taken by Richard Pare, mostly in the 1990s. I thought the Melnikov House and the Gosplan Garage to be particularly striking. The difficulties of long-term maintenance of these and later Modernist buildings, given the nature of their steel and concrete construction and the large flat rendered surfaces, were apparent in many of Pare’s photographs (see an English Heritage Conservation Bulletin article about the restoration of the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill). The Chekist Housing (left), perhaps not surprisingly, seemed to be one of the few exceptions in terms of its condition.

Of all the many striking images available, the one chosen by the RA for publicity is a vertical view through a piece of engineering as much as architecture, Vladimir Shukhov’s Shabolovka Radio Tower, innovatively formed by steel-lattice hyperboloids (left). This was planned to be taller than the Eiffel Tower but was never fully implemented due to steel shortages. Never realised at all was Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, (known as ‘Tatlin’s Tower’). It was intended to be constructed as the headquarters of the Comintern in St Petersburg (Petrograd, then Leningrad, at the time) with a height of 400 metres. The courtyard of the RA is currently exhibiting a 1:40 scale model built by Dixon Jones Architects, probably the first to be seen in London for decades. In 1971, a similar model appeared on the balcony outside the Hayward Gallery during the British Council’s tribulated exhibition, Art in Revolution: Soviet art and design since 1917. The Soviet Ministry of Culture, a major source of the exhibits, demanded and achieved the removal of all works by Malevich, and insisted that a reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun Room be blocked off.

Tatlin's Tower; USSR 1920, London 1971 and 2011

In 1934 the Lawn Road Flats (known as the Isokon Building) opened in Hampstead, London. Now a Grade 1 listed building, this is a clear descendant of the Moscow communal housing constructed in the previous decade. The restaurant and bar, the Isobar, soon became a meeting place for Hampstead’s artistic community including Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, and Naum Gabo after his arrival in 1936.

The Ove Arup and Norman Foster Foundations, and Richard and Ruth Rogers have supported the exhibition. Lords Foster of Thames Bank and Rogers of Riverside are the UK’s most prominent architects, with international practices, and Ove Arup is one of the world’s leading consultancies providing related services. Building the Revolution runs to 22 January 2012.

31 October 2011

BBC2's 'Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes'

On 29 October BBC2 showed Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes, in the Timewatch documentary strand. It described how the mathematicians Max Newman and Bill Tutte and GPO research engineers led by Tommy Flowers set about decrypting the German Lorenz code by creating an electronic digital processor called Colossus.

The Bletchley Park huts where the Colossus machine has now been reconstructed were used as the location for some of the interviews and as the background to an explanation of the mechanics of the Lorenz machine (known to the British as Tunny), and the principles of the decoding process. The theme of the programme was that both Tutte and Flowers received less recognition than they were due, and even that was belated, largely because of the inevitable secrecy which surrounds cryptanalysis.

For me, the interesting thing about documentaries concerning the Second World War (another recent example was Operation Jericho – the Mosquito raid on Amiens prison) are the recollections of the remaining, and now quite elderly, participants. Otherwise, the breathless narration, the brandishing of established material as revelation and the music just have to be put up with. But on this occasion the historic re-enactments seemed more crass than usual. I do not believe that the WRNS who worked at Bletchley went to work with high-maintenance hairstyles like 1940s Hollywood starlets, nor were they likely to be on duty wearing lashings of lipstick. Even worse, one of the desks was illuminated by an Anglepoise light of a design launched in the 1970s - which is when I worked briefly with Tommy Flower’s son, one of the interviewees– clever father, clever son.

30 October 2011

Degas and the Ballet at the RA

Just as with the impact of Darwinism on religion, we are still absorbing the effects of photography on visual art. Until the last 40 years or so, photographic images were always the result of chemical reactions produced by the action of light, and originally these were slow. The first camera image, a positive made by Niépce in France in 1825, took eight hours to be formed. By 1840 negatives were being made by Henry Fox Talbot (at Lacock in SW England) with exposure times in minutes, but still not fast enough to capture movement.

A rapid succession of innovations meant that by the 1870s dry plate photographs could be taken in a few seconds. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that some artists began to turn away from camera-like exactitude in landscapes and portraiture and became more interested in the effects of colour and light. However startling these impressionist pictures may have been when first exhibited in 1874, they have come to be regarded as some of the most accessible and widely-enjoyed forms of art, as well as being some of the most expensive. Degas’ paintings of dancers must be among the most popular images of all.

The full title of the current Royal Academy show is Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement. As well as offering some delightful balletic pictures and sculpture, the exhibition directs attention to the influence of photography on Degas’ preoccupation with capturing the nature of motion. Muybridge and Marey’s techniques for turning dynamic motion into a sequence of static images are explained in some depth with contemporary photographic equipment on display. Appropriately, the exhibition ends with a brief motion picture, taken by the director Sacha Guitry, of an elderly Degas walking in the street.

Well worth seeing, Degas and the Ballet ends on 11th December, to be followed early next year with a show by another popular artist, also fascinated by photography and the use of the camera. David Hockney A Bigger Picture will display his new landscapes and explore his use of cameras from Polaroid to iPhone.

22 October 2011

Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’

For more than 30 years I’ve seen nearly every new Woody Allen film, even the ones he’s made since 2000, not all of which were screened in the UK:

These make up a rather mixed bag, and have not all been that popular. I’ve imported Region 1 DVDs of some, so I suppose I’m one of a rather small number of Britons who have seen Hollywood Ending. I can remember watching a showing of Whatever Works a couple of years ago, sat in an audience of three (and one of them was Mrs WI). And I have to admit that the films set in London, Match Point, Scoop, Cassandra's Dream and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger were variable to put it kindly, and at times embarrassingly bad. Match Point had its moments but Cassandra’s Dream was probably one of his worst. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger struck me as a New York story transported to London. The London films are oddly cast, and Allen often seems to have a wooden ear for English as it’s spoken in England.

On the other hand, if I were a New Yorker I might find Allen’s preoccupation with the wealthy West Side milieu of Melinda and Melinda a bit tiresome. However I’m not, and although Midnight in Paris centres around some rich Americans, Allen doesn’t show them in a very flattering light anyway. Midnight in Paris is a romantic comedy about a would be novelist, a well-judged Woody alter ego played by Owen Wilson, time travelling from Paris in 2010 to mix with the avant-garde in Paris in the 1920s. Time travellers in the movies go down a well-trodden path, but the usual tropes of things yet to come (tranquillisers) and of knowledge of the future (suggesting the plot of El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel) to Buñuel about 40 years prematurely) are kept under control. Carla Bruni puts in a better performance as a guide in the Musée Rodin than might have been expected from press reports at the time of shooting – ‘Carla Bruni-Sarkozy took 35 takes in Woody Allen scene’, ‘Bruni takes 5 hours to get simple bread scene right’ – and the boulangerie scene, if it ever existed, didn’t make the final cut. The art department did a convincing job with Gertrude Stein’s art collection. As far as I could tell, but I’m not an expert, there weren’t any anomalies in the succession of cute meets with the literary and artistic giants who were in Paris in the Twenties – Hemingway could have compared Picasso with Miró, Buñuel did work with Dali, Man Ray was there while Lee Miller was still in New York.  Attending this exhibition, currently in Paris, would be informative.

So, definitely worth seeing and more fun than Vicky Cristina Barcelona; I hope Nero Fiddled (formerly Bop Decameron), set in Rome, will be as good, but we will find out next year.


I originally and erroneously stated:
suggesting the plot of Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie to Buñuel about 50 years prematurely
which was quite wrong, and thanks to a much wiser blogger, have put it right.  The Discreet Charm ... was about people who couldn't ever get to dine together, not about diners who couldn't get away!


I should have pointed out that Hemingway was played by Tom Hiddleston who appeared in Joanna Hogg’s Archipelago and Unrelated. In contrast to the troubled young men of those films, his Hemingway had the approachable self-assurance that we are getting used to coming from other modern old Etonians like David Cameron. A profile of Hiddleston by Xan Brooks appeared in the Guardian recently for the launch of The Deep Blue Sea.