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.