31 December 2012

Some Paris exhibitions

Due to reasons beyond my control, this post may be too late to be of much use, for which my apologies.

Paris this winter has a plethora of fine exhibitions – here are my reactions to four of them.

The Musée du Luxembourg is showing Le Cercle de l’art moderne Collectionneurs d’avant garde au Havre (The Modern Art Club Avant-Garde collectors in Le Havre). Between 1906 and 1910, a group of art collectors and artists formed the Modern Art Club in Le Havre with a membership including Braque, and Raoul Dufy (La Rue pavoisée, below) and some of the town’s wealthiest businessmen. They set themselves the objective of promoting modernism in Le Havre, organising exhibitions, lectures, poetry readings and concerts. Guillaume Apollinaire and Claude Debussy supported the Club, which had links to the newly established Salons d’Automne and des Indépendants in Paris.

Arguably, Impressionism began in Le Havre when Monet painted Impression, soleil levant there in 1872, so it is not surprising that the Club showed acquisitions by Monet and Renoir at their annual exhibitions. But some of the collectors also took an interest in the Post-Impressionists and the Fauves (Van Dongen’s La Parisienne de Monmartre c1907-8 in the poster above), buying from galleries (left), auctions or the artists themselves. The collections of two of them, Olivier Senn and Charles-Auguste Marande, have been donated to the Musée d’Art moderne André Malraux in Le Havre. The collections of the others are now dispersed but some of the works which they owned feature in the exhibition. Unfortunately there are no Matisses which some of the Le Havre collectors were buying at the same time as the Steins. About 90 works are on show including some which would have been regarded as unsuitable for the public’s (particularly female) eyes at the time (Marquet’s La Femme Blonde 1919, below).

A far less happy period in the history of modern French art is examined at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris: L’Art en guerre France 1938-1947 De Picasso à Dubuffet. The impact of the period from the uneasy years before the war, through the Occupation and its immediate post-War consequences, is traced in almost 400 works by over 100 artists. These include Arp, Ernst, Bonnard Rouault, Derain, Klee, Kandinsky, Chagall, Leger and Giacometti. The Nazi dislike of degenerate art was shared by Vichy, so works like those shown at the Paris 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition (Paul Delvaux Les noeuds roses, 1937, below)

and expressionist paintings were out of favour in the dark years from 1940 to 1944. Some artists, like Picasso (Nature morte à la chouette et aux trois oursins 1946 in the poster), retreated to their studios, others went into exile or, like Chaïm Soutine, led a semi-clandestine existence.

Only one of his works is on show at the Musée d’Art moderne, but Soutine is the subject of a comprehensive exhibition at the Orangerie, Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) l'ordre du chaos. 22 works by Soutine from the Orangerie’s own collection have been supplemented by 48 loan items which together demonstrate the full range of his colourful expressionist technique (Madeleine Castaing, 1929, left).

But the main current exhibition in Paris given over to a single artist is Edward Hopper at the Grand Palais, first shown earlier in the year in Madrid. His images (Nighthawks 1942 in the poster) are so well-known directly and in cinematic evocation as not to require much description here. The exhibition puts some emphasis on the three visits to Paris which Hopper (1882-1967) made before World War 1 and the consequent influence on his style of contemporary European art. For British eyes it was a surprise to see, alongside works by Degas and Marquet, two Sickerts (including the Tate’s Ennui below left), and be given a fresh insight into an image like Room in New York 1932 (below, right).

After his time in France, Hopper sold one picture at the famous 1913 Armory Show in New York but would not make another sale for over 10 years, earning his living in the meantime as a commercial artist. There are (as far as I can tell from BBC Your Paintings) no significant works by Hopper in UK public collections. The Grand Palais exhibition provides us a rare opportunity (since Tate Modern in 2004) to experience the mixture of fascination and alienation exerted not only by Nighthawks, but, for example, Automat 1927, Chop Suey 1929 (top left and right, below), Eleven AM 1926 and later work such as New York Office 1962 (bottom left and right, below).


The Le Havre Modern Art Club exhibition ends on 6 January 2013.
L’Art en guerre ends on 17 February.
Soutine ends on 21 January.
Hopper ends on 28 January.

24 December 2012

Down but far from out in Paris

A few weeks ago I commented on a pretty gloomy report in The Economist on France. The Financial Times has now run (22 December)  a front page story in a similar downbeat vein: Tax and economy hit French joie de vivre:
The French are popping fewer champagne corks and spending less on toys as higher taxes, a deteriorating economy and an exodus of national icons sap the country’s joie de vivre. “There is a moroseness, a sadness among the French population at the moment which has led to our compatriots drinking a little less champagne this year,” said Paul-François Vranken, chairman and chief executive of Vranken Pommery Monopole, one of the country’s best-known Reims-based houses. “Champagne consumption follows the mood of the country. Today, there isn’t a mood conducive to celebration.”
But a recent visit to Paris left me wondering whether things are quite that bad, at least for some. Le Bon Marché is the second oldest department store in the world, if you agree that the oldest was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, as it calls itself, is in Paris’s affluent 7th arrondissement (left and left bank) and caters for the elite. Its food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, in its own adjacent building, makes those in London look like my local Tesco.

After reading The Economist I was expecting some signs of austerity, even in the 7th, but au contraire. In October the subground floors of both buildings (“-1” as they call it) had been transformed into “l’homme”, a ‘new masculine world’ described below:

which I have attempted to translate:
In the autumn of 2012, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche dedicated to man the whole of its floor ‘-1’. Grouped into a single space in the style of an apartment, all the aspects of masculine elegance are highlighted with a uniform approach. The sharp trends, tailoring, sportswear and exceptional new services (barber, shoe shine ...) offer a unique experience for every visitor. In November, this great locker room will be joined by a new wine cellar concept directly accessible from La Grande Épicerie de Paris, creating a real synergy between the two Le Bon Marché buildings. Thus, this new masculine world will accompany modern man in his choice between diversity and essentiality.
To put it another way, an astonishing amount of expensive men’s clothing of different brands from all over the world, and wine up to 3350€ per bottle (Petrus 1998). Oh, and champagne up to 3000€ per bottle (Billecart-Salmon 1961). Of course, Le Bon Marché, when embarking on this development, may not have expected the European economic downturn to be as persistent. Or is it that the incomes of Paris’s elite, just as London’s, are detached from the austerity experienced by the rest of the population?  It seems unlikely that Le Bon Marché is aiming particularly at the tourist market, being, unlike some of its rival grands magasins, resolutely francophone.


20 December 2012

Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’

Actors who turn director or even direct themselves seem to yield good results – for example George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Ben Affleck’s Argo is no exception. It is the story of an operation carried out by the CIA with Canadian help to retrieve six American diplomats from Tehran in1980. They had gone into hiding in the Canadian embassy after the sack of the US embassy by Revolutionary Guards. Over 90 other personnel were held for 444 days but the six were exfiltrated with the help of Tony Mendez, a CIA expert (played by Affleck) whose plan revolved around passing off the fugitives as a Canadian film team scouting locations for a sci-fi movie, ‘Argo’ ,with a Middle Eastern setting.

Because we know that the mission was a success, Argo it isn’t so much a will-they-won’t-they as a how-will-they-get-out-of-that-one, but the action in Tehran is just as exciting nonetheless. As it unfolds, there are lesser cliff-hangers back in the US in the form of the machinations between the CIA, State Department and White House, familiar of course to fans of The West Wing and Homeland. While in Hollywood, the Argo crew’s leading lights, played by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, get some of the best lines in the film. The riots outside the US embassy and in the bazaar (actually filmed in California and Istanbul) are all too convincing.

Some people might not care for the ‘USA 7 Iran 0’ undertones of the film’s conclusion but its opening bande dessinée-style backgrounder on Iranian history pulls no punches on the US or UK. Less seriously, a post here earlier this year about The Artist pointed out the use of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, correct for its late 1920s setting. As Mendez flies into Hollywood we see the later HOLLYWOOD sign almost derelict. But in fact it had been restored to its current state in the late 70s before the hostage problem arose. So remember, Argo is a dramatization and a good one, not a documentary. Would all the secrets of a successful exfiltration ever be revealed? I doubt it. But Argo certainly deserves its current status as an emerging 2013 Oscar front-runner.

Stay for the credits which start with a sequence of contemporary photographs alongside equivalent stills from the film.

UPDATE 1 March 2013

Argo has now won various awards culminating with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Best Picture Oscar this week. Its veracity has come under scrutiny as its profile has risen. For example, Glenn Greenwald from the Guardian has drawn attention to this post on the Wide Asleep in America blog.

10 December 2012

Macmillan’s pre-Christmas crisis 50 years ago

The 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when homo sapiens edged towards mass extinction, gained its fair share of media coverage. Will the less significant UK/US Nassau Agreement of December that year be remembered?

At the beginning of December 1962, Britain’s Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was almost certainly looking forward to his Christmas break. In July he had sacked a third of his cabinet, an event dubbed the Night of the Long Knives, an ironic revival of Hitler’s purge of the Sturmabteilung in June 1934. Then on 27 October, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the PM had felt it necessary to take the pre-apocalyptic decision to place the RAF’s V-bombers at 15 minutes notice, the aircraft loaded with nuclear weapons and stood at the end of their runways in Eastern England.

The existence of the V-bomber nuclear force was the result of the massive investment seen as necessary to maintain Britain’s international status and to secure national security during the post-World War 2 confrontation with the Soviet Union. In 1961, Bomber Command had more aircraft than BEA and BOAC (British Airways’ predecessors) together. However, by then the likelihood of the bombers actually reaching their targets was being thrown into doubt by the formidable air defences being installed around the Soviet Union and in occupied Eastern Europe. As a counter, the RAF had embarked on the development of a ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead, Blue Streak, which could be launched from the UK but was vulnerable to pre-emptive attack. Instead it was decided to extend the usefulness of the V-bombers by buying an American ballistic missile, Skybolt, which could be launched in the air at a safe distance from the Soviets. Trials were arranged to demonstrate the compatibility of the system with the RAF’s Vulcan aircraft (below, top). The last aircraft of this type, XH557 (bottom), will cease flying in 2013.

In return for Skybolt, Macmillan had agreed in 1960 that the US would be able to support its new nuclear submarines with Polaris missiles from a base at Holy Loch in Scotland.   On 11 December, Robert McNamara arrived in London bearing bad news: the US no longer had any requirement for Skybolt. The project was experiencing development problems (“an absolute pile of junk” McNamara would recall, somewhat unfairly), while at the same time the US Navy were confident of Polaris being a success. The US announcement was to precipitate a major crisis in Anglo-American relations because the prospect then facing Macmillan was of Britain’s ceasing to be a nuclear power by default. Inevitably the summit meeting between Kennedy and Macmillan already scheduled to take place at Nassau from 19 to 21 December turned out to be dominated by the consequences of the Skybolt decision. Just before the PM's departure over 100 Tory backbenchers signed a motion calling on him to safeguard the deterrent.

In fact it was on the 20 December that Macmillan and Kennedy reached a significant understanding.  Macmillan declined offers of the transfer of the Skybolt project to the UK and an alternative air-launched missile called Hound Dog – perhaps the name alone was a political liability. The old actor manager knew he “had to pull out all the stops” as he put it himself. He reminded Kennedy of the way wartime atomic cooperation under Roosevelt and Churchill had been abruptly terminated by the US and went on to persuade Kennedy that if Britain were now forced to cease being a nuclear power, there would be an anti-American backlash in Britain, British defence policies globally would have to be reconsidered and that his government might fall and be replaced by one of a neutralist inclination. Macmillan’s Private Secretary, de Zulueta, commented that at the end of Macmillan’s performance “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, including mine”. Macmillan returned to London with a pledge that the US would supply Britain with the Polaris system to be committed to NATO but with independence of operation if supreme national interests were at stake. In April 1963 the Polaris Sales Agreement was put in place on what turned out to be a favourable financial basis for the UK.

Shortly after the Nassau meeting Kennedy departed to Key West for what would turn out to be his last family Christmas. On his return to Washington in January one of his first public duties with his wife was to open the exhibition of the Mona Lisa on loan from the Louvre. Back in London Macmillan had found that his endeavours in Nassau had not been greeted with much enthusiasm in The Times:

Although incorrect in its second headline - agonising about the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US continues to this day – The Times was prescient in its third, Kennedy’s offer of Polaris to France. At the unveiling of the Mona Lisa, Kennedy made the dry comment:
Mr. Minister, we in the United States are grateful for this loan from the leading artistic power in the world, France. In view of the recent meeting in Nassau, I must note further that this painting has been kept under careful French control, and that France has even sent along its own Commander in Chief, M. Malraux. And I want to make it clear that grateful as we are for this painting, we will continue to press ahead with the effort to develop an independent artistic force and power of our own.
De Gaulle publicly declined Kennedy’s offer on 14 January 1963, accompanied by another, more famous, ‘non’. This blocked Britain’s joining the European Economic Community, one of Macmillan’s major foreign policy objectives, despite his regarding de Gaulle “as having all the rigidity of a poker without its occasional warmth”. De Gaulle, on the other hand, thought that Britain had become a vassal of Washington and had sold its birthright for “a plate of Polarises”. British politics in the summer of 1963 was dominated by the Profumo affair. The nuclear test ban treaty which Macmillan had sought was signed in August but he would resign in poor health in October, a few weeks before Kennedy’s assassination. The first of the four RN Polaris submarines, HMS Resolution, became operational in June 1968. Through the Polaris Sales Agreement, these were replaced by Trident in the 1990s. As has been described in posts here in June and October, there are divergent views in the current UK Coalition government about a successor to Trident with the added complication of possible Scottish independence.

Edward and Florence heard the muffled headlines and caught the name of the Prime Minister, and then a minute or two later his familiar voice raised in a speech. Harold Macmillan had been addressing a conference in Washington about the arms race and the need for a test-ban treaty. Who could disagree that it was folly to go on testing H-bombs in the atmosphere and irradiating the whole planet? But no one under thirty - certainly not Edward and Florence believed a British Prime Minister held much sway in global affairs. Every year the Empire shrank as another few countries took their rightful independence. Now there was almost nothing left, and the world belonged to the Americans and the Russians. Britain, England, was a minor power – saying this gave a certain blasphemous pleasure. Downstairs, of course, they took a different view. Anyone over forty would have fought, or suffered, in the war and known death on an unusual scale, and would not have been able to believe that a drift into irrelevance was the reward for all the sacrifice.

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

Possible further reading: Of course, Peter Hennessy: The Secret State and Cabinets and the Bomb. A famous analysis of the Skybolt decision from a US viewpoint is Richard Neustadt’s Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective. According to Jonathan Fenby in The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved, Macmillan appeared confident about securing Polaris when he met de Gaulle at Rambouillet on 16 December 1962 (page 502).


6 December 2012

Save Old Flo

For an explanation as to how Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman, 1957-8 has come to be the subject of an Art Fund campaign, see the timeline on their website.


It now appears that Tower Hamlets may not be the borough which owns 'Old Flo' but that it is actually the property of  Bromley!

5 December 2012

Who wants to be a millionaire?

… I don't.
Have flashy flunkies everywhere? I don't.
Who wants the bother of a country estate?
A country estate is something I'd hate.
Who wants to wallow in champagne? I don't.
Who wants a supersonic plane? I don't.
And I don't 'cos all I want is you.
etc Cole Porter (High Society, 1955)

But before one turns one’s back on wealth, what defines a millionaire in modern Britain? Ed Miliband, in his ‘One Nation’ Party Conference Speech in October, said:
… What do [the Government] choose as their priority? A tax cut for millionaires. A tax cut for millionaires. Next April, David Cameron will be writing a cheque for £40,000 to each and every millionaire in Britain. Not just for one year. But each and every year. That is more than the average person earns in a whole year. At the same time as they’re imposing a tax on pensioners next April. Friends, we, the Labour Party, the country knows it is wrong. It is wrong what they’re doing. It shows their priorities. And here’s the worse part. David Cameron isn’t just writing the cheques. He is receiving one. He’s going to be getting the millionaire’s tax cut.
So his definition of a miilionaire was someone earning £1 million or more a year. I wonder if Cameron actually achieves that, even with private income on top of his PM’s salary of £142,000. But for other people the definition of a millionaire is the less demanding one of someone who has wealth of over £1 million rather than that amount of annual income. But what is wealth? The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been engaged for some time in a Wealth and Assets Survey. This has been producing some interesting data, for example the regional (particularly north-south) variations in wealth in the UK (to be in the wealthiest 10% of households the asset level is £967,000 and over – not quite £1 million), shown below. I suspect that the SW region, if sub-divided,would show a gradation from darkest to lightest, east to west. 

But their approach poses a problem in definition, as the pie chart below makes clear. It shows how the “economic wealth” of all the households in the UK, about £10 trillion (or £1000 billion) was defined for the purposes of the survey:

As can be seen, about 46% is in the form of private pension investments and another 33% in property. The relevance of either of these to personal affluence is arguable. A private pension investment is a constrained form of wealth because it can only be accessed as an annuitised income stream (usually a pension) after a certain age until death. While in payment it is subject to income tax. As far as property is concerned, certainly for the owner, net of any mortgage, it is an asset which can be realised. However, we all have to live somewhere at some sort of cost.

These distinctions matter when people start to throw around numbers relating to pensioner millionaires and the fairness of them receiving benefits such as the winter fuel allowance during a time of austerity. Take, for example, Rachel Sylvester in The Times at the end of October:
According to a forthcoming report from the Intergenerational Foundation [IF], the number of wealthy pensioners is rising rapidly, with almost 2 million people over 60 in households with assets above £1 million and 988,000 millionaires over 65. Its analysis concludes that the Government is spending about £500 million a year on winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for millionaires. That can’t be right. The motto “we’re all in it together” is only valid if it applies to old and young, as well as rich and poor.
Indeed “That can’t be right” if only because there are several things wrong here. Firstly, there’s a clear misinterpretation of what IF said in their report. They do provide an estimate of nearly 2 million (1,855,300 actually) people over 60 in households with assets above £1 million. And also 988,600 over 65 – but that is the number in households worth over a million, not individual millionaires. The distinction is important because the average household size for the over 65s is 1.39. Well, that’s what IF say (Table 5). Now, if Ms Sylvester and her spouse wanted to split their combined assets they would probably choose to divide them equally. And if those assets were less than £2 million, neither of them would expect to be classified subsequently as millionaires.

There is a more fundamental issue lurking here relating to private pension investments. How should their value be treated once turned into an income stream? Secondly, why ignore the value of public sector pensions prior to payment? One way of avoiding this is to look solely at income. Last month Chris Skidmore MP, one of the Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs, produced a report with the snappy title of A New Beveridge: 70 years on - refounding the 21st century welfare state, with a section on Wealthy pensioners (page 19):
There are 100,000 households with a retirement income of more than £100,000 a year, and 988,000 over 65s in Britain who have assets worth at least a million pounds.
Neither of these figures is supported by a reference and the second is repeating Sylvester’s error above. Anyway, the report recommends that:
… the richest pensioners with separate incomes over £50,000 should no longer receive winter fuel allowance, a free bus pass and free TV licenses. (page 3)
While this avoids looking at wealth per se, it repeats the well-known anomaly of the child benefit ceiling, but for an older age group. For example, the household consisting of a former high-flyer, now with a £80,000 pension but whose spouse never worked possibly to help them get there, would receive fewer benefits than one with two less starry £40,000 pensioners and would also pay a lot more income tax! In a relatively early post here in February 2011 on the same subject (then raised by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which provides the Free Enterprise Group’s “administrative support”), I commented:
It is a matter of political judgement as to whether the ire of a particular group in society and consequent loss of votes is worth incurring.
Nothing seems to have changed yet, but if the economic situation deteriorates further, some withdrawal of these benefits seems inevitable – and at below £50,000 pa as well.

1 December 2012

A rum little cake

Most towns in France have their gastronomic specialities (produits de terroir) and Bordeaux, as home of the canelé, is no exception. A canelé (or cannelé, meaning grooved) is a small cylindrical cake with fluted sides, height and diameter about 4cm. They are quite agreeable to eat, if a little stolid, and are usually flavoured with honey, vanilla and curiously, rum. I say curiously because South West France is a famous grape-growing area and the locally-made spirit is brandy – Cognac is to the north of Bordeaux and Armagnac to the south - whereas rum is distilled from fermented sugar cane, a crop grown far away.

The only historical account of the canelé that I’ve come across explains that in the sixteenth century the sisters in a Bordeaux convent made little cakes for the poor. However, a visitor to the local history museum might draw a different conclusion. In 2009 the Musée d’Aquitaine opened a gallery with four spaces devoted to the Modern Era: Bordeaux in the 18th century, trans-Atlantic commerce and slavery (Modern as opposed to gallo-roman and prehistoric). As the museum’s website explains (in English):
The source of [Bordeaux’s 18th century] prosperity is examined in the second space, which considers the challenges of Bordeaux maritime commerce, depicted by model ships and an impressive collection of objects relating to navigation. While this commerce initially took the form of direct trade between Europe and the Caribbean, the increase in the triangular trade at the end of the century established Bordeaux as one of the second level slave trading ports in France. The methods employed in the trade in captives from African merchants are here explained, destroying in the process a number of pre-conceived ideas. The tragedies of the decimation of native peoples and the disasters resulting from the colonial wars are not forgotten.  
The organisation of the slavery system in the Caribbean is put in perspective in the third space. Here, documents relate the living conditions and social relationships on the plantations. The sale of slaves, physical abuse, infanticide, the organisation of work, mortality, liberation, maroon societies and revolts are also mentioned.
On the equivalent page in French, “slavery system in the Caribbean” is système esclavagiste dans les îles à sucre (ie the sugar islands). It seems a reasonable surmise that rum being brought back to Bordeaux on the home passage of the triangular trade (left) started to be added to a local cake, probably increasing its popularity. Rum from the French-speaking Carribean islands is distilled from fermented sugar cane, not molasses. Until visiting the Modern era gallery, I had not appreciated the extent of South West France’s involvement in Haiti, Ste-Dominique as it was called, until independence in 1804, and the relatively late date at which France agreed to the abolition of slavery (1835).

However, despite the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in slavery’s abolition, there some matters that South West England should not be so proud of. The impressive Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade was published by Yale University Press in 2010 (its four contributors are all forenamed David!). Their Map 22 (selection below) reveals Plymouth’s early involvement in the slave trade.

Op cit Map 22 Ports outfitting slave voyages 1501-1641 (detail)
This was later eclipsed (selection from their Map 26 below) by Bristol, as is better-known, with minor participation by Lyme (Regis), Poole and Dartmouth. By then London and Liverpool had become dominant in the English slave trade.

Op cit Map 26 Ports outfitting slave voyages 1642-1807 (detail)

To end on a more cheerful note, canelés are not difficult to make at home, providing you have the right mould, example left. These can be purchased at a cost from amazonuk, less from amazonfr or in street markets in SW France. Individual copper moulds, although ornamental, are very expensive unless you are setting up as a pâtissier. Below is a recipe which works, but Google will locate plenty of others:
Canelé de Bordeaux  
500g sugar  
250g flour  
2 whole eggs  
3 egg yolks  
1l of whole milk  
2 dessert spoonfuls of rum  
3-4 dessert spoonfuls of vanilla essence (30%)  
Description: Mix the sugar and eggs in a large bowl until you have a white batter. Add the flour and mix thoroughly. Heat the milk and take off the heat before boiling, then pour gradually into the bowl with the mixture. Add the run and vanilla, mix well. Leave the batter to stand overnight. Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 10. Lightly butter the canelé moulds then fill with the batter. Cook for 20 mins at gas mark 10, then for 1h10 at gas mark 7. Leave to cool. Canelés are best eaten in the 24hrs they’re made. They will keep well for 2 days.

ADDENDUM 24 January 2013

This post has turned out to be surprisingly popular.  Perhaps canelés are the new cupcakes as an article by Ann Limpert in the Washingtonian, Bordeaux Beauties: Why Canelés are Our New Favorite Sweets, might suggest - but these are smaller (not unknown in SW France) and there is no mention of rum!

27 November 2012

Laura Knight at Worcester

Laura Knight (1877-1970) was born near Nottingham, often painted in Cornwall (SW England) and spent time in her later years at Malvern in Worcestershire. So it seems highly appropriate that this exhibition, Laura Knight in the Open Air, was staged first at Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance, then at Nottingham’s Djanogly Gallery and ends at Worcester City Art Gallery.

Knight (née Johnson), although born into a family whose middle class status was slipping, had sufficient artistic talent to secure a scholarship and attend Nottingham Art School. It is difficult now to appreciate how great an achievement that in itself must have been. An indication of contemporary attitudes is the rule of the time that women art students were not allowed to work from nude models, male or female, a restriction to which her famous Self Portrait (left) of 1913 may, in part, be a reference. At the School she met her husband Harold Knight (1874-1961) and together they pursued successful careers as professional artists. In 1929 Laura became the first artist Dame Commander of the British Empire and in 1936 the first woman to be elected as a Royal Academician (RA), Harold being elected an RA the following year.

The Knights started painting in Cornwall in 1907 and returned there until the 1930s. This exhibition, on the theme of her en plein air work, includes many of Laura’s coastal views, often around Lamorna and featuring female figures (The Cornish Coast right). In retrospect it is not difficult to understand why her sunny impressionistic style was so popular in the decades after the First World War and before the Second. Her gypsy studies, mostly of colourful women, were out-of-doors rather than landscapes, and have more in common with her circus work than the theme of this show. However, the Knights began to spend time around the Malvern Hills from the early 1930s and Laura’s landscapes from the area are well-represented.

Laura Knight’s wartime commissions from 1942 to 1945 often showed women at war work in the Air Force or in factories as subjects, but her A Balloon Site, Coventry of 1943 (left) also offers a very skilful depiction of sunlight on the balloon’s surface. Her The Dock Nuremburg 1946 (below), although essentially indoors, leads the eye as though it were a landscape towards a background of ruins. (Particular defendants can be identified from the Imperial War Museum photograph. Goering is at the far end of the middle row – a far different situation from the one he was in in 1940: see a post here earlier this year which generated an unexpected number of hits from Germany).

Reading Elizabeth Knowles’ exhibition catalogue, I was left with the impression that there was more to learn about Laura Knight and her relationships with Harold and others. A forthcoming film, Summer in February, which dramatizes the Lamorna Group of artists including the Knights, may shed some light or at least generate some discussion. Also, there are plans for a Laura Knight retrospective at the Dulwich Gallery in 2015. In the meantime, I would recommend anyone interested in her work, and who has not seen this show in Penzance or Nottingham, to visit Worcester before 10 February 2013.

20 November 2012

The Economist on France

The Economist on 17 November included a special report on France, So much to do, so little time, which on the cover of all its editions turned into the more sensational, The time-bomb at the heart of Europe. Not surprisingly it didn’t go down too well in France but a few days later appeared well-timed when the country was downgraded by Moody’s from Aaa to Aa1, outlook continuing negative.

The author of the report, John Peet, acknowledges the help and insights from 28 people and there are signs of autant de têtes, autant d'avis. For example on page 9 we are told:
There is so much more to France than Paris. Cities like Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Nice and Toulouse count for a lot both economically and politically.
and on page 10:
Paris dominates France, politically and economically.
The point to be appreciated by a British reader is that Paris and the Ile-de-France have nothing like the dominance of London and the South East in the UK. There is a real howler on page 6:
Even French vineyards are investing in expensive machines to replace human grape pickers.
Whoever wrote that should take a look at the entry on mechanical harvesting in Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine. Machines were introduced in France in the 1980s and are used in all but the most prestigious vineyards.  Elsewhere the vines are spaced and kept to a height to allow the machines to traverse them (see this blog’s Background and below).

Otherwise The Economist can be expected to get its economic facts right and the report makes a good case for there currently being too much government spending and too heavy a burden of social costs on employers, even for France. On the other hand, as the survey admits, the country has superb infrastructure, a substantial part of it owned by the government, an economic fact of life the survey ignores. Also, as it points out, none of the large French banks had to be bailed out by the state. I sometimes think that the UK’s circumstances would be much more like those of France if Mrs Thatcher had lost the election in 1983 (or 1984), as could well have been the case if the Falklands War had not happened or had ended differently.  Perhaps whether this was for better or for worse in the long term is still to be discovered.

19 November 2012

À la recherche de la poésie française lesbienne

In a post after the death of Christopher Hitchens almost a year ago, I mentioned in passing the British educational system’s encouragement of “Two Cultures”, essentially science and the arts. This unfortunate separation was originally identified by CP Snow as long ago as 1959 and there are occasional reminders of its existence. I have mentioned Sir James Dyson’s speaking up for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) before, so I was interested to read an article based on an interview he recently gave to The Times (£), whose science and technology supplement, Eureka, ended recently. (The article was headed, rather oddly, ‘Dyson inventor says schools should focus on science, not arts’ – he may be ‘inventor Dyson’ but surely not ‘Dyson inventor’, just ‘Dyson’?). He was reported thus:
Britain has turned its back on what made it great, with too many students choosing to read humanities at university, Sir James Dyson has said in an interview with The Times.
But the engineer and entrepreneur infuriated some who said he was trying to revive an outdated “two cultures” view of science versus humanities. Sir James, who became Britain’s 22nd richest man by developing bagless vacuum cleaners, said: “The more sophisticated you get as a nation the more you turn your back on the thing that made you wealthy. You don’t choose the difficult, hard work, of science and technology and engineering.”  
He said we should talk more about technology so that “little Angelina wanting to go off to study French lesbian poetry will suddenly realise that things like keeping an aircraft industry, developing nuclear energy, high-speed trains, all these things are important”.
Notice that the reader is told of the existence of counter-arguments even before any report of what Dyson actually said! And of course the red-rag-bull reference to “French lesbian poetry” set off the arts-based intelligentsia in the media and elsewhere, most significantly the Education Department, whose Secretary of State, Michael Gove, in a speech soon after The Times article said:
This anti-intellectual strain in British life, and thinking, may have protected us from following the sort of ideological fashions that captured continental minds over the last century. As has been pointed out before, both fascism and Marxism were ideas so foolish only an intellectual could have believed in them. But I fear the anti-intellectual bias in our way of life has, at times, become a bias against knowledge and a suspicion of education as a good in itself.  
… This bias against knowledge manifested itself most recently when the otherwise saintly inventor Sir James Dyson had a crack at people who want to go to university to learn French lesbian poetry rather than applying themselves to matters technical. Having devoted as much of my department's discretionary budget as possible to attracting more teachers into maths and science subjects, including computer science I am certainly no enemy of equipping people with the skills required to master technology. But I am certainly an enemy of those who would deprecate the study of French lesbian poetry. Because the casual dismissal of poetry as though it were a useless luxury and its study a self-indulgence is a display of prejudice. It is another example of the bias against knowledge.
A quick Google search for “French lesbian poetry” now turns up dozens of articles agreeing with Gove and none seeming to support Dyson. An example from the left is Glosswitch in the New Statesman, in a piece headed ‘Vacuum cleaners vs French lesbian poetry: The eternal battle James Dyson is dead wrong - studying things like "French lesbian poetry” can make people's lives better, even if they don't suck dirt up off carpets.’:
Take me, for instance. I’m British. I have a BA in languages, an MPhil in European Literature and a PhD in German and I’ve never invented a single piece of useful household equipment in my life.
and in a loftier manner on the right from Allan Massie in a Daily Telegraph blog:
I would guess that James Dyson is engaging in a bit of guesswork himself. Not having access to the statistics – has he? – I don’t know how many people are taking French Lesbian Poetry as their special subject in A-Level exams. I would however be surprised to find that the number was big enough to doom British manufacturing, as he seems to suggest. This hunch is fortified – if you can fortify a hunch – by reading the entry on Gay & Lesbian Writing in The Oxford Companion to French Literature. Though it runs to three columns, the only Lesbian poets mentioned are Nathalie Barney (1876-1972) and Renée Vivien (1877-1909).
accompanied by a photograph of Renée (above), English-born apparently, and seemingly a bit of a poseuse.

And so forth. At which point it is worth noting that Gove, although playing nicely to his gallery of admiring journalists (he was one himself once), has no ministerial responsibility for higher education, which Dyson was referring to not A level. University education is the responsibility of the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) Department under Vince Cable and specifically David Willetts, and The Times quoted the latter as having “… thought Sir James’s comments unhelpful”:
“The true source of UK greatness is the breadth of our research activities — from nuclear physics to history and ethics. We’ve got great life sciences, which come up with great drugs; the aid programme in Africa that sponsors a great vaccine. But then local leaders fear the vaccine is a plot to make them ill. To get humans to take the vaccine you need anthropologists and linguists who can understand the culture. The future is multidisciplinary."
But no doubt BIS are appreciative of the James Dyson Foundation’s initiatives like the Royal College of Arts Dyson Building. Willetts as a BIS minister must be well aware of the economic prospects for the UK, which would be grim enough if we had a dozen Dysons and we don’t. But as Universities minister in particular he must also be well aware that the UK’s higher education system is turning into a house of cards held together by the readiness of students to take on large loans - long-term debt to be repaid from future income. Little consideration seems to be given to the realities of the graduate employment market by those in well-paid media jobs where they can join in the sniping at ‘the otherwise saintly Dyson’. Scratch the biographical surface of the commentariat and you often find that not only did its members mostly go to Oxbridge, but also that they are so well-connected by family or background that it is little surprise that they are where they are. But what are the prospects for an ordinary young graduate who has been studying for example French literature or history at a university ranked below the top 20 in the league tables? Many arts graduates find themselves in a call centre, supermarket or other workplace where knowledge of poetry, if not a useless luxury, is likely to be of marginal relevance, and they might well conclude that another course of study could have been more sensible.

Perhaps Dyson should have known better by now than to come out with the comment that he did, but possibly his exasperation got the better of him. After all, his company is engaged in a continuing battle with  international competitors to hold on to intellectual property let alone expand it. The Dyson Company’s headquarters are in Malmesbury, the birthplace of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (left), so the boss taking a Hobbesian view of the nature of failure in a competitive struggle is understandable:
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
It’s a great pity if Dyson’s underlying point about individual choices in higher education is not being debated because The Times alighted on one particular phrase.

(By the way Malmesbury is in Wiltshire in SW England, so I should point out that, although an admirer of Dyson, I gain no personal benefit from supporting him. In fact I’ve never been able to afford any of his products, but I always think the Airblade hand drier is a brilliant device when I use one!)

ADDENDUM 21 November

The Times (£) published a letter from Sir James Dyson today:
Sir, The comments attributed to me in this paper caused confusion. I was taken aback by the headline (“How to make Britain Great? More science, less French lesbian poetry, says Dyson”, Nov 10); those were your thoughts and words, not mine.  
Unfortunately Michael Gove, Mary Beard and others have used that headline to leverage their own causes and to reassert the arts. Don’t be misled; I’m a supporter of the arts and humanities — my concern is the shortage of engineers in Britain.  
Engineering, science, technology and making things are all being marginalised. We need the hard skills of engineering and science to complement our excellent arts base, otherwise where will our future exportable technologies come from?  
This year’s cavernous deficit of engineering graduates is 60,000. By 2017 we will have a deficit of 217,000 engineers — a staggering shortfall. We ignore it at our peril. The UK depends on the engineering sector for one fifth of GDP, employing 5.6 million people across 550,000 enterprises. 
We must make sure students are given a broad knowledge and the skills to grow this part of the economy. We need poets. But the development of patentable, exportable technology depends on a ready supply of engineers.  
Sir James Dyson  
Chair, James Dyson Foundation

15 November 2012

A record to be broken

Following some helpful pointers in the form of the Comments below from David Martin (aka Anonymous, who I suspect knows far more about the history of the Labour Party than I do), I have re-written the original post - twice!  Pleasingly, the possibility of the record being broken has not changed.

Britain (the English element anyway) is mildly obsessed with Eton College and its alumni, some of whom could hardly be better-known. These include the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, David Cameron and now the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Slightly less well-known as Old Etonians (OEs) are the actors Tom Hiddleston, Damian Lewis and Dominic West. There are also numerous fictional OEs like James Bond, Lord Grantham of ITV’s Downton Abbey, and Peter Pan’s Captain Hook.

Surprisingly, when nearly half the current coalition Cabinet were privately educated, there are only two other OEs with Cameron: Oliver Letwin and Sir George Young, all three being Conservatives. It isn’t just a matter of the fees, about £30,000 a year. The Labour party has had senior members who went to top private schools: Attlee to Haileybury, Gaitskell and Crossman to Winchester and recently Blair to Fettes. The only prominent recent Labour Etonians appear to have been Tam Dalyell and Mark Fisher, neither of whom were Cabinet ministers. Nowadays if people associate Eton with the left at all, it is probably through the works of one Eric Blair (George Orwell).

But when the Tories are in office, Old Etonians are, it seems, always in the Cabinet, and their school’s tenancy around the famous table must, one would have thought, be longer than that of any other institution. When government alternated between the Tories and Liberals, before the rise of the Labour party, I can well believe that OEs were never absent from the Cabinet, but it would seem surprising if this had been the case for the last 100 years. So what has the modern political record been?

The original version of this post naively assumed that there were no OEs in Attlee’s Cabinets between 1945 and 1951. However, as the Comments below indicate, it was subsequently pointed out that Hugh Dalton and Lords Pakenham (later Lord Longford) and Pethick-Lawrence and the Earl of Listowel were members of the post-war Labour Cabinets, so their service has now been incorporated into the revised Table showing the alternating administrations since the end of the World War 1 coalition.

Looking at the Table, clearly the longest period of Conservative government unpunctuated by a Labour government was that of the Thatcher/Major period, 6573 days (D). Of course, if the Etonians in Attlee’s ministry had given unbroken (or overlapping) service, the Thatcher/Major period would have been dwarfed by an continuous Etonian presence from 1931 to 1964.  Adding their service (B) up to that point to the duration of the pre-war and wartime cabinets, which contained various Etonians (A), gives a total unbroken tenure of 5904 days from August 1931 to January 1948. Again, if Dalton’s service after returning to the Cabinet (accompanied by Pakenham) is added to the subsequent “13 years of Tory misrule” (C) the result is 5982 days.

When reviewing Jack Straw’s Last Man Standing I came across a curiosity. He attended Brentwood School in Essex when it was a direct-grant grammar school. But a few years later so did the current Leader of the House of Commons, Andrew Lansley, formerly Cameron’s Health Secretary. The Table reveals an interesting possibility, but one that depends on two conditions. The first is that Lansley remains in the Cabinet for the duration of the coalition, and the second is that the date of the next election is 7 May 2015. Should these both be the case, then Brentwood School (left), rather than Eton College, will have had its alumni around the Cabinet table for the longest continuous period in modern political history – by all of six days!

Of course, there is a snag - after all, Etonians usually come out on top. 7 May 2015 is a Bank Holiday and the start of a holiday week, a factor which might be expected to have an impact on voter turnout, probably not to the coalition parties’ advantage. Holding the election even a week earlier would more than negate the six days and would leave the record with Eton. However, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 appears to allow the Prime Minister to delay the election by up to two months, but not to bring it forward.

Alternatively, if Labour were to win the next election, which could turn out to be before May 2015 if the Act were repealed, would Jack Straw MP (or possibly Baron Straw of Somewhere-in-Essex) be a member of Miliband’s Cabinet? In this case Brentwood School could keep its position ahead of Eton College for years - which would be a fitting memorial to the post-war educational experiment of the direct-grant grammar schools. Their entry was, of course, based on intellectual ability (in the admittedly flawed 11+ exams) rather than on parental ability to pay. So not so startling that one of them, in the decades after their abolition, should have educated top politicians in both main parties. And splendidly ironic if the record stands because of an indiscretion by a Labour OE who happened to be Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time the direct-grant system came into being!

Two final points. Firstly, it’s just as well that not many people read this blog, or I might have consigned Andrew Lansley to the backbenches at the next reshuffle! Secondly, examination of the educational backgrounds of Labour Cabinet members up to 1945 revealed that more than might be expected had been to Winchester and Rugby. The absence of alumni of the former in particular from the top of current politics is intriguing.

18 JULY 2014

Oh, dear!  On 14 July Andrew Lansley left the coalition Cabinet as part of Cameron's removal of the "male, stale and pale" from the front rank of Tory ministers in the months remaining before the election. Floreat Etona, of course.

12 November 2012


The first post on this blog was on 30 October 2010, just over two years ago. Since then I’ve averaged about two posts a week - this will be number 211. According to Google’s statistics, there have been nearly 17,500 page views, which averages out at about 80 views per post. The most popular post so far has been one about David Hockney with over 500 pageviews and there are another five with over 150. So a lot of posts are getting well below the average (ie the mean). These are small numbers by comparison with a lot of other bloggers (eg Thin Pinstriped Line who has had over 135,000 pageviews on 86 posts since starting a year ago, about 20 times as many pageviews per post).

What Google doesn’t tell me (or doesn’t actually know) is whether the postviewer finds what they were looking for, if they’ve arrived from a search. Or whether in reality the views are coming from automated ‘bots’ gathering data for search engine indexes. I wouldn’t be surprised if 80% of pageviews are unsatisfactory or spurious. I suppose that when a postview follows from a @WestIndep Tweet which has drawn attention to a post and indicated its subject, there is a better chance of satisfaction, albeit slight.

I have wondered whether some posts are too long. An article in The Times recently by Esther Walker, How to be a blogger, proposed 400 words per post, because:
Reading a lot of text on a screen isn’t practical, and any piece of writing is more interesting when it is short. It is so easy, with the unlimited space of the internet, to ramble on — but that is a turn-off for readers.
Someone commenting didn’t agree:
1000 word articles are not too long to read on a screen (the above article [Walker’s] is 852 words and I consider it bite-sized). Frankly, a blog post should be as long as it needs to be. If you have nothing much to say, then a short post is fine. Rambling is bad, but you are no longer constrained by column inches in a newspaper, and if a blog post needs 2,000 words, and those are 2,000 brilliant words, then people will read them.
Since a recent book review here was over 4,800 words and what I considered a short post was over 1,200 (again including quotes), I’m inclined to agree with the comment. My problem is lack of brilliance! But I set out as a blogger to amuse myself and stimulate the grey cells – anything’s better than Sudoku, surely. Also I’d like to think blogging has led to a little more discipline in assessing what I read and see than otherwise would have been the case. And some of the small number of comments I’ve had suggest that occasionally the blog provides something of interest.
 [473 words above, by the way!]

11 November 2012

Storm Cones

In the Guardian on 8 November Timothy Garton Ash expressed forebodings about what he thought was an emerging crisis in China, something which could be a matter of war and peace:
So, in the same week, it is revealed to us who will be the next leaders of both superpowers: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. …The coincidence prompts two questions: which superpower is getting stronger? And which faces the deeper crisis of its economic and political system? Though this may sound contradictory, the answers are: China and China. …  
We all know about America's problems, … Deficit and debt, gridlocked Congress, a tax code longer than the Bible, neglected infrastructure and schools, dependence on foreign oil, the stranglehold of money over politics: I don't underestimate the difficulty of tackling them. … We don't know the full extent of China's problems because Chinese media are not allowed to report them properly. …But many of its problems result from its peculiar system, which may be called Leninist capitalism. … at the same time, the vast Chinese state has a staggering degree of barely controlled decentralisation and a no-holds-barred hybrid kind of capitalism, … The result is dynamic but deformed economic development …  
In China, as anywhere else, a crisis can catalyse reform or revolution. Pray that it is reform. … We, in the rest of the world, have an existential interest in the success of both America's and China's reforms. The bellicose edge to confrontations in the Asia-Pacific region between China and US allies such as Japan is deeply worrying at such early stage of an emerging superpower rivalry. A recent Pew poll shows mutual distrust between the Chinese and US publics growing rapidly. Unhappy countries, unable to solve their own structural problems at home, are more likely to vent their anger abroad. We must want them both to succeed.
This brought to mind one of John Updike’s late novels, Toward the end of time, his 18th, published in 1997 when he was 65.  Life is seen through the journal of a retired investment adviser living north of Boston in 2020. Updike gradually and incidentally reveals that his protagonist, preoccupied with personal and domestic problems, is living in the aftermath of a war between the US and China:
… Mexico, where the economy is sounder than our fragmented, warhead-pocked States. (22*)  
Few of the Chinese missiles made it this far, but there were pro-Chinese riots, and the collapse of the national economy has taken a cumulative physical toll. (40)  
Tax time. Though no one takes it seriously-the District of Columbia is entirely given over to deserted monuments and warring gangs of African-American teenagers, who have looted every office of its last stapler and photocopier refill cartridge - a ghost of federal government exists in Maryland and Virginia, too weak to do anything but send out forms, which I sentimentally file in the drawer along with my pre-war returns... (119)
The war (which was perhaps less between us and China than between China and our protege, Japan, over the control of Asia, including separatist Siberia) had left Japan too ruined to compete, although the resilience of a demolished nation is always greater than seems possible. Fresh shoots push through the hot ashes; weeds spring up in new mutations. (147/148)  
Mexico, which had remained neutral during the Sino-American Conflict, was attracting many of our young people as a land of opportunity. Those who were denied legal admission were sneaking across the border in droves, while the Mexican authorities doubled the border guard and erected more electrified chain-link fences. They were talking of a Chinese-style wall, along Aztec design lines. (184)  
In fact, except for the empty office blocks and the apathetic, sometimes deformed male beggars in olive-green fatigues, there is oddly little in contemporary America to recall the global holocaust of less than a decade ago. The national style has always been to move on. Business as usual is the pretense and the ideal, though the President and the legislators down in Washington have as little control over our lives as the Roman emperors in the fifth Christian century- did over the populations of Iberia or Thrace. Even before the war, the bureaucracy had metastasized to the point of performing no function but its own growth. The postwar world dreads all centralized power. Our commonwealth scrip is printed not in Boston or centrally located Worcester but by six or seven independent small-town presses; the design varies widely. Still, electronic connections with other regions of the country are reviving, and commerce is imposing its need for an extended infrastructure. There is even talk of air service from New York to California, hit hardest by the Chinese bombers and further reduced-to near-Stone Age conditions, it was said-by earthquakes, brushfires, and mud slides. Reuniting the coasts is a dream demagogues make much of, on talk radio. (206/207)  
New England was the most lightly bombed sector of the former United States. The Sino-American Conflict as a whole lasted four months, and was mostly a matter of highly trained young men and women in sealed chambers of safety reading 3-D computer graphics and pushing buttons, thus obliterating quantities of civilians who never knew what hit them. Millions more Chinese than Americans died. The poisonous fallout chiefly sickened the world’s dark majority in their ghettos and unsanitary villages. (286)
“ … It's quite wonderful what they're doing. FedEx I mean. The guards they use to protect their shipments are being assigned to cities and towns now. They want to bring back green money, that people could use in any state. There's even talk, the Times says of their moving the federal government, what there is left of it, to Memphis, where FedEx has its headquarters and all its airplanes. It's about time somebody took charge, before the Mexicans invade." The Mexican repossession of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona) and lower California had been an item lately in the Globe … (290)
Like most attempts at futurology, Updike’s hasn’t stood the test of time too well and is rooted in the US of its being written. His introduction of “metallobioforms” caused by radioactivity is a science fiction embarrassment which, although it helps out the plot at one point, has implications which were not thought through. One notion not standing the test of time is that someone could still be earning a living repairing VCRs (video cassette recorders). Also we now know that there are never going to be biographies of President Gore, sleep-inducing though they probably would have been. Updike failed to anticipate the enormous growth in dependence on the internet in the following decade (a postwar America now seems more likely to be run by Google than FedEx) but, writing as he was before Katrina and Sandy, he can be forgiven for taking an optimistic view of national resilience.

Some anticipations are closer to our experience, if eight years premature:
Not until the Crash of 2000, when the addled computers deleted billions and billions from the world economy … (107)
And there was food for thought for readers in the UK:
… by the terms of the Sino-American treaty the island [Hong Kong] was assigned back to our faithful allies, the British … (191)
Updike was, of course, writing at the time of the transfer of Hong Kong's sovereignty and this idea seems highly unlikely now.  Instead we should all join Garton Ash in wanting both China and the US to be successful in solving their domestic problems.
(*Page numbers are from the US edition)


This post has attracted more interest than I expected, so it seems worth adding an update. An article by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times (£) on 13 November, China and US navigate in risky waters, is worth reading in full and complements Garton Ash above:
… The two political transitions have played out against a backdrop of a bitter argument between China and Japan, over the ownership of some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Both China and Japan are making bellicose noises and dispatching ships to the area, cheered on by nationalists at home. The US is implicated in the argument through America’s security guarantee to Japan – which Washington has made clear covers the disputed islands. …  
Behind the new group of top leaders lies a younger generation of Chinese raised on the “wolf’s milk” of hyper-nationalism.  
… the Americans, [they] have not done enough to counteract the impression that Mr Obama’s much-ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” is just a fancy term for an effort to block the rise of China. The administration is clearly using the fears of China’s neighbours to strengthen its network of alliances across the region. The attractions of this strategy are obvious in an age of austerity. But it runs the risk of making the US hostage to the territorial disputes of its Asian allies.  
… The good news is that, from everything we know, the new leadership teams in Washington and Beijing are both determined to avoid conflict between the US and China. The bad news is that the risks and dangers of miscalculation are rising.

7 November 2012

Climbing the éminence grise pole

Jack Straw, born in 1946, became a Labour MP in 1979. In 1997, after 18 years representing Blackburn in NW England as an opposition MP, he became Home Secretary, then successively Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. He was one of only three MPs, all men, who served throughout the Blair and Brown cabinets but he never reached the very top of Disraeli’s ‘greasy pole’, the Prime Ministership. He returned to the backbenches in 2010.

The initial impression that Jack Straw’s recently published autobiography, Last Man Standing – Memoirs of a Political Survivor, makes is discouraging. Not only is it later on the scene than other reminiscences from New Labour (eg Blair, Mandelson, Darling), but also longer, at well over 500 pages.  The table below may be useful in explaining the organisation and emphasis of the book.  The chapters are broadly chronological in that Straw deals in turn with his occupancy of the Great Offices of State (once-great offices of a once-great state might be more realistic) and the one not-so-great one. However, within both his Home Office and Foreign Office periods, successive chapters deal with major themes. Each chapter has its own chronology but inevitably these overlap, an arrangement which sometimes takes the reader forwards and then back in time, and also leaves occasional references to Straw’s personal and family life out of sequence.

For many readers the first group of chapters (A), which explain how Straw arrived in the corridors of power just 10 years after leaving school and became an MP five years later, will be among the least familiar and most interesting. He gives the impression of having been hard done by at the direct grant school, Brentwood (a town in Essex near London), which he attended as a boarder and anyone would sympathise with the situation which led to his disappointing A level results.

Brentwood not having delivered him to Oxbridge, Straw studied law at Leeds, which probably turned out to be a better base for his rapid rise through student politics and return to London. He acquired a national position of sorts as president of the NUS (National Union of Students, an organisation probably being taken far too seriously at the time). After this his rise seems irresistible in hindsight, but it must have required considerable personal effort. Within a few years he took on a councillorship in inner north London, as now an incubator for aspiring Labour politicians, then deputy chairmanship of the long-departed Inner London Education Authority and also passed his Bar finals with high distinction. 

Anyone who has read Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Sweet Tooth, will be struck by the authenticity which Straw provides, no doubt unintentionally, to the author’s account of working life in MI5 in the early 1970s as seen through the eyes of a young woman graduate, Serena Frome.  they quote. (page 83)
In his NUS days, Straw found himself calling on the Education Minister, possibly passing real Serenas on the way in:
Bizarrely the headquarters of the Department of Education, which we occasionally had reason to visit, was on the upper floors of a Mayfair building whose main occupant was the Security Service (MI5). Aside from the careful security at the front entrance, the ministers' doors were always open - including that of the Secretary of State, Ted Short. (page 76)
Unsurprisingly the authorities seem to have sucked their teeth when they had to vet Straw as a SPAD to a cabinet minister. Ironically, MI5 would become one of his responsibilities as Home Secretary 23 years later.

Soon after, aged only 28, he was to be offered the post of political adviser to Barbara Castle at the Department of Social Services, years before the term SPAD (special political adviser) was to acquire its current notoriety.  From this point, the story becomes more familiar to anyone who read the profiles of Straw which appeared during New Labour’s heyday. He inherited Castle’s Blackburn seat and spent 18 years in opposition (B) before joining Blair’s cabinet and surviving until Brown’s departure in 2010 (C, D, E, F). Most of the subjects which he covers are the ones to be expected like Iraq and Iran, the latter comes with a helpful primer. Others may have been forgotten: the Pinochet extradition; or failed to enter public consciousness at all: the 2002 India-Pakistan crisis. He points quite rightly to his successes like the Human Rights Act and the Lawrence Inquiry and accepts his share of responsibility for things that seemed right at the outset if not subsequently, like EU immigration, Iraq, and the Freedom of Information Act.

But what is missing? Quite a bit. For example, there is no mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 when Straw was Home Secretary. Anyone seeking Straw’s opinion on big issues like climate change, Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, India’s becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, how China may choose to exercise its global power, the value of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, and the continuation of our EU membership (though Straw is clear about the desirability of Turkey joining) is likely to feel disappointed – but, to paraphrase Alistair Campbell, he doesn’t do “world view”. There is little indication as to what he wants to do next, either. His opinions about the current Labour leadership are as anodyne as you would expect from an expert political survivalist, and his assessments of Blair and Brown are distinctly more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger, although he is sharp enough about some figures from his past like Denis Healey and John Smith. 

Is Straw an éminence grise, or grey eminence, as he is sometimes described?   Not literally: since his early career he has not been a ‘power behind the scenes’, but on the contrary very clearly on the front bench of politics. Perhaps such a title may become apposite eventually, but he is yet to join the Lords or become the principal of an Oxford college (or both or whatever) and assume the role of occasional honoured adviser, like, say, Lord Heseltine. For now, it’s more appropriate to see Straw through the eyes of the artist Emma Wesley who painted him as Lord Chancellor (below right):
Jack Straw is also a portrait of a man doing his job. Here, however, the subject looks off into the middle distance and the reference to Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More raises questions about the role of Lord Chancellor. I have long been fascinated by the folded piece of paper that More holds in the portrait and, when I was commissioned to paint the present Lord Chancellor, realised it was the perfect symbol of the power such men hold over pieces of paper which translates, of course, into direct power over our lives. This power is represented in the portrait by the lock and the portcullises on the chairbacks.
Lord Chancellors by Hans Holbein (1527) and Emma Wesley (2009)
So who should read this book? Anyone who wants an objective overview of the period of Labour government from 1997 to 2010 could do a lot worse than read Andrew Rawnsley’s Servants of the People and The End of the Party. But at the next level of detail, among the personal memoirs, as opposed to diaries like those of Alistair Campbell and Chris Mullin, Last Man Standing is more agreeable to read than Blair’s A Journey or Mandelson’s The Third Man, not least because Straw comes across as more down to earth and approachable. Inevitably, there are the limitations which stem from autobiographical self-selection as opposed to a third party’s more objective choice when given the run of the same archives. Where Straw’s records and papers will finish up – Leeds, perhaps – and whether he will, by then, be a figure seen to merit a serious independent biography, only time will tell.


In a post not long after this one appeared in its original form, I did a 'stocktake' of the first two years of this blog.  One issue which I identified was that of some of the posts being far too long - originally this one was about 4000 words, a lot more than the 500 recommended in a recent article on blogging!  The version above, after substantial pruning is nearly 1300 words - probably still more than enough.