28 September 2012

The Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain

BBC2 has now finished screening an adaptation, by no less than Tom Stoppard, of Ford Madox Ford’s novel quartet Parade’s End, lavishly filmed at numerous locations no doubt made affordable by HBO backing. Despite the strength of its themes of war, love and social standing and much excellent acting, Parade’s End fails to be as engaging as it should be. Something similar applies to Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, which, as it happens, features numerous works by Ford’s grandfather, Ford Madox Brown (The Last of England 1860, left).

Perhaps the exhibition, like Parade’s End, suffers from putting forward too many characters and events while not always explaining their relationships and development. At this point I must own up to having been to The Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate Gallery (as it then was) in 1984, and that, if the PRB only appear en masse in London at 28 year intervals like a mutant species of cicada, I’m not expecting to see them again. In 1984 an educational approach was still considered appropriate, so, as well as the main catalogue, informative guides were available (right). This is the text of the first section, “The Group”:
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a secret society of seven artists, or aspirant artists, founded in London in September 1848. Its members were, in alphabetical order, James Collinson (1825- 1881), William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), John Everett Millais (1829- 1896), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828- 1882), William Michael Rossetti ( 1829-1919), Frederic George Stephens (1828-1907) and Thomas Woolner (1825- 1892). Of these, the original creators of the group and by a long way its dominating personalities, were Hunt, Millais and D.G. Rossetti. All three were brilliantly gifted and very young - twenty-one, nineteen and twenty respectively at the time of the Brotherhood's foundation. Five of the seven were painters, Thomas Woolner was a sculptor, and William Michael Rossetti (Dante Gabriel's brother) quickly dropped the practice of art to become a writer and critic who acted as the group secretary and for a time (1849-1853) kept a journal of its activities. He was also the editor of the group's short lived magazine The Germ, of which four issues appeared between January and March 1850. The Germ was sub-titled Thoughts towards Nature in Poetry, Literature and Art and reminds us that in general the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood had a strong literary flavour right from the beginning. Dante Gabriel Rossetti in particular was as distinguished a poet as painter.  
William Holman Hunt was the son of a London warehouse manager who enjoyed art but had a low opinion of it as a means of earning a living. Hunt records that his father treated with 'measured toleration my passion for art', a passion developed after a visit to an artist with his father at the age of five. At twelve Hunt became a clerk to an estate agent but continued to practise drawing and eventually entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 where he supported himself by making portraits and copies.  
In 1844 John Everett Millais had already been four years at the R.A. Schools. At entry in 1840 he was its youngest ever pupil and became a star, winning a silver medal for drawing in 1843 and a gold for painting in 1847. Millais was born in Southampton, his mother's native town. His father came from an old Jersey family and was well off. Millais was brought up in Jersey, and Dinan in Brittany, but when by the age of eight his exceptional gifts as an artist had become clearly evident his parents moved to London in order to further his career. In London he continued to enjoy full parental backing. He and Hunt met at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming close friends sometime about the Spring of 1846.   
Dante Gabriel Rossetti was born in London into an academic and intensely artistic family. His father was an Italian political refugee, a poet and Dante scholar who from 1831 taught Italian at King's College, London. His mother was a teacher. One of his two sisters, Christina, became a well known poet. Rossetti entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1844, at the same time as Hunt, but the two only met and became friends in the early Summer of 1848 after Rossetti had admired Hunt's painting of a subject from Keats (No.9) in the Royal Academy Exhibition of that year. Hunt then introduced Rossetti to Millais. The three began to meet regularly at Millais's house where they carried on intensive discussions about art. It was out of these discussions that was born the idea of a revolutionary group of artists: '...our talk is deepest treason against our betters' said Hunt one day.
which was followed by another eight equally didactic sections and some “Further Reading”, all with 30 illustrations in black-and-white. Quite a contrast with the first sections of the smaller but colourful leaflet visitors are given currently:
This exhibition presents the Pre-Raphaelites as an avant-garde movement, a group with a self-conscious, radical project of overturning artistic orthodoxies. Boldly original in style and conception, the Pre-Raphaelites made a profound contribution to the history of modern art.  
The movement coincided almost exactly with the long reign of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837-1901). The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) was founded in 1848, a year of revolution across Europe, in a recognisably modern world. Steamships plied the globe. Railway networks linked expanding cities. Science challenged traditional beliefs. Photography offered new ways of seeing. Pre-Raphaelite art distilled the energy of the world's first industrial society into striking new forms.  
The leading members of the PRB were the young painters John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. Their older friend and mentor Ford Madox Brown never formally joined the group. They believed that art had become decadent, and rejected their teachers' belief that the Italian artist Raphael (1483-1520) represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement. They looked to earlier art whose bright colours, flat surfaces and truth to nature they admired.  
But rather than imitate the early masters, they espoused a rule-breaking originality. Whether painting subjects from Shakespeare, the Bible, landscapes of the Alps or the view from a window, the Pre-Raphaelites brought a new beauty and intensity of vision to British art.  
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in September 1848 at a turbulent time when ruptures in the new industrial society became visible. Hunt and Millais witnessed a Chartist demonstration in that year.  
Many Victorians felt that in the machine age, beauty and spirituality had been lost. Gothic Revival architects like Augustus Pugin turned back to medieval styles. The German Nazarene painters rejected modernity and adopted historical styles of painting and of dress. John Ruskin described in The Stones of Venice the 'freedom' of medieval times in contrast to the 'slavery' of the modern factory. The invention of photography in 1839 profoundly changed the way people perceived the world. All these influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites.  
At first, they formed a tight-knit, conspiratorial group, refusing to explain the initials PRB on their canvases. Their early works caused critical protest. The sharp outlines and bright colours derived from the early ltalian paintings at the National Gallery. The PRB published a journal, The Germ, which acted as a manifesto, planting the seeds of artistic revolution.  
The Pre-Raphaelites managed to be both historical and contemporary in their approach. They adopted the freshness of early-Renaissance art, but their work is essentially modern.
- more accessible, but less assured in its handling of facts – we get Raphael’s dates but not those of the Brotherhood. The Guardian’s Fiona MacCarthy in her article, Why the pre-Raphaelites were the YBAs of their day, clearly prefers the new way:
The Tate's last exhibition of pre-Raphaelite art, held in a now distant 1984, was a rather dully chronological affair. According to one critic, the treatment "seemed to symbolise a newly conservative reading of the pre-Raphaelites". Greenery-yallery to Laura Ashley. A press photograph shows Margaret Thatcher at the opening alongside Arthur Hughes's April Love. With 250 exhibits this was a catch-all survey. I remember emerging from it reeling with exhaustion. It succeeded in what one might have thought would be impossible. It managed to make the pre-Raphaelites bland.  
The current exhibition will be altogether different: leaner, more thematic, more politically charged. Women will be better represented. (Not difficult, considering that only two paintings by one woman, Elizabeth Siddal, were included in 1984.) Alongside pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings will be sculpture, photography and prize examples of pre-Raphaelite furniture and textiles, emphasising the wide reach of a movement that was fiercely revolutionary in its aims.
The organisation of the two exhibitions provides a similar contrast. In 1984 the sections were resolutely chronological, eg: Early Work, 1845-48, The Critics Attack, 1850; Success and Dissolution, 1852-1854; After 1860, Rossetti and Burne-Jones. But the 1984 exhibition was intended to be a milestone in the revival of interest in the Pre-Raphaelite movement at a time when, unlikely as it may seem now, there was far less public awareness of the painters or the sequence of their works. One could argue that in 2012 the Tate has correctly assumed a level of familiarity sufficient to allow the works to be distributed into themes according to their subject, eg: Nature, Salvation, Beauty. But after these chronology becomes implicit with Paradise given over to William Morris and Arts and Crafts and Mythologies to works by Burne-Jones and late Rossetti (Astarte Syriaca 1877, banner above).

What the visitor does get is a chance to see somewhere in the exhibition most of the significant works we think of as Pre-Raphaelite without having to go to Manchester (Ford Madox Brown, Work, below).

Or Birmingham, or Tyneside or even Delaware (Rossetti Lady Lilith, below).

In practice the allocation of works to Nature as opposed to Paradise can seem arbitrary when they have such a high metaphorical content and are full of details of imaginary historical settings, many out of doors. Perhaps this makes remembering exactly what you have seen more difficult than usual. My favourite art critic, Jackie Wullschlager, remarked in her FT (£) review:
Rossetti, infatuated with William Morris’s wife Jane, attempted suicide, then developed a proto-symbolist oeuvre whose high point is a depiction of Jane as “Proserpine” (1874), goddess of the underworld. The 1984 catalogue acknowledged this as Rossetti’s outstanding work; disgracefully, although it belongs to Tate, and is Rossetti’s most beloved painting, this show omits it. Is it too personal, distinctive, exceptional? Its absence will not only disappoint – it also renders less meaningful the show’s trophy loan, Hunt’s dense final painting “The Lady of Shalott” (1888-1905), borrowed from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut.
A fair point, but if you look up Proserpine on the Tate website, you are advised “On display at Tate Britain Exhibition: Pre-Raphaelites”. I’m not sure I can now definitely remember its being there, but one imagines that the Tate knows the whereabouts of their pictures.

Rossetti's Prosperine and Hunt's Lady of Shallott
The exhibition’s thesis that the PRB was an avant garde movement which made a profound contribution to the history of modern art seems unarguable. MacCarthy’s equivalencing of the PRB with the YBA (Young British Artists) is more doubtful. In fact all her article offers in support of its headline is:
If we can compare 1850s PRBs and 1990s YBAs (and in terms of shock value we definitely can) then [Hunt’s] The Scapegoat finds its obvious parallel in Damien Hirst's shark.
To those of us who are just looking, as John Updike put it, the big difference between the YBA and PRB might be that those boys could ‘paint’, in the traditional sense, exceptionally well. Whether the girls could is something that the visitors in 2012/13 can decide for themselves.

Anyone who wants to see the finest Pre-Raphaelites in British collections during the next 12 months on home territory will need to get to Tate Britain by 13 January. Without any of the various concessions it will cost £14. After that Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde will be at the National Gallery, Washington, from February to May and the Pushkin, Moscow from June to September.


25 September 2012

It was David Blunkett, Frank

Tuesday 25 September’s BBCR4 Today programme was enlivened by a revelation from the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner. He surprised Jim Naughtie when he said that the Queen had told him she had been pretty upset that there was no way to arrest the radical cleric Abu Hamza and had spoken to the Home Secretary about it. The BBC later made a statement saying the conversation between Frank Gardner and the Queen should have remained private and that it 'deeply regretted' the breach of confidence. On Today Gardner said he couldn’t remember who had been Home Secretary at the time. Well, it seems to have been David Blunkett. The BBC’s statement included his response:
Former Home Secretary David Blunkett said "categorically" that the Queen never raised the issue of Abu Hamza with him. "Not surprisingly," he said, "because my views and attitude in relation to this individual were very well known."
I am a proud owner of a copy of The Blunkett Tapes – My Life in the Bear Pit, which I have described here previously as ‘monumental (and monumentally boring)’ - unkind given that it was a find in Poundland. But to make amends I have retrieved the following passage from January 2003:
I was consulted on, and agreed to, the high-risk strategy of the raid on the Finsbury Park mosque which took place at around two a.m. on Monday 20 January. We had been talking about it during the latter part of the previous week, discussing what to do and how to do it and taking advice on handling it from the Anti-Terrorist Branch. … I also attacked Abu Hamza [imam at the Finsbury Park mosque] and all his works when answering questions on the Statement on the previous Wednesday lunchtime. We had been to-ing and fro-ing on this for months and I had been desperate to get across that political backing was there for any action that was needed. There was going to be no political correctness.  
In replaying my tapes, this all seems so close to home. In February 2006 Abu Hamza was convicted of inciting racial hatred and soliciting murder, and many questions were asked about how long he had been active in our country, what had happened over the years from the mid-1990s, what advice had been received and what support had been given by politicians.  
Much has to remain private. Suffice it to say that there were occasions, like any human being, when I got it wrong. With Abu Hamza, I did not. On the one hand I was defending the security services and SO13 - which any Home Secretary would do - and on the other I was creating mayhem inside the system to see if we could get something done (with Tony [Blair]'s wholehearted support). As will be seen, we were to change the law to withdraw citizenship from those with dual citizenship in order to ensure that we could remove them from the country - judges permitting - and three years on, Abu Hamza had managed to manipulate the legal system to continue appealing against my decision at the time he was convicted in the British courts. (pages 436,437)
“Much has to remain private” – perhaps more than we might ever think.

24 September 2012

The Radev Collection reaches Bath

The Radev Collection is described as being “The private picture collections of: Eardley Knollys (1902 - 1991), Eddy Sackville-West (1901 – 1965) and Mattei Radev (1927 - 2009). Bequeathed in friendship, begun in 1938, and preserved in the 21st Century.” Some of the history of the Collection, and of the “male salon” which formed it, can be found on its website. Each of the three men added to the Collection of 800 works which mirror their differing interests: Knollys in French artists acquired through his gallery which in turn Sackville-West patronised for Modernist pieces. Knollys inherited from Sackville-West in 1965 and later left their combined collections to Radev.

A selection of works from the Radev Collection is currently on a UK tour which began in 2011 and will end in 2013. Curiously, on the first two stops, in Chichester and Lincoln, its title was The Radev Collection – Bloomsbury and Beyond, but at Bath’s Victoria Art Gallery it has become The Radev Collection: from Pissarro to Picasso (at the time of writing, on their website as “Pisarro – Piccasso”). The current title has the virtue of accuracy, Radev’s connection with the Bloomsbury Group being a little tenuous despite the Pallant House Gallery’s description of him as “a feature of artistic and literary Bloomsbury society”. For example, one of the leading Bloomsberries, Vanessa Bell, three of whose works are in the Collection, was born in 1879 and was in her seventies when Radev arrived in the UK from Bulgaria. Eddy, on the other hand, was Vita Sackville-West’s nephew and in the 1920s mixed with the Bloomsbury set at Charleston and elsewhere, though perhaps not on such intimate terms as his aunt.

Visitors to the exhibition will see unfamiliar works of an agreeably domestic scale by British and international artists including Keith Vaughan, Duncan Grant, Ivon Hitchens, Maurice Denis, Jean Metzinger, Jean Millet, Amedeo Modigliani (on the website, “Modigliano”). and Lucien Pissarro. Artists shown who have featured in previous posts here include Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ben Nicholson (Carbis Bay 1942, left), Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood.

There is also an opportunity to see works by Winifred Nicholson, Henry Lamb and Matthew Smith (Cornish flowers c1920, right), British artists who are perhaps less well-known than they were. As well as the Vanessa Bell, Bloomsbury fans can enjoy several works by Duncan Grant (Brighton pier and boats 1938, below)

Two notable pieces are the bronze by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Bronze Dancer 1913 (left) and Blaue strasse c 1916, (below) by Alexei Jawlensky, the Russian Expressionist who painted in Germany with Der Blau Reiter.

The Radev Collection: from Pissarro to Picasso continues in Bath until 18 November. It re-appears in Falmouth Art Gallery, Cornwall in February 2013 retitled again, this time as A Framer's Collection. Radev’s abilities in this regard are clear from the exhibits like the Smith above. Next summer the tour will return to London at the Redfern Gallery and end the year at the Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Kendal. Anyone interested in British 20th century art should try to see it. The exhibition catalogue provides more details of the Collection's founders and history as well as  responses from the curators of its tour, but is a little expensive at £5-70. However admission in Bath is free.

Further down the road to Moscow

A post a few months ago (Marching on the Moscow Criterion) discussed the review of alternatives for replacing UK Trident which, at the time, was being led by Nick Harvey. The post was updated after the reshuffle at the beginning of this month in which Harvey was sacked. Subsequently there were press reports that Nick Clegg would “personally oversee the review”. Developments since then seem to merit a new post rather than further updates.

On 13 September Menzies Campbell provided the cover interview for The House magazine. Foreign affairs and defence were, he said, a particular interest, and:
The man now charged with shaping the party policy on Trident is David Laws, who will also be working as an education minister. Laws, says Sir Ming, is “going to be a busy chap,” and while there is “absolutely no question about his talent, his ability, his capability... he’ll have to find the time because this is a complicated issue.” Sir Ming believes that Laws will be “starting afresh”, but is keen to remind the new government minister of a report[*] which he and Nick Harvey wrote on Trident, and its alternatives, before the 2010 election. “That, I think, formed a very good basis for [Nick Clegg’s] review and if David Laws has the time to go back and find that, not all of it is relevant but a great deal of it is.”
*Policy options for the future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapons, available here.)

However, on 22 September Nick Clegg, reviewing his party’s achievements in the Coalition, told a rally at the LibDem autumn conference:
And we have stopped the like-for-like replacement of Trident in this parliament and have started the search for alternatives which will continue to keep our country safe. But, where possible, at a lower cost to the British people. And on that, I want to pay tribute to the pioneering work Nick Harvey has done. I want to assure you we are going to build upon his good work. That’s why I have decided to put Danny Alexander in charge of the review into the replacement for Trident. Danny has spoken out repeatedly about how expensive and unnecessary a like-for-like replacement would be. And there is no one better when it comes to getting value for money for the taxpayer. I am more determined than ever to find the right alternative to such a monumentally expensive replacement for a Cold War deterrent.
“in this parliament” and “But, where possible, at a lower cost” would seem to be the key phrases in this. The review is now Treasury-led in so far as Alexander is Chief Secretary. If you must march on Moscow (or the “Moscow criterion”), it’s surely better to change generals on the way back than on the way there.

22 September 2012

‘Bronze’ at the RA

There is little point in my struggling to describe this outstanding exhibition, when the RA's press release does it so well:
The exhibition brings together outstanding works from the earliest times to the present in a thematic arrangement that is fresh and unique. With works spanning over 5,000 years, no such cross-cultural exhibition on this scale has ever been attempted. The exhibition features over 150 of the finest bronzes from Asia, Africa and Europe and includes important discoveries from the Mediterranean as well as archaeological excavations. Many of the pieces have never been seen in the UK.  
Arranged thematically, Bronze brings together outstanding works from antiquity to the present. Different sections focus on the Human Figure, Animals, Groups, Objects, Reliefs, Gods, Heads and Busts. The exhibition features stunning Ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan bronzes, through to rare survivals from the Medieval period. The Renaissance is represented with the works of artists such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Cellini, and later Giambologna, De Vries and others. Bronzes by Rodin, Matisse, Picasso, Moore, Bourgeois and Koons are representative of the best from the 19th century to today.
There are some magnificent objects on show, for example The Dancing Satyr (below), retrieved from the seabed off Sicily in 1997:

and the Trunholm Chariot of the Sun found in a peatbog in Denmark in 1902:

For those (“conehead boffins”, perhaps) who are interested, the processes of casting (lost wax, direct and indirect) are well-explained. Bronze is the name given to alloys in which copper is the main component, often mixed with tin, zinc and lead in varying proportions. Some of the most ancient bronzes on display were probably copper-arsenic, and some of the modern ones (Louise Bourgeois Spider IV 1996, left) probably the readily-welded copper-silicon. None of the literature I saw at the RA (but perhaps it’s in the catalogue) pointed out a key characteristic of bronze: after pouring, although cooling, unusually it expands just before solidification and, once solid, contracts as it continues to cool. This property offers obvious advantages in achieving castings with excellent mould detail.

Bronze continues until 9 December. The physical effort in bringing so many heavy objects together must have been exceptional, as is the resulting visual display. This type of show would probably never be a Pre-Raphaelite-style ‘block buster’, but it certainly 'does what it says on the tin' (Jasper Johns Ale Cans 1960, right - sorry, couldn't resist it!) and should not be missed. 

21 September 2012

The Times, STEM and conehead boffins

Posts here in the past (eg in August) have taken up points raised in The Times’ monthly science and technology supplement, Eureka. But last week I was left wondering just how seriously the editorship of the Times newspapers takes STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

Britain’s premier scientific institution is the Royal Society. Founded in 1660, its Fellows have included Newton, Darwin and Hawking. Last week, presumably as part of its mission to raise public awareness of science and innovation, the Society published rankings for the most significant inventions in the history of food and drink. The Society’s Vice President said:
Royal Society Fellows have played vital roles in improving people’s lives for 350 years and science has a major role to play in meeting the global challenges of the 21st century. We thought it appropriate to look at how that innovation has shaped what we eat and drink. The poll reveals the huge role science and innovation have played in improving our health and our lives. This is something to which the scientific community continues to add.
The fridge, pasteurised milk, and the tin can were identified as the top three. On 14 September The Times Science Correspondent, Tom Whipple, covered the story in a straightforward but not overly serious fashion, quoting the Fellows’ explanation for their choices. But alongside was a piece by Giles Coren, This is the worst list I have ever seen of anything ..., beginning:
Fridges, pasteurising and the tin can were voted the three greatest innovations in the history of food and drink yesterday by . . . whom? By chefs? No. By dieticians? No.  
By gluttons? No. By restaurant critics? No.  
By the fellows of the Royal Society — by scientists, in other words. By the sort of conehead boffins who think that making food last forever is more important than eating anything even vaguely fresh or nice. These are men and women who got where they are by doing 48-hour lab shifts living off cold baked beans spooned from the can, instant tea with UHT milk and whatever ancient takeaway they found at the back of the college fridge with “Hands off, this is MINE!” scribbled on it in whiteboard marker.
Well, Coren is a humorist, sadly not as funny as his late father, Alan, and no stranger to controversy, so perhaps shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But The Times’ Sunday stablemate, is running advertisements (below) for a series feature, 100 Answers Every Grown Up Needs To Know,

addressing ‘the eternal questions of childhood’, examples being about lightning, sleep and evolution. The implication that ‘scientific’ questions are just for kids or conehead boffins is underlined by the ad using a father and son mimicking a notorious photograph (left, explained here) of Albert Einstein. who, as it happens, was a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

Before concluding that The Times has been letting slip its real and unsympathetic editorial opinions about STEM, it is only fair to point out that they are advertising (below), and associated with, a series of 40 books being published weekly, Everything is Mathematical, which:
… presented by Marcus du Sautoy, approaches the subject of mathematics in a completely new, fresh and reader-friendly way. Covering a range of topics such as: the Golden Ratio, Prime Numbers, the Fourth Dimension, Fermat’s Enigma, the Secrets of Pi and Chaos Theory, the collection demonstrates clearly how mathematics shapes the world around us. From now on, mathematics is something to look forward to and enjoy.

Well, let’s hope it succeeds. I’ve not yet spotted it in any newsagent I visit. It will be interesting to see, for example, how the issue Pushing the Limits Infinitesimal calculus, due out on 5 December, handles its subject, in particular how algebraic the treatment will be:
The importance of calculus and of concepts such as 'derivatives' and 'integrals' is hard to underestimate. It has been said that without them the scientific revolution would have been impossible. Although their origins date back to the Ancient World, the crucial breakthrough came with the simultaneous work of two giants of Western thought: Leibniz and Newton. Their battle to lay claim to the discovery of these key mathematical concepts shook the world of 17th-century science in Europe.
If the approach adopted in the series tends to the qualitative and reliance on graphics rather than formulae, it may give an encouraging but ultimately misleading view of the study of mathematics. There is a consequent risk of some young person embarking on what I described in another Eureka-inspired post at the beginning of the year: David E. Goldberg’s “math-science death march”.

19 September 2012

Enlightenment from Stephen Bayley

It is both an encouragement and a depressing reminder of one’s own ignorance when someone who knows what they are talking about goes some way to answer past musings. After seeing last year’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990 at the V&A, I posted:
Some people might argue with the dates the curators have used to bracket this show – one argument is that postmodernism was largely pre-internet and that the quest for modernity has now moved on. Certainly, one of the cult objects of the present moment is the iPad, but surely its design seems to represent a continuation of modernism.
And after seeing the Bauhaus exhibition this summer at the Barbican I commented:
The exhibition concludes at the point when the Bauhaus was in effect closed down by the Nazis in 1933. The subsequent achievements of its leading lights, Gropius, van der Rohe and others, many of whom emigrated, are well-known. But it would have been interesting to learn about the careers of its young graduates, whose student days feature in so many of the photographs (‘young people come to the bauhaus’). One imagines that from 1933 to 1945 having trained at the Bauhaus would hardly have enhanced a CV. But presumably those graduates who survived the war, particularly the Holocaust or the Eastern Front, would have played a role in German post-war reconstruction and the Wirtschaftswunder. Was it their influence that we still see in the clean lines and typefaces associated with German products like Bosch, Braun and Neff, and extending to the modernist showrooms favoured by BMW, and VAG?
This week the Spectator included an informative piece in its Arts coverage, Science fiction as reality, by Stephen Bayley, who had been in conversation with Jonathan Ive, Apple’s vice-president of design. By way of background, Bayley is probably Britain’s leading ‘design guru’and was Chief Executive of the Design Museum, and the iPhone 5 was launched last week. Bayley comments on:
… the sheer physical beauty of the products Jony Ive has designed for Apple. Voltaire said it was the business of art to improve on Nature. So it is the business of design to improve on industry. This Ive has done. There were smartphones before Apple’s, but they were all clunkers. The iPhone’s gorgeous shape is deceptively simple. It is a simplicity that has been very hard-won, a proportional masterpiece achieved only after a lot of trial and error. Its textures are deliberately gorgeous. The effect is an understated product that wins universal admiration.
He goes on to provide some interesting design history:
… Apple design [which], in fact, represents a tradition, not a revolution. Jony Ive (born Chingford, 1967) fully acknowledges his own debt to Dieter Rams (born Wiesbaden, 1932). The gorgeous purity of the iPhone was itself inspired by the astonishingly pure, geometrically based designs which, beginning in the Fifties, Rams created for Frankfurt’s Braun electrical company.  
A student of Ulm’s Hochschule für Gestaltung, itself a postwar revival of the famous Bauhaus, Rams perfected the aesthetics of restraint, of paring down his cabinets for Braun’s radios and tape-recorders until they were little more than a solid graphic. He still likes to say ‘Weniger, aber besser’ (Less, but more). Rams was trained as a cabinet-maker, not a philosopher, but his achievement was to bring the essential beauty of Platonic form to the production line.  
But Rams himself owed something to an older German tradition. The architect Heinrich Tessenow built under the motto: ‘Das Einfache is nicht immer das Beste, aber das Beste ist immer einfach’ (Simple is not always best, but the best is always simple). And this austere aesthetic is itself based on the German pedagogic tradition of Froebel and Pestalozzi, of the nursery building blocks and the Kindergarten, who insisted that understanding fundamental geometrical shapes was an essential part not just of art education, but of all education.  
Long before Samsung aped Apple, Sony, the Apple of its day, was aping Dieter Rams and his infatuation with severe geometry. Designs of Rams shown at trade fairs in Germany in the Sixties were the inspiration for Sony’s own impressive range of purist electrical and electronic appliances. And here you find another link. Circa 1980, Sony’s Trinitron televisions were the ultimate expression of what was later called Minimalism. They were the work of Hartmut Esslinger, the independent German designer who, in 1984, shaped Apple’s own revolutionary Mac.
For the last 30 years Bayley has been associated in various ways with Terence Conran who through his chain Habitat was a great influence on many in my age group. I’ve just donated a set of Habitat catalogues from 1971 to 1988 to an art director who was born in the 1980s. Apparently they are invaluable references for period set designs – the way we lived then.

Yesterday work started on the new Design Museum which will redevelop the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, a landmark 1960s building. A Time Capsule to be opened in 2112 was buried by Conran (with shovel, below) and others, which contains items chosen by leading designers and architects. His choices were an iPhone 4s, a tin of anchovies, and a bottle of burgundy.

16 September 2012

Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’

Another year, another Woody Allen film, and after Paris comes Rome. To Rome with Love was going to be called The Bop Decameron, until someone thought better of it. Bocaccio’s Decameron (literally ten days), written about 1350, consists of 100 stories of love in mediaeval Italy so there is a weak connection, Allen’s latest film being about the antics of couples of various ages, some American and some Italian, in present-day Rome but whose paths barely cross. Some of the partners are tempted and succumb but everything turns out ok in the end. The resulting tendency to romantic schmaltz is relieved by some surrealistic strands: an opera staged for a mortician tenor who can only perform brilliantly in the shower, a clerk who has celebrity thrust upon him and then taken away as suddenly as it came.

Penelope Cruz and Ellen Page play female temptresses of two different types and almost inevitably, the wicked being more interesting in drama if not in life, upstage the other actresses, particularly Greta Gerwig, who doesn’t even get a nice frock like Alessandra Mastronardi. Judy Davis makes the best of some good lines as a psychiatrist married to Woody Allen who has cast himself as an unlikely newly-retired opera director. This is Allen’s first appearance in one of his own films since Scoop in 2006 and he seems less convincing than in his cameo as himself in Sophie Lellouche’s Paris-Manhattan. Roberto Benigni provides a good comic turn as the Roman clerk and deserves his prominent place on the poster for the Italian release.

People who aren’t long-term Allen devotees and who liked Midnight in Paris may well be disappointed with To Rome with Love. But Rome now isn’t Paris in the 1920s and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the characters in this film, American or Italian, are not remotely as interesting as Picasso, Gertrude Stein or the Hemingways. Allen's next is back in the US, set in New York and San Francisco:
"It's basically a film about a wealthy New York woman living a very aristocratic existence and then all of a sudden she finds that she has no money," said Debbie Brubaker, a member of the San Francisco Film Commission who is familiar with the production. The character moves in with her sister in San Francisco and meets a man who could restore her financial status, but the relationship fails, Brubaker said. "When that relationship doesn't work out she has to adjust and live more modestly and change her life and accept San Francisco”.

11 September 2012

High Cross House, Dartington

Machines for living in:
Le Corbusier, Stuttgart 1927 and Lescaze 1932 (right)
In a post in June about the Bauhaus exhibition then running at London's Barbican Art Gallery, I mentioned that one of the first International Modern houses to be built in the UK was at Dartington in Devon (SW England). I’ve now had the opportunity to visit High Cross House which is the property of the Dartington Hall Trust, but, as the National Trust (NT) puts it: “… we are excited to be presenting it to the public under our management, working in partnership with the owners …”. The public reopening under NT auspices was in March 2012, and to quote the owners:
The National Trust will work with Dartington, owners of High Cross House, and others to build a community-led sustainable model of management and programming which will make High Cross House a local hub for contemporary arts and a new face for the National Trust.  
Following an initial period of showing the house as a “blank canvas”, there will be a rotating programme of exhibitions and installations by nationally recognised ‘names’ and emerging local artists. There will be simple organic catering on-site and an Art, Craft and Design led retail offer. 
Vaughan Lindsay, Dartington CEO, said: “We’re very excited by this new partnership with the National Trust. We hope the partnership will bring many new visitors to the estate to enjoy High Cross House, explore Dartington’s glorious grounds and gardens and find out more about our charitable programmes in the arts, social justice and sustainability”.

Philadelphia Savings Fund
Society Building (1929-32)
Leonard Knight Elmhirst (1893-1974) was the second husband of Dorothy Straight, née Whitney, (1887–1968) who had inherited her father’s fortune at the age of 17. In the 1920s the Elmhirsts took over the derelict Dartington Hall estate near Totnes in Devon as a vehicle for experiments in rural regeneration and in education. The latter would include the Dartington College of Arts (1961-2008) and the Dartington Hall School (1926-1987). In 1930 the Elmhirsts appointed William B. Curry as the School’s Headmaster. He had previously been head of the progressive Oak Lane Country Day School in Philadelphia. Oak Lane’s nursery had been designed by William Lescaze (1896-1969), a Swiss architect who had settled in the US after the First World War. This 1929 school building established Lescaze's reputation and he went on to design the first International Style skyscraper in the US (left). Curry persuaded the Elmhirsts to commission Lescaze, although based in New York, to design the Headmaster’s private accommodation, High Cross House, which was completed in 1932 and became one of the first Modernist buildings in Britain.

The 1989 description of High Cross House in Buildings of England Devon probably owes more to Bridget Cherry than Nikolaus Pevsner:
A stark geometric composition, the smooth rendered exterior concealing a structure of brick cavity walls with steel beams for cantilevers and wide spans (instead of the reinforced concrete originally specified, which was beyond the local builders). Long two-storey range to the road (originally painted grey-blue in contrast to the impractical white of the rest); entrance between garage and servants' wing and kitchen. Metal casement windows, mostly in horizontal bands. The main rooms project irregularly into the garden. Here the composition is more interesting: low SW study with rounded end and generous terrace on its flat roof serving the guest rooms over the garage; taller SE living room and adjoining dining room on a higher level.   
… The interior reflects the same aesthetic of abstract geometry: no mouldings - the smooth pressed steel doorcases were imported from America - the occasional curve, the play with different levels and with asymmetry, seen to good effect in the fireplaces with dark tiled surrounds, large marble lintels, and off-centre flues. The walls were originally painted in different tones (yellow and white in the hall, white and grey in the living room), not dead white throughout. ...
which contrasts with Pevsner’s much briefer comment in the earlier version, South Devon, published when High Cross House was only 20 years old:
… in 1933 [sic] the modern style arrived [at Dartington, buildings]… concrete plastered white, and as appropriate to Devon as they would be to California or the River Hudson, a symbol of enlightened internationalism, as it also directed the original staffing of the various departments of the Trust.
As well as the Headmaster’s House, Lescaze, together with Robert Hening, the Dartington Hall estate architect, designed a gymnasium, boarding houses, cottages and houses and the Estate Offices.

Visiting High Cross House today one comes away with the feeling that it would benefit from more curatorial input. Surprisingly the ‘retail offer’ does not extend to a Guide and although in one room visitors could tear off free descriptive sheets, the full set was not available except by photographing displayed copies. Contemporary (ie 2012) art from emerging local artists and craftspeople gives some life to what would otherwise be an empty building, as does the café, and generates some revenue presumably - I have commented here before about the maintenance problems posed by Modernist buildings (left)!  Admission is £7.20, by the way,  for non-NT members. But without too much effort or enormous cost, surely it would have been possible to recreate at least the Headmaster’s Study (below)? I can appreciate that despite the NT’s fascination with kitchens, in this case the latter’s restoration is probably impossible.

Is it that High Cross House, although located still in Dartington, is actually in a cultural no man’s land – the owners are happy to see the NT taking day-to-day charge, but the NT doesn’t want it to consume considerable resources by comparison with its other responsibilities?  Devon is a long way from London and Modernism (let alone Postmodernism) is a probably minority interest among the NT members who are Devonian residents or holidaymakers. The local NT’s Twitter output, NT English Riviera @NTRiviera, conveys the flavour. Perhaps Julian Fellowes could introduce the International Style and some Dartington location shooting into a future series of ITV's Downton Abbey, the current one now having reached the 1920s. There is a good precedent. In Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, published in 1928, the socialite Margot Beste-Chetwynde wants to demolish her family house and commissions a young Modernist, Professor Silenus, to replace it with "Something clean and square." Modernism is no longer modern, after all.

High Cross House, Dartington, Devon, SW England, Sept 2012


Things have moved on since the post above was written three years ago.  The National Trust is no longer involved with High Cross House which remains the property of Dartington Hall Trust.  Downton Abbey finished its run without a flirtation with Modernism.  However there has recently been an opportunity to rent High Cross House through The Modern House estate agents.  They were looking for offers of £2500 per month and "...  potential tenants will need to make some alterations before moving in (a kitchen, for instance, will need to be installed)".  The informative brochure includes some archive images from Country Life:

5 September 2012

The two Eds: smoke and fire or neither?

The majority of us, far from the inner circles of politics as we are, can only glean what is going on from what we are told by the media. Much of that is fed to us, directly or indirectly, by an army of media handlers and is intended to manipulate our opinions rather than to inform us. On the other hand, more than ever before there are numerous accounts what actually went on in the not too distant past available in the form of diaries and memoirs. So, although we have to pick our way through what is presented to us day by day, we probably have better tools for intelligent and sceptical scrutiny than people had even twenty years ago.

As an example, consider the story by Andrew Pierce in the Mail on Sunday on 2 September about poor relations between Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, The Ed to Ed feud that could wreck Miliband's No10 dream. The article is well worth reading in full, but some key extracts are:
Earlier this year, as Ed Miliband launched into one of his long-winded speeches to his shadow cabinet, everyone at least tried to create the impression they were giving the Labour leader their undivided attention. But there was one notable exception, a man who made no effort to conceal the fact the Labour leader had lost the interest of the room. Ed Balls, the pugnacious shadow chancellor and devout disciple of Gordon Brown, was nonchalantly reading and sending messages on his BlackBerry while Mr Miliband droned on. As Mr Balls tapped away, indifferent to the embarrassment of colleagues and anger of the Labour leader, Mr Miliband asserted his authority and snapped: ‘Ed, people can be just as interesting as BlackBerries . . .’ The spat was the latest sign that the relationship between the two men is breaking down both in public and private. They neither like nor trust each other and, crucially, Mr Balls thinks he could do Mr Miliband’s job much better. …  
But the poisonous history between the Eds goes back to the early days of the Blair era, when they were youthful advisers to Mr Brown after he became shadow chancellor in 1994 and then Chancellor in 1997. … Mr Balls was economics adviser, while Mr Miliband was a mere special adviser. Ed Balls, now 45, loved to lord it over his staff, just as he does today. Colleagues at the time recall he treated Mr Miliband, 42, like the ‘office boy’. Mr Balls liked Mr Miliband to make his coffee every morning. ‘He loved to bark out “coffee time”,’ says one well-informed source. ‘Ed sheepishly got up to make it.’ …  
Today as leader it is, of course, Mr Miliband who is more senior. It is he who plays the role of ‘chairman’, summing up the views of his colleagues at the end of shadow cabinet meetings. But, tellingly, this happens only after he has invited Mr Balls to give his verdict on the contributions made by other members of the shadow cabinet to any meeting. The result is that Mr Balls sometimes talks for three times as long as Mr Miliband. ‘A fly on the wall would assume Balls was leader,’ says one witness to the proceedings. …  
It should have been a marriage of equals between leader and shadow chancellor. They are both Oxford educated. Mr Balls studied at Harvard and Mr Miliband taught there. But increasingly these days whether it is in meetings or on the telephone, Mr Balls talks over his leader. It infuriates Mr Miliband but he does little other than shrug his shoulders and say: ‘That’s Ed.’ …  
But the problems between them go beyond personal ambition and resentment over the handling of the shadow chancellor portfolio. Mr Miliband is trying to detoxify the Labour brand so damaged by infighting between Blair and Brown. Labour pollsters have identified Gordon Brown’s term in Number 10 as a ‘huge negative’ for the party’s election prospects. And no one in the Labour Party is more closely associated with Mr Brown than Ed Balls. …  
One party figure said: ‘The two Eds have a fundamental disagreement over the City but Balls is making the running and bullying Miliband’s people into submission on a range of policies. ‘It began with Labour’s spending commitments, but now we have to get permission from the shadow chancellor’s office on everything from the future of Trident [nuclear missiles] to keeping open police stations at weekends. Power has shifted from one end of the shadow cabinet table to the other.’  
It is an uncanny echo of the Blair and Brown relationship. And the question is whether it will fester in the same way — and once again tear the Labour party apart.
So, what to make of this? Of course the Mail is a Conservative-supporting newspaper. It must be expected to run stories unhelpful to Labour, particularly in the hope of Labour’s opinion poll lead being dislodged by post-Olympics feel-good and all the positive spin that can be wrapped around the Coalition reshuffle. At the same time, how better to take the heat off a beleaguered Chancellor than to turn it up on his Shadow? Certainly at PMQs on 5 September David Cameron took up the opportunity presented by Pierce’s article:
The Prime Minister: First, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the issue of Chancellors, because I have got my first choice as Chancellor, while he has got his third choice as shadow Chancellor. Apparently, he still has to bring in the coffee every morning—that is how assertive and butch the Leader of the Opposition really is. … 
Edward Miliband: The difference between the shadow Chancellor and the Chancellor is that the shadow Chancellor was right about the economy and the Chancellor was wrong. …
The Prime Minister: … He praised his shadow Chancellor to the gunnels, but let us remember that it was the shadow Chancellor who landed us in this mess. Who was the City Minister when the City went bust? The shadow Chancellor. Who was the man who gave us the biggest budget deficit in the developed world? The shadow Chancellor. That is what that team has delivered and that is why the British people will never trust them again. …  
The Prime Minister: The big difference in British politics is that I do not want to move my Chancellor; the right hon. Gentleman cannot move his shadow Chancellor. The fact is that in spite of all the economic difficulty this is a strong and united Government, and in spite of all the opportunity this is a weak and divided Opposition.
On the other hand, Pierce has his reputation to protect so his references to:
Senior party figures are talking openly  
Colleagues at the time …
says one well-informed source.
One shadow cabinet source said 
The Miliband camp fears 
Blairites wryly observe  
One party figure said
are likely to have some substance and look as though they come from individuals close to Miliband. Mary Riddell had followed the Mail story up in the Daily Telegraph (another Tory-inclined paper) on 4 September in a thoughtful article (again worth reading in full) which, somewhat surprisingly, sought to redress the balance. Indeed, she gave the impression of having spoken to persons close to Balls:
The wars convulsing the Tories and the Lib Dems are supposedly being mirrored by a struggle between Ed Miliband and his pugnacious shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The evidence for this stand-off is somewhat slight. Reports that Mr Balls sends messages on his BlackBerry while the leader is addressing shadow cabinet, and that he hogs the floor, are less than incendiary. Mr Balls is indeed an inveterate texter whose meeting room etiquette may leave something to be desired. None of that is new. …  
The shadow chancellor, capable of inspiring both loyalty and loathing, is a textbook villain. To those who do not like or trust him, he remains Gordon Brown’s “kneecapper”. Yet Mr Balls’s insistence that any policy with a cost attached should be cleared with him is indeed imperative, according to allies who point out that the worsening economic situation means that Labour cannot make any new spending promises for after 2015. Minor disgruntlement on some colleagues’ part has, supporters say, been blown up into a baseless storm. Certainly, the two Eds are not re-enacting the Blair/Brown campaign of mutually assured destruction. …  
And yet the rumours are not entirely baseless. Where Blair and Brown could stake out separate fiefdoms, with Mr Brown (or Mr Balls) calling the economic shots, now the economy is all that matters. That leaves the Eds encamped on the same terrain. No one disputes that there are differences. A Balls ally describes the divides as small and bridgeable, but another observer cites “real tensions and problems”. The latest poll lead, down to six per cent, gives little cause for complacency …  
Labour’s attempts to reforge a one-nation Britain will depend on the alignment of Planet Miliband and Planet Balls. That confluence will, in turn, mean determining exactly where power lies. The interests of both Eds, not to mention the party and the country, may rest on just how assertive the leader is prepared to be. Mr Miliband cannot afford the creeping perception, expressed by one insider, that he “is physically and mentally intimidated” by Mr Balls. While both men would dispute that impression, it is now incumbent on them to demonstrate its untruth.
And if we turn to the diaries and memoirs? An insight into life on Planet Balls during the Labour government comes from Alastair Campbell’s Diaries – for those who lack the stamina to reach down all four volumes, the index pages for Volumes 3 and 4 for “Balls, Ed” are shown below (left and right), and the tone of many of the entries is probably enough. One gets the impression of Campbell’s heart sinking whenever Balls came into sight. The entry “has a civilised discussion with AC” was presumably so rare an occurrence as to merit being recorded for posterity!

A broader perspective can be found in the Epilogue in Alistair Darling’s memoir of his time as Gordon Brown’s Chancellor from 2007 to 2010, Back from the Brink:
Perhaps most damaging, for Gordon in particular, but for all of us in the end, was that he surrounded himself with a cadre of people whose preoccupation was the removal of Tony Blair and the installation of Gordon Brown. They had their own reasons, some political, others personal, but blind loyalty meant that Gordon was only told that which he wanted - or could bear - to hear and that meant, ultimately, that he was ill-served. Speaking truth to power never came into it.  
It would be wrong to claim that there was a plot to get rid of Tony Blair; there was no plot. A plot is secret. This was an open campaign, and as far as the Brownite cabal was concerned, you were with them or against them. It was a fairly brutal regime, and many of us fell foul of it. After Gordon became Prime Minister, the cabal sought fresh enemies and as chancellor I quickly found myself in the firing line. Their underhand tactics, particularly the continuous briefings and leaks to the media, were difficult to bear and were also incredibly damaging to the reputation of the party. Tony and Gordon dominated the Labour party for more than ten years and were an overwhelming force for good, but by the end their feud allowed a cancer to grow which, I believe, contributed to our defeat in 2010. The lessons of this crisis have yet to be fully Iearned and the consequences of what happened are still playing out. (pages 322/323)
All of which leads me to conclude that the smoke isn’t concocted and to suspect fire. After all, I can remember people telling me a few decades ago that newspaper stories about the problems between Prince Charles and Princess Diana were invented, and something similar about the early reports of the Blair-Brown feud. In fact, while the reports in the media may not always have been accurate or complete, the underlying sense of the situation in both cases wasn’t too far from what turned out eventually to have been the reality.

ADDENDUM 6 September

Ed Balls was interviewed today for the Independent by Steve Richards and Andrew Grice, and dismissed the subject discussed above as “complete and utter, total garbage”. In more detail:
… There have been reports of seething tensions between the "two Eds" over policy and Balls' apparent rudeness towards Miliband in Shadow Cabinet meetings. His version is expansive and unequivocal.  
"I came back from holiday and discovered while Ed was also on holiday we are having this big dispute. It was more laughable than concerning. I got back on Sunday and we spent an hour and a half together three days running, talking about what we are doing and where we are going and we spent very little time talking about these stories because they are complete and utter, total garbage."  
The Shadow Chancellor dismisses the stories by placing their complex relationship in a much wider context –the now openly-admitted running battle between the two Eds' former bosses Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. "We are two of the people who in the last Government were trying to fix problems with Alastair Campbell and others. We have learnt from all those problems. The reality with me and Ed is that if there's a problem we sort it out between us because we have the sort of relationship where we can sit down in a room and resolve it and that's how it will be. If there's anyone – whether its Conservatives… or any other noises offs who think their briefings can become a self-fulfilling prophecy by inventing this kind of stuff – we will prove them totally and utterly wrong."  
One allegation, that presumably came from within the Shadow Cabinet, is that Balls ostentatiously consults his BlackBerry while Miliband speaks at length to his frontbench team. Balls jokes about the habit and suggests he is by no means the most addicted to the device. "I was the first person who informed the Leader of Opposition during a Shadow Cabinet meeting a year or so ago about the forthcoming Royal Wedding. All of us are a bit guilty of using our BlackBerry but Yvette [Cooper, Balls' wife] said to me: 'Me and Douglas [Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary] are far worse than you!' "
Readers might be forgiven for concluding that Balls’ recollection of his relationship with Campbell is as shaky as his wife’s grammar. The article concludes:
Today Miliband and Balls speak at a special conference on economic policy. Balls describes it as one of several "stepping stones" towards the next election, in which they seek to frame and win the "intellectual" as well as the political debate. More Labour policy detail will come next year, as Labour combines Miliband's "responsible capitalism" agenda with the party's traditional goal of redistributing wealth. "We need to look at the rules that govern competition, corporate governance. They need work in a long- term way. But for a route to a fairer society the minimum wage and tax credits are essential."  
Whether the "two Eds" succeed in navigating the "stepping stones" together is one of the biggest questions in British politics. For sure, they are fully aware of the fatal consequences if they fail to do so. ...

ADDENDUM 7 September

The Independent has come back to the subject again today, this time in the form of an opinion piece from its chief political commentator, Steve Richards. Although headed Ed and Ed won't split – they know there's too much at stake and sub-headed There will be no repeat of the Blair/Brown rivalry that still traumatises Labour, what follows is a little more ambivalent by the end:
The relationship between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls is the most important in British politics. David Cameron and George Osborne are in power but their relationship is settled and fully formed. As close friends, they have set their course. The more complex and less harmonious relationship between the two Eds evolves with big strategic and policy decisions still to take. If they can make the partnership work, Labour's chances of winning the next election will be high. If they fail to do so, Labour will lose, irrespective of the Coalition's obvious failings.  
The media tends to frame the present by what has happened in the immediate past. In the case of Miliband and Balls, the temptation to present the duo as a repeat of the Blair/Brown rivalry is proving irresistible, not least because the parallels are obvious. Like Brown, Balls was the more senior figure when the leadership vacancy arose. Like Blair and Brown, the two Eds are two contrasting personalities.  
… Unlike Cameron and Osborne, they are not close. When Miliband left the Treasury for a year in the US, he told friends it was to get a break from Balls as much as from Brown. Not surprisingly, given his experience and range, Balls would at some point like to be leader and Prime Minister. Miliband is nervily aware of this and gets worked up when he reads that Balls is the real leader of the Labour Party. 
So there are the outlines of a potential collapse of a relationship even before an election is won. For their part, Blair and Brown won three. Yet the parallel is too easy and superficial. It does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The differences between the Blair/Brown relationship and the one between the two Eds are far more marked and significant than the similarities. If I were Cameron and Osborne, I would not count on a major split. 
… In terms of ministerial pasts and proximity to power, the two of them are the most experienced leader of the Opposition and shadow Chancellor for decades. Unlike most such duos, they also have a big chance of winning an election after a single term. Given this benevolent context, they will have only themselves to blame if they give fatal ammunition to malevolent internal briefers who only help Cameron and Osborne, the duo who prove that genuine friendship does not guarantee a smooth political ride.

2 September 2012

Ian McEwan’s ‘Sweet Tooth’

Ian McEwan was, like me, born in the UK in the years just after World War 2, so it’s not so surprising that I was buying his early short stories when published in their racy 1970s covers (left) and have read most of his novels since. On the whole I enjoy his work more than that of the other British writers he is usually associated with: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie and the late Christopher Hitchens.  Hitchens, unlike the others was not a novelist, and is the dedicatee of McEwan’s latest book Sweet Tooth.

Sweet Tooth has had plenty of publicity in the form of author interviews and reviews, mostly favourable. The novel is a complex mixture of spy story, love story, state of the nation in the 1970s (Memories of the Heath Administration, as it were) and literary incest. The opening sentences:
My name is Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and almost forty years ago I was sent on a secret mission for the British security service. Within 18 months of joining I was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover, though he certainly had a hand in his own undoing.
seem to give an accurate description of what is to follow.  The plot has been summarised up to a point in nearly all the reviews and I won't repeat it here.

Sweet Tooth is the code name of the security service mission and the novel is set partly in the Angletonian 'wilderness of mirrors' of the intelligence world and partly in academia, in particular the University of Sussex near Brighton where McEwan studied English Literature in the late 1960s. Sussex’s reputation at that time was much higher than it is credited with being in university league tables now. There is a strong personal element to the novel, for example the view of Oxbridge expressed by Serena’s lover, Tom Haley, a writer and academic at Sussex, is almost exactly that of McEwan in his recent BBC2 interview with Kirsty Wark. Haley’s short story, Lovers, which we read through the eyes of Serena, has more than a passing resemblance to McEwan’s short story, Dead As They Come, from In Between the Sheets (top right). Haley is, one might conclude, in many ways a McEwan might have been.

Serena is a Cambridge maths graduate but also an avid reader, a contrivance which presumably allows her to react intelligently to Haley’s writing without getting bogged down in the formal apparatus of lit crit. The use of terms like aposiopesis would hardly maintain the interest of the majority of McEwan’s readership, who are probably like Serena and only capable of a ‘base level of discourse’, as she puts it. I was intrigued by her background, as I remember a former colleague with an Oxbridge maths degree who had joined and left MI5 about 10 years before Serena. She was a brigadier’s daughter rather than a bishop’s, and had resigned not long after recruitment. What she did there I was never told, but I was left with the impression that it was boring. No doubt the work has since been transformed by IT as in most other organisations. Anyway, most of us have no real idea of what working for MI5 would be like then or now. Which makes former head of MI6 John Scarlett’s review of Sweet Tooth in the Daily Telegraph all the more interesting:
Is the backdrop of national crisis and MI5 stumbling correctly told and authentic? Up to a point. The novel is carefully researched.
He concluded:
Sweet Tooth is a fine and complex novel, the work of a master storyteller. It will absorb readers, of whom there will be very many. They should not go away thinking this is a true picture of the Security Service of 40 years ago. And why should it be? It is a work of fiction, not of history.
One thing he might have had in mind is the existence of the standing D-Notice system introduced in 1971. The existence of careful preparatory research is borne out by the book’s Acknowledgements which include Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm: The Authorised History of MI5 (in the US, Defending the Realm) and David Cornwell (better known as John Le Carré) for “irresistible reminiscences”. At which point it might be worth noting the distinction between MI5 and MI6. MI5, the Security Service, as they explain on their website, protects the UK domestically from threats to security, whereas MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, collects foreign intelligence – and in the public’s mind is usually associated with James Bond. So it’s a little surprising when Serena states:
At work the one topic was war in the Middle East. Even the most light-headed of the society girls among the secretaries was drawn into the daily drama. … A wall map went up in our corridor with sticky plastic beads representing the opposing divisions and arrows to show their recent movements.
While McEwan is noted for being assiduous about his research - he spent weeks with surgeons while writing Saturday (2005) - he admitted to Kirsty Wark that he often makes mistakes. This is puzzling as he also told Wark that he hands his publisher a final draft which he expects to have to alter, although at the same time he gave the impression that disruptive suggestions were unwelcome. One can’t help thinking that a fact-checker could have improved Sweet Tooth in draft by removing, for example, the non-existent RAF rank of Flight Commander (page 55, more likely Wing Commander from the context). On the next page we are told that an MI5 colleague had, after Winchester, gone to Harvard where ‘he did a law degree and then another in psychology’. I may be wrong, but doesn’t admission to the Harvard Law School require a first degree? Haley seems to have an unusual academic pedigree too: a degree in English, then an MA in international relations, but the subject of his PhD is The Faerie Queen.

By contrast, at school Serena had been “a freak of nature – a girl who happened to have a talent for mathematics … Obviously, an exam in maths was far less effort than one in English literature” (oh sure) but on arrival at Newnham College, Cambridge she learnt at her first tutorial “what a mediocrity I was in mathematics”. “Gawky boys, unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy and generative grammar … leered as I struggled with concepts they took for granted. … I couldn’t succeed because I was like nearly all the rest of humanity – not much good at maths, not at this level”. I know of a girl who was at Oxford about ten years ago and in a similar position after getting good A levels – she transferred successfully from maths to psychology. However Serena “did my best to transfer out to English or French or even anthropology, but no one wanted me. In those days the rules were tightly observed.” But someone I know who went to Oxford in Serena’s day transferred soon after arrival from physics to law - if anything the rules are tighter now than then.

Serena tells us that at MI5 she was responsible for the registry files on Communist Party members in Gloucestershire:
In my first month I opened a file on the headmaster of a grammar school in Stroud who had attended an open meeting of his local branch one Saturday evening in July 1972.
But there was almost certainly only one grammar school in Stroud (rhymes with loud) with a headmaster at that time – oddly enough it was attended by Peter Hennessy, the historian of the modern British state, in the 1960s. Sometimes a devil can lurk in such details. According to Channel 4 News:
… the new novel's truthful parallels ran aground when his real-life publisher was forced to reprint the novel. The original Sweet Tooth had included a Sussex University English professor called Tom Healy - coincidentally the name of a genuine professor of renaissance literature at the university.
Matthew Cain, the Channel 4 News Culture Editor, interviewed McEwan in Leconfield House in Mayfair, one of the buildings used by MI5 in the 1970s and where Serena worked. The map below is taken from the endpapers of Christopher Andrew’s book. The blue stars show the Headquarters buildings used circa 1972. Serena’s recruitment interview took place at the location near Regent Street.

If my tone seems a bit carping, the only excuse I can offer is that McEwan’s attention to realism encourages nitpicking - Sweet Tooth features Martin Amis and other literary personalities of the day as well as numerous real places. Despite his distaste for us techies, “unblessed by charm or other human attributes like empathy” as we are, I always think McEwan is a Chateau Haut-Brion among authors and is to be appreciated, if one gets the chance, whatever the vintage. 2012 looks like a good year for both - fortunately for UK readers the price of Sweet Tooth is determined by Random House and Amazon and not by the weather and the Chinese.


In a post last year, British Writers and British Art, I expressed some doubt as to whether in McEwan’s last novel, Solar (2010), one of the characters, Melissa, owner of three dance clothing shops, would have owned a Henry Moore maquette, and I rather sourly concluded that:
… I can’t help thinking that Henry Moore maquettes … are more likely to be found in the handsome houses of successful writers like … McEwan (in London’s … Fitzrovia, …) than in the humbler dwellings of … minor retailers.
At Cambridge Serena has an affair with a history don, Tony Canning, who introduces her to MI5. In his cottage:
… was a bright Mediterranean scene of whitewashed houses and sheets drying on a line. It was a watercolour by Winston Churchill, painted in Marrakech during a break from the Conference in 1943. I never learned how it came into Tony’s possession.
Most of Churchill’s watercolours are at Chartwell, but there is nothing particularly improbable about Canning owning one (although the Conference was at Casablanca and Marrakech was a subsequent holiday).

I was interested to read in an interview with McEwan in the Guardian that the Fitzrovia house which had featured in Saturday has just been “replaced with a flat in Bloomsbury and a house in Gloucestershire”. Gloucestershire (Serena’s CP specialism) is in SW England, a region where writers like to spend at least some of their time – John Le Carré in Cornwall and Jeanette Winterson, also in Gloucestershire, come to mind. By the way, Frome (rhymes with plume) is a town in Somerset in SW England, but on high ground some distance from the area known as the Somerset Levels.