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.

1 November 2012

A Black Hole called Eureka

In several posts (eg in January and August this year) I have been able to draw on articles in Eureka, a slim magazine enclosed in The Times every month addressing ‘Science, Life, The Planet’. November’s issue should have been out today (1 November) on the theme of ‘Blood and Guts’ – or so October’s Eureka promised. But the cover of The Times newspaper on 4 October told a different story:

Eureka’s 'Apocalypse' issue was literally The End as James Harding, the editor of The Times explained on page 2:
Today's edition of Eureka, The Times's science magazine, is as stunning and engrossing as ever. Sadly, it is also the last.  
Three years ago we became the first newspaper to produce a monthly magazine devoted to the wonders and inherent optimism of science. I am enormously proud of the scope, depth and quality of the journalism we have published in Eureka since then. From our first issue on science's solutions to the world's most pressing problems, to our last on the mighty natural disasters of the future, Eureka has given Times readers the powerful and visually breathtaking science coverage that they deserve - and that science deserves.  
The combination of high print costs and uneven advertising revenue has made this coverage impossible to sustain in its current magazine format. But we are more determined than ever that in other sections of the paper, and online, our unrivalled team will continue to bring you the most brilliant and beautiful science journalism to be found anywhere; journalism that is as inventive and ambitious as its subject.  
To adapt the strapline of the magazine, our commitment to science, life, the planet and everything that they encompass remains undimmed.
According to Private Eye a fortnight later, the Eureka “staff were told just an hour after they had put the magazine to bed that it was being closed down and this was the last issue.” Given the uncertain future of print journalism such an event was not so surprising and The Times had no other similar regular magazine insert. I’m not sure it didn’t fall into the trap of being too specialised for the majority, but not as comprehensive as say, New Scientist, for those with a particular interest in STEM. So far I haven’t seen much “brilliant and beautiful science journalism” in the main paper as a replacement, but it may come.

'Apocalypse The Disaster Issue of Eureka included super-volcanoes (Yellowstone), earthquakes and pandemics. It didn’t look at my favourite ‘low probability high impact event’, the collapse of one of the Canary Islands into the Atlantic with a tsunami threatening the North Atlantic periphery. But then they didn’t predict their own high probability low impact demise.