24 February 2013

Is Ed Balls a lucky general?

Was it Eisenhower or Napoleon who saw advantages in generals who were lucky rather than clever? Dr Anthony Seldon, being an historian and Master of Wellington College (named after Napoleon’s nemesis), should know. Seldon (left) must be a man of exceptional energy and ability. As well as holding a job at the top of private education, he is an active modern historian (co-founder of Institute of Contemporary British History with Peter Hennessy) and the author of studies of the administrations of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. No doubt during his toils he has encountered many of the current shadow front bench, so his open letter to Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, published in the New Statesman on 21 February, For the good of himself, his family and the party, it’s time for Ed Balls to fall on his sword, has to be taken notice of. Seldon’s message to Balls is that:
… quitting in the next few months until, say, 2017 would undoubtedly benefit your leader, your party, your wife and even yourself.
His motives in producing this epistle are a mystery to us peasants outside the Westminster Village, and probably many inside. But it may contain some clues as to what could be going on, for example:

Possibility 1: Seldon is acting in support, unsolicited or otherwise, of those who want rid of Balls – perhaps they see him as a stumbling block in forming a Labour/Lib Dem coalition:
Ed Miliband would be a much stronger leader without you. … he doesn’t need you … you stop Ed breathing fresh air. … You say you like David Miliband, but his followers are not doing well under Ed, are they? The party would be much stronger with David back in the frame. So, too, would it with Alistair Darling returning to the front bench. In the event of a hung parliament, Labour would stand a better chance of putting together a workable coalition with the Lib Dems without you. … Others, including Ed Miliband, share responsibility for the Brown errors: you will earn praise for taking the hit.
Such persons may have calculated that with a maximum of just over two years to the next election, Balls has to go now or it’s too late.

Possibility 2: It’s not really about politics: primarily Seldon wants to make an impression on the current or potential parents whose fee-paying is fundamental to his College’s existence. Such people by now may be alarmed at the prospect of Ed Balls as the next (or next but one) Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably for the benefit of the same audience, less than a month ago Seldon was reported in the media complaining about bias (eg in the Daily Telegraph):
Dr Seldon claimed there are 62 pupils at Wellington bright enough to get an Oxbridge interview this year, but said he only expects 20 offers of places to come in. He said: "From our perspective it looks as if some public school students are being discriminated against at the final hurdle. It's painful because we are seeing some excellent candidates who would go on to get firsts who are not getting offers, about 10 this year.
Given that in 2012 Wellington College was ranked 76th in independent school A-level results (62.2% gainingA*/A or equivalent; 1st Wycombe Abbey 92.8%) are 20 Oxbridge places so few?

The boarding fees at Wellington are £31500 pa and one of the experiences they secure is a course on happiness and well being, one of Seldon’s innovations. Never having had the benefit of such education, but being all in favour of “build[ing] strong and positive relationships with others”, I can offer one piece of advice for free: avoid commenting on the dynamics of another couple’s relationship and on how they should bring up their children. But I’m not sure Seldon would agree:
Yvette would not say it to you but, like many women working in the same organisation as their husband, she would be freer to think and act without you in her hair. You would have more time, too, for your three children. As a headmaster, I know how hard it is for children who have just one parent in the public eye. Having two is harder still and your family would only benefit with you being more present and less preoccupied.
(Yvette Cooper, ie Mrs Balls, is shadow home secretary.)

Possibility 3: It was a gross error of judgement by Seldon, clever man though he is. This seems to be borne out by the sceptical responses to Seldon’s advice from both left and right, summarised in the New Statesman subsequently. To me it seems bizarre to propose that, with a Labour lead in double figures and a good chance of winning an election in 2015, any member of the shadow front bench should walk away from frontline politics. Particularly if they are 46 and would be 50 at the proposed date of return, at which point their colleagues/rivals would have been in office a couple of years. And:
What might you do during your long sabbatical? … What about a biography of Brown? Not Gordon, nor your friend Nick, but George: you would learn much more about how factionalism damaged Labour in the 1960s. … You could even study for an MBA and learn, unlike many others who become ministers, how to run large organisations.
So you can guess what Seldon has among his four advanced qualifications.

As for its impact on Balls, so far the open letter doesn’t seem to have gained any traction at all. And it probably won’t.  Timing being everything and Balls being a lucky general, within 48 hours of the Seldon article appearing, Moody’s had announced that they were downgrading the UK’s credit rating from AAA to Aa1 because of the UK’s poor growth prospects. It’s against this background that the real Chancellor will be delivering his budget next month.

But there remains:

Possibility 4: Seldon knows something that most of us don’t, but if we did would put a completely different slant on his advice.

Footnote: It wasn’t until writing this post that I discovered that Seldon’s father was Arthur Seldon, the right-wing economist and joint founder president, with Ralph Harris, of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Also Seldon, like Mr and Mrs Balls, both Milibands, David Cameron and so many other members of the British political class, is an Oxford PPE graduate.

UPDATE 28 February

The Seldon letter was re-opened yesterday at the first PMQs after the Moody’s downrating of UK debt. Ed Miliband’s questions were directed at the economy, eventually being replied to with:
The Prime Minister: … let us look at the right hon. Gentleman’s policy. Let us examine the fact that the New Statesman, the in-house magazine of the Labour party, says that his “critique of the government’s…strategy may never win back public trust”,  
“proposals for the economy will never convince”,
 and his  
“credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches”. That is not Conservative central office saying it, but the New Statesman.  
Edward Miliband: With the greatest respect to the New Statesman, the Prime Minister is scraping the barrel by quoting that. All we have heard today … is a Prime Minister who refuses to accept that he has failed on the central test he set himself. He has failed to meet that first test. It is not just our credit rating that has been downgraded. We have a downgraded Government, a downgraded Chancellor and a downgraded Prime Minister.  
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says that the New Statesman is scraping the barrel, but it was the only newspaper that endorsed his leadership. In this Oscar week, perhaps the best we can say is that Daniel Day-Lewis was utterly convincing as Abraham Lincoln, and the right hon. Gentleman is utterly convincing as Gordon Brown: more borrowing, more spending, more debt.
The PM was quoting from a passage of the “open letter” directed at Ed Balls:
Economic credibility would be more readily restored with your departure. Your critique of the government’s austerity strategy may never win back public trust and your proposals for the economy will never convince. Your credibility problem will only become magnified as the general election approaches.
On February 28 Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph argued that Ed Miliband should sack Ed Balls - and as brutally as possible. He thought the most telling [political] event of the week was:
… the dreadful showing by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, in the House of Commons on Monday, when George Osborne was forced to come and explain himself following Britain’s loss of its AAA status with the rating agency Moody’s. In theory this should have been an open goal for Mr Balls.  Yet when the session ended an hour later, Mr Osborne had got away with it and Mr Balls was out of sorts. The truth is that Mr Balls isn’t any good as shadow chancellor. This is an open secret in the Labour Party (where discussions about his successor are ongoing) ..   
… as shadow chancellor, he is a failure. Monday showed that he cannot damage George Osborne even if confronted with an easy target. There are various reasons for this, one of which is Mr Balls’s total identification with the economics and politics of the Gordon Brown era. The basic reason why Britain is in such an economic mess is because Mr Brown, advised by Mr Balls, spent too much and fuelled a boom. We are coping with the resulting bust. There is no getting away from this.
Some people might think this is letting the bankers off rather lightly!
… Mr Balls has not seriously challenged the basic Coalition strategy. There has been no great collision of ideas. As a result he has nothing interesting to say, which is probably the reason he compensates with bombastic but ultimately meaningless Commons performances. The former chancellor Alistair Darling and David Miliband (who appears to have at last got over his long sulk at losing the Labour leadership to his younger brother) are being aired as replacements. Either would be an improvement, as would Yvette Cooper, Mr Balls’s wife.  
Last weekend Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, wrote an article in which he urged Mr Balls to go one step further, retire from politics, and take up some other occupation. I hope that Mr Balls does not do that. He has much too much to offer, and there are all kinds of front-bench jobs at which he can excel.  
Mr Balls is a highly intelligent and self-aware man, and I am sure that he realises that he is in trouble. If he really wants Labour to win the next election, he can do Ed Miliband one last favour. He should not merely offer his resignation. Rather, he should allow his party leader to sack him as brutally as possible. By doing in his former mentor in this way, Mr Miliband would look strong and ruthless. Favourable comparisons would be made with Tony Blair, who always lacked the courage to sack Gordon Brown. And questions would be asked about why David Cameron has been unable to follow suit.
How Miliband could “sack” Balls “as brutally as possible” but have him in a “front-bench job[s] at which he can excel” is far from clear – that’s just a reshuffle isn’t it?

22 February 2013

Manet Portraits at the RA

It must have seemed a good idea at the time for the Royal Academy to put on the first major exhibition of Manet’s portraiture in the UK, Manet: Portraying Life, which has now arrived in London after showing at the Toledo Museum of Art. But not so easy to put into practice. For a start Olympia 1863, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe 1862/3 and The Balcony 1869, all pictures highly relevant to the theme and to the pivotal position which Édouard Manet (1832-83) occupies between the traditions of the Salon and Modernism, are never (well, hardly ever - see Update 7 March below!) loaned by the Musée d’Orsay. Secondly, no more than 54 works make up the show, a surprising number of which are unfinished. One picture, Interior at Arcachon 1871 is making its second appearance at the RA in five months. But thirdly, and more fundamentally, what is a portrait as opposed to a picture which includes one or more human figures?

The answer, I would guess, is something to do with the indication of character and personality which the painter conveys in the portrait and through the immediate context chosen for the subject. On that basis, there are some fine portraits in the RA show, for example those of Emile Zola 1878, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets 1872 (detail in banner above), Stephen Mallarmé 1876 (below), and The Luncheon, 1868, which primarily depicts Léon, the son of Manet’s wife (left).

But others are barely portraits, for example the players in A Game of Croquet 1873 (above), despite its considerable interest in terms of the separation of Manet from the Impressionists. Again, in what sense is the National Gallery’s Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862, on solitary display in the second gallery and provided with a who’s-who of the 20 individuals in the picture, a work of portraiture (below)?  A portrait of a sector of contemporary society, perhaps.

The absence of the Musée d’Orsay’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe is mitigated to some extent by the presence of the Courtauld’s smaller later c1863-8 version. However, the latter’s generosity didn’t extend to a loan of Suzon at her [The] Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1882 (below right), which would have been preferable to so much Victorine Meurent, however fine The Railway 1873 may be.

The small scale of the exhibition helps to explain why Gallery 3 is given over to Manet’s timeline and maps of Paris and France - not that Manet spent much time outside the former. His presence in Arcachon stemmed from his leaving Paris during the period of the Commune, unlike Courbet (who, by the way, appears in the left part of Monet’s version of Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe 1865-1866).

The RA’s show was given considerable media coverage at the start of the year and it certainly provides an opportunity to see significant works by a major artist and to appreciate his skill in painting in black and dark brown which is hardly apparent in reproductions. Nonetheless I do wonder whether some visitors will be disappointed, particularly at a full ticket price of £15. Reviving my 'anticipointment index' of a year ago, I rate it at 3 out of 5, the lower being the better. Manet: Portraying Life continues to 14 April.

UPDATE 7 March

The Musée d’Orsay, with the special permission of President Hollande, is going to lend Olympia (above left) for the first time to an exhibition in Venice this year.

20 February 2013

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’

It’s not often that a film is so dominated by the performance of one actor. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln not only occupies the screen for much of the film’s 150 minutes, but his characterisation is spell-binding, though at one point the pitch of his voice and his accent were, I thought, uncannily reminiscent of Bill Clinton, and his performance fully deserves its prizes. The scope Lincoln offers for strong male parts is fully exploited, like Jackie Earle Haley’s Alexander Stephens. Sadly, Sally Field in the main female part of Mary Todd Lincoln falls a little short of the general high standard.

Mid-19th century America, whether in Washington or on the battlefield, and Lincoln’s political machinations by lamplight are so well-realised as to absorb all the viewer’s attention, but the story of the securing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution during the closing months of the American civil war is thought-provoking as well. Non-Americans may well benefit from reading the Wikipedia entry on the History of the US Republican Party. I certainly hadn’t appreciated the GOP’s determination to prevent the slave owners from establishing themselves in the new Territories. And what I’ve read so far about Reconstruction seems to underline that it was hardly directed at establishing the rights of African Americans. What happened after the Civil War that it should take a century for significant progress? Perhaps it had something to do with the huge waves of white immigration later in the 19th century, the emergence of the USA as a world power under the WASP elite, Prohibition? Perhaps a kind US reader of this post will recommend some further reading. Not for the first time though, I couldn’t help thinking that only a wealthy country can afford a political system with a Congress and Senate so often at loggerheads.

The film ends on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, although John Wilkes Booth does not appear. Some US readers may be intrigued to know that Cherie Booth, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is one of the great-great-great grandchildren of John Wilkes Booth’s uncle, Sidney Booth. So, of course, are dozens of other people – Cherie’s father alone had eight daughters!

Curtains to Carpet for Courbet

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) probably would have wanted to be remembered for his major works of Realism like The Stone Breakers (Les Casseurs de pierres – destroyed in 1945) and A Burial at Omans (Un enterrement à Ornans) or his role in the Paris Commune, but probably not for L'Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). In his What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye Will Gompertz makes the point that Courbet:
… wanted to get real, and paint ordinary subjects that the Academy and polite society considered to be vulgar, like the poor. Mind you, if they found the realism of a painting featuring a peasant on a pathway crude, they would have choked on their fine wine had they seen Courbet's treatment of another subject. His painting The Origin of the World (1866) is one of the most notorious works in art history, famed for its blunt, no-holds-barred portrayal of a naked female torso shown only from breast to thigh, with legs wide open, and cropped by Courbet to achieve maximum (porno) graphic effect. It is a sexually frank picture that is not for the squeamish now; back then it was for private eyes only. In fact, it remained that way for over 100 years, until 1988 when it was shown for the first time in a public exhibition.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the picture has a clouded history. Courbet sold it to a Turkish-Egyptian diplomat who would reveal its charms to guests from behind a green curtain. After passing through various other hands, in 1955 it became the property of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his wife, and after her death was accepted into the Musée d’Orsay collection in 1995.

The model for L'Origine du monde has often been thought to be Joanna Hiffernan, an Irishwoman who was the subject of other more conventional portraits by Courbet (eg La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo)) and by James McNeill Whistler (eg Symphony in White, No. I: The White Girl and No II) and was also the latter’s mistress. The identity of the model has been under discussion again after a ‘world exclusive' in Paris Match on 7 February (left) which revealed the claim by Jean-Jacques Fernier, an expert on Courbet and author of the catalogue raisonné , that an unsigned painting of a woman's head (below) had been part of an original larger canvas. Laboratory tests showed that the pigment, brush strokes and canvas appeared to match in both paintings.

But the Musée d'Orsay said the test results showed only that the two paintings used the same pigment, canvas and paint brushes, all common at the time. In Le Monde the art critic Philippe Dagen had doubts as to the pictures’ similarity in style in terms of the light, the touch, the skin texture, and the colour range. Even more unhelpfully, the French Culture Ministry ruled out the conduct of cross-tests. A week after its original scoop, Paris Match returned to the fray, but, apart from disparaging the sceptics, could only offer in support of its case a claim that Fernier had seen L’Origine before its being handed to the Musée d’Orsay and that the painted canvas extended over the edges of the stretcher (le tableau se prolongeait sur ses bords).

The Irish Times seems to have taken an interest in L’Origine because of Hiffernan’s roots. Frank McNally in An Irishman’s Diary commented:
When I last wrote about Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting, The Origin of the World, suggesting it was a depiction of his Irish-born muse, Joanna Hiffernan, a reader e-mailed me pointing to a flaw in the theory. Famously beautiful, Hiffernan was also famously red-haired, her gloriously Hibernian tresses much admired in 1860s Paris. By contrast, as my correspondent put it delicately, the woman in the painting appeared to be a “brunette”. And since, as he added less delicately, “the collars and cuffs usually match”, it followed that the sitter (she’s more of a lier, in fact) could not have been Hiffernan. … And yes, I too had noticed the discrepancy to which the reader referred: especially since my column had been accompanied by a full portrait of Hiffernan, painted by another admirer, James McNeill Whistler. But I had opted for light brush strokes in dealing with the subject. Until, challenged, I suggested that Courbet might had have tactical reasons for changing the hair colour. For one thing, Hiffernan was then Whistler’s lover. In any case, Courbet might have felt the need to protect the model’s anonymity. And whereas brunettes are always commonplace among the Parisian muse community, giving his nude red hair might have reduced the list of suspects to one. That column was written only last August, after I visited the Musée d’Orsay, where the picture resides. Now I learn that, even then, tests were already under way elsewhere on a suspected but previously undocumented Courbet, …
In August 2007 Mark Hutchinson reviewed L’Origine du Monde Histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet by Thierry Savatier and remarked that:
… the chapter reviewing the possible models for the painting is nuanced and persuasive. (The author finds none of the flesh-and-blood candidates, least of all Whistler’s mistress Jo, very plausible, and thinks that Courbet, who had a large collection of nude photographs, probably worked from a “stereograph” by Auguste Belloc, who employed some of the same models as Courbet.)
I suspect that Paris Match and Fernier are better off sticking with scientific tests rather than McNally’s novel area of connoisseurship, and that this may be a good point to contemplate Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. III (1865-7), with Hiffernan and Milly Jones, the wife of an actor friend of Whistler’s, on her left.

The way that the Paris Match story was covered (mot juste in the circumstances) by the media is probably a study in itself.  Online in the UK, the Daily Telegraph showed just the top half of the Match’s spread, while the Daily Mail mentioned it briefly, and without a picture, at the end of a well-illustrated story about the wholesome Isleworth Mona Lisa. The Times carpeted the problem in its print edition with graphics (left) reminiscent of its Wapping neighbour, the Sun. Whereas in France? Well this was the news on France 2 at 13:00 hours!

7 February 2013

‘Borgen’ and British politics

White Doors or Open Doors (Strandgade 30), 1905
Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864–1916)
 ... awaiting Kasper and Katrine
Until early 2011, when the British thought at all about Denmark, it was probably in association with Hamlet (Prince of), Carlsberg, Lurpak, Bang and Olufsen, Kierkegaard, Hammershøi (left) or other things according to taste, but not television dramas. Then BBC4 started showing the first series of DR’s (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) The Killing (Forbrydelsen – The Crime) which developed a cult following stimulated by opinion-forming chattering-class comment in the media. Its attraction was probably as much the fashionable Scandinavian noir setting as the central character, a jumper-wearing woman cop, Sarah Lund (Sophie Grabøl). After all, Cagney & Lacey started over 30 years ago and Helen Mirren began playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect in 1991. But The Killing certainly caught on, the third and probably final series ending its BBC4 run in December 2012 with an audience of over a million. David Cameron, we have been told, is a devotee of the series in box sets. As he told the House magazine in January during a rather sycophantic interview:
THE HOUSE: What was your favourite Christmas present from Sam?  
PM: She did give me the Killing III, that was our luxury at Christmas. So that’s it, we’ve done it. We had a decent time at home. We did a bit of back-to-back [viewing of episodes]. We cheated, she gave it to me before Christmas, so we opened it early.
Encouraged by the success of The Killing, BBC4 started showing the first series of DR’s Borgen in January 2012. This political drama (to paraphrase The Archers, an everyday story of coalition folk or contemporary drama in a political setting) mostly takes place in Copenhagen's Christiansborg Palace  which houses the Danish Parliament and Prime Minister's Office and is known to Danes as “Borgen”, (castle). The central character again is female, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen), Denmark’s first woman Prime Minister and leader of the governing coalition. Among a large cast, the other main parts are Nyborg’s spin doctor, Kasper Juul (Pilou Asbæk), and his girlfriend Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen), a TV news journalist. Although not achieving quite the ratings popularity of The Killing, Borgen has probably been even more of a hit with the UK commentariat – at least up until the recent end of the second series (2 Feb 2013). One of the few sceptical voices has been that of Rachel Cooke in the New Statesman. A third, and again probably final, series is currently being shown in Denmark and no doubt will appear on BBC4 in due course.

But where there’s politics, there’s politics. On 30 January, The Times (£) second section, Times 2, appeared with Alastair Campbell and Sidse Babett Knudsen on its cover (left), with a report by Campbell, Has Borgen got a new spin doctor? Nej!, of his visit to Copenhagen to meet Babbett and Asbæk. He took a particular shine to the latter:
Pilou Asbæk has certainly learnt a thing or two about spin doctoring. He bows on meeting, and within a minute has said he is “honoured” and “thrilled”, that he only agreed to the interview because it was with me, enjoyed researching my “amazing” life, and asks if I mind that he sees me and a US Republican — Karl Rove — as the top exponents of what he calls our “art”. You may be surprised to know I took an instant liking to him.
And later:
Pilou admits that one of the by- products — lessons — of the series is that he has started to speak differently. “Always talk in headlines — then people remember you,” he suggests. The conversation is peppered with his perfectly formed soundbites. “You cannot create chemistry. It is a gift between actors.” … And then, reaching what I suggest to him is Mensa level spin capacity: “I am answering that question by not answering it.” Happily he has learnt to respect the art of communication and see through the clouds of media cynicism. “People see Kasper as a dark lord and I don’t accept it. Guys who do that kind of job are mothers and wives, husbands and fathers . . .”  
“Tell me about it . . .”
Campbell had explained earlier that:
Everyone seems to watch it [Borgen], including the real Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a personal friend who I saw for dinner the night before meeting Sidse and Pilou.
Thorning-Schmidt is, of course, Neil Kinnock’s daughter-in-law, and readers of Campbell’s diaries will be aware of the closeness of his family and the Kinnocks.

Sidse and Pilou must be busy people. On 4 February, the Scotsman’s Rory Reynolds reported, Borgen’s Filmhouse finale wows Edinburgh:
… the phenomenal success of Borgen reached the streets of Scotland yesterday, … Hundreds of devotees -– including Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, along with other MSPs – gathered at the Filmhouse for the special screening of the final two episodes.  
… Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays fictional Danish prime minister Birgitte Nyborg, travelled to Edinburgh yesterday … And arch spin doctor Kasper Juul – a shadowy figure modelled on Alastair Campbell – could not have fixed it better himself when Knudsen arrived to meet fans dressed head-to-toe in red and black tartan.  
… “Why do we like it?” Ms Sturgeon asked the audience. “Maybe it gives us a glimpse of the country we could be.” She said she found herself in an unusual role for a politician. “I was interviewing her for Scottish television. The only thing I managed to get her to reveal is that there is to be a Scottish love interest in the next series.” Nyborg will fall for architect Jeremy Welsh in the next series, played by Monarch of the Glen star Alastair Mackenzie.  
Mrs Sturgeon said Borgen was often realistic. “It’s a drama but with an authentic twist. As a politician I can relate to it.”  
… Fans were interested in Knudsen’s views on Holyrood and the referendum next year. They also sought her take on her considerably popularity among politicians here, such as Alison Johnstone, the Green MSP, who was also spotted in the audience. However, she managed to both charm her audience and avoid the question on several occasions, except to say that she was “a little bit stunned” at the admiration.
Any apparent alignment of Borgen with Labour (pace the Staggers) and Scottish Nationalist politics, was not given substance by Adam Price, a Dane of English descent, who is producer and co-writer of the series.  In a recent Guardian interview he emphasised the feminist aspect of the series, which is universal, and not politics. But perhaps it’s not surprising that the House interview went:
THE HOUSE: Are you into Borgen?  
PM: No! God, no. It’s just whether Morgen Shmorgen is Health Minister or is Education Minister..it’s too much like work.
Nor that in The Times (£) on 6 February Alice Thomson should be telling us:
Few of the Cabinet watch Borgen, the TV drama about a fictional Danish prime minister. Samantha Cameron has banned it from Downing Street — it’s just too close for comfort with its plot revolving around a divorce and an unhappy daughter.
The date of the Scottish Referendum is not yet finalised, but will be in the autumn of 2014, so not so long after the showing of Borgen III, another glimpse of the country Scotland could be – unless the BBC decide to bring it forward.


4 February 2013

Lightning enlightenment

The Lightning has now been moved elsewhere.

For some months now, there has been a strange sight just off the A46 about 2 km north of J18 on the M4 (left) in SW England. At the edge of a disused lorry park sits an English Electric Lightning airframe with its fin and wing extremities removed (above left).

The Lightning was in RAF service from 1960 to 1988 when its primary role was the interception of Soviet aircraft like the Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear’ (above right) intruding into NATO airspace – (and probably still attempting to do so!).

Search results from simply Googling “A46 Lightning” reveal that the F1 A XM173 will probably not be at the side of the road for much longer. An application has been submitted to Wiltshire Council for its display at the Dyson premises in Malmesbury. The plan is for XM173 to be placed near a Harrier to provide a second exemplar of British engineering achievement. The Dyson Lightning will be mounted pointing to the sky, which seems appropriate given its mode of near-vertical climb, as experienced by Professor Brian Cox in his 2010 BBC series Wonders of the Solar System:

The limitations of the Lightning included its limited endurance without air-to-air refueling and its proneness to fuel fires because of the complex arrangement of the two engines, and the aircraft was never given a sensor and weapon fit to match its aerodynamics.

1 February 2013

Broke off relations in a curse

Self-educated WILLIAM BLAKE
Who threw his spectre in the lake,
Broke off relations in a curse
With the Newtonian Universe.
“New Year Letter" (1940), W H Auden

I am saddened rather than surprised when I come across anti-scientism from British journalists, even on two successive days. The Daily Telegraph on 26 January included its weekly review section containing TV listings (What to Watch) for the week ahead. Its media correspondent, Neil Midgley, previewed the first part of Professor Brian Cox’s new series Wonders of Life on 27 January:
Prepare for flashbacks to O-level physics and chemistry in Professor Brian Cox’s new science series about life and the laws of the universe. Turning gravitational potential into kinetic energy, and the basics of acid, alkali and pH, are reassuringly familiar. But things get murkier when milk bottles full of acid arrive to create a fuel cell. Soon Cox is taking “proton gradients” for granted as the way living creatures harness energy.  
… But the science lacks clout, with Cox’s script littered with “it is thought that” and “may have” when he talks about the undersea origins of life on Earth. There’s no explanation of how those oceanic base elements came to form spectacularly complex DNA, or what mankind’s common ancestor with chickens actually looked like. Cox clearly has no truck with religious explanations of life’s origins – but his response won’t trouble the devout too much, either.
Life on Earth, flat or otherwise, didn’t start with mammalian DNA of course.  Anyone with a creationist inclination may find next week’s episode in which Cox addresses the evolution of the eye even more indigestible. On 28 January in The Times (£), Kevin Maher came out with a defence of homeopathy, I’d rather be ‘cured’ by a placebo than rely on science and remain ill. Maher was irritated that Professor Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, had informed the Commons Science and Technology Committee that homeopathy was rubbish and that homeopathic pills themselves were no more effective than a placebo.
… there’s something in the familiar surety of her rejection that niggles. It’s the same dismissive stance of the self-appointed champions of reason who are forever on the lookout for so-called bad science and keen to beat us all into submission with the rationality stick. I’m thinking here mostly of Richard Dawkins …  
… what’s wrong with the placebo effect? Hell, if I’ve got the choice of being cured by the best New Age placebo effect or remaining ill in the world of Dawkins and supercomputers, I’ll take a sugary meaningless placebo pill any day.  
… isn’t this blind faith in the teachings of the medical-industrial complex, not to mention the attendant appetite for the products of multinational pharmaceutical companies, kind of limiting? Isn’t it just a bit, well, ignorant? What did Einstein say? “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” I’m pretty sure that he means you too, science.
Are there parallels between attitudes like these towards science in general, and towards climate change in particular, frequently expressed in the British media and the hostility encountered in the same places towards the EU? An explanation for both might lie in an article by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on 29 January, Another Country - The way we are governed is inexplicable – until you understand the upbringing of the elite.
I was born [in 1963] into the third tier of the dominant class: those without land or capital, but with salaries high enough to send their children to private schools. My preparatory school, which I attended from the age of eight, was a hard place, still Victorian in tone.  
… But it was also strangely lost. A few decades earlier, the role of such schools was clear: they broke boys’ attachment to their families and re-attached them to the institutions – the colonial service, the government, the armed forces – through which the British ruling class projected its power. … By the time I was eight those institutions had either collapsed (in the case of colonial service), fallen into other hands (government), or were no longer a primary means by which British power was asserted (the armed forces). 
… The history we were taught revolved around topics such as Gordon of Khartoum, Stanley and Livingstone and the Black Hole of Calcutta. In geography, the maps still showed much of the globe coloured red. … The world, when we were released into it, was unrecognisable. It bore no relationship to our learning or experience. The result was cognitive dissonance: a highly uncomfortable state from which human beings will do almost anything to escape. There were two principal means. One – the more painful – was to question everything you held to be true. … The other, as US Republicans did during the Bush presidency, is to create your own reality. If the world does not fit your worldview, you either shore up your worldview with selectivity and denial, or (if you have power) you try to bend the world to fit the shape it takes in your mind. Much of the effort of conservative columnists and editors and of certain politicians and historians appears to be devoted to these tasks.
Monbiot goes on to argue that the current Coalition government “can blithely engage in the wholesale transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, … truncate[s] the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country, … commit[s] troops to ever more pointless post-colonial wars” because:
Our own ruling caste, schooled separately, brought up to believe in justifying fairytales, lives in a world of its own, from which it can project power without understanding or even noticing the consequences.
It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to extend Monbiot’s explanation for the economic policy of our current elite, so few of whom ever had any significant STEM education, to its distaste for science. Again, some aspects of foreign policy, particularly the vehemently anti-EU attitudes of some politicians might stem from their living in a world of their own, a world created in their schooldays.