28 June 2013

Things Past East of Suez

Ann Widdecombe was born in Bath (SW England) in October 1947, became an MP in 1987 and was John Major’s Minister of State for Prisons from 1995 to 1997. She left Parliament in 2010 and subsequently appeared in BBC1’s Strictly Come Dancing and in pantomime. She has recently published Strictly Ann – The Autobigraphy.

Browsing a copy in a local bookshop, I saw that she has included a photograph of her class at the Royal Naval School in Singapore in 1955. Below is a similar, but slightly earlier, photograph showing her (I am reliably informed) in the front and on the far right, appropriately enough. This blogger is one of those children, now in their middle sixties and therefore all members of a demographic cohort  described here before, the UK’s “post-war bulge”.

The photograph comes from a booklet (extracts below) to mark a visit to that school during the then Duchess of Kent’s Tour of Malaya in October 1952. She also visited the Admiralty Asian School. Blissfully unaware at the time, I now feel distinctly uncomfortable when faced with late-era colonialism and racially-segregated education. By then, the perpetuation of British rule had been undermined by the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945 and Singapore went on to achieve independence from the UK in 1963. The Royal Navy withdrew from its base in Singapore in 1971.

There is an obvious irony in the Singapore educational system’s now being held up as an exemplar by the UK education minister, Michael Gove, or at least that was the case last year when the Financial Times (£) reported that:
Michael Gove has tired of Sweden and New York City. After claiming to be inspired by those places’ school systems, the education secretary has now embraced Singapore as a model. His curriculum reforms seek to mimic elements of the small Asian country’s high-performing education system.
Singapore’s post-colonial economic success is beyond doubt. The ninth edition of Dan Smith’s State of the World Atlas shows: Singapore’s GNI per capita (on a purchasing power parity basis) as being US$ 55380 vs 36590 in the UK; life expectancy in 2009 of its citizens as 82 years vs 80 in the UK; in 2008, 28% of Singapore’s adults were overweight vs 62% in the UK, and so forth. Its problems are probably inherent in a small city state – dependency on its neighbours for water and vulnerability to their pollution.

Denis Healey, when Defence Minister and faced with an urgent need to make savings, took the decision to liquidate “Britain's military role outside Europe, an anachronism which was essentially a legacy from our nineteenth-century empire”. This policy of withdrawal led to the closure of the bases in Singapore and other locations “East of Suez”, a description much used at the time but little heard of from governments since, even in the last 10 years of UK military deployment in Afghanistan. Surprisingly it turned up in a speech by David Cameron on 10 June, Plan for Britain's success, marking the start of the UK’s presidency of G8:
… I have revived our friendships in the Commonwealth and reinvigorated relations with our old partners in the Gulf, where we’re active commercially, diplomatically, and with renewed military co operation to the east of Suez.
No doubt the drafters of this speech and the PM knew the phrase came from Kipling’s poem, Mandalay:
Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst …  
Where the old Flotilla lay,
(at Mandalay not Singapore of course), and they are aware of the last line:
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

15 June 2013

Christopher Menaul’s ‘Summer in February’

Christopher Menaul has been directing drama series and films for TV for over 40 years but Summer in February seems to be his first film for commercial release. I mentioned it last November in a post about the Laura Knight exhibition in Worcester. The film, “based on a true story”, is set in Cornwall (SW England) in 1913 and was scripted by Jonathan Smith from his novel of the same title about a love triangle among the bohemian community of artists working at that time in Lamorna. In the film Laura (Hattie Morahan) and her husband Harold (Shaun Dingwall) are onlookers as the young emerging artistic talent of the day, AJ Munnings (Dominic Cooper), and the much more conventional local land agent and army officer, Gilbert Evans (Dan Stevens), vie for the affections of Florence Carter-Wood (Emily Browning).

Summer in February is handsomely filmed against some of the finest coastal scenery in Europe and the period settings are as picturesque as some of the works in the Artists in Cornwall show earlier this year, or those to be found at the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance. However, I wasn’t totally persuaded by its characters’ behaviour, although well-acted. Would Laura and Harold have skinny-dipped in quite so unembarrassed a fashion in front of Gilbert and Florence? [See comments below] Would AJ have used f-words in front of women in 1913, Menaul and Cooper seemingly having decided to portray him as a YBA du temps? Did Munnings, notorious for his speech against modernism in 1949, have such a down on Picasso as early as 1913 – the latter’s style in AJ’s parody seems to belong to a later period? A useful, if not impartial, source of information about Munnings is provided by the Castle House Trust’s website. Although there is no mention of his first wife, their biography does point out that “he spent the first three years of the 1914-18 war mainly in Lamorna” and that “It was from Lamorna that he made his excursions to Hampshire where he had discovered, in the gypsy hop pickers, a wealth of painting material.”

Dr James Fox, in his recently repeated BBC4 series, British Masters, put Munnings into context and drew attention to his considerable skill as an artist. Actors aren’t expected to possess such skills of course, but have to look convincing when they take the part of artists (or, worse, musicians), as does the art they are working on (The Morning Ride, sold at Christie’s in 2000, right). The Spectator sent their art critic, Andrew Lambirth, to review Summer in February and he thought the problem had been handled well.

By an odd coincidence, there have been two period films released in the last two weeks, one set in SW France and the other in SW England, both dealing with the consequences for women of choosing the wrong husband!

13 June 2013

Patrick Caulfield at Tate Britain

Tate Britain in its lower level galleries is showing retrospectives of Patrick Caulfield (1936–2005) and Gary Hume (1962- ) in parallel. Hume, Tate tells us, was one of the YBAs (Young British Artists) featured in the 1988 Freeze exhibition and is now “one of Britain’s most highly respected painters”. There are about 24 of his works on show, mostly gloss paint on aluminium sheet, including Tony Blackburn, first seen in 1993 at the Lucky Kunst show. Hume invented that show’s name according to Gregor Muir in his book - same title - on the rise and fall of YBA. However, it was Caulfield’s work that I wanted to see.

Caulfield was a contemporary of David Hockney and Peter Blake at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960s but despite this association (and being introduced to screenprinting by Richard Hamilton) rejected classification as a pop artist. As Clarrie Wallis (Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Tate) explains in her book about Caulfield for the British Artists series, he engaged with modern life but as part of the European artistic tradition, his work being influenced by Matisse, Gris, Dufy, Braque (Tate's own Braque Curtain 2005 above) and others, including Picasso (below). Looking at Caulfield’s interiors, it isn’t surprising to learn that the American artist he admired was Hopper, not Lichtenstein, despite their common use of black delineation of blocks of colour.

The Tate Britain exhibition is complemented by others at Waddington Custot and the Alan Cristea Gallery (both until 13 July). At the latter there is a chance to see Caulfield’s 1999 screenprint, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon vues de Derrière (above), which Wallis refers to but does not reproduce. I wish I had bought her book, which is an impressive explanation of the complexities of Caulfield’s work and his artistic development in terms accessible to the lay reader, before seeing the Tate show - therefore, ideally, another visit before it closes on 1 September.


11 June 2013

Claude Miller’s 'Thérèse Desqueyroux'

François Mauriac (1885-1970) was born in Bordeaux and published the novel on which Miller’s last film is based in 1927. It is set in that period in the Landes, the département in the Aquitaine region in SW France which is famous for its vast pine forests stretching along the Atlantic coast. Tautou plays the eponymous Thérèse, the daughter of a wealthy forestry family. She enters into a marriage with Bernard, son of a neighbouring timber dynasty, an arrangement familiar to readers of novels by Galsworthy, a Nobel Laureate like Mauriac.

Thérèse, as repressed as one of Strindberg’s or Ibsen’s women, soon realises that Bernard, while not quite as thick as a pine plank, is no soul mate. Miller apparently decided against voiceovers as a way of articulating Mauriac’s descriptions of Thérèse’s inner turmoils. Unfortunately Tautou’s skill as an actress only rarely extends to providing much insight into her character through facial expression or demeanour. It is therefore a surprise (at least outside France where the novel is well-known) when Thérèse embarks on a course of action which could have been catastrophic for her and the families involved. However, the French bourgeoisie have always had their ways of dealing with such problems and, although Thérèse has to pay a considerable price, in the end Bernard, at least in part, redeems himself in his treatment of her. When reflecting on the position of women in France at the time, it is worth remembering that the electoral franchise remained male until 1944.

Thérèse Desqueyroux is a handsomely filmed period piece and for me part of its appeal came from some of the locations which were actually in the Gironde, not the Landes. According to IMDb the village and church scenes were filmed in Rions, a pretty place on the bank of the Garonne river and not far from Mauriac’s house at Malagar. The latter is now preserved as part of the Centre François Mauriac and is well worth visiting.

Films like Thérèse Desqueyroux only exist because of financial support provided through “cultural exception” provisions which, as Agnès Poirier explained recently in the Guardian, are under threat in current US-EU trade negotiations. Simon Kuper in the Financial Times (£) also made a strong defence of the current arrangements:
France accepts that most global movies and TV shows will be in English. The exception culturelle simply aims to make sure that French culture gets funding too. The invisible hand of the market won’t do that. The death of French as a major language, and the collapse of foreign interest in France as anything but a resort-cum-food hall, means few foreign movie-goers now follow French films.  
… If Jean Renoir had made his Grande Illusion today instead of in 1937, its foreign audience might have consisted of 17 people in an art-house cinema in Greenwich Village.
A bit of an overstatement, but I sympathise with his conclusion:
This spat [in the trade negotiations] exemplifies a wider problem: French arguments on almost any topic get caricatured. Because the world doesn’t speak French, it rarely hears what the French say, and an Anglo-American narrative is disseminated in which France is cast as an irrational obstacle to progress. We saw that in the run-up to the Iraq war, and now with the transatlantic trade talks. The French need to do a better job of presenting their case in English. If foreigners heard French arguments, they might realise the French aren’t so backward after all.
As it is, the subtitles for Thérèse Desqueyroux are in American English (as usual) – so Bernard asks his wife for an ‘omelet’!

2 June 2013

Peter Gumbel on French Elitism

Énarques and Les X have come up before in posts here relating to France’s elite. So as soon as it became available last month I bought Peter Gumbel’s France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism to read on Kindle. It had appeared in France in print as Élite Academy: Enquête sur la France malade de ses grandes écoles. Gumbel arrived in Paris in 2002 as a correspondent for TIME and began teaching at Sciences Po in 2005. Eventually he was appointed Director of Communications by the Director, Richard Descoings, who died suddenly in New York in 2012 at the age of 53. To describe Descoings’ regime at Sciences Po as controversial would probably be an understatement and for many French readers part of the interest of Gumbel’s book will be its outsider-on-the-inside’s view of Descoings and his wife Nadia Marik and the way things were run.  

Gumbel could have arranged his material more carefully to help readers unfamiliar with the anatomy of France’s elite and the grandes écoles where they are trained. The latter are introduced as:
… the most prestigious grandes écoles, especially the École Polytechnique, for science, or the École Normale Supérieure, for humanities …(location 84)
And then Sciences Po appears without description at the funeral of:
… the director of Sciences Po, who had been found dead …(location 102)
We learn a little later about ENA because Descoing:
… sat the competitive entrance exam for the École nationale d’administration (ENA) not once but three time before he succeeded. (location 129)
But it's more complicated::
… the typical French system of grandes écoles to which just 5% of young people are admitted. Even in this highly selective universe there is a strict hierarchy. Two institutions dominate: the École Polytechnique, known to insiders by the initial X, which was founded in 1794, and ENA, founded in 1945. Together the graduates of these two schools – 400 from X and 80 from ENA every year – represent just 0.057% of their age group, a proportion so miniscule it could be a statistical error. Yet they dominate the top echelons of French business and politics to an astonishing degree. (location 271)
Shortly afterwards we learn that the graduates of ENA are known as énarques (location 296). But what has happened to the École Normale Supérieure, and where does Sciences Po fit in? Gumbel makes a good case that the French system of selecting and training a small elite who then run everything is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Partly because its entry is more about exclusivity than merit:
Just as most énarques went through Sciences Po, …
… so it is that the overwhelming majority of students at École Polytechnique went to just five classes préparatoires – two-year cram schools that prepare for the grandes écoles and are an ultra-selective alternative to a regular university. Three of them are in the 5th and 6th arrondissements of Paris, the lycées Henri-IV, Louis-le-Grand and Saint-Louis, and the other two, the lycées Hoche and Saint-Genevieve (better known as “Ginette”), are in Versailles. Every year, Ginette alone sends more than 80 students to Polytechnique, out of the 400 who are accepted. By comparison in Britain, students from the top 100 schools only make up one third of those who get into Oxbridge. (location 365)
So whose children get access to these exclusive prépas?
… children from well-off families still account for almost 70% of registered students at Sciences Po, and the proportion of students whose parents are managers or work in an “intellectually superior” profession actually increased between 2005 and 2011. (location 1883)
Their choice of bac subjects, by the way, will be influenced by the coefs (coefficients, weightings in the overall score) which they carry. Difficult subjects like maths and the dreaded philo have the highest. The only UK equivalent I’m aware of is Cambridge University’s list of “suitable” A levels. The dominance and self-perpetuation of this Parisian elite would be no surprise to Charles Murray whose analysis of diminishing social mobility in the USA, I posted about last year.

In due course, for some lucky énarques and Les X (as polytechniciens are known but Gumbel omits to say), glittering prizes await:
… the VIP treatment accorded to the alumni of these two schools after they have graduated. For the 15 ENA graduates and the 60 or so polytechniciens who come top of their year, the reward is membership of the grands corps d’État (grand state corps) – the Conseil d’État, the Cour des comptes and the Inspection générale des finances (the General Inspectorate of Finance – or of the exclusive technical corps, especially the Corps des mines, the mining corps. Those who join these corps are given entry-level jobs that are already very lofty, and their careers thereafter are fast-tracked. This world of the professional corps, with its entrenched system of privilege, simply doesn’t exist in other countries. (location 402)
Things are changing:
… thirty years ago, about 200 of the 320 graduates joined one of the prestigious state technical corps, in the first place the Corps des mines or the Corps des Ponts et Chausées. Today the total number of French students is up to 400 while those joining a corps has dropped to about 60-70. (location 1843)
Largely because they go on to private sector jobs instead. By the way, as explained here last August, the corps des ingénieurs des ponts et chaussées has become the corps des ingénieurs des ponts, des eaux et des forêts, and also the corps des mines covers a much wider range of technology than mining nowadays.

The main thrust of Gumbel’s book, to which he devotes a whole Chapter (6 – The Small World Phenomenon) is that, however well this institutionalised elitism may have served France in the past, it is increasingly inappropriate and he cites various analyses and numerous statistics to support his view. He goes on to describe some of the changes that are needed, particularly in the grandes écoles and some of the reforms that are already in place. His final warning is:
That the most powerful elites can be brought down if they fail to adjust to a changing world. That arrogance and defiance won’t guarantee longevity, or even courage. That even the cream can turn rancid. (location 2227)
I’m not sure that Gumbel, who taught journalism at Sciences Po is as au fait with the École Polytechnique, the technical corps and ParisTech as he is with the world of the social sciences. About 15 years ago I got to know some young French corps members who had spent time at MIT and Caltech on Master’s degrees, a recent development in Sciences Po apparently. As to whether the following is a bad thing:
The election of President Hollande in May 2012 sparked days of scrambling as the ministerial cabinets started to be constituted. One friend was in the thick of it, juggling calls from hundreds of people who were pitching their candidacy. The most striking, he recalls, was the call that came from the Corps des Mines. The message was “this is the name of the technical adviser for your cabinet”. There was no discussion of who this person was and whether he would be suitable for the post. (location 429)
Well, the iron grip of the technical corps would never allow France to get into the situation of the USA with its 70,000 structurally deficient bridges. Again, it is EDF Energy, majority-owned by the French government, that the UK is having to negotiate with for the construction of new nuclear power stations. According to the Financial Times (£):
… [HM] Treasury offered EDF a strike price of £80 per megawatt hour, while EDF had been holding out for a price of just below £100/MWh, about twice the current wholesale price of power. People close to the negotiations say a potential compromise would lie somewhere in the middle. It is understood that EDF could be encouraged to settle for a lower strike price if the government underwrote some elements of the project. This would reduce the amount of capital invested on which EDF earned a 10 per cent return, but would remove some risk from its balance sheet.
which doesn’t make the UK position sound too clever. (A MWh is 1000 kilowatt/hours which cost you and me about £130 at present).

Anyone who is at all interested in understanding the way France is run (or is negotiating MWh with EDF) should download a copy of France’s Got Talent. Peter Gumbel has done a great service in making his insider’s view available to other English-speakers – the French version will hopefully be a timely contribution to debate among les citoyennes as well.

NOTES: As usual I have put French words in italics in my text; Gumbel doesn’t, so not in the quotations from his (but elite and corps are no longer French words, I think). A Kindle download is an awkward thing to use for any serious purpose, it seems to me, by comparison with hard copy. The locations are as a consequence approximate, but should take readers to the relevant passage.