31 October 2013

CASD, or not CASD

I have posted here from time to time about the UK’s programme to maintain its nuclear deterrent capability by replacing the current Trident submarines. These posts have mostly been about either the implications of a decision next year by Scotland to become independent and non-nuclear, or the consequences for the formation of a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition after 2015 of the two parties having differing views on the UK deterrent.


As far as the first of these is concerned, the current Scottish nationalist line was made less unclear by Alex Salmond when interviewed by Andrew Marr recently (The Marr Show, BBC1, October 20):
ANDREW MARR: What happens to the submarines at Faslane? Are they- do you order them to sail south and do you know where they would sail to? 
ALEX SALMOND: Well they should be safely removed. The time period for the removal once Scotland becomes independent - and after of course people have elected their first government in an independent Scotland - but if it were to be an SNP government, then we would ask the submarines to be removed from Scotland as soon as was safely possible. And the emphasis obviously on the safety because nobody would want to compromise that in any way. But of course a country has the right to say we don’t want to … possess nuclear weapons - either our own or anyone else’s.  
ANDREW MARR: When you talk to defence ministers in London, they say oh well we might have some kind of leaseback arrangement a bit like the base in Cyprus. That is for the birds as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it?  
ALEX SALMOND: Well yes it is for the birds. I think the Ministry of Defence actually briefed quite recently - I know they did - that they were going to annexe Faslane, but that particular ridiculous scare story just lasted overnight before Downing Street tried to … well did dismiss it. So you know I think the reality is that if Scotland becomes an independent country, if they choose the SNP to be the government, then we would want to see Scotland as a non-nuclear country. Part of the NATO Alliance certainly, part of the defence structures, cooperating on defence, but cooperating from the basis of being … a non-nuclear country.
Since any independent Scottish government would be elected in 2016, the removal would be “as soon as was safely possible” after this, presumably. The costs and practicalities of Trident relocation as a consequence were the subject of a post here most recently in July. I am not aware of anything particularly interesting having come up since.

The Liberal Democrats

The evolution of the Liberal Democrat position relevant to any Labour/Lib Dem coalition in 2015 has been more convoluted. The Lib Dems were for some time advocating a system other than Trident as being more appropriate for the UK. For example, in January Danny Alexander gave an exclusive interview to the Guardian which reported:
The Liberal Democrats demanded a review into alternatives to replacing Trident as part of the coalition agreement, and it was initially led by the then armed forces minister, Nick Harvey. When Harvey was moved from the MoD last September, Alexander took charge of the detailed study, which is due to be completed and published by June this year. In his first interview since taking charge of the review, Alexander said nothing he had seen or heard in the last four months had challenged his view that replacing the Trident fleet was unnecessary – and unnecessarily expensive. He said he doubted it would meet the UK's 21st-century defence requirements either, with experts estimating the whole-life costs of replacing Trident could exceed well over £100bn.
The Trident Alternatives Review was published on Tuesday 16 July. Two days earlier, the Independent on Sunday had run a story, Trident fleet may be cut to two submarines in new Lib Dem plan:
Britain’s fleet of four Trident submarines could be cut to two vessels under plans to be put to the Liberal Democrat conference this autumn. Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Chief Treasury Secretary, will set out the proposal on Tuesday after heading a review of the alternative options to the £25bn “like-for-like” successor to Trident fleet favoured by the Conservatives.  
… Mr Alexander has concluded there is no practical alternative to Trident, party sources told The Independent. But he will detail alternatives for downgrading it, making clear the leadership’s preference is for a two-submarine replacement.
However, on 16 July in a speech to the RUSI about the Trident Alternatives Review, Alexander indicated no such preference:
… We can adapt our nuclear deterrence to the threats in the 21st century by ending 24 hour patrols when we don't need them, and buying fewer submarines. … a replacement nuclear deterrent based on the current Trident system is the most cost-effective in the period we are considering.
[A] Four-boat successor operating continuous at sea deterrence [CASD} is not the only viable approach available to the UK. … The option of non-continuous deterrence does not threaten current security. And by changing postures we can reduce cost at the same time. For instance, ending CAS-D [sic] and procuring one less Successor submarine would make a savings of about £4 billion pounds over the life of the system.
The Trident Alternatives Review had concluded:
32. The analysis has shown that there are alternatives to Trident that would enable the UK to be capable of inflicting significant damage such that most potential adversaries around the world would be deterred. It also shows that there are alternative non-continuous postures (akin to how we operate conventional military assets) that could be adopted, including by SSBNs, which would aim to be at reduced readiness only when the UK assesses the threat of a no-notice pre-emptive attack to be low. None of these alternative systems and postures offers the same degree of resilience as the current posture of Continuous at Sea Deterrence, nor could they guarantee a prompt response in all circumstances. …
and the analysis of Postures had pointed out that:
3.36  Classified analysis about attempting to maintain continuous at sea deterrence with a 3-boat SSBN option showed that the risk of unplanned breaks relates directly to the number of submarines available for operational deployment, which in turn relates directly to the total number in the fleet. The modelling suggests that, over a 20 year period, a 3-boat fleet would risk multiple unplanned breaks in continuous covert patrolling as well as requiring regular planned breaks for maintenance and/or training. Experience to date with the Resolution-class and Vanguard-class SSBNs is that no such breaks have occurred or been required with a 4-boat fleet.
In a Commons debate on an unrelated defence topic later that day, the then shadow defence minister, Jim Murphy, took the opportunity to point out that:
… what we have learnt today is that the Lib Dem part of the Government has taken two years to review a policy and spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, only to conclude that the Lib Dems’ past policy was unachievable. Today they appear to have managed to advocate both a Trident-based system and part-time unilateralism simultaneously. That is a real achievement. The British people will marvel at the incompetence of suggesting that we should pay tens of billions of pounds to send boats to sea, while the media are now being briefed that on occasion they will not even carry missiles. That is like someone having a new, expensive burglar alarm at their home with no batteries and a sign above the door saying, “Come on in—no one’s at home”. (Hansard 16 July 2013 : Column 970)
The Commons debated the Trident Alternatives Review on 17 July, with Danny Alexander providing the Lib Dem interpretation of its conclusions. He told the Commons that:
… ending CASD and procuring one fewer successor submarine would make a saving of about £4 billion over the life of the system. (Hansard 17 July 2013 : Column 1225)
which would appear consistent with Chart 1 of the Review (below).

Kevan Jones spoke for Labour in place of Kevin Murphy and, in response to a question from a Conservative, Sir Edward Leigh, confirmed the Labour party’s commitment to CASD, but went on to state that:
If changes in technology make the nuclear submarines more reliable, meaning that we can go down to three, we will consider that. (Column 1227)
Parliament went into recess shortly after the debate. The next articulation of the Lib Dem view of the UK’s nuclear deterrent was in a paper for their Autumn Conference, Defending the Future UK Defence in the 21st Century, Policy Paper 112. This recommended adopting a “Contingency Posture” which among other things would:
• End CASD but exercise the submarine capability regularly to maintain relevant skills, including weapons handling and nuclear command and control.  
• Issue a declaratory policy of going to sea only with unarmed missiles and store a reduced stockpile of warheads at RNAD Coulport for redeployment within a specified timeframe. (6.3.6)
Of the four non-CASD postures identified in the Review: Focused, Sustained, Responsive, and Preserved, the last seems most similar to the Contingency Posture. The Conference passed the Defending the Future policy on 17 September.

On 7 October, Ed Miliband reshuffled the opposition front bench, and Jim Murphy’s move away from defence drew the attention of the commentariat. Gary Gibbon remarked on his Channel 4 News blog:
Ed Miliband is said to rue the decision to continue with continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) and four Trident submarines, and there’s bound to be suspicion that the removal of Jim Murphy from defence is part of a plan to move the party to a different place on this (even though the commitment to CASD was only signed up to this summer). In the past, Vernon Coaker, the new shadow defence secretary, has voted in favour of Trident renewal, but I wonder where he stands now and whether it came up in the chat in the leader’s office this afternoon.
Polly Toynbee was even sharper in the Guardian the next day:
Removals may say more than promotions. Jim Murphy, smoothly dangerous, evicted from defence, frees up that policy for changes he would have blocked. Suspected of serial disloyalty, turning this war tiger into a peace-loving pussycat at international development is condign punishment that raises a smile among colleagues.
But Dan Hodges in his Daily Telegraph blog knew better:
Vernon Coaker is determined to ensure that there's no backsliding on Trident renewal.
and on 16 October this News item appeared on the website of John Woodcock, Labour MP for Barrow and Furness:
THOUSANDS of submarine design and construction jobs in Barrow will be safe under an incoming Labour administration, the new shadow defence secretary Vernon Coaker MP said this afternoon (Wednesday). Mr Coaker gave the commitment to replace the Vanguard-class nuclear deterrent boats when accompanying John on a visit to BAE Systems' giant submarine-building complex in the town. Labour's pledge will also protect work carried out by supply-chain companies across the UK and maintain the nation's security.  
John said afterwards: "It's so important that the new shadow defence secretary chose Barrow over all the places in the UK to come first. He's been impressed by the capability he's seen today and the clear signal he's given is that Labour will continue with the programme that we started in government - to maintain the continuous at-sea deterrent by replacing the Vanguard submarines. That's absolutely right, but it's really good to hear it on his first outing.”  
Mr Coaker said: "The important thing is we're maintaining our commitment to an independent, nuclear deterrent. We believe that should be a continuous at-sea deterrent and the Main Gate decision for that will be made in 2016. The workers and management I've spoken to here today are reassured by that."  
Around 5,500 BAE Systems personnel are engaged in submarine design and construction at the Barrow yard with thousands more involved in supply-chain manufacturing and services throughout the UK.
So, in October 2013, about 18 months before the election, the Labour and Liberal Democrat positions on the deterrent are no longer differentiated by choices as to the most appropriate delivery system but by the appropriate “posture” for the Trident submarine force and hence the number of Successor submarines required. My view is that the current Lib Dem position can be regarded as quasi-unilateralist and intended to attract a particular left constituency which would otherwise vote Labour (or Green, or not at all). Labour’s position remains one of avoiding any hint of unilateralism, which the Tories would be certain to capitalise on, and also has an eye to the jobs at Barrow and in the supply chain referred to by John Woodcock. Whether Trident CASD would prove to be a “red line” if a Labour/Lib Dem coalition had to be formed remains to be seen, perhaps not until the possibility of one being unavoidable seems likely.

As a reward for anyone who has bothered to read this post to the end, left is Henry Moore’s Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy), now on display in Tate Britain. The University of Chicago commissioned Nuclear Energy and the full work was unveiled in 1965 by Moore and Enrico Fermi’s widow, Laura, on the site of the first man-made nuclear reaction . Moore, who was a CND supporter, said that he intended the upper part of the sculpture to resemble the mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion (Roger Berthoud’s The Life of Henry Moore, page 394).


It is probably worth recording the following exchange at PMQs on 20 November (Hansard Column 1229):

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): If he will rule out the removal of continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence for as long as he is in office. 
The Prime Minister: As I told my hon. Friend when he last asked about this issue, if we want a proper, functioning deterrent, we need to have the best. That means a permanent, at-sea, submarine-based posture, and that is what a Conservative-only Government after the next election will deliver. 
Dr Lewis: May I reassure my right hon. Friend that that excellent answer will remain on my website for as long as it takes for the pledge to be fulfilled? I notice that he used the words “Conservative-only Government”. Will he reassure the House that never again will Liberal Democrats be allowed to obstruct or delay the signing of the main gate contracts, and will he undertake to sign those contracts at the earliest possible opportunity? 
The Prime Minister: I would say a couple of things to my hon. Friend. First, investment in our nuclear deterrent has not ceased. Actually, we are taking all the necessary steps to make that main gate decision possible. Also, we have had the alternative study, which I do not think came up with a convincing answer. I have to say, however, that I do not feel that I would satisfy him even if I gave him a nuclear submarine to park off the coast of his New Forest constituency. [Laughter].

28 October 2013

The Oxford Incumbency

In the FT Weekend Magazine of 26/27 October, its editor, Simon Kuper, indulges in a trip down memory lane in the form of My return to Oxford, 25 years on, with the theme:
The Oxford I knew – shot through with sexual harassment, racism, dilettantism and sherry – has been replaced by something quite professional and money-conscious.
He tells his readers:
It wasn’t very hard to get into Oxford in my day, as almost all students – whether from private or state schools – were drawn from the small British upper and upper-middle class. Moreover, most were men.
Once you’d got in, little effort was expected. … Often an entire week’s workload consisted of writing one shortish essay (good preparation for being a columnist). Some of my essays were so shoddy that when I reread them before my final exams, I almost wrote to my old tutors to apologise. Many tutors didn’t care anyway. … A tutor in my college was known for exposing himself to some students, and trying to recruit others to the intelligence services. Another harassed so many female students that finally action was taken: he was banned from tutoring women one-on-one. Political correctness was not rampant then.
He justifies this remembrance of things past by pointing out that:
All this might seem like ancient history, except that many of today’s British politicians – David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Michael Gove, George Osborne – were Oxford contemporaries or near-contemporaries of mine.
(although not, apparently, Boris Johnson, subject of the cover story on the FT Weekend Magazine a month earlier – but see Note 4 below) despite the fact that:
Oxford had educated Thatcher (and most other recent British prime ministers) and yet it felt apolitical.
The table below supports the statistical element of this remark:

Some interesting points:
  • In 16 of the 18 general elections since 1945, the winning Prime Minister was educated at Oxford.
  • Of the 10 PMs elected since 1945, eight went to Oxford.  Of all 13 PMs since the war, nine went to Oxford. 
  • On only one occasion, 1951, did an Oxford-educated incumbent, Clement Attlee, lose to a non-Oxford person –the “Former Naval Person”, Winston Churchill. 
  • In only one election, 1992, had neither candidate been to Oxford. 
In 2015, it seems highly likely that two Oxford graduates will be in contention for the Prime Ministership: David Cameron as incumbent and Ed Miliband. This has been the case in eight elections since 1945, in six of which the incumbent remained in office (which would be 2015A). The two precedents for Miliband’s becoming PM (2015B) are Edward Heath displacing Harold Wilson in 1970 and Wilson displacing Alec Douglas-Hume in 1964. Miliband’s winning is not impossible, of course, but the second of these precedents is not particularly encouraging, Cameron being a far more credible incumbent than Douglas-Hume.

(1) Harold Macmillan did not graduate from Oxford, his studies having been interrupted by war service.
(2) Known as University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in Neil Kinnock’s time there.
(3) Cameron, a Conservative, has been leading a coalition since 2010.
(4) Osborne and Miliband graduated in 1992, Cameron and Gove in 1988 and Johnson in 1987; Kuper circa 1991.


If you found this post interesting, you might like:
Ages at the Audience
Top Politicians: Birth Order and Handedness

26 October 2013

What the Houellebecque?

Financial Times sub-editing is not what it was. This letter appeared today (26/7 October):

Mr Creese is right about the titles of the two books being the same (although the full title of Greenspan’s is The Map and the Territory: Risk, Human Nature and the Future of Forecasting). And the second only carries that title in translation, the original being La carte et le territoire. However its author was, of course, Michel Houellebecq – how could the FT have let that mistake through?

The similarity in the titles was picked up by Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times in an amusing piece, What does Alan Greenspan have in common with Michel Houellebecq? She concluded:
How did very different books by such different writers come to share a title? I think it comes from Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-American philosopher and founder of semantics -- in talking about the difference between a description of a thing and the experience of it, said, "a map is not the territory." Why did they both invert the phrase in the same way? Perhaps Greenspan has spent some of his time after retiring from the Fed reading edgy French literature.

21 October 2013

Mark Tobey at Thomas Williams

Leaving the George Grosz exhibition at Richard Nagy, I went into the Thomas Williams gallery in the same building to look at an exhibition of works by Mark Tobey (1890-1976). New York Abstract Expressionism, which dominated US painting from the mid-1940s through the 1960s, is not something which I’ve posted about (except, in passing, on Lichtenstein), or have much appreciation of. But the gallery’s catalogue, written by Thomas Williams and Hannah Tuck, proved to be extremely informative, pointing out that a poll of leading art critics in 1966:
… put Tobey as one of the six most important living artists, with Picasso, Miro, Ernst, Chagall and Bacon.
They describe Tobey’s contribution to Abstract Expressionism:
There is no doubt that when he returned to the U.S. at the end of the 1930s, Tobey was far ahead of his contemporaries. The ‘white writing’ that he had developed in England in 1935 was the first realisation of 'all-over' painting, which later became a central tenet of Abstract Expressionism, and whose most famous exemplar was Jackson Pollock. 
… lt was Tobey who provided for Pollock the final piece of artistic information that enabled him to complete his own journey towards ‘all-over’ Free Form or Abstract Expressionism. His paintings had none of Tobey's careful and quiet descent from calligraphy, and their execution was violent and brash by comparison. Pollock made the significant choice greatly to increase the scale of Tobey's images, so that they were no longer easel paintings - an entry requirement for avant-garde art in New York in the late 1940s. Nevertheless, the revolutionary core of Tobey's work, the dramatic break from artistic norms of figuration, perspective, space, form or even the composition of abstract shapes, and their replacement with paintings that had neither focal point nor boundary - that dazzling step into a territory that even Picasso and Matisse had not dared to enter - was Tobey's achievement and Tobey's gift to Pollock, de Kooning and others who followed in New York and elsewhere.

The exhibition includes an example of ‘white writing’, Untitled 1954 (above), and the pieces on show all seem to be from that period or later, but it was the account of his time in England in the 1930s which interested me, particularly given the nominal pre-occupation of this blog. During this period Tobey was based at Dartington Hall (Devon, SW England) having been invited by the Elmhirsts to join their arts centre:
Once at Dartington, he was given a splendid teaching studio in the gatehouse of the Hall and became acquainted with the other residents. These included Henry Moore, Cecil Collins, Bernard Leach, a pioneering ceramicist … 
… Tobey also made forays to London, a journey of considerable inconvenience, where he was introduced to two of the most advanced and considerable English artists at that time, Ben Nicholson and his lover, Barbara Hepworth. 
… ln 1934 three new and extraordinary pupils arrived at Dartington, Lucian, Clement and Stephan Freud, the grandsons of Sigmund Freud. For the next four years Tobey was thus able to engage with the early artistic development of Lucian. 
… As the decade came to a close at Dartington, Ben Nicholson introduced him to another expatriate refugee, Piet Mondrian. Mondrian had fled the turmoil in continental Europe in 1938 and moved into the house next door to his friend Nicholson in Hampstead, north London where they formed an extraordinary working relationship. But the friendship was hardly begun when, in the summer of 1938, Tobey made a trip to New York, and being unable to return to England as he had planned, was obliged to stay there. …
Mondrian left for the US in 1940. I posted here about the exhibition at the Courtauld last year on Nicholson and Mondrian in London, and exhibitions of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth have been the subjects of several other posts. In none of these contexts has Tobey’s name come up, as far as I am aware*, so the Thomas Williams show, which continues until 2 November, will hopefully be a first step in raising awareness of Tobey’s significance in British art between the wars.

*Roger Berthoud’s The Life of Henry Moore makes no reference to Tobey. Its only reference to Dartington is in the context of Memorial Figure, the subject of a post here earlier this year.


To my surprise, this post is still being read, so I thought it might be helpful to update it regarding Tobey’s time at Dartington, drawing on Michael Young’s The Elmhirsts of Dartington, published in 1996 by the Dartington Hall Trust. The most relevant passages are on pages 221 to 223. Young, who had been a pupil at the school, explains how Tobey was invited to Dartington in 1931 by Dorothy Elmhirst:
… Dorothy sent Mark an invitation without any specificity about what he was expected to do, and perhaps because it was so vague Mark accepted. He taught amateurs of all ages on the estate, including me. I remember sitting in his studio with other children from the school and adults from many different departments of the estate, looking very awkward, as though they had never held a brush in their hands before, but all intent on their drawing. Mark moved around continuously, making jokes and encouraging more by words than by demonstration. Everyone an artist - he at any rate believed it.
Young quotes a speech given by Tobey to a class in autumn 1931 and a description by the potter, Bernard Leach, of Tobey’s manner of teaching. Young also explains how:
Tobey discovered at Dartington the mode of painting - the 'white writing' - for which he later became world famous. It came upon him in the middle of one night in his studio above the entrance to the courtyard, with its skylight which opened on to the stars like an immensely wide-lens telescope. He was so excited he sent for his friends to come over, even at that hour. He began a long series of paintings made up of lines whitish in tone made up of brush strokes against a dark background. Leach arrived in Dartington from St Ives in Cornwall in 1932.
Young explains:
In the summer of 1932 [Leach] and Tobey left together, at the Elmhirsts’ expense, to spend a year in Japan with Japanese craftsmen. Tobey went to China as well. … The experience of Japan influenced both Leach and Tobey as artists and created a bond between them that lasted.
According to Young, the three Freud boys arrived at Dartington in 1933, Clement staying until 1936 (page 174). Young makes no mention of Henry Moore.

20 October 2013

Georg Grosz at Richard Nagy

George Grosz (or Groß, 1893‑1959) was first referred to here almost two years ago, and more recently I mentioned that some of his drawings are at Leicester. There seems to be only one of his paintings in a public collection in the UK, Selbstmörder (Suicide) 1916 owned by the Tate. Last year the Richard Nagy Ltd gallery showed the Silverman Collection of German and Austrian Expressionist art which included Grosz’s Tempo der Strasse (The Tempo of the Street, left). The Nagy gallery has included this picture in a new show of nearly 50 drawings, oils and watercolours, Georg Grosz’s Berlin: Prostitutes, Politicians, Profiteers, which, as they point out, is the first major exhibition in this country dedicated to Grosz since the Royal Academy’s retrospective in 1997.

The coarseness of Grosz’s work is not to everyone’s taste but his harsh satirical view of a ferocious crowded Berlin is a particular reflection of his times: German defeat in World War 1 and the exile of the Kaiser, hyperinflation, conflict between Communists and Nazis and the rise of Hitler. Most of the works are from 1918 to 1928, Grosz leaving Berlin for the US in 1932. He was a founder of Dada but his use of colour, often watercolour on a wetted surface, can be regarded as showing the influence of his Expressionist contemporaries, although he was undoubtedly familiar with Futurism and Cubism as well.

The Nagy exhibition (above) continues until 2 November, and worth seeing for anyone with an interest in inter-war European art.

18 October 2013

Norman Geras 1943 – 2013

I was very sorry to learn of the death of Norman Geras earlier today.

I first came across his normblog through John Rentoul who posted about Professor Geras on the Independent’s Eagle Eye this morning. Norman Geras was a far more sophisticated and knowledgeable blogger than I will ever be. I followed his posts with interest and learnt much.

I will add links to newspaper obituaries in due course, if they are not included in:

normfest   celebrating normblogging - a tribute to Norman Geras.

17 October 2013

David Hockney: Back in California

David Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, A Bigger Picture, was the fifth most popular exhibition in the world in 2012 and attracted more than 600,000 visitors. After moving to Bilbao and then Cologne, its total audience rose to 1.2 million. The post on this blog about that show is by far the most popular of over 300. So it’s highly likely that many more people would have been interested in an article in last week’s FT Weekend Magazine than are likely to be aware of it. To interview Hockney, Caroline Daniel, the editor of FT Weekend, travelled to Los Angeles and the Hollywood hills where he has returned to his studio after spending much of the time since 2004 in Bridlington on the coast of Yorkshire.

The article, Hockney Return to LA, is available on the Financial Times website and well worth reading. It includes some of his recent charcoal drawings and drawings of family members (below) and these can be seen in David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition (above left) at the de Young Museum from October 26, 2013 to January 20, 2014, together with material previously shown in A Bigger Picture.

11 October 2013

It nearly went pear-shaped* with ACP (well not really)

As Hitler and Napoleon had to learn the hard way, the Channel is wider than it seems and can be a difficult piece of water to straddle, even for those without warlike intent. Take for instance Raymond Blanc, one of TV’s favourite chefs and founder of the celebrated Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons hotel and restaurant in Oxfordshire. Blanc, awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire in 2008, is far better known in the UK than in his native France. Comparing the dedicated Amazon.co.uk Blanc webpage with his very limited appearance on Amazon.fr (Cuisinier Britannique!) suggests that his profiteroles are not honoured in his own country.

Another cross-Channel presence is Agnès Poirier, often called on by BBC radio as a cultural commentator (“someone whose job it is to decipher the British in all their idiosyncrasies and glory”, as she put it recently in the Guardian) who can explain the more puzzling aspects of France to les rosbifs. She is also a columnist in the same vein for The Times as well as the Guardian, and attempts to explain the British to the French readers of Marianne. She’s certainly needed here, given the current British lack of enthusiasm for things European except German cars, and one can only hope that she proves the exception and becomes more prominent in Paris too. In France intellectuals who become household names are known by three letter abbreviations – eg BHL – so from here on, and in anticipation, she will be ACP, her middle name being Catherine.

The brochure for this year’s The Times Cheltenham Literarature Festival included the above session on the Académie Française, programmed by ACP who was one of the Guest Directors this year. She was joined in conversation by Professor Michael Edwards, the first Englishman to become one of the forty members of the Académie and thereby attain the status of immortel, at least for the rest of his life, and Christopher Hampton, the writer and translator whose list of glittering prizes started with a starred first in French and German at Oxford and moved on to an Oscar. ACP seemed rather more in awe of Edwards than Hampton. Since both men are a few decades older than her, I put this down not to the Professor’s age but to the status of the Académie in French eyes, as opposed to the Academy.

For me, and perhaps some others in the audience, Francophilia proved a poor substitute for familiarity with French literature, and some surely insightful remarks from the panel about Racine and Molière alas went over my head. However, Professor Edwards, possibly familiar with the faltering attention displayed at times by weaker students, made some more accessible points about the origins of the French and English languages and the kinds of differences which have resulted - I now know that the French have a word for promiscuity but not for promiscuous! He will be joining the Académie’s Dictionary Commission during their work on letter R. Listening to Christopher Hampton made one realise just how difficult a translator’s job can be.

Clever woman though she is, ACP was possibly taking a bit of a risk in bringing together two intellos of the stature of Edwards and Hampton, but the conversation seemed to run well and the hour went all too quickly.

*To say the session nearly went “pear-shaped” (a UK English expression meaning “wrong”, ie not truly spherical or circular) was just an excuse for an awful pun, poire being French for pear, poirier for pear tree. ACP, I hasten to add, is not at all pear-shaped, being slim even by French standards.

8 October 2013

Bacon and Moore at the Ashmolean

Francis Bacon Henry Moore: Flesh and Bone currently at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is probably the most ambitious show there since the completion in 2009 of major redevelopment. It is also the first major exhibition bringing together works by Moore (1898-1986) and Bacon (1909-1992) since the artists’ deaths. In retrospect it is becoming more apparent that the art of both men in part embodies their responses to the horrors of the first half of the last century, - two World Wars, the Spanish civil war, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings of Japan, the start of the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

The exhibition offers a sequence of skilful juxtapositions (eg below) which bring out the sculptural quality of Bacon’s figures. The catalogue quotes Myfanwy Piper’s reaction to a Moore/Bacon exhibition in 1963:
… Moore ‘never forgets the solidity of flesh upon the bone, the strength of the bone beneath the flesh’ while Bacon ‘never forgets that flesh is meat’. (page 18)

What opinions the two men had of each other’s work is not something the exhibition sets out to address, but Richard Calvocoressi (Director of The Henry Moore Foundation) in his catalogue essay relates the following intriguing incident:
The two artists were not close, had little in common in their personal lives, and took a very different view of honours, awards and official appointments. Moore, the articulate and persuasive spokesman for sculpture as a public art, believed the artist had a responsibility to society; Bacon did not. Bacon was never very complimentary about Moore's work, dismissing his shelter drawings and making other pointed remarks in private. In spite of this gulf between them, Maurice Ash, a friend of Moore's, recounted to the artist's biographer an incident in the 1950s when dinner at the Moores in Hertfordshire was delayed by over an hour while Moore spoke in private to 'a very agitated Bacon' who had turned up unexpectedly.' Francis Warner, who knew both artists, recalls Bacon asking him in the early 1970s if he could take sculpture lessons from Moore. Assuming it was serious - and this was certainly a time when Bacon was thinking deeply about making sculpture - nothing came of the proposal. (page 16)
There are 20 paintings by Bacon (some from rarely seen private collections) alongside 20 sculptures and 20 drawings by Moore. My preference is to see Moore’s larger works out-of-doors, (eg at Dartington), but it is not unusual to encounter them in galleries, for example at Tate Britain in 2010 and at the Gagosian Gallery in 2012. Three Upright Motives in close proximity rather than in the open (No2, left at Kew in 2009) may seem slightly intimidating to some visitors. However, in a few months, and not far away, Moore Rodin will be opening at Compton Verney partly in the grounds. In the meantime, anyone with an interest in either artist should visit the Ashmolean before 19 January 2014. The exhibition will appear in modified form at the Art Gallery of Ontario, an institution to which Moore made a sizable donation of his work.

5 October 2013

Woody Allen’s ‘Blue Jasmine’

After nearly three years, this is the 300th post on this blog, which is a surprise to me if no-one else!

Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, unlike To Rome with Love (2012) and Midnight in Paris (2011), is set in the US, and not only differs in locale but also in its tragi-comic tone from these and his other recent films. If Blue Jasmine has anything in common with earlier works, it might be with Interiors (1978) and Shadows and Fog (1991). These tend to be regarded as homages, the first to Bergman and the second to German Expressionist cinema, particularly that of Fritz Lang. Blue Jasmine also has its obvious roots: Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire.

In Williams’ play, Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans to tell her sister, Stella, that the family has lost its old Southern plantation money. Blanche takes a dislike to Stella's husband, Polish-American Stanley Kowalski, “Oh, I guess he’s just not the type that goes for jasmine perfume”. In turn, Stanley discovers Blanche's unsavoury past and finally has her committed to a mental institution.

In Allen’s film, Jasmine Francis, who has been living grandly in Manhattan, arrives in Los Angeles to stay with her adopted sister, Ginger. Jasmine’s husband has committed a Madoff-sized embezzlement, one of his many victims being Augie, Ginger’s Polish-American husband at the time. Ginger, now divorced, is dating Chili, who Jasmine doesn’t have much time for, thinking Ginger could do better. Both women eventually find that it’s unwise to depend on “the kindness of strangers".

Cate Blanchett (who played Blanche DuBois in Australia in 2009) is riveting as Jasmine, and her performance towers over those of the rest of the cast. In Allen’s films set in England he has displayed a tin ear for the British class system, with some unconvincing casting. Whether his portrayal of Americans as far removed from preppy Manhattanites as Chili and his working class friends is any more accurate, I can’t tell. Allen makes extensive use, almost overuse, of flashbacks and, very appropriately in this case, the soundtracks include New Orleans jazz standards by Armstrong and Oliver. I’m not sure the film is worth some of the reviews it’s been getting, probably because of Blanchett’s performance which is already being talked of in Oscar terms. Reviving the ‘anticipointment index’, I’ll give it 4 - less impressive than anticipated.

Allen's next film is underway, set in the South of France and with a cast including Colin Firth.  Entre deux guerres, peut-être?

1 October 2013

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

When I last visited the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, it wasn’t “Old” – but it wasn't so long ago that it was the Royal Hospital for Seamen. A family wedding last month in the Chapel of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (left) was good reason to return and provided an opportunity to see both the Chapel and the Painted Hall again. The tiled floor of the Chapel represents ships’ cables (below) and the painting behind the altar is Benjamin West’s Shipwreck of St Paul, c1785 .
The Chapel was rebuilt after a fire in 1779 in an austere neoclassical style whereas the baroque Painted Hall from 80 years earlier remains much as Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor intended. The impressive painted interior (1708-1727) is by Sir James Thornhill and assistants and embodies British maritime supremacy in the form of the Royal Navy ensuring the triumph of peace and liberty over the forces of tyranny (below).

The problem with eating in the Painted Hall is that, however good the catering, it’s impossible for the food to match the splendour of the surroundings. The group of buildings at Greenwich, now being better looked after by the Foundation than for years, is probably, in its setting, the finest in London. Admission to the Chapel and Painted Hall is free and there is much else to see nearby – the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site ought to be a must for visitors to London.