26 April 2014

Tony Blair’s Bloomberg Speech

On 23 April Tony Blair gave a speech, Why the Middle East Matters, at Bloomberg HQ, London. It was widely reported and its essence can be found in these extracts:
What is presently happening [in the Middle East], still represents the biggest threat to global security of the early 21st C. The region, including the wider area outside its conventional boundary – Pakistan, Afghanistan to the east and North Africa to the west – is in turmoil with no end in sight to the upheaval and any number of potential outcomes from the mildly optimistic to catastrophe.
At the root of the crisis lies a radicalised and politicised view of Islam, an ideology that distorts and warps Islam’s true message. … When we consider the defining challenges of our time, surely [religious extremism] should be up there along with the challenge of the environment or economic instability.
On this issue also, there is a complete identity of interest between East and West. China and Russia have exactly the same desire to defeat this ideology as do the USA and Europe.
But earlier, the first of his “four reasons why the Middle East remains of central importance and cannot be relegated to the second order” was that:
First and most obviously, it is still where a large part of the world’s energy supplies are generated, and whatever the long term implications of the USA energy revolution, the world’s dependence on the Middle East is not going to disappear any time soon. In any event, it has a determining effect on the price of oil; and thus on the stability and working of the global economy.
Because Russia has a major dependency on the price of oil remaining near current levels and would no doubt prefer it to be higher, is there really a “complete identity of interest”?

20 April 2014

The Pearlman Collection at the Ashmolean

Exhibitions based on collections provide a fascination which can’t be found in shows given over to individual artists or to particular periods in art history. I think it lies in the way the collector (or collectors) exercised their taste given the opportunities and resources which were available. Gertrude Stein and her brothers, for example, were wealthy and were collecting contemporary talent in the right place and time, Paris in the 1920s. Sterling and Francine Clark had been in a similar position a decade earlier. The Radev Collection, on the other hand, reflects its creators’ tastes and long-term opportunities to make acquisitions rather than their funds. So what of Henry and Rose Pearlman’s collection, now on an international tour starting at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of Modern Art from the Pearlman Collection?

Henry Pearlman was born in New York in 1895 and set up Eastern Cold Storage in 1919. One can well believe that his company would have done well in the war years and certainly in 1945 he was able to make his first significant purchase of modern art, Chaïm Soutine’s Village Square, Céret (above, top). For nearly 30 years he went on building up his collection, most of which is now at the Ashmolean. The show starts with a large number of late Cézannes, mostly watercolours (not often displayed, no doubt for reasons of conservation), eg Three Pears, (Trois Poires, 1888-90 above lower), from the painter’s later years in Aix en Provence. These lead on to the next room’s Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir (Citerne au Parc du Château Noir, c 1900, below in Pearlman’s office) and one of the versions of Montagne Sainte-Victoire (c 1902, poster above), much-painted by the artist.

Nearby are Vincent van Gogh’s Tarascon Stage Coach (Tarascon Diligence, 1888, again below in Pearlman’s office) and less satisfactory works by Gauguin, Degas (After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself /Après le bain, femme s'essuyant, 1892, above left) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Messaline, 1901, above right). I found the latter interesting because it was inspired by a visit to the opera in Bordeaux shortly before the painter’s death at Chateau Malromé. Earlier and more pleasing, if undemanding, works are Sisley’s Seine at Verneuil (La Seine à Verneuil, 1889, below, left) and Camille Pissaro’s Still Life: Apples and Pears in a Round Basket (Nature Morte: Pommes et Poires Dans un Panier Rond, 1872, below, right).

Finally, there are more works by Soutine, and two oils and a sculpture by Modigliani. Pearlman discovered after purchase that the small Daumier oil shown nearby, Head of an Old Woman (Tête de Vieille Femme, 1856-60, left), was one of the first purchases made by Leo and Gertrude Stein. It is a pity that Pearlman hadn’t started his collection a decade or two earlier when the opportunities for acquisitions of works by the painters he liked might have been greater (the absence of any cubist work is intriguing when Cézanne is often regarded as their precursor). He displayed what he considered to be his major pieces in his office at Eastern Cold Storage: the van Gogh, its acquisition surely being his apogee as a collector, Modigliani’s Jean Cocteau 1919-17, and Cézanne’s Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, (below).

Cézanne and the Modern provides a welcome opportunity in the UK to see works by Soutine and Modigliani as well as some fine Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. The Pearlman website contains some interesting background information including Henry’s reminiscences, eg:
I found art dealers at first quite difficult to understand with regard to pricing works of art. Being accustomed to a business where selling price is based on cost plus small overhead and ten percent profit, I found that art dealers' prices in most cases bore little relationship to their costs, but were based on what the traffic could bear. I know of a pair of Douanier Rousseau portraits, for example, that were purchased at an auction in the Midi of France for about twenty dollars, repurchased by my French dealer friend for under $600, then sold to one of the New York galleries for $12,000; when I saw them exhibited here and asked the price I was advised that they could be bought for $30,000. Not being interested in owning these Rousseaus, I was amused by the gyrations of the prices. The last price I saw them offered for was $150,000 for the pair.
The show continues at the Ashmolean until 22 June and will be at Le Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence from 12 July to 5 October. After showings in Atlanta and Vancouver it will return to the Princeton University Art Museum, where the Pearlman collection is on long-term loan, in 2015.

14 April 2014

Could Paddington leave the train?

It seems that the UK debate as to whether to leave the EU, a possibility known as Brexit, pauses only for moments to be thankful that we didn’t join the euro. The latest and somewhat surreal development is that the Institute of Economic Affairs has awarded its Brexit Prize of 100,000 euros (!) to a 30-year old Foreign Office employee, Iain Mansfield, for his outline “blueprint for Britain after the EU”. According to a piece in The Times Diary (TMS) (£) on 11 April, Our Man in Coventry*, William Hague is “said to be furious” about the award and Mansfield has “seemingly since been silenced”, deleting his Twitter account and personal website.

This personal website has in the past touched on the possibility of France leaving the eurozone. For example, last year I posted about an article by Philippe Villin in Le Figaro Magazine which was a spoof of the speech which François Hollande would give when the time came. And back in 2011, I commented on the way that some till receipts in France still show the price that would have been paid in francs. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether the UK debate is being framed in the wrong way. At the end of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, George, a Professor of Moral Philosophy, observes that “… all the observable phenomena associated with the train leaving Paddington could equally well be accounted for by Paddington leaving the train …”. Or, in this case and putting it another way, rather than Britain leaving the EU, what if the EU were to leave the euro?

This is the suggestion being made by François Heisbourg, an énarque like Villin, but writing much more seriously in the current issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, the journal of the IISS (Heisbourg is Chairman of the IISS Council). Last year his book, La Fin du rêve européen (The end of the European dream) was published in France, but so far it has only been translated into Greek! We can probably assume that his article, The EU Without the Euro, conveys the essence of his ideas.

Put crudely, Heisbourg believes that however unpleasant the abandonment of the euro might be, the alternatives are worse:
There would be no need to contemplate an economically risky, technically tricky and politically backward-looking option such as the orderly dismantling of the euro if more promising policies were at hand.
He rules out the creation of fully federal Europe capable of underpinning the euro as politically impossible. On the other hand:
… the actual set of policies currently followed, sometimes described as 'muddling through', [would be] more aptly called 'muddling down' in terms of its effects on growth and mass unemployment.
What he wants to avoid is a disorderly break-up of the euro, better “a deliberate and orderly unravelling of the euro in the framework of a preserved European Union”. His comments on the current situation are interesting:
… there are now two eurozones. One, composed of Germany, Finland and Austria enjoys limited unemployment … an early retum to pre-crisis levels of GDP … and great impatience with efforts by less fortunate states to transfer their liabilities to the EU level. The other eurozone has yet to recover to pre-crisis levels, with mass unemployment and long-term joblessness creating a 'lost generation', and unbelievably patient electorates who have not at the time of writing, voted in latter-day fascists or Bolsheviks. France falls squarely in between these two blocs. In short, muddling down does not look good.
Post-euro, Heisbourg would prefer a return to the European Monetary System with each country having its own currency and aspiring to stable exchange rates, to the alternatives of sub-euro common currencies:
Some have gone further by suggesting, facetiously or in earnest, the creation of a northern euro - a 'neuro' or, worse 'Bis-mark' - eventually balanced by a southern euro, or 'sudo' (as in pseudo'). It is not clear why countries that would have dismantled the euro to recover a degree of monetary autonomy would want to jump into another straitjacket.
Heisbourg sees the challenges in a “return to national currencies [which] would be universally considered a humbling setback” as being political rather than technical. He identifies precedents which support its feasibility and observes that disagreements with the suggestion he first made in La Fin du rêve européen were not mainly based on its technical difficulties. However political support from both Germany and France would be a necessity in his view. Making the best of the consequences of having to walk back from the euro (he quotes Churchill on Dunkirk – ‘wars are not won by evacuations’), he suggests that “the fact of being seen as acting decisively and competently will redound, Dunkirk-style, to the EU’s credit”.

On the subject of the UK, and pertinent to Paddington and the train, Heisbourg thinks that:
This could also be a Union in which traditional British euroscepticism would have fewer reasons to develop into full-blown, exit-prone europhobia. … Although there can be no guarantee that an EU without the euro would eliminate the risk, the probability of a British exit is much higher in all other scenarios. … an EU of which the UK is a member and whose long-term status is no longer in question would be strategically stabilising, not least as a war-shy, balancing-to-Asia United States adopts a more instrumental, tough-love attitude towards NATO and its European neighbours.
He goes on to make some interesting observations about the circumstances of individual nations in the immediate post-euro phase, and regards France as possibly being the most acutely affected in the short term. He concludes by calling for more research and debate, at which point earlier passages in his article are worth revisiting:
… upstream debate could in its academic stages be broad-ranging and systematic, with a view to assessing the most promising political avenues; political decision-making could be careful and deliberate, albeit under the conditions of secrecy called for in monetary affairs; and implementation would have to be sudden and comprehensive.
In order to be successful, the demonetisation of the euro and the recreation of national currencies has to occur during the compressed time frame of a longer-than-usual bank holiday, initially with a very small group of institutional actors (no more than the heads of a couple of states and the Chairman of the ECB), before the circle is broadened after the basic decision to unravel the euro has been taken.
Heisbourg’s closing words are that “the preservation of the EU must be [the] primary objective, to which the positive or negative fate of the euro must be subordinated”. Opinions, many much better-informed than mine, will differ about the practicability of adopting his proposal, but I imagine that most would accept his point that a successful implementation would be to the EU’s credit.

*Our Man in ... + Send to Coventry

Happy Birthday, Mr Lehrer

Today is Tom Lehrer’s 85th birthday. In view of recent developments in the Korean peninsula two of his songs in particular seem appropriate. Currently there are rumours of a fourth nuclear test being carried out by the North Koreans before long, so first, We Will All Go Together When We Go:

And also a missile launch, helped by who knows who, may be on the cards for Kim Il-sung’s birthday on 15 April, so second, Wernher von Braun:

And finally, my STEM favourite, The Elements:

which ends:

… There's sulfur, californium, and fermium, berkelium,
And also mendelevium, einsteinium, nobelium,
And argon, krypton, neon, radon, xenon, zinc, and rhodium,
And chlorine, carbon, cobalt, copper, tungsten, tin, and sodium.

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Ha'vard,
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discavard.

In 1959 Lehrer included 102 chemical elements in his song, since when numbers 103 to 118 have been identified, though not all have been finally named. Sadly there is little chance of any new element ever being named Lehrerium.

On 6 April BBC Radio 4 broadcast Tom Lehrer at 85, made for them by Pacificus and available on iPlayer until 13 April.

UPDATE 14 April 2014

A year later and Mr Lehrer is 86 - congratulations!  To mark his birthday, an article, Looking For Tom Lehrer, Comedy’s Mysterious Genius, was published on BuzzFeed by Ben Smith - definitely worth reading.

North Korea is just as problematic as it was a year ago.

5 April 2014

South East Sicily

Apart from a post about the Ile de Ré last summer, this blog doesn’t attempt tourism or travel. However there was some interest in that one, so here’s another, this time about South East Sicily. There is so much information readily available about Sicily that I can’t add much here that’s going to be helpful. I was intrigued to discover that the regions of Sicily and South West England are similar in size and population (25,711km2 and 5,043,000 population/ 23,828km2 and 5,289,000, respectively), if not much else, including the absence here of active volcanoes, thankfully. 

The history of Sicily is long and complex, stretching back to antiquity and its colonisation by the Greeks around 750BC. The theatre at Siracusa (below, top) and the temples at Agrigento (below, lower) are Greek in origin:

The statue in front of the Temple of Concordia is Igor Miteraj’s
Ikaro Caduto (Fallen Icarus), 2011
but were altered by the Romans who added Sicily to their republic after 242BC. The Casale Roman villa near Piazza Armerina still contains the “finest mosaics in situ anywhere in the Roman world” (UNESCO) from around 400AD:

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Sicily frequently changed hands, and during the early Middle Ages it was ruled in turn by the Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans. More than one of these occupying influences can become apparent in the same building. For example, the side of the Duomo (below left) in Ortigia (now part of Siracusa) reveals Doric columns from the Greek temple of Athena and its later use as a mosque:

However, the most significant influence on the architecture of South East Sicily was the powerful earthquake of 1693. At that time Sicily was under Spanish rule but power and resources were controlled by the Sicilian aristocracy and the church. Numerous buildings across the region, including churches and the town houses of the nobility, were reconstructed in the fashionable late Baroque style – eg the front elevation of the Ortigia Duomo (above right).

Probably the largest concentration of Sicilian Baroque is at Noto (Cathedral, above, top) and it can be found in in Scicli (interior of Chiesa di Santa Teresa, above, lower) and elsewhere. The exuberance of Sicilian Baroque makes its English contemporaries (eg the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich and Chatsworth) seem constrained. Nonetheless, the major academic work on Sicilian Baroque is in English published in 1968 and written by Anthony Blunt (last mentioned here in quite another context). The book’s cover shows the Cathedral of San Giorgio in Ragusa Ibla, a difficult building to photograph because of its railings and the palm trees nearby (below):

In 2002, Ragusa, Noto, Scicli and five other towns in SW Sicily were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as "representing the culmination and final flowering of Baroque art in Europe" and grouped as the Late Baroque Towns of the Val di Noto. The Valle dei Templi at Agregento, Villa Romana del Casale and Siracusa/Ortigia also appear on their list, as well as Mount Etna. The restoration of the historic sites has been financed by the EU funding for projects in Sicily, €8.5 billion from 2000 to 2007, with an exceptional degree of success. As La Stampa tartly observed:
Needless to say, the money was not used to lay a single brick of such great works – waterfronts, motorways, marinas – as those that have face-lifted countries like Spain and Portugal. With the notable exception of the island’s museums and historical monuments, which have in fact been renovated.
And there is much still requiring attention, eg the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Ragusa, below, left. Restoration of a different kind is that of Caravaggio’s The Burial of St Lucy (below, right), painted in 1608 and currently on display in Chiesa Santa Lucia alla Badia in the Piazza Duomo in Ortigia.

Visitors to Siracusa can hardly fail to notice a large modern conical building rising above the otherwise rectangular townscape (eg in the view of the Greek theatre above). This is the Santuario della Madonna delle Lacrime (Shrine of Our Lady of Tears), celebrating a local miracle of 1953. The event and the religious significance of the Shrine are discussed on its website. It intrigued me as a large and anomalous piece of 20th century architecture, and there seems to be little about it in guidebooks.

Although the Shrine was completed as recently as 1996, it was designed in 1957 and construction took nearly 30 years. The architects, Michel Andrault and Pierre Parat, were French and their agency, ANPAR, was active from 1957 to 1995. Their last works seem to have been in a rather different style from the Shrine - some of the towers at La Défense in Paris. In February 2014, Jonathan Meades made two programmes for BBC4, Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, in which he made the case for for 20th-century concrete Brutalist architecture, “tracing its precursors to the once-hated Victorian edifices described as Modern Gothic and before that to the unapologetic baroque visions created by John Vanbrugh, as well as the martial architecture of World War II”. I suspect that the Shrine is more Expressionist than Brutalist but there is certainly evidence of béton brut (the imprint of the wooden formwork into which concrete is poured), a technique pioneered in France by Auguste Perret, who for a time, was Le Corbusier’s employer. The architectural interpretations of the Shrine seem to include a lighthouse, a tent, tears and “the elevation of humanity towards God”. I couldn’t help noticing that from the south of the Shrine on a clear day the shape of Etna is unmistakeable, although 80km to the north.

Trying to be helpful: the weather in late March seems similar to that in southern England on a good day in late May, sunny, but not hot or rainy, almost ideal for sightseeing, although continuous sunshine is not guaranteed. In full summer and when crowded, visiting, for example, the Roman Villa (essentially sheds with walkways to look down on the magnificent floors) could be trying. The state of the roads and the topography means that journeys in Sicily seem to take longer than maps might suggest and could be expected to take even longer in summer traffic. But, as Martin Amis attributes to his father: “Italy, nice people, nice food”. Buona fortuna!

2 April 2014

Lost in translation

The Dutchman (@Kobusnl on Twitter) who produces the blog Naval Open Source INTelligence does a grand job, so my eyes opened wide when I saw this today:

and then quickly closed again when I remembered that it was the day after 1 April when the source had appeared:

The Sunderland Echo’s text reads:
SUNDERLAND will be the new home of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet if Scotland breaks away from the UK later this year.
The Scots will go to the polls in September to vote on whether to end the 1706 Treaty of Union, which created the United Kingdom and saw King James VI of Scotland also become King James I of England. Under the terms of the vote, Scotland will inherit the barracks, air bases and naval bases on its territory, including Faslane, where the UK submarine fleet is based. However, the British Government will retain control of the submarines themselves, which will be left homeless. Now, the Royal Navy has confirmed the vessels will have a new home on Wearside – and they could be here as early as September 19, the day after the vote. 
“Obviously, we can’t allow our nuclear submarines to fall into the hands of what would, effectively, be a foreign power,” said Rear Admiral Hugh De Fink-Higham. “But Uranium is, like, really expensive, so we don’t want to use it all up sending them to Portsmouth. “On ballot day, all subs will be at sea, ready to sail where required. “In the event of a ‘yes’ vote, all Scottish sailors will be marooned in a dinghy off Berwick.” 
Creating a new home for the four submarines will take several years, and in the meantime, they will be tied up at the marina, in the care of Sunderland Marine Activities Centre. Defence spending cuts have forced navy bosses to come up with an innovative deal to pay for the space. “We will have use of one submarine each weekend until the new Port of Sunderland facilities are ready in 2023,” said the centre’s Mia Nayams-Fayk. “We’ve had to buy an extra padlock for the Trident launch controls and promise not to toss the fuel rods overboard until we reach Hartlepool.” 
Order 01/04-14, confirming the deal, is due to come into effect today.
Not bad as these things go. According to Wikipedia, April Fool’s Day is celebrated in Denmark and Sweden as in the UK, but not the Netherlands presumably.