26 November 2014

Israel Horovitz’s ‘My Old Lady’

Like The Ides of March and August: Osage County, My Old Lady was originally written for the US stage. Israel Horovitz turned his script into a screenplay and then directed this film of the same name. Although shot in Paris by a largely French crew (judging from the credits), the film is an Anglo-American production with New York post-production.

The plot is straightforward enough. Mathias (Kevin Kline), impecunious after three divorces, travels to the Marais in central Paris where he has inherited an apartment from his father. He finds it occupied by 90 year-old, Mathilde (Maggie Smith) who, with the support of her c√©libataire daughter, Chlo√© (Kristin Scott Thomas), intends to stay put. The apartment was sold to Mathias’ father en viager, that is to say by a sale which gives the vendor tenancy for life and an annuity from the purchaser. Mathias’ original intention of selling the apartment for millions of euros looks shaky from the start and then some dark and complex family secrets begin to be revealed.

The three leads are all top class and Scott Thomas is able to drop frumpy, for which she is inherently unsuited, fairly early on. If you know the Marais, you will recognise and enjoy the setting, while the schmaltziness common in American films in Paris, France is mostly avoided (apart from the Mozart duet by the Seine, sans blague!).  Although the appeal of My Old Lady to under-45s might be limited, it doesn’t deserve to be categorised as cinema geriatrica in the vein of Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.


10 November 2014

An informal Labour / Lib Dem pact?

The by-election for the post of Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in South Yorkshire took place on 30 October and the results received little attention in the media which have been more interested in UKIP’s progress in the two parliamentary by-elections in Clacton and Rochester & Strood. A typical report noted that Labour had won with a small majority on a low turnout. However, it’s worth looking at the results in a little more detail and comparing what happened this year with the results of the first PCC election in South Yorkshire in 2012:

Several things stand out:

  • The turnout was actually higher in 2014 than in 2012 by 2,800* votes. 
  • The Labour vote was only 500* votes down on 2012. 
  • There was no Liberal Democrat candidate in 2014 but in 2012 there had been 10,000* Lib Dem votes. By that time the 2010 general election Lib Dem surge (“Cleggmania”) was in the distant past so these were probably long-term Lib Dem supporters. 
  • The English Democrats, a right-wing party of no national significance but big in South Yorkshire, lost 14,500* votes, the Conservatives lost 2,500* votes from 2012 levels. 
  • UKIP increased its votes by about 30,000*. 

But it’s not obvious what was happening underneath. Probably some erstwhile English Democrats and Conservatives moved to UKIP and the slight increase in the turnout was mostly to their benefit as well - about 20,000* votes in all. Where did the other 10,000* come from? At a guess, many came from Labour but their departure was compensated for on this occasion by the arrival of former Lib Dems.

Which raises an interesting question – what would have happened if there had been a Lib Dem PCC candidate? As a guess, something like this, which assumes (middle column) that 5,000 votes go back to the Lib Dems from Labour and 2,500 from both the Conservatives and UKIP. The numbers don’t matter too much because the key point is that almost certainly Labour would not have had more than 50% of the vote in the first round:

In these circumstances the second vote system used for PCC elections would have come into effect. Where the first preference vote had been for Conservative, Lib Dem or English Democrat and the second preference was for Labour or UKIP (with the two largest vote shares), the votes would be transferred. 

There would then have been a second count of the Labour and UKIP votes. A similar argument to that above can be used to estimate what might have happened, assuming that all the voters had expressed second preferences, which they almost certainly didn’t**. It is worth considering what might have been the best case for UKIP. They might have picked up all the Conservative and all the English Democrat votes as second preferences. If they had also acquired all the Lib Dem second votes they would have won, but more probably, as above, at least 50% of the Lib Dems would probably have gone to Labour and 2,500* might have been ‘wasted’ on the Conservatives or not expressed any second preference at all. Even if 2,500* Lib Dems had voted UKIP as second choice, the second round would have given Labour its majority. It’s therefore not surprising that in the real ballot UKIP, even when the Labour first round margin over 50% was wafer-thin, didn’t ask for a recount.

But the margin of 29 wouldn’t have existed if there had been a Lib Dem candidate in the first round. I have no idea why this was the case, but, if nothing else, this PCC by-election offers an insight into how useful an informal Labour Lib Dem pact could be in normal parliamentary elections, even though these are “first-past-the–post”. If the Lib Dems were to soft-pedal their campaigning in Northern constituencies and concentrate their resources on holding onto their existing seats, particularly in SW England where, if Labour were to do the same in return, there would almost certainly be benefits to both. It would reduce UKIP’s impact on Labour in the North and the Conservative threat to the Lib Dems in the South West.

* Rounded figures.

** For example, in the 2012 Avon & Somerset PCC election second round, only 56% of the votes cast for the eliminated candidates indicated a second preference for one or other of the two candidates remaining.

8 November 2014

Damian McBride’s 'standard tactic'

A post here last month, Supermac’s old trick, recorded a self-deprecatory anecdote by Peregrine Worsthorne which was a reminder of how the world works. In similar vein, this comes from an article by Damian McBride in the Mail on Sunday on 2 November about Jim Murphy, one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour party in Scotland:
Sometimes in politics, we unfairly project our own cynicism on to others. When Murphy travelled to the Philippines last December to see the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan with my old employers, the aid agency Cafod, the staff he met spoke glowingly about how he’d helped the relief work. I smiled cynically that the pictures of him mucking in must look great. ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there weren’t any cameras.’ 
My first encounter with Murphy was equally illuminating. When I was Gordon Brown’s media adviser in September 2008, I approached Murphy at a dinner, warned him there was a rumour that he was planning to resign, and he should get out and deny it. It was a standard tactic to intimidate a potentially wobbly minister by making them think we had eyes everywhere. He looked at me with a contemptuous smile and snorted: ‘Away and eat your chicken, you.’

6 November 2014

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

A minor milestone – this is the 400th post on this blog which began just over four years ago.

Posts here earlier this year have touched on baroque architecture, in particular one on South East Sicily. The more restrained exteriors of English baroque buildings have in the past provided the background to posts concerning Chatsworth and Greenwich Old Royal Naval College. But the most famous example of English baroque is Vanbrugh’s Blenheim Palace, constructed in the early 18th century by a grateful nation for the 1st Duke of Marlborough and now a World Heritage Site. My long-standing intention to visit Blenheim was turned into action by the opening of the Ai Weiwei exhibition which launches the Blenheim Art Foundation’s programme of leading international contemporary art.

Ai Weiwei is too well-known to need much description here. Born in 1957, his family were exiled from Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, returning in 1976. From 1981 to 1993 Ai lived in the US, mostly in New York. After returning to China he became the country’s leading contemporary artist and designer of international standing. His criticisms of the Chinese government led to his being put under considerable pressure in various forms and at present to his being forbidden to travel outside China. It is reported that President Xi Jinping recently advised artists, authors and actors:
Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.
so Ai’s work, much of it conveying a pointed political message, is probably not quite what he has in mind. 

There are about thirty works (or more, depending the way they are counted - some works are groups of related pieces) at Blenheim, mostly indoors and distributed among the Palace’s permanent displays ,but some are outside, for example Bubble (2008, above) in the South Park. The interior of Blenheim and its furnishings are mainly grand English aristocratic, but there is a unique focus on the first Duke’s military achievements in a European war over 300 years ago and Winston Churchill’s 70 years ago. Interpolating work by a highly political contemporary Chinese artist can be stimulating but carries the risk of appearing oddly inappropriate. The first piece the visitor encounters is Chandelier (2002, right) in the Great Hall, which, unsurprisingly works well, as does the set of marbles, Cao (2014, below) in the North Corridor alongside Blenheim’s own antique Chinese porcelain.

However, using the Churchill Rooms as settings for Ai’s work didn’t seem as appropriate at first – or is perhaps intended to be constructively inappropriate. Slanted Table (1977, below left) might be a metaphor for what Ai sees as a lop-sided Chinese system and leadership, pointedly placed in front of Churchill as wartime PM - though the latter probably had more power and less accountability to his party during wartime than President Xi does now. The wooden Handcuffs (2012, below right) are displayed on the bed in which

Churchill was born – is it meant to be about childbirth, the parental bonds which children have to break to achieve adulthood, who knows? Ai Weiwei is almost certainly trying to make us think about what we are seeing in its context. As the curators explain:
Ai Weiwei has not been able to leave China since 2011when his passport was confiscated by the Chinese authorities. The exhibition at Blenheim Palace has therefore been realised through a close collaboration between the artist and the Blenheim Art Foundation who have worked together with detailed drawings, architectural plans and models of the site and grounds. lntegrating artworks throughout the richly furnished palace rooms, as well as in the park and gardens, the exhibition will showcase the work of an artist known to raise critical questions on social, cultural and political issues and for his decisive breaking with tradition.
But how to interpret Han Dynasty Vase with Coca Cola Logo and Han Dynasty Vase with Caonima Logo (both 2014, below) in their particular context? The furniture and painting are 18th century, the visitors Artwork Guide gives the dates of the dynasty as 202BC – 220AD and the Coca Cola logo dates from circa 1890. As for Caomina - the Wikipedia entry is essential reading.

More vases from the same period are strangely harmonious in the Green Drawing Room - Han Dynasty Vases in Auto-Paints (2014, below left), perhaps not so much so He Xei (2012, below right) in the Red Drawing Room:

Careful examination of Grapes (2011, below) in the Green Writing Room reveals just how ingeniously this structure made from antique stools has been formed:

The stools date from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) as does the iron wood from demolished temples used for Map of China (2009 below) in one of the State Rooms; Hong Kong seems to have been positioned nearest the fireplace:

Blenheim’s magnificent Long Library (below top) is used to display prints of the 40 images which make up Study of Perspective (1995-2011, below middle), three wooden spheres Divina Proportione (2006, lower left; icosahedrons, even) and marbles of a helmet and Surveillance Camera (2010, lower right):

The above are only a few of the works on show inside and outside the Palace. In the gallery space which has been created in the Stables Courtyard, there are some fascinating photographs of Andy Warhol’s visit to China in 1982, which emphasise the remarkable material progress of China in the last 30 years, and of Ai Weiwei in New York (below with Alan Ginsburg) in the 1980s and early 90s.

In a year’s time at the Royal Academy in London there will be a major retrospective of this brave, tough and subtle artist’s work. No doubt the RA organisers will be learning about the challenges involved from the Blenheim Art Foundation team. Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace ends on 14 December. Any readers of this post on the US West Coast and unlikely to visit Blenheim soon may be able to make the trip to @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz which runs until 26 April next year (Refraction, 2014 below). It is difficult to imagine any other artist having exhibitions in a palace and a prison at the same time and so redolently.

Update 27 December 2014

This exhibition has been extended and will run again from 14 February to 30 April 2015.