29 January 2015

Grayson Perry, Establishment Man

This post began as Grayson Perry at the NPG but providing the necessary context turned it into a wider review. 

In 2013 Perry was the BBC’s Reith Lecturer and in a series titled Playing to the Gallery he discussed “what makes him an artist and the limits of contemporary art”. The BBC website has downloadable pdf transcripts of his four lectures and also shows some drawings he made for them. In 2014 he authored a book, Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood (PttG) with additional material and images. It’s worth reading, not just to have Perry’s astute observations in a more accessible form, but also for some of the extra illustrations which are very amusing (eg page 69, ‘inspiration for the staff bedrooms’; page 90/91, a London art map; page 113, curation) but I thought one conveys Perry’s sardonic views particularly well:

On inspection, Map of Museum based on Interior of Curator’s Head might have been more appropriately titled Map of Art Gallery based on Interior of Director’s Head. But Perry, who regards himself as “a fully paid-up member of the Establishment” (PttG page 82), presumably knows not to bite other dogs . 

About a month after PttG was published, Perry was Guest Editor for the 10 October New Statesman magazine – “A special issue on the Great White Male - That’s the straight, white, middle-class men who dominate our culture (and our politics)”. In the issue’s The NS Essay, They walk among us, Perry bemoaned the fact that:
… white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged … [are] a group that punches far, far above its weight. 
They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population.
and christened them Default Man. Though he had to admit:
I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice. and then spent much of the rest of the essay in the fortunate position of having his cake and being able to eat it: When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to! 
… Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.
Just why post-industrial societies in general, not just the UK, are still dominated at their upper levels by men is not something Perry gives much consideration to. At one point he quotes Sherrie Bourg Carter:
Women in today’s workforce ... are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases ... “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.
but he seems more interested in the wearing of suits than the raising of children. Only in The NS Interview, when Perry invites Martin Amis to his studio for a dialogue, does that aspect of reality begin to intrude:
MA You have to whisper it now that there are differences between men and women. There are, though. Women have children, you know. 
GP Yeah, but there’s also a much more encultured version of what it is to be a man and a woman. I sometimes characterise it as: males are defined by what they do and women are often defined by what they are. … 
GP I think that the male role is more heavily policed, in terms of constricting behaviours that are available to it. The male aesthetic is often about camouflage – because he then retains his ability to observe from a supposedly neutral standpoint. Women are one of the groups to be looked at. Everything is defined from that male gaze. Is it possible to unpick the white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual effect on culture and take it out? Because they’ve become inextricably woven into what we call culture and “right thinking”. 
MA Males? 
GP Yes. How do you think men have branded the nature of intellectualism and seriousness?
MA It would take for ever to untangle that, wouldn’t it? …
Early on in The NS Essay, Perry reveals that:
In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s. Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms. 
Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Magdalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group.
Who Are You?, in which Perry “turns his attention to identity as he creates portraits - from tapestries to sculptures and pots - of diverse individuals who are all trying to define who they are”, was broadcast in three parts starting on 29 October. It was a successor to his 2012 Channel 4 series, In the Best Possible Taste, with its six large accompanying tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences, which eventually went on a UK tour. This time the Who Are You? pieces are displayed among the National Portrait Gallery’s collection in London (below):

‘Vibrant’ art that working-class people might like – surely not 
There isn’t space here to describe all of the items, let alone reference the 140 or so minutes of video essential to their explanation – see next year’s book by Perry perhaps. But a few are worth mentioning, not least because Default Man turns up in the form of the Huhne Vase (below top). Why Huhne allowed Perry so close when he was in such dire circumstances (before imprisonment and subsequently on release) is a mystery. Later at the NPG, Huhne’s meeting with potter and vase, (which, according to the Guardian:
… was purposefully smashed by Perry and then repaired using an ancient Chinese technique which involves lacquer resin dusted or mixed with gold. The Huhne vase has been decorated with the motifs of Huhne’s face, his H11HNE number plate and a penis.  Perry said: “This is a riposte to the common Default Man’s defence that he is an ‘individual’ and his achievements and behaviour have nothing to do with group identity.  I have smashed the pot and had it repaired with gold to symbolise that vulnerability might be an asset in relationships to such a person.”)
was filmed for the first part of the series, an encounter which resembled that of water and a duck’s back, Huhne not being in the least fazed by Perry, who, he pointed out, was a RA and CBE*. I didn’t think Perry closed on Huhne, who, although he didn’t say so directly, seemed to regard Perry as just another player in the influence game** albeit one with an outré image.

Another item which attracted attention when the show opened was The Ashford Hijab (above lower), a portrait of young Muslim convert, Kayleigh Khosravi, from Ashford in Kent. Perry commented:
What does Islam offer to a young white woman in her twenties?  The answer, I found, appears to be a refuge from the nagging consumer pressures and constant, often sexual, scrutiny of women all pervasive in western society.  Conversion also offers a strong and supportive sisterhood within the congregation of the mosque.
Nearby in Room 31 is Wallis, Duchess of Windsor (1939) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, a portrait of a woman who had been on an even more remarkable journey. Whether this was an intentional juxtaposition, the visitor doesn’t know. But it was doubtless deliberate that The Line of Departure (below top), a tapestry in the style of an Afghan rug showing three wounded war veterans, is in Room 23, Expansion and Empire, near Florence Nightingale receiving the Wounded at Scutari by Barrett. I don’t believe the vets featured in the Channel 4 series, an omission which wouldn’t have surprised Kipling. [But see UPDATE 31 JANUARY below]

Probably the most memorable item was the Jesus Army Money Box (above lower), a ceramic in the form of a medieval chasse, a small enamelled chest containing a holy relic. This was inspired by the time Perry spent with a Christian group which helps the homeless.

In the few years since he was first mentioned here, Perry seems to have grown even more popular – no crime that. At the end of 2104 he used his Twitter account (@alan_measles) to keep followers informed, and patiently answering queries, about the construction and decoration of a large (one meter tall) vase:

Large, but not exactly breaking new ground. In the year that Perry became a RA, Brian Sewell wrote rather caustically about Perry:
In the quarter of a century that he has been making them [pots] they have remained essentially the same - perhaps bigger and more provocative in imagery and narrative, but they are so undeveloped that they demonstrate stultifying intellectual and aesthetic limitations. Meanwhile, Claire [*] has gone from strength to strength and it is for her tasteless and preposterous dresses, worn on every possible public occasion, that Perry is now notorious. 
[* earlier] … a female alter ego, Claire, who is now, in adult life, his public persona and has become not only much the subject of his work but the work itself, with the sedulous promotion of being Claire a constantly performed performance that more or less obliterates his unmemorable pottery.
But since then Perry has become a CBE and Reith Lecturer, and Claire engages with duchesses.

Perry with the Duchess of Cambridge
Is he “a fully paid-up member of the Establishment”? Peter Hennessy offered some relevant comment in a recent extended essay called Establishment and Meritocracy:
I reckon there is a permanent element at the core of the British Establishment - a kind of gyroscope - which embraces the grand old professions like the Law and the Civil Service (though the latter is a tad tattered at the moment), the House of Lords (especially sections of the crossbenches where sit the former Cabinet Secretaries, Law Lords, Chiefs of the Defence Staff and Queen's Private Secretaries), the Royal Society, the British Academy, the learned societies generally, the scientific and engineering institutes and the great medical colleges. The reach and clout of these institutions and tribes may fluctuate but they never truly fade, let alone disappear. While around this rooted, inner core there swirl the transient elements in the media, the financial world and the celebritocracy in constellations that vary from generation to generation who can have a powerful, if often passing influence on the mood music of political and economic discussion, and in the case of celebritocracy, the norms of our wider society. (pages 14-15)
So I think it's almost certain that Perry, if not "fully paid-up" and only transiently, is one of the celibritocrats within the British Establishment - will his knighthood arrive before or after Tracey Emin becomes a Dame?

Who are you? continues at the NPG until 15 March

* Respectively, Royal Academician and Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
** In January 2015 Perry was included as one of the 24 most influential people in Art (alongside Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Banksy and Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser, et al) in Debrett’s Britain’s 500 most influential people in 2015.


The London Evening Standard on 30 January carried an article by its owner, Evgeny Lebedev, describing how, as part of his paper’s ongoing campaign, he and Grayson Perry had met homeless veterans at a hostel in East London earlier in the month. According to the article, Perry has offered:
… to create a unique piece of art that would not only reflect the stories of those this campaign is helping but which we could also then exclusively auction to raise more funds for those who need it.
The CEO of Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, was delighted by the visit. “Welcoming Grayson to New Belvedere House was a real pleasure,” he said. “The staff and residents warmed to him immediately. 
“Grayson’s empathy, humanity, humility and genuine interest shone through. We were stunned to learn that he was prepared to create an artwork for us and immensely grateful. Many of the veterans we help have an interest in painting, ceramics, photography or some kind of creative activity so there was great curiosity and enthusiasm when his visit was announced.”


On 11 April Grayson Perry wrote a piece in the Guardian, My hero: Neil MacGregor The retiring director of the British Museum transformed a stately institution into a cultural powerhouse.
… Neil was the major museum director’s major museum director. He is effortlessly learned, an astute diplomat and above all a lovely, lovely man. 
I sort of engineered our first meeting [in 2008] after I heard him talk to a small group where he gently berated the clergy of St Paul’s for charging entry fees. Afterwards we all went for supper at Pizza Express and I spotted an opportunity and sat down next to him. As casually as I could, I dropped in that I had an idea for an exhibition. Neil said: “Send me a letter,” and three years later my show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, opened. It is still my proudest achievement and its passage through the souk of fiefdoms that is the BM I’m sure was much eased by Neil’s initial enthusiasm. 
… I have just been appointed a trustee of the BM; …

21 January 2015

Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s ‘Two Days, One Night’

Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) was released in the UK in August 2014 – I missed it then but I was glad I caught up. It had a limited release in the US at Christmas time. 

The Dardenne brothers come from Wallonia, the French-speaking southern part of Belgium, where they write and direct fiction films through their production company, Les Films du Fleuve. Two Days, One Night is a simple story – Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is a factory worker who is having to spend a frantic summer weekend lobbying her co-workers to turn down a bonus so that she can keep her job. Will this appeal to fraternité come off? Sandra has a loyal and supportive husband but she has to fight a personal problem as well as her external one.

As in their The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) the Dardennes portray ordinary lives – those who, according to Valerie Treiweiller, François Hollande in France calls les sans dents, (the toothless) and the Labour party leadership (eg Miliband and Harman*) in the UK have recently taken to calling ‘everyday people.' Two Days, One Night is described as being a French-Italian-Belgian production. Its language is French and the Dardennes’ work is set firmly in the tradition of social realism – nouvelle vague or even Italian neorealism. Life in working class Belgium is tough but nothing like as hard as it was in post-war Italy.

One of the best films I’ve seen in the last year.

* On BBC1 The Andrew Marr Show 18 January 2015, no transcript unfortunately.

19 January 2015

Former Prime Ministers – some statistics

What uncertain times these are. In the Independent on Sunday on 18 January, Iain Dale, political commentator and former Conservative politician, provided his prediction of the outcome of the May general election (his website is the primary source). It was based on a painstaking consideration of the circumstances of each of the 650 constituencies in the UK parliament, after drawing together whatever local knowledge, polling evidence and so on that he could find. This approach had served Dale well “when I got the European election results bang on and made the most accurate predictions in Cameron’s Cabinet reshuffle”. On the same day in the Sunday Times, Peter Kellner, political commentator, president of the pollster YouGov and husband of a Labour politician provided his forecast (now on YouGov). Their data is in the table below, my additions in italics:

Of course, both men may choose to revise their forecasts in the coming weeks and who knows how robust such predictions would be in the event of, say, a terrorist outrage days before the election. But in both neither of the two main parties is expected to achieve an overall majority, which would suggest that some form of coalition is likely. However, according to Kellner, David Cameron will be leader of the largest party whereas Dale implies that  Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, will be Prime Minister and heading the coalition.

So we may have four former Prime Ministers, with Cameron joining John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Or perhaps there will still be three at the end of May. This set me thinking about the number of ex-PMs over the years, hence the chart on the left from 1870 to the current day.

It turns out that for most of the last 100 years, the presence of three or four ex-PMs has been the norm. There only being one, as was mostly the case from 1945-55, was unusual. Only in Gladstone’s final administration was there none, for four years following Disraeli’s death in 1881.  Prime Ministers tend to be long-lived – only one born since 1800 died under 70, Bonar Law, who died soon after leaving office in 1923. The only PM to die in office was Campbell-Bannerman in 1908 at the age of 71.

The mean age at death of the 21 deceased PMs born since 1800 has been just over 81 years, but for the five born and deceased since 1900, just over 88. The latter include one woman, Margaret Thatcher, who died at 87, bringing the average down, contrary to actuarial expectation. Presumably to get the job at all requires a good constitution, but comparison should be made with the life expectancy of upper middle class males (mostly) over 40, not males in general at birth.

On average PMs have lived for 14.8 years after leaving office for the last time (Wilson, Churchill, and Baldwin are among those who returned to office). This becomes 17.2 years if Campbell-Bannerman (see above) and Chamberlain and Bonar Law, who both died within six months of leaving office, are excluded. (The arrows are for Major, above Blair, both to the left of Brown, all on-going of course).

The longest lived was Rosebery – more correctly Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, probably the most interesting PM statistically. At 45 he was the youngest person to become PM until Blair and later Cameron. His period in office was only 15 months and his estate is thought to have been the largest –so far. The younger they enter office, as has increasingly been the case, the younger PMs will be when they leave:

As far as the next election is concerned, there would be nothing surprising about either outcome as PM in terms of the consequent number of ex-PMs.  However, it seems very likely that the number will go up over the decades ahead. As the table below shows, despite the impression of premierships having become longer, over successive three decade periods, there have been about the same number of office-holders:

However, if the leaving PMs are getting younger and they live to about 90, there will, before long – probably the late 2020s, be six or even seven ex-PMs to be invited to lunch or dinner with the sovereign!


1. Dates of birth, death and office are from Wikipedia.
2. The “quick and dirty” method for dates before 1900 in Excel was used.
3. Photograph at top, 1985: PM Thatcher, ex-PMs Callaghan, Douglas Home, Macmillan, Wilson, Heath (left to right).
4. Second photograph, 2012: PM Cameron, ex-PMs Major, Blair, Brown (left to right), Thatcher was too ill to attend.
5.  Any errors will be corrected if provided as comments.

12 January 2015

Late Turner at Tate Britain

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) has been the subject of only two posts here. The first was about the National Gallery show in 2012, Turner Inspired, which examined the influence of Claude Lorrain on Turner’s early work, the second, last month, was about Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner which dramatized the last 25 years or so of the painter’s life. Tate Britain’s The EY Exhibition: Late Turner – Painting Set Free complements the film in looking works from 1835 to the late 1840s. Turner’s reworking of The Wreck Buoy (1849 over 1807, below) was described by his admirer Ruskin as "...the last oil he painted before his noble hand forgot its cunning."

At the risk of being simplistic, a visitor may well conclude that once over 60 and so established in his profession as having nothing to lose, Turner painted as he wanted, undertaking a continuous experiment with colour and form. We see these works through eyes conditioned by impressionism, abstraction and much else that came after him, but that should serve to amplify Turner’s achievements not detract from them. (Richard Dorment in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that Turner’s eye may have been conditioned too – by cataracts and other health problems). Of the two famous works mentioned in the Mr Turner post, the National Gallery has lent Rain, Steam and Speed but not Temeraire, but its absence is more than made up for by Peace - Burial at Sea of the Body of Sir David Wilkie (1842, below top), one of nine square paintings disliked by his contemporaries and now brought together at Tate Britain, and Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water (1842, below lower):

This exhibition provides a welcome opportunity to see a range of Turner’s watercolours, like Norham Castle, Sunrise (c1845, below top) and Heidelburg: Sunset (c1842, below lower):

the three Mount Rigi watercolours of 1842 brought together for the first time, one from Australia: The Red Rigi (1842, below top)

and one of his Margate pictures Wreck on the Goodwin Sands: Sunset (1845, above lower). The National Gallery and Tate Britain’s holdings of Turner’s work are based on the artist’s bequest to the nation, so this exhibition offers a chance to see loans from abroad like The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 (1835, below), less familiar but of historical interest here and normally in Philadelphia:

Tate Britain has also put on display many of Turner’s note and sketchbooks. The latter emphasise just how intrepid and frequent a traveller he was even in late middle age and at the time before the European railway systems had been established.

Late Turner – Painting Set Free ends on 25 January.

11 January 2015

Could David Miliband do a Boris (part 3)

Following posts last August and last month, even I am getting bored with this subject, so in brief there is an article in the February 2015 Vogue magazine, The Exile - Is David Miliband the most charismatic leader we never had? - a QTWAIN* candidate, if ever there was. Christa D'Souza accompanied DM on one day of “a three-day whirlwind trip” he made to Pakistan in his role as CEO and president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Much of what she reports is either stock stuff:
Born in London in 1965 and brought up in Primrose Hill, David Wright Miliband is the elder son of the late Marxist academic Ralph Miliband …
…PPE, the wife, the kids, New York etc, and much else only worth reading if you are interested in the work of the IRC or in Pakistan. However D’Souza didn’t miss the opportunity to enquire about DM’s longer-term aims. Although his answers were in quotes, and therefore presumably verbatim, her sometimes obtuse questions were only implicit in the breathless accompanying text – like this:
David Miliband as the next prime minister? Is that something … that might be on the cards - if not at this election, then the next? He’d get my vote, I sally shamelessly... "Ha ha, well, that's very kind of you to say so," he says, and then deftly extricates himself from answering the question. "Look, it was great that you came out here, so much better than doing the interview in some office... “
… he laughs when, as we pull away from the sprawling Mughal residence, I mention the way Sarwar made a joke about shaking hands with the future British prime minister. So, come on then, he's still young, is he thinking of returning to politics? Both Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have been quoted as saying they very much hope he is. "Ummm... I don’t know; is the answer. It was obviously a big move to come to the States. I had a very good run. Obviously I still care about the country, but I’ve come here to make a success of this job. Whenever anyone asks me when I decided I wanted to go into politics, I always say: what do vou mean, when did I decide? I still haven't decided! Evidently it's not all written down on a sheet of paper... It feels like I'm in the right place at the right time..."
The question I pose to him is, on a simply human level, doesn't he wince at reading all the dreadful press his brother is getting? Isn't it true, to varying degrees, that it's fine to be appalling about one's own family, but if an outsider weighs in on one's own flesh and blood, beware?     "I can't say anything, because anything I say plays into the whole narrative," he tells me wearily. “And I made an absolute commitment to myself not to play into the story, so I can’t even accept the premise of your question... "It's not good for him and it's not good for me for this to become a story," he says as he gestures for me to switch off the tape recorder, forgoing the chance to make a statement of wholehearted support for his brother that one might reasonably expect.
Nowhere in the article is there any indication as to when this encounter took place. However, according to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) website:
On Monday, November 18, 2014, the LUMS Model United Nations Society (LUMUN) hosted a talk by President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), David Miliband. He has had a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom over the last 15 years. … This is Mr. Miliband's tenth visit to Pakistan and the fourth to Lahore.
The December post here was triggered by Miliband’s Lunch with the FT encounter which had appeared in the Financial Times on 13 December 2014, so whether that took place before or after the trip to Pakistan isn’t clear. Either way, perhaps at least for the first four months of 2015 David Miliband will decide to go into purdah – an expression remaining in modern British usage as a vestige from the old Indian Empire, appropriately enough.

D’Souza, like other journalists before her, couldn’t resist making unfavourable comparisons between the two brothers:
Looks aside, [DM’s] aura brims with steely, statesman-like charm, unlike his comparatively hapless-seeming brother …. [who] mutates into the twenty-first century's equivalent of Michael Foot …
Intentionally or not, amongst the gush about DM:
I sit next to an extremely beautiful editor from the national newspaper Dawn, who whispers admiringly, "I didn’t realise he was so tall! He's too good-looking not to return to parliament." Unlike his brother, David Miliband has the aura of a statesman, as opposed to that of a politician - and you can feel it right here in this room, the sway he holds over this impromptu gathering of influential, super switched-on elites.
there are some revealing vignettes:
The disquieting thing about David Miliband, aside from the darkening gaze and marionette-like rictus he pulls when someone talks while he's talking, or when the development jargon irritates him (“NFI? I mean, who's going to know what that means?" he all but snaps at an aide), is the fact that he appears such a young 49-year-old, with his plush, badger-streaked hair and football-player body.
Despite his generally easy manner, Miliband's patience obviously gets tested by a number of things. Red tape; extraneous noise while he is talking; time-wasting. At a meeting the previous day in Islamabad at the Pakistani Humanitarian Forum, to which the heads of several local NGOs had been invited, he became noticeably fidgety when the host invited each speaker around the table to introduce themselves. "Yes, we've done that already," he said with that icy grimace. "I know everybody's name, I think, and where they are from, I've read all my briefings …".
Well, we’ve all known people like that.

*QTWAIN Questions to Which the Answer is No

10 January 2015

The Economist and Tony Blair

While I was writing the New Year’s Day post here about other people’s predictions over the previous 12 months, I found I needed to add an extra one from Tony Blair. It had appeared in The Economist (dated 3 January 2015 but on the streets by the end of 2014) and had been heralded by a tweet on 30 December from the magazine’s public policy and education editor, Anne McElvoy:

Blair’s office next day tweeted that his “remarks had been mis-interpreted”. The story caused a bit of a flurry
in the mainstream media but was forgotten by the start of the New Year, as was, as far as I can tell, the linkage between this article and a three-page feature, The Loneliness of Tony Blair, in the previous edition of The Economist on 20 December, their Christmas double issue. Sub-headed Celebrated abroad and reviled at home, the former prime minister struggles to fulfil his ambitions and continuing in the same vein, the writer wasn’t much swayed by considerations of seasonal goodwill (right), as this passage reveals:
… Earlier this year, in an episode that brought joy to the British press, Rupert Murdoch ended his longstanding relationship with the former prime minister over suspicions that he had had an affair with Wendi Deng, then Mr Murdoch's wife. According to sources at NewsCorp, Mr Murdoch pressed the "mute" button during a confrontational phone call, informed colleagues that he was getting "politicians' answers" to his questions, and has never spoken to Mr Blair (who is godfather to one of the couple's children) since. 
Mr Blair roundly denies any impropriety. Asked whether he was (at least) careless about his reputation, he says calmly that it is "not something I will ever talk about-I haven't and I won't", and then bangs his coffee cup so loudly into its saucer that it spills and everyone in the room jumps. But did he find himself in a tangle over his friendship with Ms Deng? A large, dark pool of sweat has suddenly appeared under his armpit, spreading across an expensive blue shirt.
As is The Economist’s practice, there was no by-line. However, Anne McElvoy was the author of a Mail on Sunday report on 21 December, given the succinct title, Why I asked Tony Blair the truth about him and Wendi Murdoch, by journalist who made former Prime Minister sweat in interview for The Economist magazine, in which she explained that she had “interviewed him twice recently on a wide range of subjects for The Economist”. Curiously, the MoS piece was rather more sympathetic to Blair than The Economist’s – compare the conclusions, MoS first:
I suspect that, for all the global glamour, commercial success and boundless self-belief, the most successful ex-Labour leader would like more credit and esteem at home. There is a frustration, even a loneliness about him, which cannot be dealt with by accumulating ever more clients and good causes. Next year, the Chilcot Inquiry will be critical of his handling of the Iraq War – but will also present him with a chance to talk about his mistakes as well as his achievements. He does not need to recant on his world-view, but he should show more openness about his failings and some regret for them. Most of all, Mr Blair needs to deal with a weakness which has come to haunt him in public and private life – he needs to talk straight.
Whereas in The Economist:
Because it is so important to Mr Blair to be right, he cannot admit to failings over the war in Iraq. Yet until he does so, people will continue to mistrust him. That is a shame, for his mission to fight against fundamentalism needs all the resources and energy it can get. He has considerable talents, which he is prepared to devote to his cause … Yet the main asset that any former politician has is moral sway, and because Mr Blair has forfeited so much trust, he has far less credibility than he should have. Some contrition or regret among those ironclad certainties would serve him and his cause better. The late Mo Mowlam, an outspoken minister in the Blair government, was on to something when she observed early in his reign that "the trouble with Tony is that he "thinks he's fucking Jesus." Mr Blair has plenty of the Messiah's self-belief and sense of mission. He could do with a dash of his humility as well.
Again, the MoS’s opening was:
Tony Blair is one of the great alpha politicians this country has produced: a conviction politician who is not afraid to take on big and contentious issues and does not mind a challenge. Yet he remains a puzzle – even to those of us sympathetic to his deft repositioning of the Labour Party, his reformist outlook on public services and his now-unfashionable commitment to Britain’s role in some of the most difficult issues the world faces: notably the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and its remedies.
I used to read The Economist regularly, but now find a print copy at £5 off-puttingly expensive . Their subscriptions are touted as offering big savings, but in terms of copies properly read, allowing for holidays and such and the occasional dull issue, are unlikely in real terms to be that much cheaper. The price of a digital only subscription seems far too high given the marginal cost of its provision. But it might not just be a question of economics. There are few, if any, areas of human knowledge that The Economist isn’t prepared to expound on in a confident style. But on those occasions when the subject was something I actually had some expertise in, I didn’t always find it particularly convincing or quite as well-informed as it would like its readership to think. In this ever more complex world where most of those who can afford to read The Economist are likely to be one kind of knowledge worker or another, perhaps “a dash of humility” would be appropriate.

There were rumours last year that Pearson’s 50% stake in the Economist Group is going to be put up for sale, for example in the Daily Mail on 28 October which also pointed out that “The Economist's annual report shows revenues and profits have been falling since 2012.” Roy Greenslade in the Guardian was sceptical. Since then, The Economist’s chief editor, John Micklethwait, has been recruited by Bloomberg News, his replacement to be announced shortly. I would be surprised if the new editor (or any new owner of the Pearson stake) turns out to be a Blair admirer.

5 January 2015

William Morris at the NPG

Six years before he died, William Morris (1834-96) published his novel News from Nowhere (above right), set in an idealistic vision of 1952. Nearly 120 years after his death the UK may be far from being the particular Utopia he imagined but Morris’s legacy is hardly inaccessible. His homes at the Red House (South East London), Kelmscott Manor (Oxfordshire) and Kelmscott House (West London) can be visited, as can the William Morris Gallery (East London). Morris & Co lives on to produce “authentic versions of his original designs”, and has a handsome website which would surely have met with his approval. Moreover Morris is currently the subject of an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford (post to follow) and the National Portrait Gallery in London is showing Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860 – 1960 (above left).

As its title suggests this is an ambitious exhibition in terms of its scope but, perhaps inevitably, is constrained by its NPG location: not all that much space and its strengths being portrait painting and photography, for example GF Watts’ William Morris (1870, above left) and Frederick Hollyer’s William Morris (1884, above right and in the poster). Nonetheless anyone who has an interest in Morris will be pleased to see items which, although in public collections, are not always on show or accessible. For example, the Prioress's Tale wardrobe, painted by Edward Burne-Jones on the exterior, (1859, below left) and Morris’s own La Belle Iseult (1858, below left) for which his wife, Jane, was the model.

Perhaps wisely, given that Tate Britain’s Pre-Raphaelite blockbuster was only two years ago, the NPG show plays down Morris’s relationship with the Brotherhood (he was not one of the PRB seven) and instead gives visitors a chance to appreciate his other interests, like the Arts and Crafts movement, socialism in the years before the Labour party was founded in 1900 and the Suffragettes. Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one of many influenced by Arts and Crafts –Adam and Eve garden roller (1910-20, below upper) while a painting by Roger Fry of one of the Labour’s founders, Edward Carpenter (1894 below lower) provides a link to the Bloomsbury Group.

Various aspects of Morris’s legacy up to 1960 are examined in a fairly rapid succession: Cotswold Arts and Crafts, the Garden City Movement, particularly at Letchworth, and then, following the Second World War, the Festival of Britain and the flowering of one of its assistant designers, Terence Conran. In 2012 the V&A exhibition, British Design 1948–2012, had had the space to cover the latter period more thoroughly but some of its exhibits reappear here, for example Lucienne Day’s Calyx fabric (below left) produced for the Festival in 1951. The interesting portrait of Herbert Read by Patrick Heron (1950, below right) was given to the NPG in 1968 by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860 – 1960 ends on 11 January.

1 January 2015

New Year Predictions 2015

At the start of the year I post not my predictions but some of those which people have come out with in the previous 12 months (January 2014’s are here). This time we are weeks from the UK 2015 election, the outcome of which is currently looking uncertain. One of the first people to point out just how uncertain was the pollster, Peter Kellner, in a post on the YouGov website, Ukip, the SNP and the risks of parliamentary paralysis. He explained:
In recent months it has looked unlikely that either Labour or the Conservatives would win an overall majority next year. There is now a real chance that neither will have a secure majority, even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. 
… In order for us to be certain that a viable two-party coalition with the Lib Dems is available to at least one of the two main parties, the number of Lib Dem MPs must exceed the total of the other minority parties. 
… the decline in Lib Dem support could leave them with fewer MPs than the combined ranks of the ‘other’ minority party MPs. If that happens there is a real possibility that the parliamentary politics of the House of Commons will be exceedingly messy.
Tony Blair, according to the Daily Telegraph on 25 October, thought otherwise:
The Conservatives will win the next general election because of Ed Miliband’s failure to connect with voters, Tony Blair has said. David Cameron will remain in power next year because Labour has not persuaded Britain it is ready to govern, the former Labour prime minister has apparently told friends. Mr Blair’s verdict on Mr Miliband follows criticism of the Labour leader’s performance from several MPs and will increase concern within the party about his ability to win in May. Mr Blair’s apparent prediction was made in a private conversation with long-standing political allies earlier this month. The Telegraph has been given an account of that conversation by one person who was present. 
“The Conservatives will be the next government because Labour has failed to make a good case for itself. That is what Tony thinks,” the person said. “He does not think that Miliband can beat Cameron.”
Just after the Telegraph had gone to print on 24 October, the Office of Tony Blair tweeted a denial:

And then on 30 December, it was déjà vu all over again. Anne McElvoy tweeted (from Islington, where else?) to puff a piece about to appear in The Economist (incidentally, why does the full URL end “-don’t-go”?):

The key words:
In an interview with The Economist, Mr Blair says that he fears that the next election, due to take place in May 2015, could be a rerun of those before his ascent to the leadership, which regularly ended in disaster for his party. The result in 2015, he quips, could well be an election “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”. Asked if he means a Tory win, Mr Blair confirms: “Yes, that is what happens.”
Next day, surprise, surprise, the Office of Tony Blair tweeted a denial:

TB’s prediction methodology: heads he wins, tails he doesn’t lose, one might think. But earlier in the month the Independent on Sunday had run a story, Tony Blair wants Chuka Umunna to be the next Labour leader, which, as far as I can tell, went undenied:
Tony Blair is backing Chuka Umunna to be the next Labour leader, the former prime minister's friends have revealed, in an intervention that will set the battle for succession alight. Several Labour frontbenchers are preparing their leadership campaigns in the event that Ed Miliband fails to secure victory next May. But being anointed by the party's most successful leader could be either a blessing or a curse for Mr Umunna, the shadow Business Secretary, given how far Mr Blair's popularity in the wider Labour movement has fallen.
It would hardly be worth expressing an opinion to “friends” unless, of course, he thought the Labour leadership was going to be an issue in 2015. But Blair has other things on his mind. At the Aspen Ideas Festival in June, he was interviewed by “Yahoo’s Global News Anchor”, Katie Couric, and warned that returning British jihadists ‘could use Kenya terror tactics’ to disrupt UK.

And things could be worse. In October George W Bush’s former Vice President, Dick Cheney, was interviewed by Bill Kristol and warned:
… we’re in a very dangerous period. I think it’s more threatening than the period before 9/11. I think 9/11 will turn out to be not nearly as bad as the next mass casualty attack against the United States, which if and when it comes will be something far more deadlier than airline tickets and box cutters.
Happy New Year.