30 May 2015

François Ozon’s ‘The New Girlfriend’

The New Girlfriend (Une nouvelle amie) is loosely based on a short story of that name by Ruth Rendell. Two girls, Claire and Laura, meet at school and decide to be friends for life. They grow up and marry and Laura has a baby. She dies soon after the little girl is born - French films are good at funerals. Soon afterwards Claire goes to see widower David to find him wearing his wife’s clothes while bottle-feeding the baby. Having introduced this key aspect so early on that most critics seem to have revealed it, the film turns into a mélange of ambiguous straight, gay and transvestite sexuality.

Ozon is industrious, if nothing else, and this is the fourth of his films that I have posted about in as many years. The New Girlfriend has little in common with Potiche, rather more with the sexuality of Jeune & Jolie, and like In the House uses domestic settings which seem more North American than French. In fact for this film the location for the houses was Quebec, although the offices, hotel and mall scenes were shot in a business district not far from La Defense in Paris.

Roman Duris turns in an excellent performance as David/“Virginia”, appropriately not entirely at ease as either. Anaïs Demoustier’s Claire is the study in confusion one might expect, counterpointed by the tasteful restraint of her wardrobe as opposed to the one David inherits from Laura. Of course there is a long history in British comedy of female characters being played in drag (the Pantomime dame) but in an exaggerated style. Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everage and the potter Grayson Perry’s artfully dressed alter ego Claire can be regarded as modern manifestations of that tradition and are both remarkably popular. But there is nothing comic about David and this Claire’s developing relationship and the dark psychological tangle that ensues. Whether Ozon has won the approval of the LGBT etc community/non-community with this film I wouldn’t know – but I would guess not.

The subject matter may or may not be to everyone’s taste, but I thought the weakness of the film was the uneven way in which the plot unrolled: a major revelation early on, a slow evolution and then what turns out to be a not-so dramatic development followed by a brief “Seven years later” sequence at the end. Just what had happened in all that time, when most of the film had been spent covering about the same number of months, we are left to guess at.

29 May 2015

A Visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton

Note: this post is based on a visit to the Fondation in early May 2105 

The Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris was opened in October 2014 by Francois Hollande, President of France, and Bernard Arnault, President of LVMH - Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton - and one of the wealthiest people in France. In 2001 he visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and met its architect, Frank Gehry. Five years later the Fondation was established as a private cultural initiative by LVMH to support contemporary artistic creation. Under a 55 year lease from the City of Paris, the Fondation’s building, designed by Gehry, is set in one hectare of land in the Bois de Boulogne next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation.

Like Gaul, a visit to the Fondation can be divided into three parts: the current exhibition, the display from the permanent collection and the building itself.

Keys to a Passion

In May 2015 the current exhibition is Les Clefs d’une passion (Keys to a Passion), “a selection of major works from the first half of the 20th century that established the foundations of modernity”. It is organised into four sequences: Subjective Expressionism, Contemplative, Popist (popiste) and Music which are in accord with the themes which structure the Fondation’s own collection (… en resonance avec les quatre axes structurant, de façon plastique et mouvante, la collection …).

Subjective Expressionism “evokes the questions each of us have about life, death, anguish, solitude and the desparate rage to live, despite oneself, despite others …”. It also provides a chance to see Munch’s The Scream (1893? 1910?, below left), a work normally confined to the Munch Museum in Oslo and not made available for the 2012 Pompidou Centre/Tate Modern Munch exhibition. That show was, of course, intended to have a post-1900 emphasis but so has Keys to a Passion!

A series of self-portraits (1934, above right) by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946), a painter known best in her native Sweden, stand up to their proximity to The Scream. As well as a sculpture and two oils by Giacometti, this section includes two major 1949 works by Francis Bacon, Study from the Human Body (below left) and Study for Portrait (below right):

a Malevich not at Tate Modern in 2014, Complex Presentiment or Bust with a Yellow Shirt (c 1932, below left), and Otto Dix’s Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber (1925, below right):

Contemplative occupies three rooms, the first dominated by two of Monet’s Water Lilies of 1916-19 borrowed from Paris museums. On one side of the room are four lake and mountain landscapes by the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, on the other there are four studies of Lake Keitele from 1904-05 by the Finnish painter Aksell Gallen-Kalleila, one from the National Gallery in London. Complementing these are five seascapes, two by Emil Nolde and three from 1909 by Mondrian, the style of these being in marked contrast to some of his later works in the next room, for example Composition in line, second state (1916-17, below left) and Lozenge Composition with Yellow Lines (1933, below right):

However, this room is dominated by three of Malevich’s most significant works (again not at Tate Modern) lent from St Petersburg: Black Square, Black Cross and Black Circle, all c1923 and pointless to reproduce individually. They can be seen in the photograph (below top) with two of the Mondrians (including the one above left) and Brancusi’s Endless Column Version 1 from 1918. Opposite the Malevich’s, and to me as inducing of contemplation as the Monets, is a Rothko, No 46 (Black, Ochre, Red over Red) (1957, below lower):

In the next room an interesting Bonnard (Summer, 1917) is, to put it kindly, at a disadvantage near to a Picasso plaster sculpture (Head of a Woman with Large Eyes, 1931) and three of his Marie-Thérèse Walter paintings. One of these (Nude Woman in a Red Armchair, 1932) is familiar in London from Tate Modern, as Woman with Yellow Hair (1931, below left) and Reading (1932, below right), no doubt are in New York (Guggenheim) and Paris (Musée Picasso) respectively:

I found Popist the least successful of the four sequences. Picabia arguably anticipated Pop art and deserves a place in a section “resolutely engaged with the vitality, momentum and progress of modern life” but five large pictures, three of them nudes “veer[ing] between a joyous exaltation in nudity and a vaguely salacious eroticism”? Again three Legers, Three Women, (1921-22, below top), but the one other painting in the sequence, Robert Delaunay’s The Cardiff Team (1912-13, below lower) was new to me:

Music provides a triumphant conclusion to the exhibition, the four Kandinsky panels and works by Kupka and Severini being swept aside by two Matisse masterworks, The Dance (1909-10, below top) from St Petersburg and The Sorrow of the Kings (1952, below lower) from the Pompidou Centre in Paris (not lent to the Tate Modern/MoMA show last year):

Keys to a Passion certainly achieves its goal in bringing together some of the major art works of the 20th century. These include items which rarely travel, and for that as well as other reasons is worth making an effort to see before it ends on 6 July.

Items from the Permanent Collection 

Walking through these I was struck by Rachel Harrison’s Zombie Rothko (2011, below left) and Maurizio Cattalan’s Charlie don’t surf (1977 below right – the attendant and photographers are not part of the work). Harrison was awarded the Calder Prize in 2011 for exemplary work in the spirit of Alexander Calder.

It was pleasing to see works by UK artists including Ed Atkins’ video installations Us Dead Talk Love (2012) and Even Pricks (2013) and Tacita Dean, including her Lightning Series (2007) and Hünengrab (2008, below top). According to the caption it is one of a series depicting megalithic prehistoric stone formations in Cornwall (SW England). The series was inspired by Caspar David Friedrich’s Walk at Dusk (c1830-35, below lower), hence the title (Giant’s Tomb).

A large space is given to Sigmar Polke Cloud Paintings (1992-2009, below) – four paintings and a 4-billion-year-old meteorite, the third biggest discovered after a Siberian meteor shower in February 1947:

A small gallery is showing several works by Ellsworth Kelly, who was commissioned to provide works for the Auditorium (see below). These include Green Relief (2009, below left), Blue Diagonal (2008, below centre) and Purple Curve in Relief (2009, below right, lent by the artist):

There are also some fine Giacometti sculptures including Buste d’Homme assis (Lotar III), (1965, below left) and Grande femme II (1959-60, below right):


The interior of the Fondation building, containing the 11 gallery spaces (the underground ones vastly better than their equivalents at the National Gallery Sainsbury Wing in London), the Auditorium, shop and so on, is restrained and functional in contrast to the exterior. Some of the inspiration for Gehry’s design seems to have come from a yacht, the Susanne, built in 1911 and an iceberg (above), as well as from some of Paris’s famous metal and glass structures like the Grand Palais. The building is covered with over 19000 panels of white Ductal ® high performance cement (beton) and moving around the building and on the terraces provides a series of contrasts between the “iceberg” and the glass and steel “sails”. Its advanced design, fabrication and construction are a credit to French engineering.

There are some remarkable views over Paris and the Jardin, for example towards La Defense (below top). One of the terraces is displaying a living sculpture made of found objects by Adrian Villar Rojas, Where the Slaves Live (2014, below lower):

Inside are the Ellsworth Kelly works commissioned in 2014 for the Auditorium including Spectrum VIII (below right) and Color Panels Yellow and Red (below left).

Is the Fondation Louis Vuitton worth a visit? Definitely, but it may be a while before there is another show quite like Keys to a Passion.


Hopefully anyone in the UK interested in Frank Gehry will have been able to see Alan Yentob’s documentary, Frank Gehry: The Architect Says "Why Can't I?", in the BBC1 imagine strand before it disappears into iPlayer limbo.

Among the many points of interest are firstly that Gehry, when designing the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in the mid-1990s, made use of what was at the time advanced software from France’s Dassault Group, aerospace being one of its main activities. Secondly he lived in Paris with his young family and the Jardin d’Acclimatation has very personal memories for him.

24 May 2015

The UK and ISIL

Looking back I find that Sir Richard Dannatt (once the general in charge of the British Army and now Lord Dannatt) was in six posts here in 2011, only one the following year and not at all since. Anyone who has the time might find the 2102 post, The Prescience of Mr Powell, of interest. It drew on Jonathan Powell’s account of the problems he and Tony Blair had had with Dannatt, in particular in 2006. The General had given an interview to the Daily Mail “saying that the presence of British forces in Iraq made things worse”.
Then, In the aftermath, we arranged for Tony to have a sandwich lunch with the service chiefs in Jock Stirrup's office at the MoD. Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job. Tony explained to those present that politicians would not support maintaining a first-division army if they were caused too much political pain by serving generals speaking out against their mission. It was always easier for politicians not to risk soldiers' lives. But I fear he was too subtle for Dannatt, who was divinely convinced of his own rightness.
So I was intrigued by an article by an article by Dannatt in the Mail on Sunday on 24 May 2015, I'm no gung-ho general, says the former Army chief LORD DANNATT - but the debate must start NOW to send in UK ground troops to combat evil of ISIS. Dannatt is appalled like most of us by the imminent destruction of Palmyra:
These majestic ruins represent thousands of years of human civilisation and there is now surely no doubting just how great a threat IS poses to civilisation in the region and beyond. If the problem of the IS caliphate is not resolved in Syria and Iraq, its ambition will spread across the Middle East, across North Africa and potentially into southern Europe and the Balkans – the historic high water mark of Islam in the 14th and 15th Centuries. And although the United States might think it enjoys the security of the Atlantic between itself and where IS wants to expand, it cannot forget the domestic terrorist threat. In light of this terrifying scenario, how much longer can Britain and the US continue to show such a lack of commitment to defeating IS militarily?
Since air strikes and what Dannatt refers to as “indigenous forces” are not defeating IS:
We have now reached a point when we must think the previously unthinkable and consider that British troops, acting as part of an international coalition, may be required to mount a ground campaign in Iraq and Syria.
The reason he thinks this would work is that:
IS has chosen to hold ground, and as such its troops are not classic insurgents but more akin to conventional soldiers. Unlike the Taliban, they're not moving in the shadows or hiding among civilians; tactics which caused huge problems in Afghanistan. Rather, they are operating in fully formed units and using conventional tactics. Therefore, they will present targets and objectives for international military forces to strike.
which is obliging of them, but several questions come to mind. Firstly why, are the air strikes failing if ISIL “are operating in fully formed units” which “present targets … to strike”? Secondly, if international coalition forces do appear, what will stop IS changing its tactics to “moving in the shadows or hiding among civilians … which caused huge problems in Afghanistan”? Thirdly, if the indigenous forces are performing so badly as they were recently at Ramadi, lacking the will to fight ISIL according to the US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, just how long term a commitment would any outside coalition be taking on? Fourthly, how would such a coalition deal with the mutual antipathy of the Shia and Sunni elements, the former linked to Iran, who constitute the “indigenous forces”? Rather obliviously, Dannatt later proposes:
… we should also be doing far more to support the indigenous forces currently fighting IS, giving them better equipment and information.
Although Dannatt says he is calling for a “public and political debate to begin immediately, so that the arguments for and against the deployment of Western ground forces can be aired”, it’s pretty obvious that his mind is made up:
If we decide to deploy, I think we should be looking at about 5,000 troops, a fully fledged brigade with infantry troops, attack helicopters, artillery, mortars, reconnaissance and surveillance assets.
which would be not that far removed from the size of the UK forces in Iraq in the later phases of Operation Telic and in Afghanistan in the later phases of Operation Herrick. Dannatt is clear that:
As the professional head of the British Army from 2006 to 2009, I will never forget the costs of the Iraq campaign in terms of the loss of UK soldiers, 179 of whom paid the ultimate price for the decision to invade. Likewise in southern Afghanistan, where more than 450 of our finest young men and women died trying to defeat the Taliban. But today we must find the courage of our convictions to put these costly wars behind us and go about defeating IS on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
There are some problems to be addressed on the way:
A UN Security Council resolution would be required to authorise such an intervention, with China and Russia persuaded not to veto the move. 
... [President Assad of Syria] should be forced to leave office as part of a deal and be granted sanctuary in another state. 
Regional powers such as Iran must also be consulted, perhaps behind closed doors.
Not to mention our own politicians:
… the incumbent Prime Minister and leaders of the other major parties adopted the mantra [in the run-up to the General Election] that wars are simply too politically toxic to be discussed.
But now:
While Prime Minister David Cameron is rightly not going to be pushed around by a retired general calling for this or that in terms of a ramped up British military involvement in Iraq and Syria, he should at least hear calls for a public debate.
At which point Dannatt ducks out on a modest note:
I am not suggesting that I have all the answers, far from it, but to those who would be wholly opposed to such a deployment, I would say do we really want to do nothing and simply watch what happens? Could the ambition of the IS caliphate get close enough to this country so that we face a far bigger problem later? I don't know. Such a deployment would be costly in terms of blood and treasure, and judgements must be made. The debate should start now.
Lurking in the background are some other problems: the UK government’s need to cut spending and, not unrelated, its forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review. An army which isn’t fighting, nor likely to, is in danger of being perceived as an outdoor and sporting activities club with high manpower costs, very expensive hardware and ceremonial uniforms – a likely target for savings measures. On the other hand, wars like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly cost billions of pounds – if only the benefits had been as clear. There are some serious questions, too, as to the US’s appetite for involvements of this kind – if the UK were to put 5000 troops into Iraq/Syria presumably it would be alongside, if no-one else, the US which would be fielding four to five times that level. As to whether the IS caliphate could get close to the UK – first time it was Tours, second Vienna:

And now read these pertinent extracts from Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference last September, posted here. What, if anything, to do? As the Duc de Lévis, 18th century Maréchal de France, pointed out, Gouverner, c'est choisir (To govern is to choose).

19 May 2015

Olivier Assayas’ ‘Clouds of Sils Maria’

In 1985 André Téchiné directed Rendez-vous, a film which he co-wrote with Olivier Assayas and which launched the acting career of Juliette Binoche. More recently Assayas directed and wrote Summer Hours (L'heure d'été) with Binoche in a leading role, so it’s perhaps not surprising that she would approach Assayas with an idea for a film about an actress who is having to confront personal and professional problems, particularly those of age. Clouds of Sils Maria, again written and directed by Assayas, was the result and, a year on from its appearance at Cannes, is on release in the UK. Whatever the reason for this delay, it wasn’t language since this film is mostly in English.

Binoche plays the part of Maria Enders, a famous actress whose success stemmed from a role in Maloja Snake, a play written by one Wilhelm Melchior, in which she was the younger element, Sigrid, of a lesbian affair with Helena, her boss. The play is to be revived in London and Enders is coming to terms with now taking the part of the older woman. Maria and her PA, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), are on their way by train to Zurich for a tribute to Melchior when they learn that he has died. Subsequently Melchior’s widow lets them stay in her house at Sils Maria while she is away. They walk in the mountains, swim and go to the casino and Valentine helps Maria rehearse her lines as Helena. Although Valentine is supposed to be reading Sigrid’s part (from what looks like a Faber and Faber paperback), what she is saying could easily be pertinent to her own relationship with Maria - only when she includes the stage directions are we certain that we are in the play and not the film.

Maria is unsettled by the prospect of working opposite her successor as Sigrid, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising young starlet much admired by Valentine. Maria’s researches on Google do nothing to reassure her - Assayas seems to have enjoyed himself knocking up some Hollywood SFX schlock* starring Jo-Ann - but when Maria eventually meets her in a posh alpine hotel, it all seems more promising. The film ends with a Sequel set in London prior to the opening, when Jo-Ann, not for the first time, has a run-in with the papararazzi. We see Maloja Snake being performed on a set so large that even the National Theatre would find it difficult to accommodate.

So what underlies this film? Apart from alpine scenery (summery rather than snowy as in Force Majeure, another recent Cannes 2014 arrival, but just as unreal and brooding), much of it is in the mind of the beholder. Take the skinny-dipping scene, for example, when Maria strips off with aplomb and plunges into the chilly lake but Valentine keeps her undies on including “absolutely enormous panties”. Is she worried about sapphic advances by her employer - later Maria sees her wearing a thong after a night out? And then there is the metaphorical Maloja Snake, a dramatic meteorological phenomenon involving clouds and valleys – but of uncertain significance not just in the film but also in the play. And whatever happened to …  – but that would be a spoiler.

The real critics liked this film: “complex, bewitching and fearlessly intelligent” and “the kind of ravishingly smart, liltingly beautiful film you assume isn’t being made any more” and nearly all gave it 4* ratings. I thought it was ponderous at times, didn’t really address “challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions (see below)” apart from the problem of being an ageing actress, though Binoche at 50 has no problem playing 40, that there were oddities in the cutting – the weather must change fast in the Alps – and why the formal demarcation of the Epilogue? There might just as well have been a Prologue for the scenes before the arrival at the Melchiors’ house. Of his previous work that I can remember, I prefer Assayas’ ‘French’ films like Something in the Air and Summer Hours. Apparently Clouds of Sils Maria was financed in part by Chanel, “providing some of the budget to allow Olivier Assayas to fulfill his dream of shooting a film on 35-mm film instead of digitally” according to Wikipedia, but just a drop in the lake out of their advertising budget I would imagine.

*Nicely put in this article, Simon Pegg criticises ‘dumbing down’ of cinema, in the Guardian on 19 May 2015:
Pegg, who played chief engineer Scotty in the recent Star Trek films, added: “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.
“Now we’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes. Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously. 
“It is a kind of dumbing down, in a way, because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about … whatever. 
“Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

18 May 2015

Grayson Perry’s A House for Essex

“Living Architecture [LLP] was set up five years ago to revolutionise both architecture and UK holiday rentals. We offer a chance to rent houses for a holiday designed by some of the most talented architects at work today, set in some of the most stunning locations in Britain.” 

A documentary on Channel 4 on 18 May, Grayson Perry’s Dream House, revealed Living Architecture’s latest acquisition, A House for Essex, designed by Perry and FAT Architecture. The Living Architecture webpage is full of useful links and images (below) so there is little need for more here. I thought an article in Dezeen magazine particularly informative for the majority of us who, after all, are unlikely to visit the place. 

The House, although secular, was commissioned in the tradition of wayside and pilgrimage chapels and the exterior was influenced, according to the Independent, by arts and crafts houses, English Baroque architecture and Stave churches – medieval churches made of wood. It is dedicated to a saint:
Perry’s saint is a “secular Essex everywoman,” a fictional character called Julie Cope, for whom he has created a rich back story. “I wanted her biography to reflect Essex and women since the war,” he said. Inside the property is a statue of Julie and four tapestries. They tell the story from her birth in 1953 during the great flood of Canvey Island to her death in 2014, when she was killed by a curry house delivery driver on a scooter.
As to where Perry the artist is taking us, I’m not much wiser. Julie’s sad and violent end is reminiscent of that of Tim Rakewell in the sixth of Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, Lamentation, back in 2012. There was a glimpse at the start of the documentary of some of his preliminary sketches for the House. I would certainly like to see more of his drawings; not all contemporary artists have such a talent - or risk showing it.

At the end of the show Perry, in a new ‘Julie’ transvestite alter ego (poster at top), took a group of real Essex women actually called Julie to see the house. One of them at least seemed quite moved by it, all good telly anyway. Channel 4 is the home of Grand Designs, the first in a genre of TV programmes about building projects, mostly beset by problems with builders, weather and cost over-runs. None such in Grayson Perry’s Dream House, whose builders and architect all seemed to know what they were doing, though there was little about the constructional details – how were all those Julie tiles secured? As far as cost problems are concerned, perhaps Simon Kuper, writing about Art and the billionaire heirs, in the FT Weekend Magazine on May 16/17, shed some light:
When I joined the FT as a graduate trainee in 1994 I was told that someone called Alain de Botton had been offered the same job the year before. But de Botton - whose millionaire father had left him a trust fund reportedly worth £200m – had decided to write books instead. He insists he never touched his dad’s money. Still presumably it made artistic life feel secure.
De Botton, the author of, among other things, The Architecture of Happiness, is the creative director and chairman of Living Architecture.

So far I haven’t seen any comparisons between A House for Essex and the Watts Mortuary Chapel at Compton in Surrey – well worth a visit, as is its custodian, the Watts Gallery.

17 May 2015

NT Live: Man and Superman

George Bernard Shaw’s comedy drama Man and Superman was published in 1903 and first performed in 1905. Set in an upper class London milieu, but one with ‘advanced’ (progressive as we might say) views, it revolves around a radical political activist, John Tanner, and his reluctance to form a relationship with his (feisty as we might say) ward, Anne Whitfield. Simon Godwin’s adaptation for the National Theatre includes the play’s rarely seen third act, a dream in which Tanner/Don Juan encounters Anne/Ana and the Devil in Hell (below). Ralph Fiennes’ Tanner is a tour de force of physical and mental stamina, with only the interval as respite over more than three hours, almost matched by that of Indira Varma as Anne, while Tim McMullan is so cool as the Devil.

Hell: Fiennes and other people
For me, the director’s decision to put Man and Superman in the present day (it starts with Desert Island Discs) rather than play it as a period piece led to some uneasy anomalies – Tanner receives a text message on his mobile phone and an American is the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer - he wouldn't be now, he would be a Chinese, from the country where the phone was made! More seriously, Shaw’s ideas about the relationships between men and women, the dominance in them of marriage
It is a woman’s business to get married as soon as possible, and a man’s to keep unmarried as long as he can.
‘the Life Force’ and ‘political economy’ belong in a remote world, not only more than a century ago but one that the First World War would turn upside down. Moving Shaw’s views to the present day makes them seem backward, misleadingly so when he was, in his time, a progressive and feminist.

The inclusion of the third act was probably a good idea in revival. Its removal in the past was possibly as much due to Shaw’s irreverence for religion – there is much ironic debate about the virtues of Hell as opposed to the dullness of Heaven - as it was for brevity. But the whole play should have been cut, retaining Shaw’s wit
There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.
and removing his long windedness - a job for a Tom Stoppard.

As a NT Live production it seemed less ‘filmic’ in its use of close-up than The Hard Problem (posted about last month), but, for me, still spent too much time too close to actors whose technique was theatrical and meant to be seen at a distance. Nonetheless we hicks in the sticks remain grateful for the opportunity to see first rate ‘live’ performances which we wouldn’t get near otherwise. Next up here, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in the autumn I hope.

There will be NT Live Encore performances of Man and Superman later this month and in June, depending on location. Good luck when you are trying to locate them on NT Live’s website.

14 May 2015

RN Trident after the UK General Election

During the election campaign Labour made it clear that they would continue with a UK nuclear deterrent and that it would by implication be in the form of SSBNs with Trident SLBMs:
Labour remains committed to a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent. We will actively work to increase momentum on global multilateral disarmament efforts and negotiations, and look at further reductions in global stockpiles and the numbers of weapons. (page 78 and 79, Britain can be better, The Labour Party Manifesto 2015)
Elsewhere there were four mentions of NATO, none in the context of nuclear deterrence.

Almost as near to the end of their manifesto, the Conservatives were more specific about the number of submarines and the Trident system:
We will retain the Trident continuous at sea nuclear deterrent to provide the ultimate guarantee of our safety and build the new fleet of four Successor Ballistic Missile Submarines – securing thousands of highly-skilled engineering jobs in the UK. We will work closely with our allies to continue to strengthen NATO – supporting its new multi-national rapid response force. We will maintain our global presence, strengthening our defence partnerships in the Gulf and Asia. Later this year, we will hold a National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review to plan for the future. (page 77, The Conservative Party Manifesto 2015)
There were six other mentions of NATO, again none were in the context of nuclear deterrence.

By comparison, the SNP seemed mildly obsessed with Trident and nuclear weapons, a subject which appeared six times in their manifesto spread from pages 3 to 38 (see Annex below). However, there was no mention of NATO at all, even though the “High North and Arctic are a key priority for Scotland”. Of course, this avoided any need to address the problem of pursuing unilateral disarmament and in so doing destabilising a nuclear alliance, as had been apparent in the 2013 white paper, Scotland’s Future Your Guide to an Independent Scotland (discussed here last year).

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon at a CND rally in April 2015
But the election of a Conservative government seems to have given a green light (if not a blue one) to four new SSBNs with Trident missiles. The bloc of 56 SNP MPs at Westminster could not win a vote against it, even with the support of left-wing Labour and Liberal (Democrat) members. But this ignores the new reality of Scottish politics with the SNP seeking to make any suitable issue – the repeal of the Human Rights Act, for example – into one of Westminster dominating Scotland and so bolstering the case for another independence referendum.

In terms of defence planning, with its timescales of years or even decades at the level of the “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review”, endorsement of the future of the deterrent can hardly avoid addressing the contingency of another independence referendum in which the No/Yes vote of 45/55% in 2014 might be reversed. So adamant are the views of the SNP on the subject in their manifesto that it seems unlikely that any compromise would be forthcoming in any independence negotiations. The relocation of the deterrent from Scotland to SW England has been the subject of more than one post on this blog. Most recently, last October, I concluded:
Following the referendum result, the problems that might have arisen after independence, of which Trident’s future was just one, have moved off the political agenda. Although the possibility of Scottish independence cannot be ruled out for all time, it seems most unlikely that resourcing submarine relocation would be recommended in the UK’s Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) due in 2015.
Now I’m not so sure – and having taken so many Lib Dem seats in SW England, the Conservatives will doubtless want to hold on to them. An article in the Financial Times on 14 May, Conservative vote rose in seats receiving extra government money, drawing on Social Market Foundation research, makes the point nicely.

Annex Stronger for Scotland 

And we want the precious resources of our country to be invested in building a better future for our children, not on a new generation of nuclear weapons. (page 3, Stronger for Scotland, SNP Manifesto 2015)

• For no new nuclear weapons – we continue to oppose nuclear weapons and will seek to block a new generation of nuclear weapons, saving as much as £4 billion a year in the mid-2020s. (page 5)

We will invest in our economy to create more and better paid jobs. And we will oppose a new generation of nuclear weapons. (page 7)

We will oppose plans for a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons and seek to build an alliance in the House of Commons against Trident renewal. We will vote for the £100 billion that the Westminster parties plan to spend on Trident renewal to be invested instead in better childcare, education and the NHS. (page 8)

We also propose different spending and taxation priorities. At a time when thousands of our citizens are forced to use food banks, there can be no doubt that spending billions on a new generation of nuclear weapons is unjustifiable. A vote for the SNP is a vote to halt progress on Trident renewal, delivering a saving of £100 billion over the next 35 years. (page 14)

And in a lengthy section on Defence that works for the people of Scotland:

As a northern European nation, our near neighbourhood including the High North and Arctic are a key priority for Scotland. The forthcoming UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) must take full account of the particular challenges and opportunities of the northern regional dimension, and of the need to be more effective at combatting cyber-terrorism where the SDSR must lay out a clear strategy, including continued engagement with the Scottish Government.

The SDSR must review the current Ministry of Defence record, which includes falsely inflating spending commitments, mismanaging Army personnel reforms and creating dangerous capability gaps.

In particular, we believe there should be ocean going conventional patrol vessels based permanently in Scotland and will seek the early procurement of multirole Maritime Patrol Aircraft purchased ‘off the shelf’ by the end of this parliament and operating from Scotland. The SDSR must also fully consider the advantages of a defence policy without weapons of mass destruction and wasting £100bn renewing Trident. We will continue in our principled opposition to nuclear weapons and believe that the UK should abandon plans to renew the Trident nuclear missile system. In addition, the MoD should also publish in full current and projected annual costs of the Trident system and its proposed successor programme, including nuclear weapons through-life costs. (pages 19 and 20)

The SNP goes into this election with a clear message - none of us can afford more austerity. Our NHS, our economy and our children can't afford the billions of pounds of additional cuts that the Tories, Labour and Liberals have signed up to. And none of us can afford the £100 billion they plan to spend on new nuclear weapons. (page 38)

12 May 2015

UK General Election 2015

Back in March I was foolish enough to post about forecasting the outcome of the UK election on 7 May:
My hunch is that the LibDems will do better in their established areas than the national polling would suggest, and also that Labour will do better in Scotland than some of the forecasts are indicating.
Oh dear, my hunch was way wrong – so were other people’s forecasts, all based on opinion polling which turned out in retrospect, almost without exception (Survation and internal Labour party polling, both revealed after the event), to have been near useless until the exit poll. This chart updates one in the earlier post to show the final forecasts and the actual outcome:

That post had another chart, also updated below, which showed the relationship between the votes cast for Conservatives and Labour and the seats the parties obtained, both expressed as percentages. The first-past-the-post voting system tends to reward parties in that as they get more votes, they get even more seats (otherwise the dotted grey line would apply). However Labour does better than the Conservatives (the thin red line through their recent election results as opposed to the thin blue one). The dotted lines seem as good a guide as most of the more sophisticated forecasting models – assuming the forecast percentages of votes are correct.

Finally, will it be 1992 all over again in terms of the number of MPs? In the UK as a whole and looking at the two main parties, far worse for Labour alone, but in terms of Conservatives vs a Labour/Lib Dem/SNP bloc, remarkably similar. In England and Wales terms, Northern Ireland and Scotland both now being insignificant for the three main parties, Labour are slightly better placed than in 1992, but again in terms of Conservatives vs a Labour/Lib Dem bloc very similar:

4 May 2015

Ian McEwan’s ‘The Children Act’

Being one of the most successful modern British novelists, Ian McEwan’s interest in the lives of others at the top of their professions is understandable. In Saturday (2005) it was a neurosurgeon, in Solar (2010) a Nobel-prize winning scientist, and in The Children Act (2014) a High Court judge. In each case McEwan explores an individual’s response to the conflicting demands of professional and personal existence. All the more agreeable when, as in The Children Act, lived against a domestic backdrop of Renoir lithographs, chaise longues, Bokhara rugs, Talisker whisky, and “multi-generational holidays in the cheaper sort of castle”.

In his latest novel, Fiona Maye not only has to preside over difficult cases which have been taken to the Family Division but has a marital crisis to deal with as well. At 59, she and her husband Jack are, as McEwan puts it, “in the infancy of old age”. However, Jack has decided that he would like a last fling with Melanie, a 28-year old, so by definition young enough to be his daughter - though the Mayes are childless. Seeking to have his cake and eat it, Jack would like his thirty five years of marriage to continue but Fiona, after some inner turmoil:
He had always been kind, loyal and kind, and kindness, the Family Division daily proved, was the essential human ingredient. She had the power to remove a child from an unkind parent and she sometimes did. But remove herself from an unkind husband?
sends him away and has the locks of their flat in Gray’s Inn Square changed.

Melanie, like Jack is an academic,  - "His only book for the non-academic reader, a pacy life of Julius Caesar, made him briefly almost famous …”. Possibly McEwan does not consider the academic world as part of the front rank of professional life. Michael Beard, his Nobel stemming more from luck than brilliance, is almost a charlatan while in Sweet Tooth (2012) Tony Canning and Thomas Haley, both university lecturers, are less than admirable characters, to put it kindly.

Much of The Children Act is spent describing Fiona’s cases, the arguments on both sides and the judgements she reaches, more than on her own predicament. One particular case, taking up more than half the book, requires a ruling on the case of an almost adult Jehovah’s Witness whose family are resisting a medically necessary transfusion. It leads Fiona to make an exceptional decision to visit Adam, the boy in question, in hospital:
This, Fiona decided as her taxi halted in heavy traffic on Waterloo bridge, was either about a woman on the edge of a crack-up making a sentimental error of professional judgement, or it was about a boy delivered from or into the beliefs of his sect by the intimate intervention of the secular court. She didn’t think it could be both.
The Children Act relates how this visit turns into a liaison which is potentially dangerous to Fiona’s career but brings some symmetry to her marriage. The novel is set in 2012, mostly in the legal quarter of a London described with nods to Dickens and Woolf that even I could recognise. As in other McEwan novels there are digressions, for example an account of Fiona’s performing in front of her peers at a concert – Christmas Revels for the Bar – is probably most appealing to readers familiar with the music she is playing. Earlier her husband describes a geology lecture he has attended where it was conjectured that in a hundred million years all that will remain of the Anthropocene epoch will be just six inches of sediment.

Although McEwan has had personal experience of the Family Division, in writing the book, as the Acknowledgements indicate, he benefited from high level advice from within the legal world. So perhaps unsurprisingly he is not as critical of the Bar as some might have hoped. Indeed anyone aware of its arcane arrangements starting with the process of seeking a pupillage and its arbitrary outcomes may be puzzled by just how sympathetically McEwan regards it, although:
A friend, a stalwart of the Queen’s Bench, steered [Fiona] over to meet a ‘brilliant’ barrister who happened to be his nephew. Watched over by the proud uncle, she asked solicitous questions of a thin young man with a pitiful stammer. … an old girlfriend stole her away to a circle of mutinous young women barristers who told her, though in humorous terms, that they weren’t getting the quality work. It was going to the men.
In September 2014 in an article for the Guardian, Ian McEwan: the law versus religious belief, the author provided some background to the writing of The Children Act and concluded:
… the family division is rooted in the same ground as fiction, where all of life's vital interests lie. With the luxury of withholding judgment, a novel could interpose itself here, reinvent the characters and circumstances, and begin to investigate an encounter between love and belief, between the secular spirit of the law and sincerely held faith.
Earlier he had observed that:
Judgments in the family division tend to genuflect politely before the religious devotion of the parties, before arriving at decisions on non-religious grounds.
But at the end of the novel Fiona reaches a shameful conclusion:
Adam came looking for her and she offered nothing in religion’s place, no protection, even though the Act was clear, her paramount consideration was his welfare. How many pages in how many judgements had she devoted to that term? Welfare, well-being was social. No child is an island. She thought her responsibilities ended at the courtroom walls. But how could they? He came to find her, wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.
Three trivial points. McEwan announced on Facebook in November 2014 that he was writing the screenplay for a film version of The Children Act to be directed by Richard Eyre – they don’t seem to have told IMDb about it yet. He said:
In the part of the central figure, a 60 year old High Court judge, Richard wants to cast one of the best screen actresses in the world. At this stage, it would be improper to name her. But if she were to take on the part, the act of writing itself would be transformed. A face, a voice, a gesture is already embodied in a vibrant person capable of pouring herself into any shape. The transition would take on new interest and force. Fingers crossed.
Not so difficult to make a guess as to who that might be. Secondly, Cafcass is mentioned twice without explanation, its role probably being obvious. Finally, and revealing my ignorance of upper class life, just how does Fiona’s baby grand piano, presumably with the lid up, accommodate “in country-house style” silver-framed photographs of:
Both sets of parents from wedding day to dotage, his three sisters, her two brothers, their wives and husbands present and past … eleven nephews and nieces, then the thirteen children they in turn had made.