29 September 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Getting to 2020

I met Jeremy Corbyn back in 2003 when I was spending a day being educated on the ways of Parliament, which included discussions with MPs. Three of us, perhaps at the time not appreciating what would eventually become memorable, went for a cup of tea with Corbyn in Portcullis House. Casting about for a non-partisan topic, I asked him about ways to improve electoral turnout (it had been down to 59.4% in the 2001 general election). I remember the question but not the answer, so in retrospect it seems unlikely that anything particularly radical was suggested. Twelve years later Corbyn has emerged from relative obscurity and is Leader of the Labour Party and the Opposition and, although it seems unlikely, could become Prime Minister in 2020.

The commentariat are going flat out with Corbyn prognoses. Even before he was elected, Sebastian Payne asked on Spectator Coffee House
If Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, how long would he last?
and concluded that, if not challenged immediately,
Corbyn would be challenged a few months/years in his leadership. There is one particular flashpoint next year to watch: 5 May 2016. If Labour fails to win the Mayor of London race, loses Wales and fails to make any progress in Scotland, there will be calls for him to go.
Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph thought that the vote on Trident replacement in March 2016 would be a moment of reckoning (though Corbyn later told Andrew Marr that the vote would possibly be in June). On the other hand, John Rentoul in the Independent thought that the Labour Party
is so denuded of talent that it is hard to see where the succession to Corbyn will come from. Part of the reason for his success is the thinness of the field against him, but look beyond them and behold a wasteland.
Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer was full of misgivings:
For the moment, the spectacle of a leader and his top team agreeing to disagree on a host of critical issues at least has the merit of being unusual. It is the price Mr Corbyn is being forced to pay to avoid an immediate civil war with his MPs. It can’t be sustainable. There will be a crunch point between leader and parliamentary party. Then things will get really interesting.
but was not inclined to speculate about timescales:
Earlier foolish talk about a rapid attempt to unseat him has evaporated. The thumping scale of his victory means that his opponents within will have to tread very carefully for the moment. Yet the truth can’t be concealed. This leaves Labour MPs more divided than I have ever known them. Divided between those who are convinced that the Corbyn leadership will be an instant disaster and those who reckon it will be more of a slow-burning catastrophe for their party. Then there are those who candidly confess that they have no idea where their party is now going. “I think I know how this will end,” says one. “But I can’t say when.”
The Guardian made public Peter Mandelson’s private views that it would be “a long haul”:
Nobody will replace him, though, until he demonstrates to the party his unelectability at the polls. In this sense, the public will decide Labour’s future and it would be wrong to try and force this issue from within before the public have moved to a clear verdict.
In the FT Magazine, out just as the Labour party conference started, George Parker and Jim Packard had a long piece, Jeremy Corbyn: how long can he last?, but, not surprisingly, didn’t provide a specific answer. On the one hand:
“We have to give him time to fail and to make it clear to all his supporters that this cannot work,” says one moderate Labour MP. “There can’t be a coup now: we would have blood on our hands.” 
… “It’s going to go wrong,” says another senior Blairite former minister. “We just don’t know when.”
And on the other:
From David Cameron’s point of view, the longer Corbyn stays in the job the better. … “This is proof that God is a Conservative,” says one Cameron ally. The Cameron/Osborne strategy is to hope that Corbyn remains leader as long as possible and that years of leftwing-inspired chaos will cause irreparable damage to the Labour brand. 
… Cameron’s allies ponder whether Corbyn can hack the responsibility, the pressure and the mental strain of his new job and the need for constant accommodation and compromise with his party. “Cameron’s mentally extremely strong and even he can find it tough,” says one friend of the prime minister. “Corbyn’s 66. He’s never faced anything like this.” But Dave Prentis, head of the union Unison, says Corbyn has the stamina to survive the coming months. “He has done 100 rallies this summer. I have seen a man who, wherever he has gone, has shown commitment and fortitude,” he says. “Do I think he has the stamina for this? Yes.” 
On the totalpolitics website, James Skidmore explained Why Jeremy Corbyn will still be Labour leader in 2020, described the three hurdles any challenger would have to clear and concluded, fairly convincingly:
Essentially, the choice facing moderates now is how much rope do they give Corbyn? Until after the 2016 elections or until after 2020? Your correspondent reckons that when they sit down and think through the process they will leave it to 2020.
Given such uncertainty, I thought it might be interesting to look for any statistics which sum up the experiences of past Leaders of the Opposition (Leaders or LoOs hereon). To illuminate Corbyn’s position, comparisons should be made only with those individuals who have sought Leadership as a first step towards possible premiership. This rules out those who have had the office thrust upon them, that is those who have become Prime Minister (PM) by another route and then lost an election, most notably Churchill. Also excluded are interim, if recurrent, Leaders like Harriet Harman.

Initially the selection was confined to the last 80 years, beginning with George Lansbury who became Labour Leader in 1935 and, because of his pacifist views, is seen as having similarities to Corbyn. Over that period there were 14 men and one woman Leaders ab initio, nine Labour and six Conservative. Three of each party went on to win an election so the success rates are 33% for Labour and 50% for the Tories – success being defined as moving from LoO to PM. However, on examination Attlee’s position is exceptional. Lansbury resigned in October 1938, Attlee becoming Labour leader and losing the general election held a month later. Attlee eventually became PM in 1945 but had ceased to be Leader of the Opposition in February 1942 on appointment as Deputy PM in the wartime coalition.

Leader of the Opposition statistics
(notes at the end of the post)
So while it is useful for some purposes, like age on becoming Leader to include Lansbury and Attlee, comparisons with Corbyn for issues like age at the first subsequent general election are more appropriately made looking at the last 60 years. This is the period since Gaitskell became Labour Leader in 1955 and reduces the selection to 12 men and one woman. Seven of these were Labour and six Conservative with two Labour and three Conservative successes, 29% and 50% respectively.


Age is unarguable and Corbyn is certainly younger starting as LoO at 66 than Michael Foot or George Lansbury but at nearly 71 would be older at the time of the next election (7 May 2020) than any of the 11 of his 13 predecessors who survived to an election. Only two of them were over 60, neither man was successful. (In the last 80 years the only successful LoO older than Corbyn was Churchill at nearly 77 in 1951, but, as an ex-PM, and for other good reasons, there is no comparison).

Time in office

In May 2020, Corbyn would have been Leader longer than any of his predecessors except Heath who was successful. The five successful LoOs were in office slightly longer than the six unsuccessful ones but this masks an interesting difference between the two successful Labour LoOs who were in office for less than three years (2.2 average) and the three Conservatives, all more than four years (4.5 average). One could theorise that the UK media build up Tory LoOs, who thereby benefit from time in office, but conduct a war of attrition against Labour LoOs who do better the sooner they can get to Election day.


Although correlated with age, health is always a matter of speculation. It seems reasonable to assume that if Corbyn has, or has had, any significant medical events and issues, they would have emerged in the media by now. To judge from his appearance, Corbyn does not look particularly young for his age. His not dowsing his hair in dye, like so many other politicians, if anything adds to his “authenticity” – perhaps it will encourage others to stop. He is long-sighted (presbyopia) to judge from the photograph of him looking over the top of his glasses at the TUC audience (below top left), as to be expected at 66. He looks slightly overweight to judge from the St Paul’s photograph of him not singing the National Anthem (below top right) – more than might be expected of a vegetarian, almost teetotal, cyclist. In future it can be assumed that he will be cycling less and making more use of the transport provided for LoOs (below lower) and gain weight.

When he was forming his Shadow cabinet in the House of Commons on 13 September, Corbyn was observed by Darren McCaffrey, Politics Reporter for Sky News:
… at the end of a bookshelf-lined corridor, opening up to the members’ lobby and behind a door grandly named Her Majesty’s Official Opposition Whips’ Office, Jeremy Corbyn was holed up. … And again Jeremy emerged, which he seemed to do once every hour, when a toilet break was needed.
Needing to urinate that frequently suggests that Corbyn has an enlarged prostate pressing on his bladder. If so, that would be a common condition (BPH) in a 66-year old male.

Corbyn is in the unusual position of a man having to give up his hobbies to work at an age when many others have already done the opposite. Should he become PM, he and a future King Charles could at least have that in common. Until now Corbyn has been doing what he enjoys with the salary and continuity of employment of an MP with a safe seat. His interests seem to revolve around the far left of politics and he has been able to spend his time engaged with like-minded people. As an MP answerable to no-one, certainly not his party’s whips, he has been able to avoid the stresses and conflicts of working life which he would have encountered in white collar employment. Men of his age at his salary level in the real world, if they haven’t already quit, will mostly be about to escape from having to meet the unrealistic aspirations of self-serving senior managers while overcoming the reluctance of subordinates to embark on anything but the mildest change.

It seems likely that nothing in Corbyn’s previous experience (apart from two divorces) will approach the stresses that he will encounter in The Worst Job in British Politics. So far he seems to be avoiding confrontation where possible, for example the first PMQs. If an interviewer, and there have been few so far, raises difficult issues, these are being deflected with vague promises of consultative forums and discussions which will arrive at agreements acceptable to all involved. That sort of obfuscation can only go on for so long. For Corbyn the stress of having to compromise sincere beliefs which have hardly ever been challenged, let alone had to be defended could eventually take its physical toll. Oddly enough, the two Labour predecessors to whom he is most often compared, Foot and Lansbury, lived on to the ages of 96 and 81 respectively. However, two Labour LoOs have died in office, Smith and Gaitskell, at 55 and 56.

Leader of the Opposition
Month of taking office and outcome

As investment funds make clear, past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results – or words to
that effect. This is particularly so when the underlying statistics are so scant. But if Corbyn’s health holds out, and, in the hope that 70 is the new 60 I would not want otherwise, the statistics for previous LoOs in terms of age and time in office are not encouraging for him. Nor is the final table (right) which shows the outcomes for the 13 LoOs depending on their month of taking office, unfortunately September in Corbyn’s case.

On past performance Labour would do well to change Leader about two years before the next election – February 2018 looks a particularly auspicious time for a Corbyn successor, someone in their late 40s, to take office. In the unlikely event that anyone takes previous posts on this blog seriously, it would seem a good idea to select a second-born middle-born who went to Oxford!

(a) Died in office 12 May 1994
(b) Resigned 6 November 2003
(c) Died in office 18 January 1963


As far as I know, the first media report about Corbyn’s health which has appeared is the one in the Independent on Sunday (IoS) today, Jeremy Corbyn's allies accuse MPs of 'spreading lies' about Labour leader's health, an exclusive by Tom McTague. What I regard as the relevant extracts are below, but the original is easy to access.
Labour’s increasingly bitter civil war has deepened after allies of Jeremy Corbyn accused MPs of “spreading lies” about the 66-year-old’s health in an attempt to destabilise his leadership. Labour’s increasingly bitter civil war has deepened after allies of Jeremy Corbyn accused MPs of “spreading lies” about the 66-year-old’s health in an attempt to destabilise his leadership. … 
Sources close to the Labour leader have revealed that he has been forced to reassure MPs in private that he is not going to quit after being made aware of “smears” circulating Parliament about his fitness for the job – including the “categorically untrue” allegation that he briefly “passed out” under stress in his office last month. … 
One senior Labour source close to Mr Corbyn told The IoS that he had emerged from the past week strengthened – and demanded an end to personal insults and smears about his health. … 
A shadow minister, who did not want to be named, went further – accusing anti-Corbyn MPs of being “prepared to spread lies about Jeremy’s health in order to assist them in their aim” of destroying his leadership. He added: “You can’t get much lower than spreading lies about someone’s health to undermine them and their ideas.


On 5 February Ken Livingstone appeared for about 15 minutes on RT News Thing. About four minutes in, being pressed as to whether he might become Labour leader after Corbyn, he said:
If Jeremy was pushed under a bus being driven by Boris Johnson, it would all rally behind John McDonnell.
Almost at the end of the session he reinforced the point, but less hypothetically:
I keep telling you, it’ll be John McDonnell. If Jeremy was to have a stroke or something like that, it will not be me.
For comparison with the table above, John McDonnell was born on 8 September 1951 and would be 68.7 on 7 May 2020.

21 September 2015

Canaletto at the Holburne, Bath

It is difficult to imagine anyone taking a strong dislike to the art of Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768). Representational certainly, camera obscura produced even, nonetheless it provides an invaluable, almost photographic, record of the Europe of nearly 300 years ago. From 1746, when he was invited by the Duke of Northumberland to record the construction of the new Westminster Bridge, to 1755, Canaletto painted English scenes, mostly in London. Canaletto Celebrating Britain, now at the Holburne Museum, Bath after a first showing at Compton Verney, brings together major works from his time here.

The son of the painter Bernardo Canal, and hence known as Canaletto, was born into a townscape shaped by architects like Andrea Palladio (1508-80). So starting the show with a reminder of Canaletto's Venice and two fine canvases from Manchester of about 1740, Church of the Redentore (below) and Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, seems wholly appropriate.

Canaletto's Britain then follows, starting with two of Compton Verney's own scenes of the London pleasure gardens of the day, The Interior of the Rotunda, Ranelagh, London (1754) and The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London (c1751, below):

followed by Dulwich Picture Gallery's View of Walton Bridge (c1754, poster above) and the Royal Collection's two Views from the Terrace of Somerset House (1750-51) of the City and of Westminster (below):

The Old Horse Guards from St James' Park (c1749, below) is complemented by the rarely shown c1752 view of the New Horse Guards.

Canaletto's paintings are large so there is an inevitable loss of detail in small scale reproductions. A close look at the originals reveals some pleasing features, for example the coach and horses going over Walton Bridge and the carpet beaters at work near Horse Guards:

And they invariably flatter the English climate by making it resemble the Italian spring of an aristocrat's Grand Tour.

Finally, Canaletto's legacy is demonstrated in works by Samuel Scott - An Arch of Westminster Bridge (c1751, below):

 and William Marlow's dramatic and imaginary fusion of London and Venice, Capriccio: St Paul's Cathedral and a Venetian Canal (c1795, below):

Although the construction of Georgian Bath in the Palladian style had begun in the early 1700s and the Circus was under construction at the time he left England, sadly for us Canaletto does not seem to have had the opportunity to paint in the fashionable spa.

Canaletto Celebrating Britain ends in Bath on 4 October and will be at Abbot Hall, Kendal from 22 October to 13 February 2016.

20 September 2015

Woody Allen’s ‘Irrational Man’

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a philosophy teacher with strains of Hunter S Thompson and Howard Kirk, Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. The film starts as Abe is on his way to a lecturing job at Braylin College, an imaginary US campus where the only courses seem to be Chemistry and Philosophy 101, where the students live with their liberal intellectual parents in choicely furnished homes and the girls wear short summery dresses.

Abe is in a depressed state, even for the onset of early middle-age, such that his libido, a legend which had preceded his arrival, lets him down even when Rita Richards (Parker Posey), also on the faculty, gets herself into his bed at the earliest opportunity. Having to deliver lectures which make Philosophy for Dummies seem stretching can't do much for his angst but they make a big impression on the students, particularly Jill Pollard (Emma Stone). Abe and Jill become an item (openly and against college rules but no one seems to care), albeit platonic (not that he lectures about the Symposium, being more of a Sartre man). An Allenish cute encounter provides Abe with the chance to make the world a better place by an act of murder, a realisation which restores his masculine vitality.

How he commits this crime and how things subsequently go awry are revealed partly in retrospect by Jill and partly by narrative. The plot has some obvious shortcomings: not least you have to accept that Braylin is so laid back that anything can happen there and that Rita and Jill would be on such good terms when competing for the same man. If it had been told at a faster pace - not difficult - Irrational Man would have done nicely as one of the 30 minute pieces Allen is to make for Amazon.

As Allen's recent works go, Irrational Man is superior to Magic in the Moonlight, (and gave Emma Stone a better part) but not as good as Blue Jasmine. As with Magic in the Moonlight some of the shooting was in evening light, perhaps that is going to be a characteristic of late Allen. It was good to be reminded just how agreeable Rhode Island can be in the summer.

14 September 2015

78 Derngate, Northampton

In 1926 a Northampton industrialist, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953), and his wife moved into
‘New Ways’, their new home designed by the German architect Peter Behrens. ‘New Ways’ is now considered to be one of the first Modernist houses in the UK* which indicates how far architectural fashion in this country was behind continental Europe. For example, a recent post here described how in Bordeaux at almost the same time another industrialist and contemporary of Bassett-Lowke, Henri Frugès (1879-1974), was sponsoring a garden suburb of houses. These were being designed by one of the next generation of architects, Le Corbusier**, who had been a draughtsman for Behrens in Berlin in 1910. To be fair to Bassett-Lowke, he would probably have had his house built far sooner had it not been for the First World War. But if he had, Northampton would only have one remarkable house instead of two, ‘New Ways’ and 78 Derngate.

In anticipation of his marriage in 1917, Bassett-Lowke wanted a home which would reflect his taste for modern European design at a time when no new houses were being built. The only practical option was a conversion and two local architects living in Derngate in Northampton proposed structural alterations and a rear extension to number 78, about 100 years old at the time. Notably, the stairs were altered to run across the house instead of back to front so that among other things, the front door (above) no longer opened on to a hall and stairs. For the decoration and design detail of the principal rooms, Bassett-Lowke engaged the services of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), highly regarded on the Continent. By 1916 Mackintosh was no longer practicing in Glasgow and had moved to Chelsea in London.

After 1926, 78 Derngate was sold, had various occupiers and, after restoration, became open to the public in 2003. Three rooms are of particular Macintosh interest: the Hall/Lounge, the Dining Room and the Guest Bedroom.

Noteworthy features of the Hall/Lounge include the settee in the window, the fireplace and the newel-post and stair screen (below):

and the wall-stencilling and the overhead light (below):

The Hall/Lounge decoration was changed substantially in 1922 with some input from Mackintosh; the restoration is to the original design. The Dining Room has less by Mackintosh who designed the fireplace, cupboards and lanterns (below). The wall-paper was the Bassett-Lowkes’ choice as opposed to plain white. 

The Guest Bedroom is almost as striking as the Hall/Lounge, and possibly better-known, with its strong combination of colour and geometry (below left ,78 Derngate; below right, Hunterian Art Gallery Glasgow):

As part of the restoration of 78 Derngate, the house next door, 80 Derngate, has been turned into a visitor centre from which there is access to 78 at kitchen level below the street. Visitors then ascend to the Dining Room and Hall/ Lounge level and then up to the bedrooms before descending again into number 80. This arrangement has given space for a considerable amount of background material to be shown (below), together with some of the original features. Visitors should realise, however, that much of what is on display is painstaking reproduction, the original material having been widely dispersed. 78 Derngate is undoubtedly well worth visiting as a significant example of Mackintosh’s late work and his only important design in England. 

* High Cross House in Devon, for example, was not built until 1932.
** Le Corbusier (1887-1965); Peter Behrens (1868 – 1940).

8 September 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s ‘The Map and the Territory’

This week sees the publication in English of Michel Houellebecq’s novel, Submission (Soumission). I thought it would be interesting to re-read The Map and the Territory (La carte et le territoire) published in France in 2010 and in English* translation in 2011. The novel gained Houellebecq the Prix Goncourt (for "the best and most imaginative prose work of the year") in 2010.

The Map and the Territory follows the life of a successful French contemporary artist, Jed Martin. After developing one genre based on photographs of Michelin maps, he switches to another, more conventional one of portraits of people at work. Works like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, subtitled The Conversation at Palo Alto become internationally successful, although Jed has a problem with Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market which is where the book starts:
Koons's forehead was slightly shiny. Jed shaded it off with his brush and stepped back three paces. There was certainly a problem with Koons. Hirst was basically easy to capture: you could make him brutal, cynical in an 'I shit on you from the top of my pile of dosh' kind of way; you could also make him a rebel artist, (but rich all the same) pursuing an anguished work on death; finally, there was in his face something ruddy and heavy, typically English, which made him look like a rank-and-file Arsenal supporter. In short, there were various aspects, but all of them could be combined in the coherent, representable portrait of a British artist typical of his generation. Koons, on the other hand, seemed to carry in him something dual, like an insurmountable contradiction between the basic cunning of the technical sales rep and the exaltation of the ascetic. (page 1)
He also paints portraits of his father, The Architect Jean-Pierre Martin Leaving the Management of his Business, and of Michel Houellebecq, Writer. Jed’s conversations with his father and the alter-Houellebecq are surprising to an English reader because of the interest both characters share in William Morris. Jean-Pierre as a young man had admired Morris as a designer as much as he disliked Mies van der Rohe and
... above all Le Corbusier, who tirelessly built concentration-camp-like spaces, divided into identical cells that were suited ... only for model prisons. (page 145)
but alter-Houellebecq, although admiring Morris as a social reformer, comes to the conclusion that:
What can undoubtedly be said is that the model of society proposed by William Morris certainly would not be utopian in a world where all men were like William Morris. (page 175)
What French readers make of it, one has to wonder, William Morris not being particularly familiar to many of them. Come to that, most English readers will be at a loss with the description of the FR1 (France 1 television) New Year’s Eve party and the personalities there like Jean-Pierre Pernaut.

Houellebecq is never afraid to give offence with his opinions. Jed meets and observes a senior manager at Michelin:
… again he searched for the right words, which is a disadvantage with former pupils of the Polytechnique; they’re a bit cheaper to hire than those of the École Nationale d’Administration but they take more time finding their words; … (page 55)
Jed eventually decides to move into his grandparents’ house in the Creuse. Houellebecq likes the French countryside (see, for example his letters to Bernard-Henri Lévy) but, if his view is the same as Jed’s, not its residents:
Jed had no illusions about the welcome he would get from the inhabitants of his grandparents' village. He had noticed that while he was travelling through La France profonde with Olga, many years before: outside certain very touristy zones like the Provençal hinterland or the Dordogne, the inhabitants of rural zones are generally inhospitable, aggressive and stupid. If you wanted to avoid gratuitous assaults and trouble more generally in the course of your journey, it was preferable, from all points of view, not to leave the beaten paths. And this hostility which was simply latent towards passing visitors, transformed into hate pure and simple when the latter acquired a residence. (page 278)
Nor is Jed keen on Mercedes:
Although he knew nothing about his life, Jed was hardly surprised to see Jasselin arrive at the wheel of a Mercedes Class A. The Mercedes Class A is the ideal car for an old couple without children, who live in an urban or periurban area, yet do not hesitate to treat themselves from time to time to an escapade in a hôtel de charme; but it can also suit a young couple of conservative temperament - it will, then, often be their first Mercedes. An entry into the range offered by the firm with the Silver Star, it is a discreetly different car; the Mercedes four-door saloon Class C and the Mercedes four door Class E are more paradigmatic. The Mercedes in general is the car preferred by those who aren't really interested in cars, who place security and comfort over driving sensations - also for those, of course, who have sufficient means. For more than fifty years - despite the impressive commercial strike force of Toyota, despite the pugnacity of Audi the global bourgeoisie had, on the whole, remained loyal to Mercedes. (page 240).
Jed likes Audis which
… characterise themselves by a particularly high level of finishing which can only be rivalled, according to Auto-Journal, by certain Lexus models. This car was the first one he'd bought since reaching a new wealthy status; from his first visit to the dealer, he'd been seduced by the rigour and precision of the metal assemblages, the gentle click of the doors when he closed them, all that was machine-tooled like a safe. Turning the speed-regulator control, he opted for a cruising speed of 105 km per hour. Some small notches, marking every 5 kph, made driving all the smoother; this car was indeed perfect. (page 165)
Houellebecq places some interesting characters in Jed’s life, for example, the art world PR, Marylin, and Inspecteur Jasselin, the Maigret-like detective who investigates alter-Houellebecq’s murder, and his un-Mme Maigret-like wife. However Olga, for a while Jed’s glamorous Russian girlfriend, is too much of a male fantasy.

Something about Houellebecq which I find intriguing is that he must be one of the very few novelists with an international reputation who had a scientific education, in his case as an agronomist. His mother had trained as an anaesthetist. Although from his student days he was inclined towards literature, Houellebecq later earned a living in information technology (until he could get out) and, according to an interview in Le Figaro magazine this summer, he has had a long-term interest in photography. Certainly if, as he recently told the Guardian, “…the job of a novelist is foremost to hold a mirror up to contemporary society”, he is not reluctant to introduce its technical details, for example here the life-cycle of the housefly. But Houellebecq’s readers can never be sure where the boundary of his satire lies. Does Jed’s dislike of Mercedes and encomium for Audi, both expressed in marketing speak, reflect the author’s world view or, rather more likely, is he tilting at the commercial shallowness of contemporary art and some of its practitioners?

A couple of oddities in the translation. On page 165 Jed is driving an “Audi Sport Wagon” which on page 177 has turned into an Audi Allroad A6. As far as I can tell, “Sport Wagon” is a type of BMW SUV sold in North America. The French original refers to “son break de chasse Audi” – “his Audi shooting brake” or nowadays “his Audi estate”, which could indeed be an Allroad A6.

On page 287 there is a reference in a description of Jed’s camera equipment to “a hard disk of two teraoctets” which non-French readers might not recognise as two Terabytes. The French (with the Romanians and Quebecois) use octet instead of byte for eight bits .

*By “English readers” I mean those in that language, not, of course, just those resident in England.  Page numbers are as in the 2011 UK hardback, (cover above).

In the final footsteps of Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Painter-Lithographer-Poster designer, below) died on 9 September 1901 at the age of 36. He spent his last days at his mother’s home, Château Malromé, (Gironde, South West France) and is buried in the cemetery at Verdelais (above) nearby.

There was considerable intermarriage between his parents’ aristocratic families - they were cousins and his grandmothers were sisters. Toulouse-Lautrec’s extensive congenital health problems were aggravated by alcoholism and syphilis, both developed during his bohemian life in Monmartre.

Lautrec’s mother, Comtesse Adele, a devout Catholic, had bought Malromé in 1883 because of its proximity to the pilgrimage site at Verdelais, rather than for its viticulture. The Château and Lautrec’s portrait of his mother were mentioned in a post here in 2011.

Malromé was bought in 2013 by the Malaysian DCHL group who have restored the house and are upgrading the winery. The public can visit from May to October and at other times by arrangement. As well as an opportunity to taste the wine, there is a guided tour of the major rooms which have been hung with good reproductions of some of Lautrec’s major works (below). A very knowledgeable description (in French) of these and of the artist’s career is the main feature of the tour. There was an interesting emphasis on the Japanese influence on Lautrec‘s work, apparently as important as it was for van Gogh in Paris.

Unlike the furnishings and decoration, the works have been selected to describe the artist rather than recreate what would have been hung in the Comtesse’s day. The lithographs now in the bathroom which Henri and his mother used (below) would probably not have been to her taste, any more than Rue des Moulins, l’inspection médicale (1894), downstairs. 

Admiral Viaud (1901, below) was new to me as were some of the lithographs and posters. There is one Lautrec original, a drawing he made on one of the walls.

Malromé is definitely worth a visit, as is François Mauriac’s home at Château Malagar nearby.

4 September 2015

NT Live: The Beaux’ Stratagem

Like a lot of other hicks in the sticks (and a good few Londoners who don’t get seats at the National Theatre), I’ve enjoyed NT Live cinema screenings and posted about them here (Skylight, The Hard Problem, Man and Superman). I wasn’t sure I would enjoy the Restoration comedy, The Beaux’ Stratagem, first performed in 1707 and written by George Farquhar (1677 – 1707). This revival is running at the NT until 20 September. 

There is a summary of the plot on Wikipedia. In brief, two young and unscrupulous toffs, Aimwell and Archer, on the lookout for some women with money to marry, fetch up at an inn in the city of Lichfield in the English Midlands. They encounter Lady Bountiful’s daughter, Dorinda and her sister-in-law, Mrs Sullen, unhappily married to Lady Bountiful’s son. The actions of the innkeeper, his daughter, the highwaymen they collude with, and Lady Bountiful’s factotum, Scrub, provide the sub-plots which might stop the main characters getting what they want, but eventually, of course, they do. I could see some parallels with Da Ponte's plot for Mozart's Così fan tutte (1790).

Simon Godwin who directed The Beaux’ Stratagem, also directed Man and Superman but this time kept to the original period. This was a good idea -  the sort of audience this play is likely to get can work out the relevancies to contemporary life (feminism, Anglo-French relations* etc) for themselves. Lizzie Clachan’s set design (above) was ingenious and even more complex than it seemed at first sight. The craft of the performers – they sang, they danced, they made complicated coordinated movements across, up and down the set, every word being clearly delivered – was faultless. Hours of work must have gone into the staging. All the performances were good but Susannah Fielding as Mrs Sullen right) and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Archer were particularly impressive.

The NT Live showing in the UK and Europe was on 3 September; Encore showings in the UK and other countries can be found on the NT Live website. The interval included a brief “Making of …” film which will probably get onto YouTube. It concentrated on the staging but it would be interesting to learn a little about the transmission techniques, presumably via satellite, for example is it in 4K resolution?

*The War of the Spanish Succession  (1701-14) was presumably the reason why French officers were being detained in Lichfield circa 1707. The Recruiting Officer (1706) is another well-known play by Farquhar.

2 September 2015

Andrew Haigh’s ‘45 Years’

Sometimes I find that the London film critics are ecstatic about a film, usually British, which I don’t like. The last one was Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition. I’m afraid Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is in the same category, with 4 or 5 star ratings from everyone whose opinion matters, but not from me.

45 Years is set in present-day Norfolk. Kate and Geoff Mercer are a childless retired couple living in the countryside near Norwich. He used to be a middle-manager in a local (agri?)business, she was a teacher. They are at first sight, and to judge from their home and choice of car (a Skoda Octavia estate), sensible, modestly well-off and a little dull. Geoff (Tom Courtenay, born 1937) is in his late 70s, not good for his age, “decrepit” he says; Kate (Charlotte Rampling, born 1946) is younger, and good for hers. They don’t seem a terribly well-matched couple, perhaps he’s not the man he was. At the end of the coming week they intend to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (Geoff was ill for their 40th) with friends in Norwich’s Assembly House, famous for its Trafalgar Grand Ball of 1805. But the postman brings a letter from Switzerland which leaves them, to use a French word, bouleversés – bowled over.

50 years previously Geoff had been in the Swiss mountains with his German girlfriend Katya. There was an accident, her body couldn’t be retrieved. But recently a glacier has melted, the body has been discovered, and, since the Swiss records indicate that he was the next-of-kin, Geoff is being notified of its reappearance, unchanged by the passage of time. Not surprisingly, this reawakens memories of those “heedless” days with his first love. Sleepless, he starts rooting about in the loft (attic, grenier) and comes down with Katya’s photograph. The more Kate sees of Geoff’s upset state of mind, the unhappier she becomes - not that Norfolk in mid-winter, of which we see plenty - and the Skoda - would be that cheerful at the best of times. Eventually climbing up to the loft herself, she is disturbed by the contents of a scrapbook and some photographic slides from 50 years ago. The couple make it to the party having pulled themselves together – but for how long? 

Haigh’s previous films were about a year in the life of a London rent boy (Greek Pete) and a gay lost weekend in Nottingham (Weekend), markedly different milieux from that of a long-married couple in Norfolk. But the relationship was convincingly portrayed. Rampling is excellent at wifely stoicism which, borne too long, explodes. Courtenay’s Geoff comes across as a man who is a bit of a bumbler, probably didn’t deserve to be put through this trauma but eventually seems to be coping with it - his speech at the party is particularly well done.

My objections to 45 Years lie with its mechanics – I have admitted in a previous post to being disqualified as a critic, being prone to “objecting on the grounds of probability”. Mindful of this shortcoming I can discount some minor problems: why would the Swiss authorities have accepted Geoff as the next-of-kin of Katya, to whom he wasn’t married, whatever tale they had concocted to satisfy hoteliers on their travels – did she have no relatives in Germany? Surely it was just too convenient that the slide projector should still be in working order and with the right carousel of slides in place - perhaps it was Geoff, a man who had replaced his Katya with a Kate and has a German shepherd dog.  Enough!  My real problem with 45 Years is that when relating a search for lost times, the time-scales matter. The Mercers seem oddly out of their present. They don’t have mobile phones or computers, and there is talk of booking flights from Stansted using a travel agent. The explanation for these anachronisms may well lie in the origins of the film, described by Joe Shute in the Sunday Telegraph. 45 Years is based on a short story by David Constantine, In Another Country, published in 2001:
Holidaying in France some 15 years ago, Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father - perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties - tipped the son towards insanity. … 45 Years’ fleshed-out plot stays faithful to Constantine’s fictional interpretation of these real-life events
and perhaps made a problem for itself in so doing. At the party, the Mercers dance their way all through Smoke Gets in Your Eyes with its redolent lyric:
They asked me how I knew, My true love was true 
… And yet today, my love has gone away, I am without my love
However the best-known version of this song is by the Platters and it peaked in 1959. Ten years later, the time of their wedding in the film, as opposed presumably to the short story, Geoff, Kate and their friends would have been jigging around to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones:
Because I used to love her but it's all over now
which would hardly have been appropriate. 45 Years is 10 to 15 years too late – it should have been made a decade ago or, if made now, set then. Still, it brings two of Noël Coward’s best-known lines to mind: “Very flat, Norfolk” and “Strange how potent cheap music is”.