31 December 2015

Andrew Marr’s ‘Head of State’

A disappointing first novel from a political insider, neither thriller nor satire 

At last I have got round to reading the paperback edition of Andrew Marr’s first novel, originally published in September 2014. At the time Head of State came out, I was intrigued by a piece in Private Eye (No 1376, 3 October, page 29 – familiarity with this magazine can only be helpful to readers of Marr’s book) which reported the launch in 10 Downing Street:

Head of State received faint praise from the critics then, and, when I looked recently on Amazon, it had acquired an oddly balanced set of Customer Review scores:

However, Marr, as well as having written other books about history, politics, poetry and the Queen, has been editor of a national newspaper (the Independent) and the BBC’s political editor and also, as the host of BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, has regularly interviewed top politicians for over 10 years. And his Author’s Note (dated April 2014), prefacing Head of State (which is subtitled A Political Entertainment - echoes of Graham Greene), seemed encouraging:
… I had long wanted to write a political satire that would help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really worked in a way that’s not possible in conventional journalism. 
… Some of the characters and stories in the novel are derived directly from my thirty years as a political reporter, though of course almost everything here is fictional.
I would guess that the bulk of the writing was done in 2013 when Marr was recovering from a stroke. At that time, well before the 2015 general election, a referendum on the UK’s leaving the EU (Brexit) set in September 2017, the motor of Head of State, must have seemed only a possibility and safely distant at that. By comparison, Michel Houellebecq, who must have been writing Submission at about the same time, was setting his novel in 2022. Now, Marr’s readers, less than 18 months after publication, are having to put to one side the facts that there will be an EU referendum this year or next and that David Cameron is still Prime Minister leading a Conservative government since May 2015. Fortunately in Marr’s 2017 the Tories are obviously in power, the Chancellor of the Exchequer being one Jo Johnson (Boris’s brother, currently Minister for Universities and Science (page 339).

Is Marr’s novel a roman à clef? Houellebecq mentions quite a few contemporary personalities in his future France but keeps them in the background, his main characters being plausible, but imaginary. Head of State mentions no end of real people, including, Marr himself (page 96), and Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, (eating a cake on page 247). Moreover, while most of the foreground characters are fictional, readers of Private Eye’s Street of Shame column could make a guess at the inspirations, and there are several, for Ken Cooper, editor of the fictitious National Chronicle. However, one of the few admirable characters in the book, the modern historian, Lord Briskett, is surely without parallel in the real world:
Dressed in his trademark coarse green tweeds, with his halo of frizzy white hair and heavy horn-rimmed spectacles, part A.J.P. Taylor part Bamber Gascoigne, Trevor Briskett was famous enough from his TV performances to attract second glances from his fellow commuters. On the streets of Oxford that crowded, clucking duckpond of vanity and ruffled feathers - he was stopped-in-the-street famous. 
And rightly so. For Briskett was the finest political historian of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His early biographies - Blair, Thatcher, Johnson - were still in print, while the memoirs of scores of almost-forgotten politicians had long since vanished to charity shops and recycling dumps after selling only a few score copies. Briskett's account of the modern constitution had been compared to the works of that Victorian master-journalist Walter Bagehot. His history of British intelligence during the Cold War had been praised by all the right people. Emeritus professor at Wadham, winner of numerous literary prizes, elevated five years ago to the Lords as a crossbencher after chairing a royal commission on security lapses at the Ministry of Defence, Briskett was regularly tipped to be the next member of the Order of Merit. 
Yet somehow these decorative embellishments, which might have weighed him down and made him soft, slow and comfortable, had had little apparent effect on Trevor Briskett. At seventy he was as sharp, as boyishly enthusiastic, as wicked a gossip with as rasping a laugh, as he had been at thirty. The exact nature of the pornography discovered on the minister's lost laptop. The attempt to blackmail a senior minister over his wife's cocaine habit. Just who Olivia Kite was taking to her bed these days … If you really wanted to know you went to Briskett, and he would tap his nose, lean towards you, give a wolfish smile and a 'dear boy', and spill all the beans. (page 15/16)
Funnily enough, it was pointed out on the History Today website recently, when marking the 50th anniversary of the Journal of Contemporary History, that modern historians are dismissed as not dealing in real history, just gossip.

But without any attempt at disguise, a key role in Head of State is taken by Rory Bremner, a real British actor (and a Scot like Marr) who has made a career from comic impersonation of public figures. And what to make of a Scotsman called Nelson Fraser - did Martin Andrews have anyone particular in mind? Not to mention a female character described as whetstone-hard (page 285). Almost totally unambiguous is the King, for in Head of State the Queen has become “late” – presumably a few years after the publication of Marr’s The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth II and Her People in 2011. The characterisation of “Kingy”, as the staff of Marr’s Number 10 call him, owes rather too much to Silvie Krin’s Heir of Sorrows, as occasionally appearing in, yet again, Private Eye. By the way, in the United Kingdom the King or Queen is the Head of State, the Prime Minister is the Head of the Government. Marr is, of course, aware of this distinction and the title of the book is a pun on a particularly gruesome aspect of his tale.

Something similar happens with the locations: Gordon’s wine bar is real enough but Marr chose to put the “Universities and Constitutional Club” in the place of the Athenaeum – perhaps he’s a member.

If Head of State is too uneasily placed between imaginary and real worlds to be a satisfactory roman à clef, is it a thriller or a satire? In so far as the events being described are packed into eight days from 15 to 22 September 2017, the Brexit Referendum Day, surely the former. But Head of State is no Six Days of the Condor. There are 14 chapters, each titled with a date, and to explain the sequencing Marr chose rather than a normal narrative flow, a picture is worth thousand words:

The events in the eight days are too numerous, involve too many characters and mostly too far-fetched to yield a convincing thriller, and the leaping about in time reduces what suspense is mustered. On the other hand, there are too many attempts at wit which fall flat:
… ‘Fuzzy Blue oatcake’, the most influential right-wing blogger … (page342) 
Christ Almighty, a recent Hollywood adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Ronald Knox (page 20)
to provide the entertainment of one of Waugh’s comic novels, and too much grotesque unreality (for example, the said head) to make for a thought-provoking satire. There is also some poor, or just careless, writing which the editors (described by Marr in his Note as “legend[s] in the trade”) should have picked up. Just a few examples:
… hair for whose colour there was no adequate description - corngold and copper, silver birch with licks of flame. (page 24 – is this a Clairol ad?) 
… a wooden cabinet whose numbered chambers were perfectly sized to hold Blackberries and iPhones (page 82 – “with numbered chambers for Blackberries and iPhones” - they can’t be perfect for both) 
… [he] felt himself a man brimming with talents in a world that no longer needed them; an itchy-palmed electrician, as it were, during the New Stone Age (page 247 – the New Stone Age ended almost 4000 years before the practical application of electricity!).
Marr’s dislike of bloggers (discussed here in 2010) comes up repeatedly and, no doubt for related reasons, in Head of State he makes frequent and disparaging references to “Witter”, right up to page 342. So why on page 358 does he relent and use “tweeting”?

Does Marr “help lift the lid on how aspects of government and the media really work[ed]”? Well, there are a few lines about Brexit, which might provide the flavour of arguments which will appear as the real Referendum Day draws near:
… A Europe that fragmented now would soon become a mere vacuum, a playground for American technology, Chinese money and Russian political ambition. And Britain? Britain would again find itself desperately trying to negotiate the balance of power between Berlin and Paris, from a position of no significance. It would be impossible. (page 104) 
… Increasingly excited, he and Charmian began to talk numbers. 'lf the UK does leave the EU - well, the dollar is 1.55 to the pound now. Sterling will no longer be a reserve currency, so it will fall to, say, 1.35. Probably lower than that. (page 204, Sterling is 4% of all currency reserves at present – so would this happen? I’ve no idea, like many other readers, I suspect)
And towards the end of the novel there is this intriguing passage:
The whole thing is simply incredible. Oh no, it couldn't happen here. It's as bonkers as - what? - two brothers fighting each other for the leadership of the Labour Party, or a husband and wife jailing each other. over a pretty minor traffic offence, or two eminent members of the Conservative Party being in a gay relationship even as they proclaim family values, or a prime minister having an. affair with one of his own ministers. Loopy. Loony. It's as bonkers as manufacturing the case for an entire war and thinking no one would notice. Mad as cheese. No, no, none of that could ever happen here. The great British public simply wouldn't let them get away with it. (page 327/8)
I would expect that some of these ‘incredible’ happenings are recognisable to most of the book’s likely readership, but are the others figments of Marr’s imagination or things he knows about and we don’t?

In a while I will post about Marr’s second attempt at a political novel, Children of the Master, published in September 2015 and again not enthusiastically reviewed. Both books will probably become available in an Oxfam near you before long.

24 December 2015

Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain

On the edge of abstraction - a retrospective of one of Britain’s finest living painters 

Although I’ve been looking at his work for a long time, visiting the retrospective, Frank Auerbach, at Tate Britain it still came as a shock to realise that the artist will be 85 next year. Born in 1931, he arrived in Britain from Germany in April 1939 and became a British citizen in 1947. His extensive training as an artist included time at St Martins, the Royal College of Art and Borough Polytechnic where he was a pupil of David Bomberg. After some years teaching art, he became a full-time artist in the mid-1960s.

Frank Auerbach is arranged in a succession of decades starting with the 1950s and ending with the 2000s. It ends with a room of works selected by the curator, Catherine Lampert, taken from across Auerbach’s oeuvre. Portraits of the same sitters (including Lampert) and locations near his studio in London are recurrent. Because of their size and the artist’s use of heavy impasto in his earlier years, his paintings do not reproduce particularly well. However I have selected some of the images which are available – many of the exhibits are marked “Private Collection". From the 1950s, Head of EOW (1955, below left) and E.O.W. half-length nude (1958, below right):

From the 1960s, Primrose Hill Spring Sunshine (1961/62 & 64, below top) and Mornington Crescent (1967, below lower):

Primrose Hill is much painted by Auerbach, for example in the 1970s, Winter Evening, Primrose Hill Study, (1974-75, below top) and Primrose Hill (1978, below lower):

In the 1980s as well as landscapes, there is some fine portraiture including Portrait of Catherine Lampert (1981–82, below left) and Head of J.Y.M II (1984-85, below right):

From the 90s onwards, the same themes are being revisited, for example Catherine Lampert Seated (1990, below left), Mornington Crescent Looking South (1997, below right) and Head of William Feaver (2003, exhibition poster above).

Among the final selection made by Lampert was the Tate’s own To the Studios (1979-80, below):

A painter whose works, more than most, need to be seen to be fully appreciated, Frank Auerbach ends on 13 March.

14 December 2015

Palladian Design at the RIBA

RIBA's show reveals how Palladio influenced England and the world

About 85% of the 350 or so drawings by the architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) which survive are held by RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects. A selection of them is on display in RIBA’s Architectural Gallery as part of Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected. Appropriately, it was 300 years ago that a translation of Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architectura (The Four Books of Architecture) and Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Brittanicus were first published. The exhibition follows Palladio’s influence from his own works in the Veneto through English Palladianism to the US, India and elsewhere. Recent buildings appearing in drawings, photographs or as models range from Henbury Hall, which in the 1980s recreated Palladio’s Villa Rotunda of 1552, the Prince of Wales’s controversial Pendbury and a fine town hall at Borgoricco near Padua in Italy.

Having visited Chateau Margaux in the Gironde (SW France) in the summer (below lower), I was intrigued by the design for the building by Louis Combes (1754-1818) which was completed in 1816 (below upper):

I wonder when the chimneys were added. The exhibition catalogue makes the interesting point that:
Building a house in France in the English Palladian style was an unlikely project during the Napoleonic wars but the work of Louis Combes in and around Bordeaux demonstrates his interest in Palladianism. Combes owned a copy of Vitruvius Britannicus and, perhaps as an academic exercise, he copied a number of its plates exactly, even transcribing the English room names. Bertrand Douat, Marquis de la Colonilla, decided to replace the old chateau at Margaux in 1810. Combes's final design for the chateau was based on John Webb's Amesbury Abbey, as engraved for volume III of Vitruvius Britannicus (no 33), though with a different interior plan that does not require the staircase tower behind.
Palladian Design: The Good, the Bad and the Unexpected (a free exhibition) ends on 9 January. However, RIBA is closed from 24 December to 3 January.

5 December 2015

The Oldham West and Royton By-election

By-elections are probably over-analysed and over-interpreted but I thought this week’s at Oldham West and Royton was worth looking at. It took place on 3 December 2015 almost exactly seven months after the General Election on 7 May and three months after Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. I haven’t seen the results presented anywhere else as below, so offer them here.

The first column shows the Oldham West and Royton results in the General Election (GE) when over 43000 votes were cast. In the By-election (B-E) there were just under 28000 votes, as shown in the fourth column. If these had been cast in exactly the same proportions as at the GE (ie the same reduction in turnout had applied uniformly*) the parties would have had votes as in the second column.

The Green and Monster Raving Loony (MRL) votes can be ignored. What is striking is the consistency of the Liberal Democrat vote between columns two and four and the “poor” showing of the Conservatives. Where did those 2600 Conservative votes go? It seems like about 2000 to Labour and only 800 to UKIP.

Perhaps it’s fair to conclude that quite a few of the voters who are interested enough in politics to turn out for a by-election will vote tactically for whatever is in their own party’s long-term best interest.

Data from Wikipedia.


* This was not the only assumption as well as ignoring the Green and MRL. It is possible that some people who turned out for the by-election hadn’t voted in May. More significantly, voters who did turn out for both could have shifted their allegiances in seven months. This diagram indicates the possibilities:

However, I can’t imagine that many May Tories have gone to Labour or Lib Dem. In fact, it seems unlikely that votes would have moved to the Lib Dems in any number from either of the other parties. Hence only the heavy arrows in the diagram,seem to provide a plausible explanation for what happened.

I don't know if the data is available, but it would be very interesting to see the numbers of postal votes, GE and B-E, broken out by party.

3 December 2015

A Visit to the Guggenheim Bilbao

A post here in May described A Visit to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. This is a companion piece following a visit during the summer of 2015 to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, also designed by Frank Gehry. 

After the collapse of its industrial base in the 1980s, Bilbao was in desperate need of transformation. In 1991 the local administration and the Guggenheim Foundation reached an agreement to construct a contemporary art gallery on a derelict site next to the estuary and near the city centre. The Foundation had previously commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright for its museum in New York which had opened in 1959. Construction of Gehry’s design for Bilbao, which has become almost as well-known as Wright’s, began in 1993 and the museum opened in 1997. The structure is of steel, the surface being clad in titanium where not glazed and with limestone exposed on the exterior and the interior. The complex curving shapes were designed using computer applications originally developed for aerospace by Dassault in France in the 1970s. The exterior presents different forms at different viewpoints and references Bilbao’s maritime history of ships and fishing.

The interior is as just complex, as these views of the atrium reveal:

The Guggenheim Bilbao's permanent collection includes some major site-specific pieces on display externally including Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye (2009, below left) and Louise Bourgeois’ Maman (1999, below right):

and two works by Jeff Koons, Tulips (1995-2004, below top) and Puppy (1992, below lower):

Inside, in the ArcelorMittal gallery, are the seven massive pieces which constitute Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time (2005, below). Made of weathering steel and fabricated locally, they embody Bilbao’s industrial heritage.

At the time of this visit, most of the gallery space was given over to two exhibitions: Jeff Koons: A Retrospective (previously at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York) and Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s the Time. People seem either to like Koon’s work or dislike it, not many are indifferent. Michel Houellebecq (quoted in a post here earlier this year) described Koons in unflattering terms as seen through the eyes of another imaginary artist. Julian Barnes at the Edinburgh book festival in August
… offered a text written by American artist Jeff Koons to accompany his work Puppy, a vast sculpture formed from flowering plants belonging to the Guggenheim Bilbao in northern Spain. Reading aloud from Koons’ text, he told the Edinburgh audience that Puppy “helps you have a dialogue about the organic and the inorganic. It’s really about the issue of the baroque, where everything is negotiated. The different aspects of the eternal through biology. Whether you want to serve or be served, love or be loved, all these types of polarities come into play because Puppy sets them up.” Barnes added: “To use the technical term of art criticism, it’s bollocks. I know it’s like shooting fish in a barrel but sometimes fish need to be shot.”
In October Barnes told a Cheltenham Literature Festival audience (including me) that Koons produced “machine-tooled whimsicality”. Jeff Koons: A Retrospective provided plenty of opportunity to make one’s own mind up and included examples of his work from The New Series in the early 1980s (vacuum cleaners in vitrines) to the recent Antiquity series.  I couldn’t help being impressed by the skill of Koons’ technicians in fabricating objects like Lobster (2003, below left), with the appearance of a PVC inflatable but made from “Polychromed aluminum”, and Large Vase of Flowers (1994, below right) made in polychromed wood.

Having seen this show, it may be a while before I feel the need to seek out any more Koons. I was more taken with Basquiat whose work I was seeing for the first time – if BBC Your Paintings is right, he is not represented in any UK public collection. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in New York in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988, a year after Andy Warhol who had been his collaborator in the 1980s. Two works which epitomise Basquiat's style and preoccupations are Irony of a Negro Policeman (1981, below left) and Dark Race Horse—Jesse Owens (1983, below right):

Typical of Basquiat’s work with Warhol are Win $ 1,000,000 (below top) and Ailing Ali in Fight of Life (below lower), both 1984:

Man from Naples (1982, below), from Guggenheim Bilbao’s own collection, is a good example of Basquiat’s street graffiti work:

While the Guggenheim Bilbao is probably an even more impressive building than Gehry’s later Fondation Louis Vuitton, I thought it was less visitor-friendly.  The gallery space is less appropriate for exhibitions, particularly retrospectives. The Warhol show was spread over two floors while Basquiat required walking back through galleries 306 and 305 after reaching 307 and then down a corridor to 303 and 302 – not so good, at least on an initial visit. Also, to enter the Museum, visitors descend a flight of steps from street level to the level of the atrium floor level. Leaving is via another flight of steps down to river level. A third set of steps, the length of the other two combined, then has to be climbed to get back to street level. If you want to get back in to the Museum – allowed during the day of visiting – you then redescend the first flight … None of this should deter anyone from visiting in 2016 when Guggenheim Bilbao will be offering shows of works by Warhol and Bourgeois and Windows on the City: The School of Paris, 1900-1945.