28 November 2016

"Maybe reality is a simulation"

I don’t watch that much television, news and politics shows mostly, and I’m certainly outside the target 16-34 year-old audience of comedy programmes on UK’s Channel 4, which even one of its former Chief Executives considered had an "obsession with adolescent transgression and sex". Nonetheless, when this week’s New Yorker ran a long article by Giles Harvey about “Charlie Brooker, the British satirist who is now a television auteur” I thought I should read it. (In versions of the magazine his article’s title is Worst-Case Scenario, and on-line The Speculative Dread of “Black Mirror”).

Harvey concentrates on Brooker’s showrunning of the “prophetic TV show”, Black Mirror, which Harvey describes as an “acclaimed and eerily clairvoyant series about the unintended consequences of technological innovation”. Its interest to most of the New Yorker’s readership probably derives from the fact that:
The show, which first aired in Britain, on Channel 4, in 2011, became an international hit, with licensing rights sold in more than ninety territories. In 2014, Netflix acquired exclusive U.S. streaming rights for the first two seasons. Last year, Brooker and his longtime collaborator Annabel Jones signed a contract with Netflix to make twelve new episodes. The deal was reportedly worth forty million dollars.
But my British eye was caught by this passage:
In “The National Anthem,” the show’s début episode, set in a fictional Britain, Princess Susannah, a popular member of the Royal Family, is abducted. Her release hinges on a single demand: the Prime Minister must have unsimulated sex with a pig on live television.
Harvey goes on to describe the origins of this episode, how Channel 4 came to give it the go-ahead and a description of some of the story of how this imaginary story ricochets around the media, for example:
Throughout the episode, the screen pulsates with news crawls and graphics, polling results, tweets.
For me, as no doubt as for other UK readers, there was something familiar about all this, as Harvey reveals later:
“The National Anthem” first aired in late 2011. Last year, an unauthorized biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron quoted an anonymous member of Parliament who claimed to have witnessed Cameron during his student days at Oxford placing “a private part of his anatomy” inside the mouth of a dead pig during a hazing ritual for an exclusive social club. Twitter did what Twitter does with such material, but the BBC and other traditional news organizations initially resisted covering the story. The situation plays out in an almost identical manner in “The National Anthem.” Even the Twitter hashtags that appear in the episode—“#PMpig,” “#trottergate”—showed up on the actual Web. 
“Who’d have thought the pig-f****** [my *’s] episode would be the most accurate one?” Brooker said. “I didn’t know anything about that, by the way. I’d never heard the rumor. So when that story broke I was quite weirded out and genuinely worried for a short period that maybe reality is a simulation designed to confuse.” He exhaled. “I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
The unauthorised biography Harvey refers to is Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, published in October 2015, and the passage he describes is on pages 73/74. The “anonymous member of Parliament”, described by the authors as “a distinguished contemporary of Cameron's at Oxford” is their only source for the story. He is reported as having made the allegation on three occasions in 2014, finally claiming that photographic evidence was in the possession of a named individual. “This person failed to respond to our approaches.”

In the absence of anything else, the authors conclude possibly a little lamely that:
Perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity. Yet it is an elaborate story for an otherwise credible figure to invent. Furthermore, there are a number of accounts of pigs' heads at debauched parties in Cameron's day. …
Though they name only one:
The late Count Gottfried von Bismarck, an Oxford contemporary of Cameron … reportedly threw various dinner parties featuring pigs' heads.
So it seems that Brooker’s reputation, at least as seen by Harvey, for prophesy and clairvoyance depends largely on the National AnthemCall Me Dave succession (putting the differences between a live pig and a dead pig’s head as sex objects aside as too distasteful to pursue). This does seem to raise two points to bear in mind:

Cameron graduated from Oxford in the summer of 1988, 26 years before the reported date of the MP’s allegations in 2014. Are New Yorker and Call Me Dave readers right to assume that Ashcroft and Oakeshott would have made reference to any rumours prior to 2014 if they had heard of them?

There is no mention in Call Me Dave of the Black Mirror National Anthem episode which had been screened less than three years before the MP’s allegations.

21 November 2016

Everything is possible, David Miliband

I last posted about David Miliband on 23 May 2015, 18 months ago. I was writing just after a Sunday Times magazine cover story had appeared, Celebrity big brother How David Miliband conquered New York, and was following up earlier posts on the theme of whether Miliband would “do a Boris” and return to Westminster politics. Now, after so many major and unexpected events, there seem to be good reasons to revisit the subject:

The UK general election in May 2015 was won by the Conservatives. Ed Miliband then resigned as leader of the Labour party to be replaced by Jeremy Corbyn who was re-endorsed by the party membership in 2016.

The EU referendum in June 2016 came down in favour of Leave. David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister and was replaced by Teresa May. She appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary.

In November Donald Trump was elected President of the United States defeating Hillary Clinton.

When in 2014 I reviewed Clinton’s book, Hard Choices, I noted that “On David Miliband the adjectives pile up:
David proved to be an invaluable partner. He was young, energetic, smart, creative and attractive with a ready smile. We found our views on how the world was changing remarkably similar.
As Donald Trump might tweet, Very nice! And it wasn’t surprising to read Tom Newton Dunn’s Sun story in April this year that
David Miliband is expecting to be given a top job in the US government by Hillary Clinton if she is elected president in November. The New York-based former Labour Foreign Secretary has told MP friends that the Democrat candidate for the White House wants to make him a foreign envoy. … Mr Miliband [may] have to take up US citizenship to accept the job offer. And it would mean he will have effectively ruled out a return to British politics for good.
So in September, when Miliband offered advice (writing in “a personal capacity”) in the New Statesman on the new challenges for the British left post-Brexit, it couldn’t have been difficult for him to muster the equanimity to observe that:
[Labour] have not been further from power since the 1930s.
and that:
The main charge against Jeremy Corbyn is not just that his strategy is undesirable because it makes the party unelectable. That is only half the story. The real issue is that his strategy makes the party unelectable ¬because it is in many aspects undesirable.
and on Corbyn’s foreign and domestic policies:
There is one other element that is not only undesirable, but disastrous. It is the critique that everyone who disagrees with Jeremy Corbyn is in fact a closet Tory – or “Tory lite”. The US Republicans have a similar problem, with anyone to the left of the hard right called “Rino”, meaning “Republican In Name Only”.
But now the real megafauna are on their way to Washington and any prospects of Clintonian patronage have vaporised. And who should show up in London, as The Times tersely reported on 18 November (right), within a week of the Trump victory, but one David Miliband. Nigel Nelson had offered a more timely report in the Mirror on 13 November, David Miliband set to return to the UK after Trump victory- sparking rumours of Corbyn leadership challenge, The former foreign secretary was reportedly hoping for a position in a Hillary Clinton White House:
David Miliband is ready to come back to Britain now Hillary Clinton will not be US president. And that would allow the former Labour Foreign Secretary to return to British politics for a new leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn now being touted by MPs for 2018. A friend of Mr Miliband said: “He was only hanging on over there in the hope Hillary would give him a big job. “Now Donald Trump is president it is more likely he will come home.”
Nelson went on, in sentences that would have been more relevant had Clinton won, to review the jobs that she might have put his way, and his rather gushing opinion of her. At this point it is worth pulling up a quote from the May 2015 post:
"The typical term for the boss of this organisation [the IRC] is 10 years. He made a commitment to stay for seven, which takes him to 2020, but with, effectively, a break option at five.”
So, all Miliband has to do next year is find a safe Labour seat which hasn’t been taken over by extremists (unlike poor Hilary Benn) and which will survive the constituency boundary changes, get adopted instead of Ed Balls (an emerging national treasure on the strength of Strictly Come Dancing), be sufficiently pro-Brexit to defeat UKIP at the general election in 2020 which Labour will probably lose, be elected Labour leader after Corbyn resigns, pushing Keir Starmer and others out of the way, and then lead his party to victory in the 2025 election when he will become PM at the age of 59, almost 60. At least his age would be the least of his problems, the average age of world leaders seems to be on the way up.

We live in a time when the improbable can’t be ruled out and the expected doesn’t happen or, to quote Bernard-Henri Lévy:
If Trump is possible, then everything is possible. Nothing, from now on, is unimaginable.
Like a Brexit-driven UK general election in the first six-months of 2017, Miliband being inserted into a safe seat early next year, possibly assisted by Tony Blair's "new political institute", and a defeated and demoralised Labour party looking for a new leader?

31 October 2016

Branagh Theatre Live: ‘The Entertainer’

I have posted here several times about NT Live screenings (most recently Les Liaisons Dangereuses) but not about the similar offerings this year from the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company, in partnership with Picturehouse Entertainment. The Winter’s Tale and Romeo and Juliet from the Garrick theatre in London have now been followed by John Osborne’s The Entertainer, broadcast on 27 October.

The Entertainer was Osborne’s second success at the Royal Court Theatre following his Look Back in Anger in 1956. Laurence Olivier, under the influence of Arthur Miller, had asked Osborne for a part in his next play and in 1957 took on the role of Archie Rice, the music hall performer whose best days were behind him. Branagh, although not a protégé of Olivier, seems to have been drawn inexorably to follow his footsteps, starting at drama school when he wrote to Olivier for advice and was advised “to have a bash and hope for the best.” Later for example, in 1990 Branagh directed and took the lead role in a new filming of Henry V, in 2007 he directed an update of Sleuth and in 2011 he played Olivier himself in My Week with Marilyn (set in 1956 when Olivier filmed The Prince and the Showgirl at Pinewood with Monroe, then married to Arthur Miller). Unsurprisingly, in his company’s revival of The Entertainer Branagh has cast himself as Archie.

For a detailed synopsis of this play about the decline of the theatrical Rice family, see Wikipedia, although this production has been restructured into two acts. Was it worth reviving yet again? In many ways the play is dated and increasingly inaccessible – who under 75, or even 80, now remembers the world of music halls (the UK’s equivalent to vaudeville)? And the electrical counter of Woolworth’s is already almost as forgotten as Max Miller. But some of Osborne’s themes, like the grip of Britain’s class system, particularly its elite private schools, remain familiar, and it is still the same gloved hand which waves at us from a golden coach, poignantly described by Archie’s daughter. In an interview with Andrew Marr televised on 23 October, Branagh probably over emphasised the resonances in The Entertainer between post-Brexit Referendum Britain and the country 60 years ago in the humiliating aftermath of the Suez debacle, though he could have mentioned Archie’s dislike of his Polish neighbours. More fundamentally, Branagh was unconvincing as Archie. Energetic for sure, and a master of tap, song and dance, but the well set-up theatrical knight and actor-manager talking on The Marr Show failed to make the transition required to be totally believable as the seedy, end-of-the pier, end-of the-road “has been”, Archie Rice. The older parts are the best ones in The Entertainer: Gawn Grainger as Archie’s dad, Billy, and Greta Scacchi as Phoebe, Archie’s second wife, were first class. But Sophie McShera as Jean looked and sounded too juvenile for a character who turns out to be more worldly and committed as the play went on. The clever set morphed from stage to home to accommodate Osborne’s numerous scene changes with the minimum of interruption.

Three stray points. Firstly, did people really drink neat gin so copiously in the 1950s? Secondly, was Branagh deliberately bringing in what seemed to me like a hint of Tony Hancock’s delivery? Perhaps it was quite unconsciously done, but it’s worth noting that Hancock came from a stage family at the end of the music hall era. Finally, was I alone in finding some of Osborne’s dialogue uncannily like that of Harold Pinter, people speaking past rather than to each other? Pinter began to write for the theatre in 1957, The Birthday Party premiering in 1958.

Sitting in a cinema, this production was an unsatisfactory experience by comparison with the NT Live performances I’d seen previously. Those were free of transmission glitches of the type which interrupted the first Act of The Entertainer, albeit briefly. Much more trying was the projection which utilised “CinemaScope within a 16:9 frame” (as for the transmission of Romeo and Juliet, apparently). No doubt there were good technical reasons for this (the staging and cinema projection technology perhaps) but the resulting image quality at the left and right extremes of the frame was poor. This might not have mattered if the characters had remained together on the centre of the set but Archie seemed to like to address his family and the audience from stage right!

28 October 2016

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘Things to Come’

I saw Mia Hansen-Løve’s L’Avenir in France during the summer and have now had the benefit of the subtitled UK release. Why the French title could not be translated literally as ‘The Future’, rather than reviving a celebrated usage by HG Wells in 1936, who knows?

Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie Chazeaux is a Parisian philosophy teacher with grown-up children. After an ultimatum from their daughter, Nathalie’s husband Heinz (André Marcon), who also teaches philo, leaves her for his girlfriend, taking some of Nathalie’s books with him. Other traumas follow: Nathalie’s mother goes into a terminal decline; she has to take final leave of her husband’s family’s holiday home in Brittany; her publisher no longer thinks her books fit the market; going to the cinema solo she falls prey to a molester. Worse, philosophy being such an important part of Nathalie’s life, she finds herself at odds with Fabien (Roman Kolinka, right) a former pupil who seems to be turning towards anarchism. But after all this prospects of a happier future for Nathalie begin to emerge, not least as a grandmother. Huppert provides a totally convincing portrayal of a woman, and it could only be a woman, having to cope with so many intellectual and practical demands at the same time. Unsurprisingly unsentimental, Nathalie sends Heinz away rather than let him rejoin the family for poulet on Le Reveillon (chicken for Christmas Eve supper).

Philosophy is a prestigious subject in the French baccalauréat (approximately A-level in the UK or high school diploma level in the US) though Nathalie seems to be teaching at the even more demanding ‘prepa’ level which candidates for the grandes écoles have to achieve. For Arts students taking the bac literary stream, philosophy has the highest weighting (coeff) of all subjects.  In France exams are marked out of 20, 16 (80%) is a very high mark. There is a “little primer” on the philosophical references in L’Avenir on the ScreenPrism website. Some reviewers have referred to the Cazeaux as “academics”, but, although their pupils will call them profs, they are not university teachers.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children impressed me in 2009 with its maturity of insight and elegant filming. L’Avenir is of just as high a standard, shot in Brittany and the Vosges as well as Paris. The director/writer draws heavily on her own experiences and discussed the similarities between Nathalie and her own mother with Xan Brooks in the Guardian. Hansen-Løve made an interesting choice of music, perhaps the most significant piece is the Schubert lied, Auf dem Wasser zu singen (To sing on the water), D774, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Like yesterday and today may time again escape from me,
Until I on towering, radiant wings
Myself escape from changing time


17 October 2016

Louise Bourgeois in Bilbao and Bruton

In this blog there have been several encounters with Louise Bourgeois’ ‘spider’ sculptures (at the Royal Academy, at the Guggenheim Bilbao in 2015 and at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in 2014), but with only one exhibition of her work. That was Do Not Abandon Me, a show at the RWA Bristol in 2011 of Louise Bourgeois gouaches which had been adorned by Tracey Emin with small drawings and handwriting. Now two more extensive Bourgeois exhibitions have come along in just a few months.

The first, again at the Guggenheim Bilbao, was Louise Bourgeois Structures of Existence: the Cells, which ran from 18 March to 4 September 2016. In 2015 this exhibition was at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, and then the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow before Bilbao. From 13 October 2016 it will be at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark until 26 February 2017. The Haus der Kunst website and the Guggenheim’s continue to host extensive descriptions of the Cells and their place in the artist’s oeuvre. Louise Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911 and died in her 98th year in Manhattan. She left France in 1938 on marrying an American art historian but continued to use French in titles of her works (eg Passage Dangereux, 1997, above) and when hand-writing on them. Between 1991 and the end of her life Bourgeois created 62 Cells, 25 of them in this show.

The Cells are room-sized spaces, often constructed as cages, which are stocked with objects having personal resonance for Bourgeois, often reaching back into her childhood (Red Room (Parents) 1994, below top). The full significance to the artist of a particular installation is unknowable but the visitor cannot fail to be drawn into her disturbing and claustrophobic world view (Spider 1997, lower left and Cell (Choisy) 1990-93, lower right).

At Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Louise Bourgeois Turning Inwards is an exhibition of sculpture and etchings. After opening with Spider 1996:

again these explore Bourgeois’ memories and feelings (I Go to Pieces: My Inner Life (#6) 2010, below top), but also reveal her keen observation of the natural world and the forms it provides (Swelling 2007, below lower).

There is also an exhibition of photographs of Louise Bourgeois taken in the final years of her life by Alex Van Gelder, Mumbling Beauty, and an opportunity to see the documentary Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach in 2008.

Louise Bourgeois Turning Inwards ends on 1 January 2017.

An Addendum about Artist Rooms: Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern hopefully will be added to this post before too long.

20 September 2016

Woody Allen’s ‘Café Society’

September in the UK often marks the general release of the Woody Allen’s most recent film, this year’s being Café Society, written, directed and narrated by Allen and also his first digital shooting. Set in the 1930s, it’s the story of a young New Yorker, Bobby Dorfman from the Bronx (Jesse Eisenberg), who sets off to Hollywood hoping for a job with his maternal uncle, Phil Stern. Phil is an agent with an impressive office and a secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to match his success. Bobby turns out to be a dependable gofer and also starts to secure Vonnie’s affections, despite her already having a boyfriend in town. But before too long, Bobby discovers the identity of Vonnie’s on-off lover and abruptly returns to New York. Thanks to his gangster brother Ben, Bobby becomes a manager of a high society night club. He meets and marries one of the clients, another Veronica. One night, who should come into the club but Vonnie, now married to her lover. Bobby and Vonnie meet later and talk things over against the Manhattan backdrops Allen has made his own. Both being too sensible to jeopardise what they have, nothing worse befalls them than some bittersweet regrets for an unrequited love, whereas Ben gets his just deserts.

I thought Eisenberg was convincing as the ingénu in Tinsel Town, but lacked the presence needed to manage a high-class New York night spot. Stewart (last seen here as the PA in Clouds of Sils Maria) took every advantage offered by the part of Vonnie and carried the film. There were some vintage lines from Allen. The Dorfman family are probably stronger on one-liners than theology, for example when Bobby’s mother points out that “Too bad Jews don’t have an afterlife. They’d get a lot of business.” Another: “Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But the examined one is no bargain.” The West Coast provided some splendid 1930s exterior locations, but some of the shots there and in New York were on the point of being overstocked and over-frocked with the period.

As for the ending, well there’s been a three hour time difference between the US East and West Coasts since the 1880s, even on New Year’s Eve. But then Allen’s Depression America, affluent and colourful, is not too constrained by the realities of the times, probably better depicted recently in Genius. Café Society is reportedly Allen’s 48th film. By comparison with his recent work, it’s a lot better than Magic in the Moonlight, and better than Irrational Man, but not as good as Blue Jasmine.

19 September 2016

The Henry Moore at Gernika

Large Figure in a Shelter, 1986, Gernika, Spain
On 26 April 1937 the town of Guernica in the Basque country of Spain (Gernika in Basque) was subjected to aerial bombing by the German Luftwaffe with Italian air force support. Hitler and Mussolini’s forces undertook the operation on behalf of the nationalists under General Franco in the Spanish civil war (1936-39). Guernica was being used by Franco’s republican opponents as a communications centre near the front line. The destruction of the town with much loss of life was immortalised in one of the twentieth century’s most famous paintings, Picasso’s Guernica, now in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. Henry Moore, like most of the British intelligentsia, was anti-fascist and a supporter of the republican cause:
Most artists were of the same mind about Spain – I remember that when Irina and I were in Paris in the summer of 1937 Picasso invited a whole lot of us to go along to his studio and see how ‘Guernica’ was getting on. (Reference below)

In 1939 Moore began the first of his Helmet works (The Helmet, 1939-40, above left) in which an outer figure contained an inner one. One development of this theme would be Figure in a Shelter (1983, at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, above right) and Large Figure in a Shelter of 1986, according to the Henry Moore Foundation:
… the last monumental work to be produced during his lifetime, scaled up to this immense size from the smaller version of 1983. Due to Moore's increasing illness, Bernard Meadows, who had become his first assistant in 1936 and later Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art, was instrumental in seeing through the completion of the work - carried out by Moore's assistants. The initial cast was sited in woodland at Perry Green, and in 1990, negotiations with the Basque and Spanish governments by Sir Alan Bowness led to the second bronze being installed in what is now the Parque de los pueblos de Europa at Guernica. This was a fitting tribute by both artists to the memory of those who perished for the Republican cause, which they had strongly supported during the Spanish Civil War.
The Foundation’s description of the Perry Green cast adds:
Moore's continuing interest in the idea of an inner form protected by, but also contained within, an outer form is explored here with two monumental bronze forms that enclose the solitary figure of a third. Large Figure in a Shelter weighs over 21,000kg and was cast at the Morris Singer Foundry in Basingstoke. A second cast of this work stands in the Peace Park at Guernica in northern Spain. 
In accordance with his wishes, The Foundation ceased all casting when Moore died in 1986. Large Figure in a Shelter, however, was at the foundry at the time of his death. Under these unique circumstances, a clear protective lacquer was applied to the sculpture. With time and weather, the lacquer has degraded, leaving the base metal vulnerable to environmental damage. An ambitious project to restore the sculpture has now been completed. The restoration was led by James Copper who trained with Moore's own assistants for more than 12 years. In the course of the restoration, a rich gold-brown patina, in keeping with the majority of Moore's monumental bronzes, has been applied to the sculpture and polished with beeswax in order to allow the patina to develop naturally over time, in accordance with Moore's own approach.
This restoration was carried out in 2011 and was documented by Film Infinity:

However degraded the Perry Green version was prior to restoration, it is unlikely to have been in anything like such a poor state as the cast at Gernika is at present. As the photographs below (taken in August 2016) show, this is not only adorned with surface graffiti but has been subjected to deeper and more damaging vandalisation.

Many visitors to the Parque will conclude that it is beyond the capability of the local authorities in the town of Gernika-Lumo and the Biskaia province to look after this major work properly in its present location. April 2017 will be the 80th anniversary of the destruction of Guernica. It may also be an appropriate time to consider whether Moore’s work would be more appropriately sited and conserved elsewhere. An obvious location would be at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, less than 40km away, an institution which did not exist at the time of Moore’s death.


Henry Moore Writings and Conversations, ed Alan Wilkinson, University of California Press, 2002, page 166.

Previous posts here about Henry Moore:

Moore Rodin at Compton Verney
Bacon and Moore at the Ashmolean
The Arts Council’s Henry Moores in Bath
Henry Moore’s ‘Memorial Figure’ at Dartington Hall

13 September 2016

Hockney Portraits at the Royal Academy

Back in 2012, the Royal Academy in London put on a very popular show of David Hockney’s landscapes which, as it turned out, marked the end of his revisiting of his Yorkshire roots and his subsequent return to Los Angeles. Last year, Annely Juda Fine Art’s exhibition, David Hockney Painting and Photography, gave his UK admirers a chance to see some of his recent work including group and single portraits. Some of the latter have now re-appeared in David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life.

All these works (and another 10 or so not at the RA) were executed in acrylic on canvas taking two or three days each between July 2013 and March 2016. To be exact, there are 81 single portraits and one double, Augustus and Perry Barringer 16th, 17th June 2014, in this show. One subject, Bing McGilvray, appears three times, and J-P Gongalves de Lima and Jonathan Mills, twice each, so there were 79 different sitters, all being friends, family or acquaintances of the artist. As well as there being three portraits of members of Hockney’s own family, the same fairly distinctive surnames often appear more than once, for example Velasco, Schmidt, Pynoos, McHugh and Perlman. Hockney painted the still life, Fruit on a Bench 6th, 7th, 8th March 2014, when a sitter didn’t turn up.

The pictures are identical in size, with all the sitters in the same chair against a background divided blue green. Hockney didn’t specify what his sitters should wear, but nonetheless they are all rendered in vivid colours. A lot of the subjects were unknown to me and I suspect would also be to many of those visiting the show. Barry Humphries 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015, (above right) is, of course, an exception, recognisable from television but looking here more like Sir Les Patterson than Dame Edna Everage. All Hockney fans will know Celia Birtwell 31st August 1st 2nd September 2015, (above left).

Larry Gagosian 28th, 29th September 2013 (above left) and Benedikt Taschen 9th, 10th, 11th December 2013 (above right) are familiar as names but not as faces. Photographs of Jacob Rothschild 5th, 6th February 2014, (below right) have been in the media recently because of his views about Brexit.

On the whole, Hockney’s older sitters seem more interesting, or perhaps inevitably more characterful, than young ones and in general male sitters seem to engage Hockney more than females (disclosure: an old male speaks!). So, and just for example, Frank Gehry 24th,25th February 2016 (below left) made more of an impression on me than Chloe McHugh 9th, 10th, 11th November 2013 (below right).

I included some of Hockney’s earlier portraiture in a post about Randall Wright’s film in 2014. Tate Britain’s David Hockney next year is almost bound to include Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71) but I would very much like to see Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968. That would certainly put the works at the RA in perspective, as might this long-forgotten book cover (left). The informative exhibition catalogue by Tim Barringer and Edith Devaney covers Hockney’s evolution as a portrait painter from the 1950s as well as this show and who the sitters are. The Italian printers have delivered at the high standard the authors deserve.  

David Hockney RA: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life ends on 2 October 2016. The Tate Britain exhibition, David Hockney, will be from 9 February – 29 May 2017.

8 September 2016

Michael Grandage’s ‘Genius’

To describe Genius as unusual would probably be an understatement. It is Grandage’s first film, although he is an eminent director in London theatre. It is set in the USA in the 1930s, but was shot in England in 2015. It includes cameos of two of America's most famous writers, Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, but these are played by Dominic West (British) and Guy Pearce (Australian). A Brit is cast as the film’s main character, Maxwell Perkins, pre-eminent literary editor of the time at Scribner's in New York but obscure now in the UK and probably so even then. When Genius is released in the UK, Perkins should gain a little more recognition, if only for having been brought to the screen by no less than Colin Firth. To add to the confusion, the film is based on a biography published as long ago as 1978: A Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius.

Genius is not just a biopic but a bi-biopic of Perkins and of the writer Thomas Wolfe (no, not Tom Wolfe), played by Jude Law (British), covering the years between their first meeting in 1929 and the latter's death in 1938 at the age of 37. Wolfe arrives in Perkins' office with a voluminous and much-rejected manuscript titled O lost. Those (like me) who haven't read anything by Wolfe will just have to accept that his style was prolix before editing and wordy afterwards. Perkins produces his red pencil and convinces Wolfe to agree to the slimming down of the thousand pages of O Lost by hundreds of pages to transform it into Look Homeward, Angel, a best-seller in 1929. An even more epic set of deletions is required in 1935 to turn the four crates of hand-writing constituting the draft of Of Time and the River into something publishable.

Perkins never had, but clearly wanted, a son, despite his wife gamely producing five daughters. So there is an inevitable father-missing-a-son dimension in the close Perkins and Wolfe collaboration, although Perkins was only 16 years older. A classical rite of passage arises when Wolfe, his fame secured by Perkins, departs for another publisher. Not that Wolfe had been too much troubled earlier when he discarded the theatre designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman, Australian), his lover and patron in the days of his obscurity. Another theme is provided by Perkins’ musings over the nature of the role of an editor when it involves so substantial an input to a writer’s work. Just which genius should be credited with the outcome? Similar issues arise when artists produce works with the help of “assistants”, but the convention for literary editors is to stay in the shadows.

Many of the US reviewers of Genius did little to conceal their dismay at the film’s UK provenance and, apart from Laura Linney as Perkins' wife, Louise, the absence of a significant involvement by any of their own. Richard Brody in the New Yorker, admitting it was “a facile way to review it”, concentrated on a fact-check of Genius against Berg’s biography, identifying various errors and simplifications. His justification seemed to be the film’s title card describing Genius as “a true story”. However, on even brief consideration this is surely just as ambiguous a phrase as “editor of genius”. It’s a testimony to the craft of the British film industry that  American reviewers didn't seem to think that the realisation of New York and elsewhere in the US in the 1930s lacked authenticity.

Firth is a master of conveying the feelings of inhibited souls (for example in The King’s Speech) in a few words or none. Apparently  Perkins was very reluctant to take his fedora off.  Kidman’s Bernstein is aggrieved but justifiably so – whether Law’s Wolfe is over the top or how the man was, I don’t know. West and Pearce are convincing as the two literary lions of the three whose reputations have endured.  I thought it was one of the best-looking films I had seen since The Two Faces of January. Particularly striking was Perkins’ office at Scribner’s (below) where so many of the film’s key events take place.

Max Perkins (Colin Firth, left) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law)

3 August 2016

Susanna White’s ‘Our Kind of Traitor’

I almost didn’t get round to seeing Susanna White’s Our Kind of Traitor. I find John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels unconvincing, as are their TV and film adaptations, for example, Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man and the recent BBC miniseries directed by Susanne Bier, The Night Manager. Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor was published in 2010 and the 2016 film adaptation is credited to him and Hossein Amini (adapter and director of The Two Faces of January).

A London university lecturer, Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor), and his partner Gail (Naomie Harris) are on holiday in Marrakech and get taken up by a shady Russian oligarch, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Dima has fallen out with his fellow Mafiosi and needs a courier to convey intelligence to the SIS (MI6) whose help he wants. Hector (Damian Lewis), the SIS officer who takes on Makepeace’s case, has his own reasons for wanting Dima’s information which may incriminate individuals at the top of the British establishment including a former C (Head of SIS). Acting covertly within SIS, Hector organises an extraction of Dima and his family from Geneva, using Perry and Gail. Things don’t go exactly to plan, particularly for Dima, but at the end Perry unknowingly presents Hector with the MacGuffin which will provide what he needs after all.

For her film, White clearly didn’t have Bier’s budget but I doubt if more money would have made much difference to the creaky nature of the plot. That the main action of Our Kind of Traitor began and ended with scenes reminiscent of Homeland Season 5 (an ambush in a forest and an aircraft exploding after take-off) didn’t help when Lewis had been a stalwart of Seasons 1 to 3. As for the SIS (un)safe house in the French Alps – wouldn’t there have been any precautions taken about the subjects’ mobile phones, and wouldn’t phone coverage be highly unlikely there anyway? As for the bomb … . There are character implausibilities as well: Gail is supposed to be a big earner, yet is practising criminal law which is notoriously badly paid. Despite Hector’s line management having told him to desist, he somehow he manages to lay on resources for an operation in Switzerland of all places.

Le Carré’s work is usually regarded as being on a higher moral plane than, say, Len Deighton’s. Jake Kerridge recently listed in the Daily Telegraph “the twenty greatest spy novels of all time”, one being le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold:
When the young David Cornwell, an intelligence officer working for MI6, published his pseudonymous third novel, it was hailed as the first work of fiction to present the business of espionage as it really was. Le Carré himself would say that this was precisely what the book didn't do. As he once told me: "My service passed it, on the grounds it was not reflective of the truth, and gave away no secrets." It is better regarded as a great feat of imagination. Although le Carré has written many fine novels in the ensuing half-century, he has never quite recaptured anything as thrillingly transgressive as the cynicism of his anti-hero Leamas, who describes the rest of the Secret Service as "people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives".
So taking le Carré too literally is inadvisable, particularly in the case of Our Kind of Traitor, a thinnish film reworking of themes gone over before in the Cold War and after.

18 July 2016

Referendum opinion polling after a tragic event

This post attempts to identify the impact of the tragic death of Jo Cox MP on opinion polling prior to the outcome of the 2016 UK EU referendum (“Brexit”). 
If any reader considers this to be distasteful, please accept my apologies and go no further. 

Jo Cox MP died on 16 June 2016 and her death was announced by West Yorkshire Police at 17:00 that day. Referendum campaigning was suspended and Parliament was recalled on 20 June. The campaigns resumed on 21 June. The polling took place on 23 June with the results as shown below:

Among those who voted (the turnout was 72%), Leave had a lead of 3.8%; among the total electorate this would be equivalent to a 2.7% lead.

On Monday 20 June in a Guardian interview Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, is quoted as saying (my emphasis on her first two, apparently contradictory, sentences):
I think it inevitably will [affect voting decisions]. It’s too early to say whether it will have a direct impact on the result. I think there was a bit of disgust setting in on Thursday morning about the Farage poster. I started to detect a sense of ‘if you’re voting leave, are you associating yourself with that?’. 
Obviously nobody knows whether the debate around the referendum had anything to do with what happened to Jo, but the sense that the debate had become a little bit poisonous and a little bit intolerant and focused on fear of foreigners as opposed to legitimate debate about immigration, I suspect what happened will have intensified those feelings.
The chart below shows the data from opinion polls conducted in June 2016 in terms of the lead for Leave. Polls which did not report “Don’t know/Won’t vote” numbers are excluded. The horizontal lines through the data points indicated the duration of the polling in each case. A typical polling error of ±2.5% is indicated as well. The extent to which polls adjust for voting intention is not always clear so both the leads identified above are shown.

Looking across the month, the polling prior to 17 June can be regarded as being spread around the actual outcome as would be consistent with their inherent margin of error. Polls after this date tend to indicate more support for Remain as the preferred outcome.

One explanation for this might be that, while Cox’s death had little effect on most voters’ real intentions, there was a tendency for them to conceal their intention to support Leave in responses to opinion polling between her death and the vote. So perhaps there was not such a contradiction, after all, in canny Sturgeon’s two sentences.


YouGov's Anthony Wells has now posted on UK Polling Report an interesting review of what lessons can be drawn from opinion polling for the UK EU referendum.  The possible impact of the tragic death of Jo Cox is not discussed.


4 July 2016

Such STRANGE times

The last few weeks of the EU referendum campaign in the UK and the days since the result became clear on 24 June have been some of the strangest I’ve known, the political sphere reaching into private life in an unprecedented and uncomfortable way. Life may revert to something nearer normal when the new Prime Minister* is in place and the country becomes more settled on its future path, uncertain though it is sure to be.

By the end of the year there will be books galore attempting to explain what has been going on. The journalist Tim Shipman, for example, is promising All Out War, the inside story of Brexit. By then the strange affair of the email sent on 28 June by Sarah Gove (Michael Gove’s wife, better known as the journalist, Sarah Vine) will probably be little more than a footnote, some background to her husband’s decision to run for the party leadership and Boris Johnson’s to withdraw. For the record though, here it is:

The email originally came into the hands of Sky News, though the clearer image above comes from Guido Fawkes. According to Sky:
An email sent to Michael Gove by his wife reveals concerns about the support Boris Johnson has in the party and the media. The email, which was also sent to the Justice Secretary's aides, was passed to Sky News.
Oddly, the email refers to “you” and “your” three times each, but also to “Michael”, as if he were a third party like “Henry” and “Beth”. Or as if all those three were copy addressees, not the main one.

When Gove emerged as a candidate, Ian Leslie, quite justifiably drew attention to a long New Statesman article presciently titled Michael Gove, the polite assassin, which he wrote back in October 2015. Fascinating throughout, one passage struck me:
…[Gove’s] closest adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is impossible to understand Gove’s time at Education, or indeed Gove, without considering his relationship with the man described by Nick Clegg as “loopy” and by others as brilliant or bullying, or both. … 
Cummings, like Gove, has a love of argument, as well as a suspicion, bordering on contempt, for those who compromise, muddle through and fail to pick sides. But he doesn’t have Gove’s politesse. He cares little – or even notices – what people think of him. In a departmental meeting, Gove might make his dissatisfaction clear by his tone, but it would be Cummings who told the civil servants they were a shambles, or who shut meetings down abruptly, and Cummings who sent around hectoring emails, with liberal use of capital letters, to staff in the department.

*The new PM – see my post in 2013, The Oxford Incumbency. From the Table there (2015A was, of course, the outcome last year), it would seem almost inevitable that the next Prime Minister will be either Teresa May or Michael Gove, the other three contenders not having gone to Oxford. May currently seems the far more likely of those two. However, these are strange times when referendums overturn the status quo – so who knows?


Teresa May will become Prime Minister on 13 July – the Oxford Incumbency continues, things must be getting back to normal!

30 June 2016

Not so Superforecasting

Last November I posted here about Superforecasting and the Good Judgement Project (GJP), run by Professor Philip Tetlock at the University of Pennsylvania. Tetlock’s book, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, had just been published. For more details about Superforecasting and my reservations about the technique, please read the post. One of Tetlock’s conclusions was that the top 2% of forecasters merit designation as “Superforecasters” and that their prognostications should be taken seriously.

During the UK “Brexit” referendum campaign up to Thursday 23 June, the Superforecasters’ estimated likelihood of the Leave campaign being successful was made available regularly on Twitter. Never expected to be more than about 40%, their final estimate, provided on polling day, was 24%, as can be seen below:

The result was a Leave win (with 52% of the vote). A couple of experts had anticipated the outcome, for example Nigel Smith on the Reaction website. Ironically, the campaign director for Vote Leave was Dominic Cummings, an enthusiast for Superforecasting (see my November post). Tetlock tweeted after the result was known:

and Cummings (@odysseanproject) was supportive :

(SW1 is the postal district which includes Westminster and Whitehall, ie the seat of government). 

Personally, I think Cummings is letting Superforecasting off lightly – they were way off on a topic which  is almost certainly of long-term significance regionally and beyond and has had more global attention than anything in the UK since the death of Princess Diana.

I suspect that most of the Superforecasters are US-based and were relying too much on the “received wisdom” generated by the London media.  These well-paid members of the intelligentsia have little understanding of attitudes outside the capital and its associated areas of prosperity eg Oxford, Bristol and so on. The Superforecasters probably also over-discounted the opinion polling in the light of the latter’s dismal performance before the UK general election in 2015. This time the polls didn’t do so badly and were indicating for most of June that the result would be very close, ie within their inherent margin of error of a few percent at best.


In the Financial Times FT Weekend 9/10 July there was an article by Robert Armstrong in their long-running Lunch with the FT series. The paper’s guest was Philip Tetlock and most of the reporting was a largely uncritical description of Superforecasting’s powers and of some good food. The lunch date had been before the Brexit vote,so Armstrong made a follow-up phone call:
I called Tetlock after the referendum result. As a fan of his work I was quite disappointed to hear that the “supers” got Brexit wrong too. Doesn’t this stumble on such a huge issue put his aspirations at risk? The supers did nail the Scotland referendum two years ago, confidently predicting that Scots would vote to stay in the Union when the opinion polls were very close, but the stumble on Brexit makes that look more like luck. 
“If they were only making predictions on those two topics, that would be a plausible hypothesis,” Tetlock replied. But the superforecaster teams have a much longer record, in which they do measurably better than luck or individual specialists. 
That Tetlock is totally unfazed by the Brexit miss is, in a sense, the whole point. He wants to replace the model of the all-knowing policy guru with something co-operative, empiricist; something fallible, but open to systematic incremental improvement. It is a vision of knowledge as a process of slowly but meaningfully upping the chance of being right — while acknowledging that it all remains a gamble.
Again I think Superforecasting is being allowed to get away with a failure on Brexit that should be unacceptable given the claims made. Here’s another forecast tweeted today:

Having to make an adjustment from 50% to 1% in a month rather undermines the notion of “supers” having a deeper and earlier understanding of what the future holds than anyone else! (I discussed discounting of late forecasts in the earlier post). I wonder whether this forecast is going to move much more before the 27th?

31 May 2016

What is The Quint?

After Brexit, You'll not see nothing like the mighty Quint

I'd never heard of “The Quint” until I read an article posted on the Ballots & Bullets website of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, Brexit would be death knell for British influence in the world, by Catherine Gegout, a Lecturer in International Relations there. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that she is pro-EU and sees nothing but disaster for the UK post-Brexit, should this occur. For example:
On the international stage, the UK would have even less legitimacy than it has now as a member of the permanent five of the UN. Why would the UK have as much say at the UN as the US, France, Russia and China? It is not clear whether states such as India, Brazil and South Africa would continue to support the UN decision-making process if a small state – the UK, outside the EU and very likely without Scotland – had veto power.
This argument does not address the future possibility of France and the UK (presumably neither having much legitimacy currently in Gegout’s estimation) standing down from the P5 to be replaced by an EU representative, should Britain choose to remain in the EU. And does everyone accept that Scotland is “very likely” to leave the UK and take on the euro?

By relinquishing its monumental influence in the EU, the UK would lose its special relationship with the US. President Barack Obama made this clear on his recent visit to the UK. Five former NATO chiefs and 13 former US secretaries of state and defence have also cautioned against leaving the EU. Cutting the special indirect link to the EU for the US would be devastating for British diplomacy.
Is the UK’s influence in the EU “monumental”?  Currently there is no certainty as to who the next POTUS will be or what foreign policy relationships will the US will pursue after January 2017. That above is the only reference to NATO in the article, although a comment that “The UK, France and Germany are the most important military forces in the EU” is supported by a NATO press release. No mention of this also showing that the UK and Poland are the only two European countries to meet the NATO guideline of spending more than 2% of GDP on defence, or that the UK’s defence expenditure is about 30% higher than that of France and over 40% more than Germany’s. Despite this commitment to NATO, apparently “Today, from a realpolitik perspective, the EU is the UK’s main foreign policy instrument. By leaving, the UK would ruin its national interest.”

But the novelty for me was:
Britain, together with France, is the most important foreign policy actor in the EU. It acts via a discreet informal body, the Quint, which decides on all highly sensitive aspects of European foreign policy. The Quint includes only five states: the UK, France, Germany and Italy and a notable outsider – the United States. The Quint is considered a directorate, in the sense that it takes initiatives, discusses EU foreign policy issues, and small EU countries have to accept its authority.
The reference supporting the Quint’s existence is a “pre-peer reviewed version” of an article published in the Journal of Common Market Studies in 2002, The Quint: Acknowledging the Existence of a Big Four-US Directoire at the Heart of the European Union’s Foreign Policy Decision-Making Process, by one Catherine Gegout. 

Be that as it may, one might well ask why the Quint could not in years accommodate another “notable outsider” in the form of a post-Brexit UK.  But obviously, we'll not see nothing like the mighty Quint.


There is an item about "NATO Quint" on Wikipedia.

10 May 2016

The "Digital News Microclimate"

Are the Brexit Remainers creating an echo chamber? 

I haven’t seen any reference in the UK media to an article which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on 8 May in print under the title, The Storyteller and the President, and on their website as The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru. It is a lengthy profile by David Samuels of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications in the White House, 38 and described by Samuels as “The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House”:
He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself … in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. … On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Perhaps in the UK we are all too wrapped up in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership, but it’s worth remembering that Obama was here on 22 April telling us that we would be at the “back of the queue” in any trade deal with the US, if the country chose to leave the EU. Private Eye caught the tone of his message when their cover captioned the Obamas’ photo-opportunity with the young Royals:

If Samuels is right, Rhodes is very likely to have been involved in formulating Obama’s messaging in London – if nothing else, as a fan of CS Lewis and George Orwell he would be aware of the usage of “queue” here rather than “line”. Samuels emphasises how close Rhodes is to Obama:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Although Rhodes’ background is Eng Lit/creative writing not foreign policy/international affairs:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling. 
Having recently spent time working in Hollywood, I realize during our conversations that the role Rhodes plays in the White House bears less resemblance to any specific character on Beltway-insider TV shows like “The West Wing” or “House of Cards” than it does to the people who create those shows. And like most TV writers, Rhodes clearly prefers to imagine himself in the company of novelists.
But it seems that Rhodes’ skills are now the relevant ones (my emphasis):
Price [Rhodes’ deputy, Ned Price] turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.
Because, according to Samuels, we are in “the soft Orwellian vibe of an information space where old media structures and hierarchies have been erased by Silicon Valley billionaires who convinced the suckers that information was “free” and everyone with access to Google was now a reporter”:
The job he was hired to do [in 2007], namely to help the president of the United States communicate with the public, was changing in equally significant ways, thanks to the impact of digital technologies that people in Washington were just beginning to wrap their minds around. It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social-media platforms like Facebook, which are valued in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars and pay nothing for the “content” they provide to their readers. You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed. Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
A long section in the article is an account of how the nuclear deal with Iran was sold in the US, so not particularly relevant to the UK, although one extract is interesting:
Rhodes “was kind of like the quarterback,” running the daily video conferences and coming up with lines of attack and parry. “He was extremely good about immediately getting to a phrase or a way of getting the message out that just made more sense,” Kreikemeier [one of the team] remembers. Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument.
Interesting because of Cameron’s speech on Brexit on 9 May at the British Museum in front of an audience which included the US ambassador:
The serried rows of white headstones in lovingly-tended Commonwealth war cemeteries stand as silent testament to the price that this country has paid to help restore peace and order in Europe. Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash as to make that assumption.
So the Brexit Remain campaign might be expected to follow Rhodes’ approach:
“We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Today, five former NATO secretaries-general have written to the Daily Telegraph, warning that it "would be very troubling if the UK ended its membership of the European Union” and The Times has a letter from 13 former US secretaries of state and defence and national security advisers telling us “The special relationship between our countries would not compensate for the loss of influence and clout that the UK would suffer if it was no longer part of the EU”.

Samuels’ article, which seems to have created a small storm inside the DC Beltway, is well worth reading in full. Some of it probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt:
[Rhodes’] New York City prep-school-kid combination of vulnerability, brattiness and passionate hatred for phonies suggests an only slightly updated version of what Holden Caulfield might have been like if he grew up to work in the West Wing.
Obama won’t be President for much longer, and Rhodes will probably be persona non grata to the next White House incumbent, whoever “she” may be:
He [Rhodes] referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.
But political messaging has probably changed for good:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ” 
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging. 
Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ” 
“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling. “And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.” 
This is something different from old-fashioned spin, which tended to be an art best practiced in person. In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.
On this side of the Atlantic, my guess is that the Conservatives might be ahead of Labour in appreciating what’s involved in the new spin, though if Number 10 has a Rhodes equivalent, he or she seems to have been too busy with Brexit to take on the Mayor of London campaign.  Although Seamus Milne, Corbyn's spin doctor, may be politically well to the left of his New Labour predecessor, Alastair Campbell, he too comes from a traditional newspaper background.  Whether by 2020, Labour will have a new leader, mind-melded to someone versed in these new arts, remains to be seen.

7 April 2016

Churchill and the Appeasers, Johnson and the Remainers

Would a Prime Minister Johnson "forgive and understand" their wrong-headedness?

Back in February, I remarked in a post here that:
There is even one school of thought that whether the result [of the Brexit referendum] is leave or remain, Boris Johnson will become the next leader of the Conservative party and therefore Prime Minister
and, if anything, this outcome seems more likely, not less. In fact, if being taken seriously is a measure, recent excoriating attacks on Johnson by, for instance, Matthew Parris on 26 March in The Times (Tories have got to end their affair with Boris, Charm can make us forget the dishonesty and recklessness that would be ruthlessly exposed if he became leader) and Nick Cohen in the Guardian a few days later (Boris Johnson. Liar, conman – and prime minister? The mayor of London has been treated with woozy indulgence by the media. But Britain may pay the price), suggest much more likely. Reacting to Parris, John Rentoul in the Independent was calm, It's time to get used to the idea of living under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or perhaps just resigned.

Not long before, I had come across the biography which Johnson had written in 2014, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History. Reviewers tended to regard it as very readable in the style of Johnson’s Daily Telegraph opinion pieces which appear most Mondays (at £5000 a time they say), as not adding much to the huge amount of literature on his subject already available and as being as much about Johnson as Churchill.

It occurred to me that if Johnson were to become PM after a Brexit vote, he would be leading a Cabinet many of whom had been "remainers". How would he deal with them? Would his portrayal of Churchill who, after only three weeks as PM and in a much greater crisis in 1940, had to work with senior members of a Cabinet who had been advocates of appeasing Hitler, offer any insights?

Rather to my surprise, Chapter 1 plunges straight in at this point in Churchill’s life with The Offer from Hitler, made via Italy to negotiate an end to hostilities. This was put to the Cabinet in May 1940 by Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary and long-term appeaser of Hitler:
[Halifax] was tall, very tall; at 6 foot 5 he loomed about ten inches above Churchill – though I suppose advantage matters less around a table. (page 11)
Johnson is no more than 5 foot 10 by the way. Later after describing the Cabinet’s deliberations, Johnson comments:
It makes one cringe, now, to read poor Halifax’s defeatism; and we need to forgive and understand his wrong-headedness. (page 16)
and later:
All we are saying – in mitigation of Halifax – is that in seeking peace, he had the support of many British people, at all levels of society. (page 17)
Over 200 pages later (Johnson’s book is thematic in structure, not chronological) Halifax re-appears in 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry to WW2, as
… the British ambassador in Washington. This was none other than our old friend the Earl of Halifax: the beanpole-shaped appeaser - he who used to go hunting with Goering. Halifax was the British envoy charged with appealing to the finer feelings of the United States and he was having a terrible time. Shortly after arriving he is said to have sat down and wept - in despair at the culture clash. He couldn't understand the American informality, or their habit of talking on the telephone or popping round for unexpected meetings. In May 1941 the aristocratic old Etonian endured fresh torment when he was taken to a Chicago White Sox baseball game and invited to eat a hotdog. He refused. Then he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a group called the Mothers of America. Even for an appeaser, it seems a hell of a punishment. (page 247)
Johnson, if not inclined to vindictiveness, at least seems to have a taste for schadenfreude. He fingers a few other appeasers, for example:
Rab Butler, then a junior Foreign Office minister, was caught telling a Swedish diplomat that he thought Britain should do a deal – if Hitler offered the right terms (page 230)
returns to Johnson’s sights
… Tory drips such as Butler (the old appeaser) … (page 288)
So perhaps Tory remainers shouldn’t hold out too much hope of forgiveness and understanding from a Prime Minister Johnson.

There are some good things in The Churchill Factor. Johnson gives a whole chapter, An Icy Ruthlessness, to the decision to destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, a tragedy which the British tend to overlook when revisiting the events of 1940. And another, The Ships that Walked, to Churchill’s sponsorship, when at the Admiralty during WW1, of the initial development of the tank by the Directorate of Naval Construction.

Unlike some celebrity writers, Johnson is happy to give credit to various helpers in the Acknowledgements, in particular Dr Warren Dockter, but my favourite is the one to a fellow Old Etonian:
David Cameron did some invaluable devilling into the exact locations of the pivotal meetings in May 1940 – not at all clear in Lukacs, for instance. (page 361/2)


Remarks by Johnson about President Obama at the time of the visit to London have led to Borises being sold heavily in the reputations market in the last few days – perhaps never to recover, although there are still 60 days to go before the Referendum.

Earlier in the month Johnson had published his tax return:

 - his earnings from the Daily Telegraph seem to match their reputation. In The Churchill Factor (pages 72 and 73), Johnson dismisses Evelyn Waugh’s criticisms of Churchill’s literary style:
Is it that Waugh was a teensy bit jealous? I think so; and the reason was not just that Churchill had become so much more famous than Waugh had been, by the time he was twenty-five, but that he had made such stupendous sums from writing. And that, for most journalists, alas, is the truly sensitive point of comparison. (page 73)