Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.
I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.
The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.
Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?
I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.
I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.
In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.
His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.
Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.
I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.
Posted in Personal, Uncategorized
Tagged 1984, America, argue, book, challenge, Channel 4, Civilization: The West and the Rest, Colossus, conflict, Contradictions, contradictory, controversy, crossover, dynamic, economic, education, Empire, evidence, Ferguson, Freedom, Freedom is Slavery, fusion, future, Gove, Greece, Guyatt, Harvard, heft, Helots, history, hobbies, idealism, ideas, interests, interview, learning, lecture, life, literature, love, LSE, man, new, Niall, Nicholas, Observer, oppose, opposing, Orlando, Orwell, passion, past, Patterson, personal, philosophy, Pity of War, Politics, pragmatic, professor, programme, realism, reform, reputation, revisionist, Schama, scholar, Scottish, Servitude, Skidelsky, Sparta, Starkey, suave, subject, Sunday 20th February 2011, support, teacher, teaching, theory, tv, university, view, War of the Worlds, William, work, works, York
I have recently enjoyed three excellent and thoroughly engaging novels. Each had me gripped in very different ways, but each shares the key ingredient of successful storytelling; a strong narrative voice. The extremely distinctive first person narrators of each of these novels draws you in and captivates you. A narrative voice that feels real and engaging is the element I most struggle with when trying to write my own creative works. I certainly therefore don’t feel qualified to dissect the successful and unsuccessful subtleties of the writing in these books in review form, but feel compelled to record what made them so readable for me as “thoughts”, for that is all they are, and to recommend them to others nonetheless. I may inadvertently let slip the odd slight spoiler, for which I apologise but place a warning here.
First up then is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which I admit I was only inspired to read due to the hype surrounding a forthcoming film adaptation and the allure and beauty of the trailer for it. What’s noticeable and striking even in that brief snippet of film is the overwhelming Britishness of the story and it’s a very British novel too. That sense of place comes not just from the boarding school setting, the childhood themes, the nostalgic reminisces and stunning countryside, but from the voice of the novel, Kathy H. Whilst it appears she is candidly telling her life story, with little reason or desire to embellish and hold back, you soon notice her strong focus on others, on those immediately close to her. If she criticises a friend she will qualify what she means and spend pages delving into another random memory of them to share their alternative, better side. In many ways this is a novel of memories, about the ones that slip away and the ones you never let go of. Given that she focuses on those most important to her, it’s enlightening, revealing and intriguing that she never actually says in the novel, as far as I can see or recall, that she loves the man events make clear to be her soul mate. Indeed Kathy does not spell things out about herself often and retells everything, overpowering emotions and all, with a simplicity and undertone of British restraint. It’s this restraint and modesty that is the most chokingly moving at times too. It’s clearly to Ishiguro’s immense credit that he simultaneously creates a strong, rounded character in Kathy, whilst also letting events, and things Kathy omits, paint a picture of their own. Kathy has confidence that, from what she has retold to us, she need not say explicitly “I loved him”.
I’m glad I read the original story as a novel before the release of the film in January. Despite the promise that attracted me in the trailer, Carey Mulligan will do well to play Kathy H as quite as compellingly as Ishiguro writes her. The film is also set to cut large chunks of Kathy’s childhood memories of Hailsham, in favour of the adolescent portion of the story. I hope this omission does not detract from events later on and make them less meaningful. The one fault I found with the book, and one the film will also struggle to overcome, is the sense that there is never a satisfying big conspiracy revealed, as is hinted at. The one that does emerge seemed fairly clear early on and whilst Ishiguro seems to hint that there is more to it (I had visions of some sort of apocalyptic Britain or a more interesting and dramatic disintegration of ethics) there really isn’t. Mostly though Never Let Me go is a terribly moving story because of the way it feels so real. Kathy’s language is simple but beautiful at times, like many of her memories. Her friendships and loves are not obsessively described with clichés and extravagant imagery, and are consequently all the more like our own. The way things turn out is so tragic because you can place yourself in her shoes.
I have also recently read Lee Rourke’s debut novel, The Canal, joint winner of the Guardian’s alternative award Not The Booker Prize. As the review on the Guardian website points out, this is a debut crammed with ideas. This might have been a problem if the ideas weren’t original or didn’t resonate with me, but I found most of them to be insightful and well expressed musings on a realistic truth. The novel begins as an engaging meditation on the nature of boredom and how it is a fundamental part of existence to be embraced, rather than feared and avoided. It eventually evolves into a touching love story, which becomes an obsession and climaxes with an eventful ending. Most of the novel aims accurately for realism; its ideas, its dialogue, its images. Only at the end do feelings and events become sensational.
The title of the book makes it clear that it will have a strong sense of setting and the surroundings of The Canal are ever present throughout the narrative, the backdrop to almost all the action. Its features are described with some wonderful imagery and symbolism. Even the book itself, the physical design of the novel, is pleasing to look at and hold. If I were Rourke I’d be delighted with the tasteful design of my first fictional foray. He ought to be proud too of the dialogue in his work, which really stands out as exceptionally believable and realistic, becoming almost a script at times before reverting back to the narrator’s thoughts. The dialogue is rightly praised on the back of the book.
Like Never Let Me Go, much of The Canal’s success comes down to the convincing narrative voice. However if Kathy H was restrained, the nameless narrator of The Canal is mysterious. The woman he meets on The Canal is also mysterious, until he slowly uncovers her secrets. She is for the most part a rounded character and their relationship believable, but at times it succumbs to cliché. There are other clichés too such as the stereotypical gang of youths and the unstoppable march of building work that eventually swallows his patch of The Canal. These unimaginative elements let down the originality and realism of the rest of the book, but The Canal was an engaging, un-put-down-able read.
If The Canal mused about boredom then The Dice Man is a full on exploration of its depths and connections to the meaning of existence. The main reason I was reluctant to be bold enough to call these thoughts of mine a review was that The Dice Man is simply too mammoth, sprawling and impressive a work for me to digest, let alone analyse adequately. It’s jam packed with ideas and full of such variety that it touches on more areas in one chapter than most novels. It has spawned a cult and resembles a bible in weight and heft. It’s immensely controversial, challenging long established truths in religion and philosophy, outraging those with a strong moral compass. It contains scenes that are graphically violent and sexual. It is regularly and consistently funny. However as with The Canal, it is the quality of composition and writing that truly impresses me with The Dice Man.
From the very first page The Dice Man makes it clear it will not follow the conventions of an ordinary novel, but mimic several at once. It flits from the brilliantly cynical and scathing first person voice of Dr Lucius Rhinehart, to describing events in his life in the third person. It also chucks in various articles about events in the Dr’s life, along with other methods of storytelling such as transcripts of interviews and television shows. With all the talk of ideas, philosophy and sex surrounding The Dice Man, it can be forgotten that it is an exemplary exercise in creative writing, full of tremendous variety. The dialogue is always funny and realistic and the characters well realised, albeit obviously through the lens of Dr Rhinehart’s own entertaining, intelligent opinions. There are narrative twists and turns, violent thrills and sexual ones. The careful craft and exciting breadth of this novel ensures that a novel of over 500 pages remains gripping throughout. It consumed me for a whole week.
Then of course there are the ideas themselves, the philosophy behind The Dice Man. The reason this book has become so notorious and actually converted readers to the “religion” detailed within its pages, is that many of the ideas make sense, that and the alluring mystery to it all. The mystery blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Luke Rhinehart is of course a pseudonym, but a quick Wikipedia search on The Dice Man and you discover the real author, George Cockroft, also genuinely experimented with the “dicelife”. So there is some truth to the claims that this a factual account and that may account for its vivid detail. However it is also undoubtedly a sensational work of fiction, at times taking swipes at the profession of psychology and the state of society in general. I have already said that as a novel it should be praised and not revered simply for its bold ideas, but it is true that the seductiveness of the ideas help sweep you along in the story.
The basic principle of The Dice Man is to abandon free will, at least to a great extent. Every decision in your life you are unsure about should be decided by the throw of a dice, and in fact later on, even those you do feel sure of. You may create options for the various numbers of the dice or die, but whichever they choose you must blindly follow. The options must try to embrace all aspects of your multiple existence, so for example if you have idly fantasised about masturbating over your pot plant, even for a second, this ought to be considered and given to the die to decide. The aforementioned variety and randomness of the novel thus mimics the theory at its heart, with one section actually printed twice immediately after you have read it, presumably at the will of the die.
The philosophical implications of handing over control of a human life to chance are vast and fascinating and I shall not even scratch the surface of their interest here. But Rhinehart comes to believe in the novel that by following the dice and developing his theory he can become a kind of superman, the ultimate human that abandons the misery imposed on us by clinging to a sense of “self”. We often feel completely contradictory desires each day, none more true than the other. What is truly haunting and bewildering about The Dice Man is that by listening to Rhinehart’s distinctive, cynical, hilarious voice, we come to see the sense to his arguments and then when he commits an unspeakable sin at the will of the dice, we feel implicated too. Does a truly liberated human existence require immorality? Rhinehart becomes obsessed by the potential of his simple idea to elevate him intellectually, to truly free him from boredom and obligation. He says that he resembles Clark Kent and by pursuing “dice theory” Rhinehart aims for a permanent transformation into Superman, The Dice Man, on another level to the ordinary human drone.
I’m not saying The Dice Man is the perfect novel, do not misunderstand my awe and praise. At times it left me baffled in completely the wrong way, and despite its championing of the random and new experiences, it can become repetitive, particularly the frequent bouts of sex. And whilst it is sometimes credibly intellectual and inspiring, such as the scene when Rhinehart defends his new theory to a panel of his influential peers, at others it does appear to be simply sick and shocking for shocking’s sake. The thing is that The Dice Man knows it is not the perfect novel, in fact its cynicism screams and mocks the idea of a perfect novel being possible. Even the repetitive sex scenes are always evocatively described or hilariously painted and the idea that a man striving for complete liberty is constantly tied down by sexual desire is ironic and mocking in itself. The Dice Man really is often laugh out loud funny. It is also scandalous, entertaining and everything else it has been described as. Most of all it is an original creation, a unique fusion of cultural influences, which perfectly encapsulates the America of its time and remains powerfully relevant today.
These three novels perhaps demonstrate the importance of two ingredients in particular amongst the many needed for a success: interesting ideas and an individual narrative voice.
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This week I went all middle-class and cultural. On Wednesday I went to the Royal Albert Hall for “An Evening of Vivaldi” with violinist Nigel Kennedy. And yesterday I ambled round the Tate Modern, hoping I didn’t look as stupid as I felt. It was all certainly a far-cry from my rural roots and the working class hubbub of a football match and the intoxicating odours of warmed sausage rolls. But if I’m honest I don’t feel comfortable in either environment.
Wednesday then and the much anticipated, long awaited evening of Vivaldi. I was spirited to the venue by an irritable cabbie all the more grunty and scowly I suspect due to the additional traffic clogging the arteries of the capital’s roads, vomited up from below by the tube strike. On several occasions his grumpy state prompted less than textbook driving manoeuvres and one of these bursts prompted the howling horns of a sleek BMW pulling out into our lane, along with an un-graceful involuntary spasm from me. Not daunted in the slightest he drove on and continued occasionally with his inaudible mutterings, and I listened to Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 as he accepted calls about the change in the law allowing prisoners to vote, prompted by the EU courts. Eventually the Albert Hall crept on me from nowhere and I was out, stalking around its beautifully lit circumference, killing time until the doors were opened.
I was suitably impressed by the building from the outside and enjoyed snatching chunks of a singer that floated from a window in the Royal College of Music opposite, but was somewhat underwhelmed by the scale of the interior. I loved the deep scarlet (or crimson?) colour to everything and the history present in the antique seats, but whilst it was undoubtedly a big venue, perhaps my aforementioned working class sensibilities, used to giant football stadia, left me unmoved by the jewel in Britain’s musical crown. However I was pleased with the view from my seat and impressed by the impression that everyone’s seat must have a decent view. Still it felt smaller than it looked on the Dr.Who Proms anyway.
The only thing that mattered to my father (if I wasn’t writing would have called him Dad, but that sounded wrong and just a little too affectionate to be accurate, although father makes me sound more refined than I am) about Nigel Kennedy was that he too was an Aston Villa fan. All I really knew of him was a few performances on TV and the CD of the Four Seasons I own, played by him, that I know inside out and was my only real motivation for coming. That CD alone convinced me I loved Vivaldi and seeing as I loved his native city of Venice too it seemed like a good idea to delve deeper. But as I have said, I am a stranger to this world of cultured classical music and was therefore grateful in many ways for Nigel’s eccentric onstage behaviour with a working class twang. He honestly looked scruffy in my opinion. But he was instantly likeable. He swore frequently and strongly, to the shock of some and amusement of most; “Now I guess I have to play some shit on my own”. He bantered with audience members late because of the tube strike, pouncing on one with kisses and theatrical gestures; “You’ve only missed a few concertos but there’s loads of good stuff left”. He referred to sport when introducing his glamorous and beautiful female companions. He generally joked and entertained. And he seemed as baffled as I was at times at the ever so frequent applause. Every minor piece required a bout of praise at its finish, leaving me and by the look on his face at times, Nigel himself, wondering when they would get on with it. But then I guess it was all so wonderfully and terribly British, and why so many Germans, Irish and Italians were seated around me to enjoy the show.
I am hardly qualified to comment at length on the music itself. The first half of the show was comprised mostly of concertos I was unfamiliar with and consequently towards the end of it I found myself growing a little weary, especially during the softer sections. I confess that I enjoy the frantic and furious crescendos considerably more than the gentle, swaying parts, no matter how beautiful and intoxicating and calming they may be. I suppose the real revelation in seeing the performance live was the sheer visual spectacle of the violin. During my favourite intense moments the entire orchestra moved in energetic, synchronised slashes and jolts. All that striking swishing up and down through the air was like a chorus of swords striking at our ears, echoing the very “V” sound of Vivaldi, Venice and violin. Watching Kennedy duet with his various exotic female companions was also extraordinary for me, seeing the sort of chemistry I had only previously experienced between singers or dancers between two instruments was wonderful. The way he would undulate and stomp and stamp was so engaging at times, as if he was enjoying it then so would we I guess. Nevertheless I shamefully longed for some of the lively hip gyrations and sexy beats of Dirty Dancing which I had seen the week before as a present for my mother, at times. But of course when he finally got round to “four little unknown concertos” I was so delighted he was going to play the whole Four Seasons, and felt for a brief moment brilliantly middle-class and cultured to be in on such a joke. The striking strings tell such a story in that music and the waves of sound rising up stronger and stronger during my preferred pieces was wonderful and fantastic to hear the whole thing in one go. Admittedly by the end I was tired and keen to leave for bed, but I was privileged to have heard what I knew as tracks on a CD, treasured and enjoyed in quiet privacy, in the company of others, even if they were more than simply a casual appreciator as I was.
Mind you I am a bloody expert on Vivaldi when you compare my knowledge of his music to my knowledge of modern art. So I’m not sure why I had the urge to go and look round the Tate Modern, but go I did. I guess part of it was simply the wonderful approach and the walk past St.Pauls and over the marvellous Millennium Bridge, poised like a delicate, wobbly blade over the Thames. The walk was actually surprisingly easy and quick and I shall be doing it again. I loved the contrast of St.Pauls white marble with that of the Tate Modern building itself, beautiful in its own way. Part of my problem has always been though that I appreciate the buildings selected to store great art in more than the works themselves. Whilst I can see the value more easily in the traditional works at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (and I always pop in), with some pieces, such as those of the Venetian canals, blowing me away with their vibrancy and colour, I find it much easier to marvel at length at the scale and beauty of the building around me than the paintings.
Once inside the Tate Modern though the interior is nothing to marvel at. Disappointingly there was no sign of the controversial seed art installation that had made the news, but I picked up a map and set off aiming to educate myself. I was expecting to despise a lot of what I saw, as I am an ignorant, rural, traditional sceptic when it comes to “modern” art in many ways. I do not claim to know what constitutes art and what doesn’t, and would rather not get into that debate as it’s surely a subjective question, but for me a piece of canvas painted one colour, albeit a striking one, is interior design, not art. There’s no reason why it would not have been done before by someone. I’m not saying it doesn’t require skill and aesthetic appreciation, but it does not seem to be art to me. And yes there was the odd piece that I hurried past to avoid staring at it angrily and in disbelief. Even Matisse’s celebrated “the snail” which I was familiar with from a documentary and was surrounded by admirers, does nothing for me with its simple blocks of colour. For the most part however I was surprised at how engaging I found a lot of the works and generally enjoyed my couple of hours or so wandering about.
Calling the Tate Modern “modern” can be misleading in itself, as there is a lot of history to be found within the walls. Granted when you take human civilisation as a speck on the table top of world history then the twentieth century works on show are very modern indeed, but for me as a child born at the end of the century it’s a period rich in variety, close enough to be stirringly relevant but far enough away to be exotic. I stumbled across Monet’s Water Lillies for example, which seemed like a genuine progression of what the sceptic might term “real” art, as opposed to a cop out like some of the more controversial, politically motivated revolutionary pieces. I was happy to sit and lose myself in its colours for a fair few minutes and could see the value in the blend of colours expressing something true about what one actually saw in such situations. As I’ve said before on this blog, for me culture speaks to me most when it says something true and I found throughout the day that reading the brief background of a piece might help me see the meaning the artist was striving for and thus appreciate it more. Having said that some pieces were simply a visual treat I didn’t want to spoil by thinking about and dissecting, such as Jackson Pollack’s Summertime, on the opposite wall to Monet, which was a colourful splash of elongated colour.
Generally reading about and discussing the various methods of artists, especially when they produce dubious results, bores and alienates me. But when these methods are placed in the context of their times and given intellectual motivation I am more interested. I found a number of pieces by German artist Max Ernst interesting, for example. One of them, The Entire City, painted in 1934, was created using a technique called grattage or scraping. This introduced elements of chance into the work and I found this philosophical idea fascinating, especially when placed in historical context it is said to express Ernst’s pessimism at the unfolding Nazi situation in Germany. It also helped that the visual end product of The Entire City was visually intriguing as well as being not so abstract as to be unintelligible by my simple eyes.
I have always found it difficult to relate to the craft of the artist, perhaps simply because I was so utterly useless and talentless myself. I have always preferred and understood the skill of the written word and seen more value there. But in the “Poetry and Dream” section of the Tate I found some pleasing overlap that could stimulate my brain as well as my senses. A piece by Juliao Sarmento entitled Mehr Licht, meaning “more light”, is interestingly ambiguous with the image of a man holding a woman’s neck and was intended to be so, as the artist points out that such a gesture can be violent or tender. Having said this I still found that the end product of some works seemed to bare no correspondence to their descriptions lavishing praise and finding intellectual enquiries where there were none. Francis Picabia’s Handsome Pork Butcher for example just seemed grotesque and silly and perhaps that was the point, although his Otaiti was more thought provoking.
So whilst I did appreciate the different and striking pieces, especially when they had inspirational ideas behind them and connected to them, the uneducated ogre in me still preferred the pieces that resembled “real” art and exuded skill. Yes there were sculptures by Anish Kapoor and others such as a tumbling stack of felt and a circuit comprised of ordinary silver kitchen objects that held me transfixed for a while, but these seemed to belong in a different category. The realist room containing pieces by Meredith Frampton and Dod Procter, seemed to have a better blend of skill and modern ideas. Dod Procter’s Morning had a wonderful 3D quality and captured the light and imperfections of the human form as well, and better, than any camera. Frampton’s works too seemed to have mastered the fall of light as well as containing symbolic, vibrant objects that made it more modern and set it apart from a traditional portrait.
Oh dear listen to me trundling out the sort of art critic bollocks that usually makes me heave. And worse still I’m a complete amateur; at least they’ve been taught or learned the bullshit they spout inside out. If I’m honest in the vast majority of the galleries I was often distracted from the works by the superior quality of female that creativity seems to attract. I mean seriously I may have to consider cultivating a sideline in bullshit art appreciation alongside my “writer’s beard”, as a friend of mine told me I was now sporting. I have literally not seen so many attractive girls in one place at once in a very long time. Or maybe I just haven’t been looking hard enough. But anyway every other girl seemed to be a stunner, I was looking around for the gallery official whose glorious job it was to admit the beautiful and turn away those whose standards fell short. Was it always like this? I imagined that if I should ever be lucky enough to talk to any of these women, even if they churned out arty farty crap that was incomprehensible to me, I would listen, transfixed, jaw hanging in wonder and scraping the industrial floor. There was the odd creative guy type about who would clearly act as a magnet to all the budding female artists drifting aimlessly, except that a great number of them may have been gay by appearances. But then who can judge by appearances alone? Artists perhaps. Anyway needless to say I did not speak to any of these wonders, these fine specimens, these art drugged creatures. I simply marvelled and left, having enjoyed my cultural wanderings. But I remained essentially terribly ignorant.
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David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.
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