Saturday, 30 May 2009

Britishness

I've always been interested in Britishness. The word itself sounds not quite right, clumsy; it's certainly not used very often. But I believe it to be one of the most under-rated inventions of the people on our Atlantic archipelago. It permits an interleaving of identities that is very valuable.

Here are two posts examining Britain's established Celtic inhabitants, their nationalisms and allegiances. They are witty and engaging field notes reporting on the rich political-cultural ecology of Britain. I'm very glad to have come across the writer, Lincoln Allison (a Lancastrian, as it happens).

British nationality is a rare example of a nationalism which is a political and civic identifier more than an ethnic or even cultural one. This is in its DNA, having been conceived under Tudors and born under Stuarts so as to justify one Crown ruling over more than one nation. It reached maturity under the Hanoverians in resistance to the challenge of Catholic France. As such it had a powerful Protestant component but this has now atrophied to the point of invisibility.

The original design of a British identity - to give political unity to diverse cultures and ethnicities - still gives it the capacity to absorb a splendid variety of ways of life. Today, to be British at a fundamental level you only need support a couple of core ideas: the supremacy of the Crown-in-Parliament and the rule of law.

This isn't always appreciated, however. Peter Hitchens*, in railing against mass immigration here, writes about Britain possessing a 'monoculture' which is in process of being irreparably damaged and without which no nation can survive.

There are good arguments against mass immigration, of course. And I'm not arguing that the relative ease of becoming British means mass immigration will be a breeze. There's the influence of economics for a start. But I don't think the argument against mass immigration is sustainable on the grounds of our having a fragile and soon-to-be doomed 'monoculture', indispensable to nationhood.

Monoculture? I've sometimes wondered what my Welsh-speaking, Bible-quoting Baptist, Snowdonian, quarryman great-grandfather would have to say to my Lithuanian-Jewish, East Ender/Cardiffian, bigamist, scrap metal-dealing great-grandfather. Not very much presumably, as the former only spoke English haltingly. But they were both British and I'm pretty sure both believed in, or at least acknowledged, the legitimacy of British parliamentary democracy under the rule of law, even if they didn't think of it in these terms. That's Britishness, and its elasticity has to be a huge advantage in our ability to absorb immigrants.

It's also why the battle against Islamism has to be fought wholly on political grounds. It would be pointlessly destructive to engage with the enemy on the field of culture. It would necessitate an attempt to define a universal but substantive British culture. I don't believe this can done within current definitions. The cultural content of being British is so dilute as to be almost homeopathic: a tendency to watch the BBC is not sufficient.

More aggressively, a 'core' British culture might be carved out (perhaps that of, say, an East Anglian insurance underwriter?). This obviously excludes the multifarious others; giving Britishness a centre means it cannot hold. There is the risk that the living idea might not survive the forced - and discrediting - application from the political and civic to the cultural.

The end of Britishness would mean the end of Britain. Some may welcome this. I don't as, never mind Islamism, this carries its own potential for violence and strife. Ethnic nationalisms freed from the trammels of history are invariably productive of fascism.

Those who enjoy the ironies of history would relish the actions of soi disant defenders of a British monoculture destroying Britishness as it really is.

Besides, the biggest problem we have in the battle against Islamism is a reluctance of politicians and police to defend tolerance and counter sedition with the judicious application of the law. Here's the sort of cycle that builds when this isn't done**. A breach of the peace is permitted alongside various sorts of incitement: the vile and provocative defamations of our returning soldiers by Islamists in Luton. This passivity in policing results in vigilantism: an innocently by-standing mosque is fire-bombed and there are street battles between Muslim factions. If we don't want to suffer further from this dialectic - one which is clearly fueling the BNP - we need to be a lot more intolerant in our defence of tolerance. There's no absence of law to allow this to happen, but there is a clear absence of will.


*H/t to Elberry. PH is a former Trot and so is accustomed to thinking in absolutist terms; it seems to be a habit difficult to break.

** The fecund Elberry again. The piece is from the Daily Mail and the comments underneath the story are heartening. There is some criticism of Muslims for taking their time over challenging the Islamists. But the overwhelming sentiment is gratitude that the challenge has now been made, accompanied by well-merited disgust with the police.

Golden days

"Van Heerden went off - I think Gordon had done him a bit of damage [footage of large South African hobbling off with his arm slung across his chest, head bowed]. Gordon broke his hand that game too. In fact, I think the two things may have been connected".

Roger Uttley reminiscing about the Third Test in last night's Sky documentary 'Lions 1974 - Invincibles'. Featured some fantastic punch-ups.

Also I never saw why people rated JJ so highly. I mean he didn't have the sidestep of Gerald or Benny did he? But quick as a whippet and a superb footballer with it.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Not all the cheesemakers are blessed

Mr Eugenides on his sharp and witty blog has linked to this debate on Comment is Free (it's actually a bit one-sided as you'll see). The comments are intelligently entertaining and along the way eviscerate the scammers at Neal's Yard 'Remedies'.

Breaking news: old lady in gardening accident in non-historical country

Who says Wales is a backwater where not much happens and when it does it's already been news elsewhere? Not me.

But sometimes the headlines from the WalesOnline feed on my iGoogle page make it difficult to keep the faith. Here are two of the current top three stories:


OAP impaled while gardening

Don't worry too much, 'Her injuries are not thought to be life-threatening'. Hope she makes a full recovery.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The may-fly are rising

Back at the other place I feel at home last weekend (the primary one being my part of London).

Either side of a day-trip to Hay, we spent a fair bit of time watching the trout rise to gorge on may-fly. The river was fair boiling.

The experience reminded me of a book I haven't picked up for years and which I really should pick up again: A Cotswold Village by J. Arthur Gibbs (this village being just upstream of my home village). He had modest ambitions in writing it: to 'touch on every branch of country life with as light a hand as possible - to amuse rather than instruct'. It's written in a delightful, old-fashioned literary vein, quoting liberally from a canonical set of nature poets all, I would guess, within the grasp of an educated man of those days (written in 1899). It also has something of an elegiac feel, heightened by the knowledge that he died at 31.

A Cotswold Village does have historical and social interest too. But at bottom it's simply a very relaxing, escapist read and as such can be highly therapeutic. One of its themes is the relief afforded by simple country pleasures to the man of business cooped up in the city. It achieves much the same itself.

The may-fly originally struck a chord (despite my not being a fisherman) as, in the course of a chapter on fishing, he describes the excitement of receiving a telegram in one's City counting house or dusty chambers containing the thrilling news that the may-fly were rising, and then flying westwards on the first train out to partake of the fun. It was a telegram (or rather email) I often yearned to receive and act on during my counting house days.

I looked up what editions were available on the web and discovered to my surprise that it had been almost completely scanned in to Google books here (also just found it provided in full here). My reason for checking on available editions is that the first one I read had been scandalously sanitised.

The editors had excised recollections of hunting and reflections on local politics in the belief that modern readers would be either bored or offended by these passages. Arthur Gibbs was unreflectingly enthusiastic about killing foxes and affectionately patronising about what remained of the radical politics of the local weavers. Objectionable or not, I'm not sure what else we should expect from a man of his class, time and tastes and it's his book after all.

It's not worth rehearsing further why this bowlderising wasn't a good idea. Anyway, I put it down to this edition being printed in Stroud - at the time a place renowned locally for its abundance of home-grown weed and rainbow-clad hippies. Anyway I haven't found it for sale anywhere. Good.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Interesting beard

At Hay-on-Wye yesterday, at the Festival, I had the pleasure of seeing something I'd never seen before.

There were a number of notable beards on view, worn both by members of the local yeomanry (bugger-grip mutton chops, Amish fringes) and the fashionable young folk up from London and other urban centres (Lytton Stracheys, carefully groomed, upside-down bearskins).

It was a member of the latter group who sported a piece of facial hair-wear totally new to me. It's not often you can say that about anything, so you can imagine my excitement. The accoutrement in question began about an inch back from the tip of his chin extending down to his adam apple and was edited into a fluffy goatee. Being so positioned it covered that part of his neck usually exposed by an open neck shirt.

I thought that this style, of all beards, had the merit of possessing a proper and practical use, whilst also avoiding a notorious pitfall. On a cold winter's day, with the wind blowing off the Black Mountains or up the Thames Estuary, it would dispense with the need for insulating neck gear. Moreover, such a style would happily avoid the much reviled - especially by ladies - dried-oxtail-soup encrustations risked by those with beards that literally infringe the mouth.

T and I thought such an innovative and useful style deserved its own particular name. T thought 'neckerbeard' was right. It certainly was most appropriate for the specimen on display as it was worn casually and ungroomed, accessorised by a corduroy/check outfit indicative of that nerdiness so prized by the young bloods of today.

However, I could imagine it being worn with benefit, sculpted and pomaded, by a metropolitan sophisticate, an habitue of the smarter hotels who might sometimes affect, say, a cigarette holder accompanied by a silk smoking. The rough-and-ready, hail-fellow-well-met of 'neckerbeard' is clearly unsuitable for such a personage. I proposed the frenchified cravabarbe, redolent of Continental sophistication.

Anyway, it was wonderful to not only to register a first experience, but also to feel one was contributing to the development of our beautiful language. Could one hope to take away anything more satisfying from our premier literary festival? Italic

Thursday, 21 May 2009

What would Bagehot say? Forward to the past

The expenses scandal may be a constitutional crisis. But it's a crisis in what is now, sadly, the relatively unimportant part of our constitution. The really serious crisis - to do with the bit where the power is - was thrown into stark and horrible relief earlier this year as a consequence of the McBride affair. Happily, the pressure now building for parliamentary reform - if properly directed - gives us a wonderful and very rare opportunity to rectify this more serious constitutional problem. How? Well, Bagehot helps explain.

Walter Bagehot, a 19th century journalist*, is probably Britain's best known constitutional theorist (in a not very crowded field). His best known idea was his distinction between a 'dignified' and an 'efficient' part of the English Constitution (as he termed it), the former being the monarchy, the latter the Cabinet, which was appointed by and reliant on Parliament.

The monarchy provided a unifying focus for loyalty through its traditions, air of mysticality and eye-catching ceremonial. This allowed the proper, dirty and divisive business of government to carry on effectively and peacefully, rarely opening up divisions that couldn't be civilly managed. The Commons being a genuinely representative assembly with the ability to quiz, investigate and debate the matters of the day meant decisions were well-made, robust and broadly reflective of the will of its electorate (being the 'public' rather than the 'people' in those days of limited franchise).

Richard Crossman, Labour intellectual, Wilson-era minister, and Wykehamist bully wrote the introduction to the 1963 edition of the English Constitution. He foresaw the 'dignified' vs 'efficient' dividing line as soon to be drawn between Prime Minister and the rest - Cabinet and Parliament - with the last providing an engaging bit of knock-about debate that was sometimes entertaining but almost always inconsequential.

This charade would provide the electorate with the illusion that the people they voted for ran the country and did so in a constant state of parliamentary struggle with the class enemy. The reality was that a party leader, surrounded by a small cabal drawn loosely from the ruling party, would run everything; the rest, a side-show.

So where are we now, after the series of farces and traumas that have enlivened our year? Crossman's projections have come to pass, at least for most of the time. Thatcher's later years put the seal on that. Indeed, this year the 'efficient' part of the Constitution has been conclusively revealed to reside in about two or three smallish offices in 10 Downing Street, as overseen by the Bulbous Marauder and his henchmen. That makes the rest of it, in Bagehot's terminology 'dignified'. This word for reasons that are obvious will no longer do: 'decadent' is better (monarchy excluded, ma'am).

It should be evident that this state of affairs - a species of elective monarchy - is not actually democratic in process. It militates against serious, genuine and open debate, meaning it's not conducive to the production of sensible and robust decisions. In short: it's a poor means of governance.

The MP's expenses scandal, then, is not a symptom of corruption at the heart of government, in the part of the Constitution that wields the power. So it's serious but only incidentally. There's a more serious issue to be resolved as should be evident. We experience government by cabal - we've got it right now and may have it again in the future - and we're fortunate that this has now been clearly revealed for all to see. To paraphrase Bagehot, daylight has been let in upon the black magic.

So the expenses scandal has come at a propitious time. It has - and this is potentially of the highest importance - opened up the path to reform, and a potential end to the unhealthy twisting of the Constitution and the capture of its power by a secretive and underhand clique. As Rahm Emmanuel, Obama's Chief of Staff, noted in a dictum that has already established itself in the dictionary of political quotations: 'you never want a serious crisis to go to waste'.

So what do we do? I think representative democracy as Bagehot knew it - even as Crossman knew it - is dead. The political party is not a vehicle to organise the interests of MPs and by extension that of their constituents; it's more the patron of MPs, to all practical purposes their employer. So most MPs are become a cadre who, rather than representing our interests to government, end up representing their party's interests to us. Only by yanking this relationship back around will we return to a form of democracy that could be described as truly representative. So open primaries, recall ballots and any other ideas that put the whip hand more firmly with the voter would make sense.

And how do we ensure a well-informed electorate and one which can clearly monitor the behaviour of its elected representatives? Openness and transparency. Publish everything and let the journalists, bloggers and citizens crawl all over it extracting the good and the bad and then shouting all about it (mostly electronically of course).

With MPs well and truly oriented towards their electorate we can also start moving power back to the Commons. Select Committee members and chairmen need to be appointed on a basis that cannot be nobbled by the whips: appointment by free vote, seniority and random lottery need to be investigated. The Speaker's power should be beefed up and more clearly codified so that he has more influence in ensuring the executive is held to account. Term limits - on MPs and/or ministers - could be imposed to discourage politics becoming a profession and to encourage independence of mind.

What would we aim to have at the end of this radical process of reform? Well, we'd hope to return to the 'efficient' part of the Constitution being Parliament, an assembly in attentive and dynamic dialogue with the people. The 'dignified' role (having lost all vestiges of decadence) would once again be vested solely in the monarchy. That's the sort of radical reform we should aim for: one that is actually a restoration. In fact, restoration to a form that Bagehot would find familiar.

*It seems appropriate that he should be a journalist rather than an academic or jurist. Gifted amateurs have often done rather well in the rambling ecology of Britain.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The strange death of self-government

The Government's line on MPs' expenses is that there has to be an end to self-regulation, using the analogy of the outdated 'gentlemen's club' (an obvious class-based dig at their opponents).

I would rather the solution be continued self-regulation but with better defined parameters and, most importantly, in the full view of the public.

External and 'independent' regulation always ends up being influenced by whoever is in power. The regulators are almost always at worst cronies and at best 'reliable'. And on a larger canvas, it's another tiny cut in the slow but seemingly certain death of the practice of self-government; a practice that elsewhere constantly proves itself to be both effective and supportive of some virtue (in almost every aspect of the Web, for instance).

And anyway why on earth should MPs be let off the hook? They'll be even more inclined to adopt the 'I was only following orders' defence. Let them sort it out themselves and let the public be their judge. It would - and should - be an example to us all.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

It ain't gonna happen

I'm getting increasingly puzzled by claims that newspapers are going to die out. They're usually justified on the basis that papers are not as nimble, focused, irreverent, verifiable, etc. as blogs. And the proof of the proposition is that newspapers are currently unprofitable and therefore economically unviable.

This is nonsensical for some very simple reasons. Firstly, people will always want information gathered, filtered, edited and packaged; and newspapers do this for us very effectively.

Aha, this could be done perfectly adequately online, you say. True. But - and this is the main point - people will also always want to consume this information in a flexible way: with regard to all the 'wheres' and 'hows' you can think of. The paper format allows that: on the escalator, up the scaffolding, next to the pool, in the cafe, second-hand at the doctor's waiting room, in the potting shed.

And not only can you read a paper just about anywhere but you can treat it as roughly as you want, short of setting it on fire (though this is useful too at barbecue time). You can even throw it against the wall and jump up and down on it if it makes you angry. Not your Kindle though, which you also wouldn't want to have to bring out at some of the locations above. Electronic media has not and will not achieve this level of usability.

Finally, the economic argument. When businesses in a shrinking sector are loss-making it's extremely rare for that sector to disappear. What usually happens is that the weakest businesses go bust allowing the smaller quantum of demand to be distributed in larger proportions, so restoring profitability.

This has happened in just about every business that's had its viability challenged due to technological change (stationery, film, carriages, bicycles, radio). Where a sector has disappeared it's been because it's had a very narrow, specific focus and the innovation has been able to replace its functionality like-for-like (quills, vellum, celluloid film, transistor valves).

Newspapers fall into the first category.

The precise number of surviving publications will be determined chiefly by how many can be supported profitably on a given quantum of demand. But supply factors could also be influential: from whether newspapers can be made more cheaply (newspapers printing excerpts from blogs for free with the blogger earning from the new traffic generated?) to proprietors happening to have a virtually limitless appetite for losses.

For what it's worth, my prediction would be that we end up in the UK with a couple of broadsheet papers and the same number of tabloids. Their revenue models would be the same as today's: free online and charging for hard copies. They'll be nicely profitable but not as influential as today's press. Separate Sunday editions will disappear (though the brands may live on).

In any event, people should stop anticipating the end of newspapers. It ain't gonna happen.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The sad decline of the working class hero

"The most conservative man in the world is the British Trade Unionist when you want to change him".

That certainly rings true in the case of Speaker Michael Martin. Quite literally he wants changing; but he won't allow it (yet).

Certain of his more tribally-minded colleagues and, it is reported, some Labour whips are defending his intransigence on the grounds that he's a working-class man. Having risen from the backstreets of the roughest part of Glasgow to the eminence of highest commoner in the land he has achieved something praise-worthy. But why should being a working-class trade unionist provide an excuse for being an incoherent incompetent when operating at the highest levels of politics?

The author of the quotation above would most certainly have argued it shouldn't, and no doubt in blunt Anglo-Saxon terms. Ernest Bevin was perhaps the ultimate trade unionist, founding what became the largest union in the country: the Transport and General Workers Union. He was also an outstanding Minister for Labour during the Second World War and a canny Foreign Secretary afterwards. He ended his Cabinet career as Lord Privy Seal, quipping that this was despite his not being a Lord, a Privy, or a Seal. He had his share of people poking fun at his sometimes unschooled (literally) manners and speech. But in terms of sheer ability to get a job done he was one of the most outstanding politicians of the twentieth century.

It's sad and pathetic that Labour MPs and their whips have wheeled out this tribal and patronising defence of Martin. It sheds a melancholy light on the threadbare and moth-eaten state of what remains of the British trade unionist tradition.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The wonder of juries

This is good news. They're gradually being forced back into the box.

According to an eminent jurist or two, jury trial is the most important bulwark between liberty and state tyranny. But thank God it already exists. I can't see today's Government of meddlers, know-better-than-thou's, Stalinists, technocrats, control-freaks and cronies inventing it.

Can you imagine?

"So, you're saying we should get a focus group in to provide some cover for whatever the judge wants, right?"

"No, they'll decide whether the accused is guilty or not."

"Oh. So they'll be carefully selected from a panel, lay experts with an insight in the field. Mmmm, could be expensive. We'll need an appointments board. They'll need some researchers too."

"No, they'll just be random people. Mind you, we should exclude criminals and the insane."

"Too right! But, you can't be serious: what the fuck are a bunch of the great unwashed going to know about anything? How can we be sure it'll be done properly?"

"Er, that's the point. You can't."

Friday, 15 May 2009

Temperate rain forest

I learnt in Geography - a much but unfairly maligned subject - that the natural climate of the British Isles is Temperate Rain Forest. I wonder if this is still thought true? Certainly, out on a London evening like this - unremittingly damp but mild as mother's milk - it feels as if you're walking beneath the dripping branches of a great and dark forest.

That's one of the things I love about London, that you can suddenly become aware of the layers beneath the contemporary city. It's like a palimpsest (the loveliest of words).

Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair are two exponents of the art of psychic geography, a discipline that is certainly more art than science. They're criticised sometimes for their disregard for literal truth and their indulgence of what the imagination can conjure up in its place.

Where we live - inner-city Islington - all the roads have religious associations. The area was the site of a chantry, where medieval monks would say prayers for the dead, helpfully nudging them on from purgatory. All swept away by the Reformation, of course, leaving just the street names and very occasionally an air of improbable and profound peace. The buzz of the city stops and all you can hear are the birds singing.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Trust

Well, we've got full disclosure now. At least on expenses: from plugs to chandeliers and most points in between. But how do we know that we can really trust our MPs unless we know about all their financial affairs, what they have to their name?

You know, their income, savings, what they owe, the car they drive, other significant assets they might own, how much financial help they've received in the past (from parents too, in fact especially from relations as this can be the best way to channel illicit monies), any gifts received. That should just about do it.

After all, it's been done in the past - in the US, in fact, where they have always appreciated full disclosure - by a politician who's still held up as an example to us all.

'I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car...we have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type...Now that is what we have. What do we owe? Well, in addition to the mortgages, the twenty-thousand-dollar mortgage on the house in Washington and the ten-thousand-dollar one on the house in Whittier, I owe forty-five hundred dollars to the Riggs bank in Washington, D.C., with interest four and a half percent. I owe thirty-five hundred dollars to my parents...One other thing I probably should tell you...We did get something - a gift - after the election...'

The gift? A black-and-white spotted cocker spaniel, named Checkers by his little girl, which in turn gave its name to this particular televised talk of 1952. It was made to get the politician in question out of a tight corner amidst allegations of financial impropriety.

The politician? Richard Nixon.

Sometimes, disclosure of personal finances can really be beside the point.

H/t T, after Nixonland, a cracking good read as she wouldn't say.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Carry on don't lose your head

It's been fascinating to trawl through the opinion pieces in the papers and the political blogs today. There's a lot of revolutionary esprit about - wheels on tumbrils being oiled, pikes being sharpened. But is there a latter-day Danton anywhere who might turn this outrage into radical action? I can't see one. Just as well? In any event, that's not how things are done over here - usually.

The current Commons, impotent and indulged, reminds me of De Toqueville's observation:

'Nothing is quite so wretchedly corrupt as an aristocracy which has lost its power but kept its wealth and which still has endless leisure to devote to nothing but banal enjoyments. All its great thoughts and passionate energy are things of the past, and nothing but a host of petty, gnawing vices now cling to it like worms to a corpse.'

Monday, 11 May 2009

A new cultural revolution?

Flicking through the Times today, I came across one of those articles written by politicians - you know, a puff-piece carved out of a cliche-riddled langue du bois - and before quickly averting my gaze, I caught the title: 'China and us - a new cultural revolution' (my italics).

As you've probably guessed it was some witless sales talk about how we 'must work together' with China to 'build a stronger future'. Well, that's all well and good, I suppose.

However, the headline. The first Cultural Revolution, as we must now preface it, is not now generally reckoned to have been a good thing, certainly not a satisfactory basis for building a strong, reciprocating future in trade and commerce, let alone human rights. It is clear now that millions of Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians and others died as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution, often as a result of particularly vicious acts. As Mao said in defence of ferocity in service of the cause:  "This man Hitler was even more ferocious. The more ferocious the better, don't you think? The more people you kill, the more revolutionary you are."

You may think I'm making a bit of a hoo-ha of what is just an oversight. But how about something like 'Trade relations should avoid another Holocaust' in relation to, say, German-British intercourse? Not a hanging crime, but in bad taste.

I can think of a few explanations for such a balls-up in metaphor:

(a) Writer (A. Darling as it happens) didn't know what he was doing, despite being a lapsed Trot and so someone presumably versed in the crimes of the various socialist heresies.

(b) A. Darling did know what he was doing as he believes the first Cultural Revolution was actually a good thing (perhaps I've got Darling's history wrong and he was a Maoist rather than a Trot).

(c) Headline was written by sub on the Times who similarly didn't know what he was doing.

(d) Headline was written by sub on the Times who did know what he was doing and had a right laugh about it down the pub last night.

I think it's telling, and typical of the more puzzling actions of this government, that the most scary explanation is that it happened because the politico actually knew what he was doing. Applying this explanation to things from the McBride affair to Smith's banning of US shock-jocks produces a similar feeling of worry. I really hope they're just an incompetent bunch of shits.

UPDATE: This isn't a truly BFD. So, am I over-reacting? None of the 17 comments (so far) that follow the article online raise the headline as an issue. Perhaps no-one gives a shit about history. In any event, truly the victors write their own. Or at least persuade others to forget about it.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Ways to paint a bruise

Yesterday to Dulwich to visit the art gallery, which is showing 'Sickert in Venice', and also to take in the park, which we hoped would feature a playground, some ducks, a variety of dogs and an ice cream van.

Neither T nor I have ever been to Dulwich and its gallery. This is despite the permanent collection having a high Old Master hit-rate, probably equivalent or even better than the national galleries of some smaller European countries, Ireland for instance. But we're spoilt in London and don't really appreciate what we've got. The Wallace Collection is a similarly semi-secret trove of great works, with an even more impressive housing. But unlike the Wallace, and entirely because it's south of the river, Dulwich had remained unvisited after fifteen years in London.

Apologies for the 'funny things kids say' moment: 'Is that Mowgli?', on seeing Reni's John the Baptist (I imagine the loin-cloth did it). Favourite painting: Ricci's 'Fall of the Rebel Angels', a terrific action painting featuring free-falling muscle-bound struggle and a blindingly shiny silver shield and sword. Unsurprising, I suppose, given the eldest's current fascination with super-heroes. St Michael has joined the ranks of Batman and Spiderman.

We then must have had about twenty minutes worth of questions. I tell you, explaining what was going on took a lot of work: try defining 'angel', 'heaven', 'God', 'Lucifer', then explain why the 'naughty angels' got kicked out, all in terms to be understood by a three-year old. Angel is to bird as fairy is to butterfly, for instance.

But the real reason we'd made the trip was because the Sickert show had been reviewed on Fugitive Ink. I enjoy this blog as its concerns interest me and are always taken on with intelligence, wit and engagement. Art is a major preoccupation, often worked out through essay-length reviews of exhibitions.

I'm someone who's always had a slow-burning interest in art but never really studied it seriously; like a lot of people probably. And I'm finding it pleasantly self-improving to read up on art in a more serious and extended format than that provided by the review sections of the weekend papers. For example, Fugie's piece on the recent Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain really helped clarify what I thought.

So Sickert. Well, being untutored I'm just going to give you my sort of gut response: really quite disturbing. For the first time, I understood why Patricia Cornwell had speculated that Sickert and Jack the Ripper could have been one and the same (even if the theory remains crackpot).

I tend to respond quite strongly to colour and Sickert's palate is an unusual one. It's full of what ordinarily would be the colours of life: purples, pinks, greens, yellows. However, they are given a dusty, overcast taint draining them entirely of vitality. Why did I find this disturbing?

It took a while to put my finger on it. But it struck me that this palate looked like nothing more than the life-cycle of a bruise. Or more precisely, that of a haematoma: from dark purple through to leaden yellow. I just saw a dull pain - suffered, inflicted and lovingly savoured - infusing almost every painting.

The last room contains portraits of prostitutes sitting in rooms, alone (even when in pairs). The subject combined with the bruised colours contusing the canvas provoked quite an unpleasant imaginative response. I wondered whether I was alone in this (and really hoped I wasn't) but T had a similar reaction. As must have Patricia Cornwell for that matter.

We were happy to return to the permanent collection of the main gallery. But also glad to have made the detour. It's all knowledge and experience, isn't it?

By the way, and changing gears in crashing fashion, things cheered up considerably in the really rather lovely Dulwich Park, which checked every entry on the wishlist: ducks, dogs, swings and ice cream.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Extraordinary creature

Still dipping into 'One of Us', Hugo Young's superb biography of Margaret Thatcher. In his fascinating discussion of how her sex influenced perceptions of her as Prime Minister, she is described in lyrical, almost moon-struck, terms by a couple of French sources. The second of these is particularly infatuated by the mystery of her sex:

"Le Quotidien de Paris...permitted itself to speak of this political leader in terms it could not have begun to employ about a man, even one it admired to distraction. Mrs Thatcher, it said, should not be called the Iron Lady, 'for that metal is too vile, too obscure'. She was, instead, 'a woman of uranium, with peculiar irradiations. Compared to her, how leaden appear most of our leaders, opaque masses of flesh, austere fortresses without windows, save for the loopholes of deceit and the skylights of hidden pride*. Power corrupts a man but liberates a woman and reveals her for what she is.'"

Of course, being radioactive is not reckoned on the whole to be a good thing. But love her or loathe her, she was clearly an extraordinary creature.

Perhaps one would expect the French to have perceived her in such sexually mythic terms. Besides sex being one of their special subjects (as is power), they may have had a more heightened appreciation of this aspect as their view wasn't occluded by the British obsession with social class. That is, their view was not prejudiced by what a rather frenzied Jonathan Miller once described as her 'odious suburban gentility'.

There's also Mitterand's notorious comment that she had 'the lips of Caligula and eyes of Marilyn Monroe' (lips of Caligula? Never really understood that one, but then I'm not a classicist). On the other hand, Alan Clark's lust-inflected musings are also on record. But then, in so many ways and despite his nationalism, he was no typical Englishman.

I think as time goes by we'll appreciate more and more the very real strangeness of Margaret Thatcher. That is not just her historical but also her personal uniqueness - in a word, her charisma. Boudicca and Elizabeth I are the only comparable figures.

I predict an historical and literary interest in her long after all her contemporaries - with the exception of Churchill - have been forgotten. I say literary for, as with the Icenian and Virgin Queens, the novelists and playwrights will have almost as much to say as the historians, Alan Hollingsworth's 'The Line of Beauty' being one of the first notable essays in this direction. And I don't believe this is a partisan comment in any way: loving or loathing her is really beside the point.


* A disturbingly apposite description of our current Prime Minister, the Bulbous Marauder, don't you think?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Glossary for my youth

As the kids are growing up I'm doing more and more things with them that I last did in my own childhood. As a consequence I find myself using words that I've hardly used for decades - and which seem obscure to some of my contemporaries. Only last week I had to explain to a London friend what a 'snotty-dog' was, having the day before gone on a hunting expedition with my eldest.

I therefore thought I'd put together a glossary, but one covering the whole of my youth so I could engage in a little reminiscence. Some of these words might be familiar to readers but I would guess not all. They are a mixture of the archaic, juvenile, regional, Welsh and colloquial.

'Ark at 'e: Listen to him
Barley top: Bitter in pint glass topped up with barley wine
Brawd: Brother
Brown top: Bitter in pint glass topped up with brown ale
Bum suck: Wet the end while taking drag from shared cigarette
Bungee: Rubber eraser
Buwch: Cow. Can be used to call them.
Caewch y drws: Close the door
Cooler king: Steve McQueen
Crachach: Welsh well-to-do
Dab: Smallest of all flatfish
Daps: Plimsoll shoes
Diddakoi: Half-gypsy, misused as synonym of gypsy
Dobber: Large marble
Dubbin: Greasy wax used to protect boots
Duff up: Beat someone repeatedly in jocular manner
Flattop: Crew cut featuring a flat top
Green monster: Snakebite (see below) with green chartreuse
Harrington: Blouson jacket with tab collar, tartan lining
Light top: Bitter in pint glass topped up with light ale
Meadow: Field behind primary school gardens
Mop: Annual town fair
Muck: Wet mortar
Mochyn Budr: Filthy pig (affectionate)
Nain: Grandmother
Narg: Overly studious student
Open-side wing-forward: Number seven in rugby team, aka flanker
Purple nasty: Snakebite (see below) with blackcurrant cordial
R'ared up: Become angry
Reynard: Fox
Rolly: A roll-up cigarette
S&B: Village youths engaging in regular misdemeanours
Snakebite: Half-pint of cider and half-pint of lager, mixed
Snob: Someone good at schoolwork (pejorative)
Snotty-dog: Small, ugly, inedible river fish that lives under stones
Summut: Something
Taid: Grandfather
Teart: Wild, unmanageable
Tonics: Trousers made from two-toned weave
Tump: Hill
Twp: Mad, stupid
Two-step: Dance associated with ska
Wapses: Wasps
Ych a fi: Expression of disgust