Reasons to be cheerful

Two reasons to be cheerful:

1] Finding a poem which distills meaning in a moment, which stops the onward rush of events, and holds you still. You return to the fray a little bit calmer, and a little bit wiser.

2] Walking… I recently returned from four days on the South West Coast Path. Walking on a perfect early September morning down from Zennor to the coast and then with rapt concentration climbing and scrambling, gazing back across the headlands or out to sea, watching and listening for seals, a curlew calling, the early morning clarity, the play of light on water, and at that early stage of the day the complete absence of other people. Just me and a granite fastness on one side and the sea wide-stretching on the other. The mind didn’t wander or reflect on a world beyond, it stayed with the rough ground and the old stones and the bright sky and the big sea.

Reasons not be cheerful

Two reasons not to be cheerful.

1] To quote a friend of mine: ‘Jihadism, Western consumerism, youth unemployment, the debt burden, stagnating incomes, the growing wealth divide: they’re all somehow linked, and no-one seems to have convincing answers.’

Now there’s a challenge…

2] Immigrants are crossing in their tens of thousands from Africa. Boko Haram terrorises northern Nigeria spreading jihad and seeking to set up its own ‘caliphate’. Neither would have been possible had Gaddafi retained his hold on Libya. And without the French and British bombing campaign he’d have done so. Better to have left him in power? But what of Benghazi? It rose in rebellion against Gaddafi – and how bloody would have been its punishment?  What if war had followed when the Russians sent tanks into Hungary in 1956, or into Prague in 1968? The latter was the Prague Spring. And in 2010 we had the Arab Spring…

Intervention has its place. In Sierra Leone and Kosovo there was a simple humanitarian imperative. Maybe also in the case of Benghazi – but that illustrates how risky any intervention can be. Libya is now a failed state and we’re living with the – sometimes terrifying – unintended consequences.

Vodka is the solution

There’s a short passage in the novel ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man’ I rather like:

‘Allan interrupted the two brothers by saying that he had been out and about in the world and if’ there was one thing he had learned it was that the very biggest and apparently most impossible conflicts on earth were based on the dialogue: “You are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid.” The solution, said Allan, was often to down a bottle of vodka together and then look ahead.’

Quite where this takes us I’m not sure!

Maybe simply listening rather than vodka is the answer to all that shouting, all that posturing.


The Warburg Institute under threat

I read that London University is trying to charge the Warburg an impossible rent for its property in Woburn Square.  And the university back in June launched a legal action to challenge a  deed of trust signed back in 1944 when it undertook to ‘maintain the Library [the Institute’s library] in perpetuity.’

As the THES put it, ‘The future of a “unique and extraordinary” library saved from Nazi Germany lies in the balance …’

How this will be resolved we will know this autumn.

I studied at the Warburg under Ernst Gombrich over forty years ago. And I notice Yale are re-publishing Gombrich’s ‘Shadows: The Depiction of Shadows in Western Art’ this autumn.  It is a most wonderful title, and idea. What can we learn from shadows in art, how do shadows in art and in life change the way we experience things…

But there is of course an irony here.

Should the Warburg be forced to close or relocate to some cheap and gloomy cellar, or be broken up, that would cast the longest shadow of all. It just needs one collector wiser than his peers to put his money into an endowment, and the Warburg, ‘dedicated to the intellectual and artistic legacies of Greece and Rome’ on which our civilsation rests, would be saved.

And if such a wise person is not to be found? If the university has its way?

[Ref: Martin Kemp’s article in the RA Magazine.]

Are high prices good for art?

There’s a debate in the current Royal Academy  magazine that asks the question, ‘Are high prices good for art?’

One side of the argument: ‘Art is hip, art is hot… art is embedded in the national consciousness.’ There are far more art-connected jobs. Whether the art is ‘good’ or not will be for future generations to judge.

And the counter-argument: collectors of contemporary art ’mostly don’t have good taste’. We have a kind of art which reflects the taste of those who buy it. Also, art is an investment, and bought in the belief that it will hold its value, so there’s a vested interest in not talking it down. That will be for future generations.

I love the buzz around the Tate Modern. Art is not only hot – it’s cool. There are extraordinary levels of invention. Often they’re scooting up backwaters: the public vote with their feet and move quickly through, hardly comprehending. Who has the patience for video art slowly revealing itself? Not many by the numbers you see sitting in those darkened rooms.

That’s the real world of art. There’s one hell of a buzz out there. And someone out there will be passionate about video art. But when a Saatchi picks them up, or an unknown Arab potentate, no longer. It might as well be that latest Ferrari, the most expensive car ever, which is pre-sold and never seen. Spin-offs and copies sell to the rest of us for extraordinary prices. Remember the prices of the various bits of Damian Hurst merchandise which someone thought we might buy when we exited the Tate Modern exhibition? Would anyone be so daft as to fork out tens of thousands of pounds? Maybe.

It’s a schizophrenic world out there. Yes, money feeds back in and elevates the status of art. And yet it taints it terribly.

It’s only another form of patronage of course. Painters and craftsmen and architects achieved sublime beauty in the name of religion. Do we or do we not rejoice in the creativity married so closely to the opulence at Versailles? How democratic should art be? (There’s a nice diversionary tack!!) Artists want to be discovered, want to win a public, create a market, and they will produce inevitably more of the same if that sells well. The William Blakes of this world who wilfully defy all conventions, they are the rarity.

In the end where would we be without all this money that floods and distorts and devalues? And where would we be without all that noise and all that buzz which matches up against silence? Art and all the buzz of art exists in a sacred space. But remember also – silence is the ultimate sacred space.

Where silence and art almost touch…

Blaise Pascal: ‘All of humanity’s problem stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ Jolyon Connell in The Week is my starting-point here. He also quotes Steve Taylor: ‘The urge to immerse our attention in external things is so instinctive we’re scarcely aware of it.’ E-mails, tweet and texts only feed our longing to be distracted.

How absurd it all is. And need it be this way? We’re so locked into our culture we don’t give ourselves a chance. Television long ago took over the quiet of the sitting room. 24-hour news only dates back maybe only ten years, but it seems longer. Once upon a time there was  the 9 o’clock news when we’d sit and listen expectantly to the radio. Go back a few generations and we’d be waiting for the peddler selling chapbooks or for the town crier…

There is no greater joy an immersing yourself in the quiet. Or total immersion in art or music, and I’m thinking of Beethoven’s 9th as I write, having just emerged (literally it seems) from listening (on the radio) to an extraordinary performance by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra at the Proms. The mind no longer wanders or diverts.

In the one case it rejoices in silence, in the other in the supreme patterning of sound.

Ordinary life is so full of static, of the irregular, confusing, the half- or unfinished. If we achieve anything we do so while fending off endless irrelevancies. There is another way, as the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. Life doesn’t have to be a reckless pursuit of the never achieved. (For do we ever actually achieve, in any permanent sense?) In silence and a quiet mind there is all you need, and if you require a reckless pursuit take joy in those final moments of the Choral Symphony, when joy is all-consuming and lifts your concentration and your mind to another level.

Come the final chord all I had to do was turn the radio off before the Proms audience exploded into cheers. I failed. But their joy was mine also. Silence had to wait a little longer.

Ukraine – finding an endgame

Ukraine – the separatists are gathering strength, and Russian troops directly involved, Putin talking of statehood for SE Ukraine.

It’s a confrontation that could intensify further. Support for Russia in the eastern Ukraine is historically and linguistically strong, so we kid ourselves if we see it simply in terms of Kiev government asserting its natural right to govern its territory. The history of ancient Kiev is rather more complicated than that. I see the Economist used the word ‘nihilist’ as something that might describe Putin. Anything but. We should always remember how different the world looks if you’re on different sides of a border.

We have, more locally, the current Scottish debate to remind us of that: it’s as if there’s a border within Scotland. Not so much a territorial border, it’s mapped out in people’s minds. They are one side or the other. There are I know don’t knows – but it’s hard to be a don’t know when so much is at stake.

Back to Russia.

We need  to focus on the endgame, and what that might be. This is one conflict where there has to be be a rational solution, where sabres need to be rattled less, and solutions worked out across tables. Shouting and sanctions are and will be counter-productive. Making Senator John McCain (thank God he lost to Obama) feel good is not the object of the exercise.

I’m not arguing for a moment that NATO shouldn’t be building up its forces or the Ukrainian army not given the material as well as political support to match what’s coming in on the separatist side from Russia. We must build and bolster our negotiating position. Putin would expect nothing less…

I was struck by Putin’s comment: ‘The West should have seen this coming.’ Indeed they/we should. What did we expect of Russia when a pro-Russian government was overthrown in Kiev? That Russia would simply smile and say ‘Fair cop, well done. We lost out.’

Putin holds the stronger cards in this conflict and short of all-out war that isn’t going to change. Finding behind the scenes (avoid public grandstanding) a formula that will satisfy both sides is the only way forward.

It will take wisdom to get us to a solution.  There is no substitute.

Good ol’ cynicism

[Best to read my earlier blog, ‘Capability redefined’, before you read this one.]

Good ol’ cynicism – how to do away with it? Or at least keep it in check?

The day after five gold medals in the 2012 Olympics I remember a journalist remarking that no-one seemed cynical anymore. Or no-one dared to be. We were suddenly all positive, rejoicing, believing in each other and what we could achieve.

Now all that euphoria was likely to fade, and pretty quickly – sadly.

We’d have done well having dustbinned our cynicism to have kept it under a heavy lid. It’s a natural child of mistrust. We only trust our own perspective, our own but not other people’s motives. If we do occasionally show trust, among family or friends, or even at work,  we sure as hell don’t extend to a national level.

We gain far more by trusting than not. Trust doesn’t require that we’re innocents – we won’t find ourselves overrun by charlatans. But we will find ourselves able to have better conversations, more open-minded debates, longer-term viewpoints, make more considered decisions – and expect and even encourage politicians to change their opinions should circumstances require.

But who will stand up against cynicism? It’s more fun to be cynical – and of course much of the humour we love depends on it. And humour is big time  – and I’m not saying I don’t enjoy it. I’m sucked into cynicism as easily as the next man.

So for me as well as the next man we need a few more Olympic moments – and hold on to them a little bit longer.


Capability – redefined

Once upon a time in a blog I talked about capability. Capability is a right to be enjoyed by everyone, a right to have the opportunity and the means to be the best that we can be. It’s easy to see this as a personal right, with the only limitation that we shouldn’t trespass on the similar rights of others.

But how do we define ‘best’ – is it to earn the maximum possible, to have a fulfilling job, to be a successful member of society? Could be. But to that I’d add being a contributing member of society. True capability opens the door not just to opportunity but to compassion. The highest human attainments are those shared with others – from great advances in science to simple acts of kindness.

How do we create a society where we all contribute, where we all expect to contribute? Empowering local government, certainly. David Marquand suggests citizen assemblies: could that be a more constructive more local less vituperative version of TV’s Question Time, but with ordinary people the panellists? I’m not certain about the idea – but it’s the kind of thinking we need.

How can we develop, over time, a simple expectation that we – all of us – take on a contributing or caring role of some kind?

The trouble is that cynicism rules, motives are assumed to be impure, anything politicians espouse gets hammered, as did the Big Society as a concept. Maybe the Big Society deserved to be hammered: old-style Tory paternalism doesn’t go down too well. But a society in which we all engage – that would be a big society.

Pipe dreams? If we stay forever cynical, then indeed that’s the way it will be.

So, another challenge, how to do away with cynicism?

The Fourth Revolution

What might the fourth revolution be? What are, or were, revolutions one, two and three? Not the Glorious Revolution or the French Revolution. But political revolution – changes driven by ideas developed and ingrained over time.

And what form should the state take in future – in what direction should it be evolving?  Political theory is too often disparaged: cognoscenti have to work behind the scenes and pretend they know nothing.  We prefer to deal in simple solutions, absolutes of right and wrong. Not sadly of now and then. More now and forever: the certainty of the believing moment dictates policy and attitudes. Not the wisdom of the past.

John Mickelthwait and Adrian Woolridge, respectively editor-in-chief and editor of the Schumpeter column on the Economist, make a pretty good stab at serious informed political theory. They sketch a brief history of the last four hundred years, from the rising nation state (and Thomas Hobbes) by way of the 19th century liberal state (JS Mill) to the welfare state (Beatrice Webb)… and then turn futurologists and with Woolridge’s omnivorous capacity for detail outline the brave new world of the smaller state. Private enterprise drives both the economy and the state, power is devolved, and initiative lies at the individual level. Friedman and Hayek would rejoice – but only to a point. California at the mercy of propositions (referenda) has made good governance almost impossible, and the authors have a more than sneaking admiration for Lee Juan Yew’s Singapore. And indeed China, dirigiste in most things save the absolute right to engage in making money and building businesses.

So their model in more measured, more cautious, less neo-liberal than we might have expected. The closest to their ideal they find in Scandinavia. The Nordic model marries clear direction from government to social responsibility, and in Sweden, since big changes back in 1991, it seems to have worked.

Maybe it’s all a bit glib. This is the way the authors believe it should happen, but how can you create circumstances where it really will happen? The Tea Party fragments rather than encourages responsibility. Traditional political parties as agents of change aren’t listened to or respected. Pressure groups as matter of pride and preference keep their focus narrow.

It is a valiant and impressive and entertaining (well almost) attempt to point a way forward.

But making it happen – there lies the challenge.