Thursday, 30 June 2011

Ah! Sun-flower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller's journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

William Blake

The mystic and the revolutionary

The mystic tell us we can be free, because we are free; even as the oppressor snatches the bread from our mouths.

Even if they hurl our children into the flames.

Freedom is life, lived for itself, in and of its self.

Slavery is immersing oneself in the life of others, struggling against it, righting wrongs.

It depends on one’s idea of what life is, on the nature of the life one lives, on what one believes life to be.

A mental conception of life is the half-way house to stepping outside and abandoning it.

We see that, up to a point, or at any rate see the comfort of cultivating our own gardens of life.

And so, always, some of the priests, if not the mystics, end up supping with the lords, and finally the revolutionaries amongst us rise up and string up lords and priests alike from the trees or lampposts.

Then the revolutionaries introduce a new system to establish and dispense justice, and the tricoteuses, the Mothers of the Nation, sit at the base of the guillotines.

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Infrastructure or Hades: a land fit for heroes

No Shangri-La in Greece

Lahham said more than half of the assets up for sale comprises land for commercial or residential development, which is unattractive because of the difficulty of securing financing to build in Greece. His firm was attracted by the potential of Greek tourism but legislation made it difficult for foreign companies to develop the country's islands and beaches. "Greece is a fantastic tourism destination with very undeveloped infrastructure. There isn't a Four Seasons or a Shangri-La or a Peninsula or any of the major hotel chains in Greece," he said. "It's strange, they would love to be there and we would love to build it for them, but somehow regulations don't allow you to do so."

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Habitat loss

In its heyday what Habitat offered and was new was ‘design’. It had to be affordable to the youngish people who were anxious to buy it but cheapness was not the main attraction, and, a bit later, it offered an upward pathway to more expensive versions of the same thing, through the Conran Shop and Heals.

That particular historical moment passed. ‘Design’ became more widely and diffusely available; the market became rather more affluent; the Conran ‘style’ no longer singly characterised a particular social aspiration. You could see a dilution in the Conran Shop, but Habitat became trapped in its old model, with no clear way out or forward, and passed on to become a kind of sub-Next or Laura Ashley, unaware of its identity or place in the market (‘Next’ of course being a deliberately chosen name).

Some few years on, the new flagships in the consumer retail market are IKEA, TopShop, Primark, answering to a new need, in harder times, for permanent cheapness. ‘Design’ is important to them all, even essential to some, but ‘design’ has become a commodity, something we simply expect to be there in what we buy, and chose this or that version of. It is no longer the new dawn that Conran offered with Habitat. Cheapness is now the essential oxygen and, at least with the fashion shops, the relationship with ‘design’ has become predatory, hijacking the style of the rich for the rest of us – quite different from the old Habitat-Conran Shop ladder. The survivor and inheritor of Habitat is, I suppose, Benchmark, which, thriving though it apparently is, thrives in something of a niche.

There was no good reason to think the Kamprad family could breathe new life into Habitat when they were trying to turn it into something that was neither IKEA, their great current success, nor the original Habitat, Conran’s old success. The demise of Habitat was perhaps symbolised when they modified its logo to put a heart inside the house instead of the old table and chairs (oddly reminiscent of Wall's icecream).

Alongside the IKEA, TopShop, Primark constellation in the modern retail sky, one can faintly discern that dimly glowing star Argos, survivor of a far distant galaxy, once known as Green Shield Stamps, predating the days even of Conran, and now certainly not shining with ‘design’ brightness but equally certainly belonging in the low-price zodiac. It is this Argos that is the new owner of Habitat – the brand, the website, the marketing operation, if not of the shops, whose premises will probably swell the ranks of charity shops and pound stores.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Cannons: a tale of wealth, property, art and patronage

At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.
Greatness, with Timon, dwells in such a draught
As brings all Brobdignag before your thought.
To compass this, his building is a Town,
His pond an Ocean, his parterre a Down:
Who but must laugh, the Master when he sees,
A punt insect, shriv’ring at a breeze!
Lo, what huge heaps of littleness around!
The whole, a labour’d Quarry above ground.
Two Cupids squirt before: a Lake behind
Improves the keenness of the Northern wind.
His Gardens next your admiration call,
On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wildness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.
The suff’ring eye inverted nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade;
Here Amphritite sails thro’ myrtle bow’rs;
There Gladiators fight, or die, in flow’rs;
Un-water’d see the drooping sea-horse mourn,
And swallows roost in Nilus’ dusty urn.

In his description of Timon’s Villa, Pope was popularly thought to be satirising Cannons, the stately home of James Brydges, first duke of Chandos. It was apparently, not the case, but it is easy to see how the misapprehension arose.

Brydges must be remembered as the patron of ‘the great and good Mr Handel’ and as one of the supporters of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram, but other aspects of his career are less acceptable to modern tastes.

He acquired vast wealth during the War of the Spanish Succession in his role as Paymaster General of the British forces. Such corruption was objected to at the time mostly for its scale.

In 1713 Brydges, later created first duke of Chandos, to add to his titles of 9th Baron Chandos, 1st Viscount Wilton and 1st Earl of Carnarvon, set about creating a stately home and estate of unparalleled magnificence at Cannons, in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, now more recognised as an outlying station on London Transport’s Jubilee Line.

The project took him eleven years and cost over twenty-seven and a half million pounds in today’s terms. Like any oligarch, he ran through several architects, including some of the most prominent at the time, and ended up completing things under the supervision of his own surveyors.

Grounds, house and contents were all exceptional for their scale, richness and grandeur. Aquatic engineering was taken to new heights and works by Titian, Giorgione, Raphael, Poussin, Caravaggio and Guernico were to be found in the house. In an age when oligarchs regarded their privacy differently from now and, without television, or an illustrated popular press, they had to achieve their celebrity by other means, Cannons was visited by the public in vast numbers, quite like any National Trust star property today. I don’t think the duke sold tea towels. He is said to have contemplated building a private road across his private lands all the way from Stanmore to his never completed London town house in Cavendish Square.

But by 1720 the duke was in trouble, and lost much of his fortune following the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. The South Sea Company is now commonly thought of as a trading company whose stock valuation became ludicrously over valued on the market. We tend to regard it, along with tulip mania, as a kind of bizarrely naïve financial exuberance that we have put well behind us. It is true that the stock both rose and fell tenfold in the course of a single year in 1720, but the company, although ostensibly a trading company, was principally established for the purpose of trading in government debt, as a direct consequence of the expense of the War of the Spanish Succession – it would nowadays presumably be regarded as shadow banking – and its failure resulted from the circular artificiality of its strategies for achieving that. The situation was worsened by outright fraud and corrupt interweaving of private financial and government interests.

The Brydges family fortunes never recovered, and in 1747, three years after the first duke’s death, his son found the estate so hopelessly encumbered with debt that grounds, house and contents were put up for piecemeal, demolition sale. Little now remains apart from some of the major landscape features of the grounds. Bits of the fabric went to churches, galleries or other grand houses (our old friend and would-be patron of lexicographers, Lord Chesterfield – he of the letters to his son – took the portico, railings and marble staircase with bronze balustrade for his new London house).

The estate itself was purchased by the cabinet-maker William Hallett who in 1760 built a large villa on the site which today houses the North London Collegiate School – so at least furniture-makers come creditably out of the episode.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Jekyll and Hyde Dictionary update

Harmless drudges: lexicographers at work

I continue to add entries I have salvaged from my first edition of this rare work. Anyone interested should look at the separate page on this blog from time to time.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011


Cut out and keep: Donald Trump in Scotland

Back to furniture

“To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

Blake was protesting against the culture of the eighteenth century in which all particularities were referenced to and judged against general standards of good taste, correctness and politeness (a quality then seen as much an essential component of art as of social behaviour).

Originality was thought as likely to be absurd as enlightening, and so slightly valued that Joshua Reynolds, whose Discourses Blake was annotating, could observe, "invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory."

T S Eliot remarked that so positive was the culture of that age that it crushed a number of smaller men who thought differently but could not bear to face the fact.

With Blake it was his own perception and vision that was positive and not to be crushed and his apprehension of the particular was not to be referenced to the general.

In our own times, we seem not to know whether we wish to particularise or generalise, and to have lost our confidence in both. We cherish the particular but have lost the sense of accumulated experience into which it might be placed. We are surrounded by a plethora of cultural signs so clamorous that they have driven out meaning. The world and its history has become a cultural and natural supermarket which we loot for our individual satisfaction.

So furniture designer-makers have recently been berating themselves for how infrequently they indulge in any critical commentary on furniture, but the response is thin, and focussed on assessment of this or that designer’s whole body of work rather than on the examination of individual pieces of furniture. Such comment puts us in the realm of claim and counter claim, some doubtless more intelligent or discriminating than others but none able to validate itself, as individual criticism could do.

The debate is more political (in a cultural sense) than critical. We have an unsatisfied need to give shape to our inchoate culture by ranking and sanctioning practitioners rather than artefacts, although usually it is done politely, by quiet selection or exclusion rather than by manifesto or denunciation. Yet, however it is done, the process of creation, whereby individual perception is transmuted into something less limitingly personal is devalued, vulgarised or commercialised.

We have lost confidence in meaning or significance: objects are classed as ‘iconic’, without any sense of what they signify, simply because they are striking and frequently referenced. Furniture is ‘expressive’ without our having any sense of what it expresses. Little did Le Corbusier know what he was about to visit on the poor humble chair when he declared it to be ‘art’. Modern designer-maker furniture sometimes seems more ‘gestural’ than ‘expressive’, typified by the extravagant curve or the enveloping surface texture, offering a route to distinctiveness, sophistication or soul, bypassing the kind of design or cultural awareness necessary to achieve that sense of newness and rightness that dawns quietly on the observer rather than loudly assaulting him.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Culture and Anarchy

“And yet, futile as are many bookmen, and helpless as books and reading often prove for bringing nearer to perfection those who use them, one must, I think, be struck more and more, the longer one lives, to find how much, in our present society, a man's life of each day depends for its solidity and value on whether he reads during that day, and, far more still, on what he reads during it. More and more he who examines himself will find the difference it makes to him, at the end of any given day, whether or no he has pursued his avocations throughout it without reading at all; and whether or no, having read something, he has read the newspapers only. This, however, is a matter for each man's private conscience and experience. If a man without books or reading, or reading nothing but his letters and the newspapers, gets nevertheless a fresh and free play of the best thoughts upon his stock notions and habits, he has got culture. He has got that for which we prize and recommend culture; he has got that which at the present moment we seek culture that it may give us. This inward operation is the very life and essence of culture, as we conceive it.”
Matthew Arnold Culture and Anarchy, Preface

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Interesting times

As politicians and officials manoeuvre to foist yet another load of unrepayable debt upon Greece, the motivations and interests of some are more discernible than others.

The politicians seem the easier to fathom. Angela Merkel wants to appease sentiment amongst her electorate that resents any further German money being used to support what are seen as idle and irresponsible southern Europeans, apparently unaware that a prime object of keeping the Greeks ‘afloat’ is to avoid German banks (among others) being forced to write down the value of large imprudent international loans, and of the wider fact that eurozone policy is run for the benefit of the central European economies such as Germany’s (admittedly Germany apparently did not want the likes of the Greeks to join in the first place). I say ‘appease’ because Mrs Merkel knows that she will have to give in to another Greek/bank ‘rescue’ in the end and it took only a handbagging from John ‘Errol Flynn’ Lipsky, newly in charge of the IMF, to bring her rhetoric to more immediate heel.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-officio Co-Prince of Andorra, and drinking water supplier to Monaco, has a less troublesome electorate in this respect and knows as well as Mrs Merkel that French banks have even more to lose from a Greek default than the Germans.

Our own David Cameron, former special adviser to Norman Lamont, former director of corporate affairs at the late and much lamented Carlton Communications, still a direct descendant of the illegitimate daughter of King William IV, just sees a chance to let others stump up the cash to keep the financial show on the road. Ever focussing on the immediate objective (until it comes to the dismembering of the British state in the interests of private enterprise) he knows that British banks have less to worry about than some in this particular can of worms and lending to Ireland when you expected to get it back with interest is one thing, whilst lending to Greece when you know you will not is another.

In thinking no-one will get it back I defer to the judgement of financial insiders (although it has seemed pretty obvious to the cleaning lady for some time):

“Charles Dumas, of Lombard Street Research, puts it best. He calculates that to stabilise Greece's government debt-to-GDP ratio at 142% (the figure at the end of 2010) would require the budget surplus to be 7%-10% of GDP. The figure was minus 10% in 2009 and is likely to be at least minus 4% in 2010. Now recession is causing tax receipts to crumble. The chances of a 7%-10% surplus are "virtually nil", says Dumas, "meaning debt will escalate indefinitely, which is hardly surprising since only growth (or default) can reliably take care of a major debt problem." In some form, there will be a default.”

Those officials at the supranational financial institutions work in a little more obscurity. John Lipsky, who replaced the unfortunate Dominique Strauss-Kahn the IMF (unfortunate some thought even before his present difficulties) can hardly be accused of a generally low profile (or full face) – even though he is descended not from King William's bar sinister but from the owner of a furniture store. He joined the IMF straight from graduation and served as resident representative in Chile during Pinochet’s time. He then spent a decade and a half in the world of corporate finance with Salomon Brothers and J P Morgan. What exactly persuaded him to forego greater riches and return to the IMF as deputy director and later to reconsider his announced retirement and step into the shoes of DSK?

One must presume it was the overwhelming importance of the preservation of the international banking system. Or one should say prolongation. Everyone, in common with Charles Dumas and the cleaning lady, knows that the banks are going to have to face up to the fact, at some point, that the loans they made in Greece – and Ireland and Portugal – cannot be repaid in full, but the longer the day is put off the more wealth can be transferred from tax-payers to banks and the more state assets can be sold at fire-sale prices to private interests. Why bother about short-termism when the short term is so rosy?

Or take Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, career French civil servant, former governor of the Banque de France, former head of the French Treasury, adamant opponent of any debt default or ‘reprofiling’. The ECB of course now holds quantities of the debt that might, will, be reprofiled. M Trichet, in the French style, has pursued a career more exclusively in the offices of state than his American and British counterparts but he has had some involvement with non-state banking and in 2003 was “put on trial with 8 others charged with irregularities at Crédit Lyonnais, one of France's biggest banks. Trichet was in charge of the French treasury at that time. He was cleared in June 2003 which left the way clear for him to move to the ECB.” Search Wikipedia and the FBI website for interesting skeletons in the Crédit Lyonnais cupboard.

Then there is Vitor Constancio, former serial governor of the Portuguese Central Bank, present vice-president of the ECB, a man in total agreement with his boss on the subject of haircuts and one who has given faithful service in the cause of keeping the rickety old bus of international finance on the road, for all the world like a back-street mechanic welding yet another piece of metal over the rust patches to get it through its next MOT test.

“During the global economic crisis, it emerged that two banks (Banco Português de Negócios (BPN) and Banco Privado Português (BPP)) had been accumulating losses for years due to bad investments, embezzlement and accounting fraud. In the grounds of avoiding a potentially serious financial crisis in the Portuguese economy, the Portuguese government decided to give them a bailout, eventually at a future loss to taxpayers. Because of that, the role of Banco de Portugal, headed by Constâncio, in regulating and supervising the Portuguese banking system has been the subject of heated argument, particularly whether Vítor Constâncio had the means to do something or whether he revealed gross incompetence, due to the fact that he knew that BPN accounts were wrong since 2001."

The one thing in all this that gives me a little solace is that, although the relationship between political and financial interests is thoroughly incestuous, in Europe and the US, bankers are appointed to run state treasuries, banks fund any political party that has a chance of office, politicians accept remunerative positions in commercial banks as soon as they can get away with it, the two do not quite coincide. You cannot, as an ambitious young man, aspire to be both Bob Diamond and Tony Blair (or even David Cameron), or Lloyd Blankfein and Barack Obama. They are different coal-faces, albeit that the miners at each work in constant hope of breaking through. That is why they have to indulge in such absurdities as Bilderberg, where, behind the shower curtains, the tinted glass and the riot police, the genuinely powerful rub shoulders with B list world dominators. If we were ever allowed to eavesdrop on their deliberations I think we would be more shocked by their motives and intentions than we would be impressed by the smooth efficiency of their machinations. That, however, is not to deny that they have signally succeeded in their purposes so far, and that political and financial elites have indeed successfully constructed, over the past half century, systems for transferring wealth from poor to rich both in national economies and in international trade. Yet, however successful, for instance, the World Trade Organisation has been in its undemocratic and inequitable purposes, it can hardly be accused of being any more of a smooth operator than international finance.

The next time our politicians tell us there is a danger the cash machines may stop working overnight they may just possibly have to decide which particular cash machines they wish to save – the ones in the walls or the ones inside the skyscrapers.

And also: "As City credit analyst Jan Randolph of IHS says: "The achilles heel of the Greek economy is tax evasion. If the rich paid their taxes there wouldn't be a problem." For "Greek" read also...

Friday, 17 June 2011


The exhibition of my furniture in Lyme Regis, which showed examples of my work from over twenty years ago to the present day, is now closed, but a full illustrated description of it can be found here on the blog on the 'News and exhibitions' page. 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

In sickness and in health

George Osborn, in the company of a possibly smiling Mervyn King, recently knighted for being in a prominent position at a time of great trouble, announced in to the assembled panjandrums of British financial engineering, that we are ‘within touching distance’ of solving ‘the British dilemma’.

Keep smiling

What is the British dilemma? Not ‘boom and bust’: Gordon Brown solved that one. It is apparently that our booming financial services sector ultimately busts the rest of the UK economy. I had better rephrase that to remove the b words, but essentially that appears to be what our Chancellor meant.

On the subject of ‘touching’, I notice that Vitor Constancio, an ECB vice-president, has observed that "Greece could have a contagion effect." It seems to me that he chose the wrong metaphor. It is surely not just Greece that is sick, and about to spread the illness to an otherwise healthy international economy, but that the whole thing is already desperately sick and about to topple like the house of cards once the stressed jack of Greeks crumples under the strain.

Not smiling

Mr Constancio is also a former governor of the Portuguese central bank, and as Wikipedia tells us, ‘Two Portuguese banks (Banco Português de Negócios (BPN) and Banco Privado Português (BPP)) had been accumulating losses for years due to bad investments, embezzlement and accounting fraud. The Portuguese Central Bank led by Constancio was criticized for having allowed this situation for years.’

The good Vitor also told us: "The euro area faces a very challenging situation that comes mostly from the interconnection of the sovereign debt crisis and the situation of the banking sector." At least he made that clear for us. But he doesn’t want a haircut, as you can tell from this photo.

In fact everybody in finance seems to have particularly smart tonsures - if not quite up to the standard of A C Grayling.

It is also reported that the Americans, who of course have put their own financial sector in blooming good health, ‘are exasperated with the failure of the big EU states to resolve the crisis and fear for the impact of a Greek default on the international economy’. Remember ‘toxic assets’, now all neatly filed away under C for central banks (ask Mr Constancio what’s in his cupboard), awaiting doses of T for taxation and A for austerity.

Monday, 13 June 2011

"Globalisation's pull" - or push?

Writing in the New York Times ‘Intelligence’ column, under this title, Roger Cohen argues that ‘more globalisation is coming, whatever the reactions against it’, including those arising from the persistence of the ‘virulent’ nation state.

He cites the very recent suggestion by Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European central bank, that there will be, in the foreseeable, if not quantifiable, future a European finance ministry empowered to set economic and fiscal policy in the seventeen eurozone states. To describe this, as he does, as a ‘radical’ proposal is to ignore its congruence with a long history of the gradual usurpation of formerly national powers by the EU. He is right to say that the euro was a ‘political project’ aiming to take Europe ‘a step closer to a United States of Europe’, but those propelling such projects have always misjudged their strategy, ignoring the extent to which such covert moves would stoke up resentment at the ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the EU and bolster nationalistic sentiments.

Whatever the logic of a European finance ministry to make sense of monetary union, there would seem to be no foreseeable chance of its making headway against not only popular but also governmental resistance. Indeed the tendency would seem to be towards the unravelling rather than the consolidation of monetary union in the EU. How many ‘peripheral’ countries now privately regret not having stood outside the euro like Britain?

Some observers would disagree with Roger Cohen and see the forces of globalisation as more of a virus than those of the nation state – in the speed and covertness with which it has spread, in the damage it has inflicted upon the host body, and in its immunity to antibiotics.

To argue, as he does, that the popular uprisings against corrupt governments in the middle east represent a ‘globalised’ popular sentiment against strictly ‘national’ corruption is surely stretching his thesis to breaking point. The popular movements may have been emboldened by successful uprisings in neighbouring countries, but they do not seem to have seen themselves as having a transnational identity. The idea of pan-Arabism was something fostered by autocrats, whilst they not only bolstered their personal control of the nation’s people and resources, in defiance of nationally accountable institutions, but personally profited to huge and corrupt extent, with the willing collaboration of foreign powers (mainly western democracies), global corporations and finance houses. It was not the people of Saudi Arabia who benefited from the financial ‘arrangements’ with BAE Systems, so nimbly protected from legal scrutiny by Tony Blair.

Most of the popularly driven national political developments in recent decades have been against the tide of supra-national consolidation, towards more ‘national’ states that their peoples feel can be made more answerable to their will and wishes, or that are simply less sclerotic as social organisations – in the UK, the Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Sudan, and China itself not immune.

Globalising institutions are of course different beasts to supra-national states, but ultimately they may answer to the same popular demands. Ultimately all systems have to manipulate people. The supranational powers of the IMF, the WTO and even the EU, and the like, have been won covertly without popular consent or even sometimes awareness. They are usually strongly allied in their interests with globalised trade and finance – and so we return to Greece and the eurozone. In many cases these interests and institutions are coming under severe strain from diverging individual national interests, governmental as well as popular and political elites will at some point recognise that their interests do not for ever coincide with those of financial elites.

Finally, I would agree with Roger Cohen that the universal appette for the fruits of technology does promote globalisation, although the picture chosen (perhaps not by him) to illustrate his article, of two women on Segways passing a protest camp in Madrid, is to me suggestive of the thought that such appetite may at some point come to seem relatively feeble.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Greek percentages - or beware of Germans bearing loans

... or of the IMF, or the ECB, or the EU.

The Greek economy shrank over the past twelve months by 5.5%.

Among 15 to 24-year-old Greeks the unemployment rate is 42%.

If the Greek government were to seek to borrow on the international markets now they would expect to pay 25.08% interest for two-year funds.

The German government, whose commercial banks are highly exposed to Greek debt (perhaps even ‘existentially’ exposed, as we seem to use the adjective now), but much of whose electorate is intensely hostile to any further loans to the Greeks, has proposed a ‘restructuring’ of Greek debt whereby some losses would be imposed on bond holders – votes at present being a little more valued than banks.

The European Central Bank, which, as I understand it, now holds much recycled debt from Greece and other ‘peripheral’ EU countries. Has warned that compulsory restructuring is ‘unacceptable’ (interesting how some people’s or organisations’ ‘acceptance’ becomes essential whilst others’ becomes eminently ignorable). The ECB has also signalled its intention to raise European interest rates again in the near future.

Other European countries, and the US, are said to worry that any compulsory Greek debt restructuring could ‘alarm’ markets and place other, not quite so peripheral countries in jeopardy, such as Spain – whose economy is too large to be ‘bailed out’.

Is there any realistic prospect of a ‘safe landing’?

I should perhaps apologise to my German readers (who, Mr Google informs me, are surprisingly predominant in a small field - whereas, sadly, I appear to have none in Greece). I truly don't think the German people are any more short-sighted or selfish than the rest of us: we all get confused sometimes and anxious to protect our own interests, so far as we can apprehend them in a complex political and economic situation.

Saturday, 11 June 2011


FDMA is busy choosing a logo. It is not finding it easy. As Wikipedia tells us “designing a good logo is not a simple task and requires a lot of involvement from the marketing team and the design agency”, although at the same time we learn that the famous Nike swoosh was designed by a student paid, originally, thirty-five dollars for her work.

There has been some criticism that what was recently the most favoured suggestion, a bold typographic design, was too anonymous and could belong to ‘any multi-national company’. Perhaps it could, to the older breed of corporation, like IBM, but more recent multinational companies, like Nike, look to their logos to be anything but anonymous. The modern logo is essentially odious in that it is a deliberate attempt to manipulate the public perception, so different from the printers’ or publishers’ colophons, from which it is partly descended, where the emblem was chosen from a sense of attachment or appreciation possibly unapparent to a public, which nevertheless came to recognise it. See for example the early twentieth-century colophons of the once independent British publishers, Jonathan Cape or Chatto and Windus, now both part of Random House but still thought to be ‘brands’ worth preserving.

Tox take two

I am much taken by an interesting comment on the artistic status of Daniel Halpin’s (‘Tox’) work from Dominique Hurle that has appeared in the Guardian Letters page:

“I should like to defend Daniel Halpin (or "Tox") against the charges of certain establishment figures – police, popular artists, and prosecutors – that his work amounts to nothing more than trivial but pervasive vandalism, lacking in skill or merit (Tox tagger faces prison, 8 June).
I have enjoyed Mr Halpin's work since I started to travel to London extensively and would see "TOX 06" emblazoned on mile after mile of train carriages, railway sidings, bridges and buildings. Its ubiquity, regularity and apparent pointlessness is what makes the work a powerful critique of the monotony and triviality of the many signs and notices put up by the state which bear instructions, prohibitions and statements of the obvious.
When I walk down a street and see in the space of half a mile 20 metal plaques bearing all manner of petty injunctions – "No drinking in this area"; "No parking on matchdays 6.30pm–8.30pm"; "Dogs to be kept on leads in the park" – I feel, to borrow vocabulary from Detective Constable Livings, the state has committed a selfish vandalism which scars the environment and contributes to a sense of oppression, anxiety and lack of personal agency.
As artist Ben Flynn says, Mr Halpin's work is indeed "incredibly basic" and lacking in "style". I think that's the point.”

It would seem that the courts and the experts have simply failed in their art criticism: Mr Halpin’s art is an installation and assessing just one of his tags is like criticising Andy Goldsworthy for the configuration of a single twig.

I wonder whether Dominique Hurle has considered the possibility that the authorities responsible for those petty injunctions are themselves a bunch of artists – of some description – and that we inhabit a total art form, with a larger concept. Perhaps that was what Kafka or Lewis Carroll had in mind.

Friday, 10 June 2011

China: the new global paradigm?

When Britain, following the industrial revolution, came to world dominance, and the United States later supplanted it, they each produced genuinely new manifestations of products and culture, and they each imposed them on a sometimes reluctant, sometimes eager world.

China now seems more to be opening itself to the globalising rapacities of luxury goods manufacturers, ‘world-class’ architects and, soon to come, international banks. (Will China prove to be the first nation state the banks cannot capture? A discreet and interesting struggle will unfold.) And she is selling back to the rest of the world the sometimes debased satisfaction of its own native appetites.

The fact that China controls the purse strings perhaps makes her feel this to be totally different from the indignities imposed upon her by the foreign powers in the nineteenth century, but what is the currency that she is stuffing into her purse?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Is it art? II

A jury has decided that the graffiti of Daniel Halpin, who signs or ‘tags’ himself as ‘Tox’, is not art and so, by default, must be criminal damage. The perpetrator seems headed for prison.

The courts used to be called upon to decide whether usually literary works were art – and so could be excused the charge of pornography. (So little was the establishment’s belief in the power of art that it was thought only trash could deprave and corrupt – I suppose that belief was born of their long experience of falling asleep at the opera.) The burdens imposed upon the judicial mind move on, whilst the essential absurdity remains.

In the case of Mr Halpin other artists, somehow sanctioned by society, have turned state’s evidence against him. A certain Mr Ben ‘Eine’ Flynn, whose work has been presented to Barack Obama by David Cameron (I bet they put it on the wall just whilst he’s visiting) – so it must be art, although Mr Flynn too has previously clocked up five convictions for criminal damage in the past. You might think he was in danger of losing his licence, but somehow the process seems to work in the other direction. He testified as an ‘expert witness’ (that category responsible for many a conspicuous miscarriage of justice) that Tox’s ‘tags’ and ‘dubs’ were ‘incredibly basic’, lacking ‘skill, flair or unique style’. That seems a little reactionary: is Mr Flynn spearheading a campaign for the restoration of life drawing to our art schools? Apart from ‘unique style’ the same was probably said of every major artist since Van Gogh.

Not even Halpin’s record of being able to earn money from his work secured his status, nor his claim that the offending items were actually the work of forgers – forgeries presumably being society’s ultimate validation of art.

So it would appear my walls are protected by the majesty of the law from ‘basic’ graffiti, but not from that Leonardo turning up and decorating them with his ‘Last Supper’. All I could do last time was to give the place over to the horses. Where’s the law and order agenda? I blame that pinko, Ken Clarke.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The age of enlightenment & the luxury goods trade

The new National Museum of China has opened behind its colonnaded façade overlooking Tiananmen Square. Only the Louvre is bigger. Visitors are restricted to 8000 a day.

The Stalinist building was remodelled by the German architects Gerkan, Mark and Partners, well versed in the design of sports stadia, airports and railway stations. Exhibits have been recruited from museums all over China.

The exhibition entitled The Path to National Resurrection guides the visitor from the nineteenth-century western impositions upon China to the Beijing Olympics. (I’m not sure whether there is an interactive display of Chinese holding of US debt.) There is one picture of a smiling Mao and one of the events of 1989 with Deng Xiaoping congratulating the troops enforcing martial law. There is no room for the Great Famine, the effects of the Cultural Revolution or the protests in Tiananmen Square.

The first loan exhibition was on the Age of Enlightenment with 600 works of eighteenth-century art from Berlin, Munich and Dresden. At the opening the German foreign minister “spoke of the ideals expressed by art, such as respect for human dignity, the rule of law and individual freedoms. Such ideas, he added, led to the fall of the Berlin wall, but the Chinese media made no mention of his comments”.

Future visiting exhibitions from the west are under discussion. The luxury goods group LVMH ("world leader in luxury" - imagine the burden if you had to worry whether or not the luxury you were enjoying were world class - "LVMH carries out a number of initiatives through its commitment to protecting the environment" - how wonderful to have Keith Richards and Annie Leibovitz come to your aid to bestow social and cultural gravitas on a collection of bags, booze and scent) has started talks about an exhibition on the Vuitton brand and travel. It is expected to occupy four rooms and last two or three months, according to the LVMH spokesperson in Shanghai. Rumours that the newly formed British Furniture Designer Makers Association are to hold an exhibition there are unconfirmed.

wooing China?

“With its prestige, ambitious aims and vast exhibition space begging to be filled, museums from all over the world are courting the Chinese mogul. But this may not be a simple task. As one expert said: ‘The editorial line of Chinese museums is not always crystal clear.’"

Tuesday, 7 June 2011


A world at financial war

The scale of the struggle between irreconcilable economic interests and the extent to which the outcome will reshape our societies seems to be very imperfectly understood. I recommend this article by Michael Hudson.

"... the financial sector will proceed with buyouts and foreclosures until it possesses all the assets in the world, all the hitherto public assets, corporate assets and those of individuals and partnerships."

The worm

“You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm — we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish — ourselves who consume: we are the mildew, and the flame.”

John Ruskin, A Joy for Ever, lecture II, section 74 (1857)

“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.”

William Blake, The Sick Rose, Songs of Experience (1794)

Monday, 6 June 2011

Face value

Quotations courtesy of Golem XIV Thoughts:

Mervyn King: 'When you look at Britain's banks you can't help but see they are insolvent.

Mr Skidelsky horrified both Hutton and Cable by saying he felt the entire Globalization and Free Market agenda had to be reconsidered. And that 'protectionism' to protect jobs and wages was necessary.

Will Hutton said, growth - permanent economic growth was inevitable and he was not worried about growth nor sustainability and neither should we be, because - and I kid you not - "we will solve our problems by getting resources from other planets, having huge spaceships for people and economic growth."

Pictures from an exhibition

Sunday, 5 June 2011

God in a box

Some thoughts on this topic have long been sinking to the bottom of my mental pending tray, but they were brought to the surface when I awoke on Saturday morning to a BBC World Service programme on science in the Vatican in which Professor Richard Dawkins was briefly interviewed. He summarised his objections to religion with the assertions that bad deeds have often been perpetrated in the name of religion (suicide bombers for example); that, although we did not know and perhaps could not know what happened in the first pica second after the moment of creation, it did not help our understanding to speculate about a personal god who answered our individual prayers (probably the white beard was not mentioned but we were in that territory); and that the proper, the profound reaction to the world in which we live was a sense of wonder.

Professor Dawkins ...
That reinforced my impression of Professor Dawkins as a man with no real curiosity about the nature of religious experience, an impoverished conception of art, and probably little understanding of political conflict and social organisation. That triple impression may have deterred me from giving Professor Dawkins’s ideas the attention they deserve, but, in the true spirit of the internet, I do not intend to let ignorance stand in the way of opinion.

... and acquaintance
To take the points in different order, I did once see a television programme with Professor Dawkins in discussion with like-minded people where he was at pains to explain that his atheistic belief (I think he actually, with intellectual nicety, characterised himself as an extreme agnostic) did not to any degree prevent him from appreciating religious art. He was, he said, capable of luxuriating in (perhaps it was wondering at, wonder seems to play a prominent role in his aesthetic and moral view) the beauty of a religious painting or piece of music (the B minor mass perhaps) without paying any attention to its inherent or explicit religious meaning – and then afterwards he came out of that reverie back to the real world, the world of evidence based understanding.

That idea of art is perhaps not so immediately seen as inadequate as it would have been in the time of F R Leavis, who formed (as some may guess, looking at the literary references on this blog) my approach to literature and art, but it plainly comes close to ‘art for art’s sake’, which is equally out of modern fashion, or, more interestingly, aligns Professor Dawkins somewhat with the judge in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who, thinking apparently that such a book might be all very well in the gentleman’s library or club, asked the members of the jury to consider whether they would be content to have their ‘wives or servants’ come across it.

Would you, Professor Dawkins, be content for your wife (I ask entirely hypothetically: I do not even know whether the Professor is married) to listen to the B minor mass, or your servants (college servants perhaps)? Well perhaps not they, but the lumpen mass that you find so depressingly prone to believe in the gentleman with the long white beard – they might be persuaded to religious belief by it, or have their belief confirmed, as I am sure many have.

I used to find it rather cheap and facile to compare ‘militant atheists’ with religious enthusiasts, but I was struck forcibly in the television discussion by how closely Professor Dawkins and his colleagues resembled the enforcers of religious orthodoxy in both manner and apparent motivation: these god-believing people were, to Professor Dawkins, strangely and pathetically in error; both for their own good and for the good of society they must be made to recant.

It becomes a social project. The tools of the inquisition are not to hand, but there is the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science whose 'mission ... is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering' and those buses proclaiming ‘There is, probably, no god’, despite the scrupulous qualifier, are as importunate and environmentally dreary as any wayside pulpit, and as hopelessly ineffective.

Looking for the evidence
The picture heading the official website is strangely reminiscent of popular and proselytising religious imagery, eyes cast aloft to the clouds, if not the heavens. One is almost tempted, an an act of cyber graffiti, to add the flowing white beard.

It is strange that anyone who conceives they have a social or intellectual duty to argue against religious belief should concentrate on the question, does god exist? To someone engaged in religious inquiry that must appear almost the last question that matters – if it matters at all. Isn’t that what all the fuss was about with the former Bishop of Durham?

The concerns of religious enquiry must be, ‘What is the true nature of existence?’; ‘How do I as an individual relate to it?’ and ‘How should one conduct one’s life to enhance that relationship?’

As the central character in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead puts it, if one conceives of god as the author of existence, what does it mean to ask, does god exist? He also remarks that almost nothing of value can be said about belief in god from a defensive position. I take him to mean that religious enquiry is a quest for understanding of something that is never likely to be directly grasped. Yet to ask whether ‘god exists’ one must posit a distinct conception, and whatever one chooses is likely to be inadequate or illogical so that the answer to the question whether it exists will almost certainly be, no. That, however, hardly exhausts the question, and, in any case, people embarked on Professor Dawkins’s enterprise seldom bother to engage with belief in its most artistically or intellectually accomplished forms. The most publicised recent debate on religion (available through the Dawkins Foundation website) was held between Christopher Hitchens and none other than that deep religious thinker Tony Blair. I rest my case.

The charge remains that some terrible things have been done in the name of religion. Professor Dawkins conceded only that some people ‘may’ have done good in the name of religion. Such a concession seems grudging to the point of stupidity. Inevitably someone motivated by their religious belief quietly to tend the sick or the poor will get less attention than the suicide bomber killing by the dozen, but to entertain the possibility that none such exist – well, you may think that, Professor, but no sensible man could possibly believe it.

There is research to show that suicide bombers are usually not particularly religiously devout, even in Islamic conflicts, and of course it was the avowedly non-religious Tamil Tigers who first developed suicide bombing.

Professor Dawkins is, I think, a little disingenuous in blaming religious belief, of itself, for all the horrors committed in its name. Until historically recently (and to some extent even now) all societies and states have had an avowedly religious affiliation, and it is organised human societies that have a propensity to barbarism, oppression and aggression. Modern secular states scarcely have a better record. Randolph Bourne, the early twentieth-century American writer, about whom I have posted before, has much of interest to say on that subject in War is the health of the state.

So, Professor Dawkins leaves me more puzzled than persuaded, and I find it a relief that his ideas and programme receive less attention than a while ago. I wonder what Richard Steele of the eighteenth-century Tatler and those polite gentlemen in the coffee house would have made of it.

Friday, 3 June 2011

"Quand je me joue à ma chatte, qui sçait si elle passe son temps de moy plus que je ne fay d'elle?"
Michel de Montaigne, Essais Book II, ch. 12

"As thus: lately in a wreck of a Californian ship, one of the passengers fastened a belt about him with two hundred pounds of gold in it, with which he was found afterwards at the bottom. Now, as he was sinking — had he the gold? or had the gold him?"
John Ruskin  "Ad Valorem" Unto This Last 1860


Thursday, 2 June 2011

Sympathy and scruple

"To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic; it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud, narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough for transformation into sympathy, and quivers threadlike in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. And Mr Casaubon had many scruples ..."
George Eliot Middlemarch

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Slightly foxed

Amongst the signs of age are finding that it is not just one's second hand books but the books one bought brand new in one's youth that have become slightly foxed.