To be honest, Bruegel turned out great landscape after great landscape. Coming as he did, from the Low Countries, one suspects that if he hadn’t made a long and arduous trip to Italy and back, over Alpine passes, from 1551 to 1555, then it might be that we’d still have lots of quirky peasants and scary devils, but zilch in the way of towering crags, dark forests and Alpine meadows. It would have been our loss.
So I’m recommending this one for a topical reason: it’s November and it’s deep into autumn. Try as we might in our modern times, unless we have free global travel and lots of time off, we can’t escape the seasons, for good or bad. Someone could write a modern day Georgics on this. The increasing use of strange devices like SAD lamps tells us that despite Christmas good cheer and all that, going into winter is still tough.
As an aside, on November days like today, with clear skies, skeletal beauty in the garden, and rich twilight, then a painting like Millais’ 1856 classic, Autumn Leaves actually makes the whole thing appealing.
Back to the master though. If you visit Vienna’s amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum, you can enter the Bruegel room and see some of the seasonal paintings (also Prague and New York). Everyone has seen Hunters in the Snow, and the summer ones are charming and fun, but it’s February (The Dark Day) and November (The Return of the Herd), that to me are the most evocative and genuinely powerful. Man toiling against a harsh nature, outwith the relatively settled calm of the snowbound landscape of the depths of winter.
By a strange coincidence, today’s Daily Mail, of all publications, had a fascinating piece on how the shepherds in a remote and very inaccessible part of Georgia, Tusheti, bring their sheep down from the high pastures (10,000 ft!) for the winter, via the thoroughly hair raising Abano Pass. Which is exactly what Bruegel’s peasants are doing with their cattle in this landscape, and the main reason why the painting has been identified with November. It’s incredible to realise that large swathes of rural Europe are essentially the same, culturally and economically, as they were 400 years ago.
Looking at the painting, as a study of structure it’s endlessly rewarding, with cunning obliques, horizontals, verticals and blocks of muted colours. As a Bruegel geek though, I have to say it’s in the specifics that I get the most pleasure. Looking at the two details below, there’s a classic barely visible Bruegel village with its identikit church, and buildings so dirty and muddy that they blend into the surroundings. The other shows a couple of late season boats on the river as it expands into the freezing estuary, with in the foreground an absolutely echt Bruegel motif – the gallows and the executed, rotting on the wheels high above the ground.
A stunning painting.
There’s even a song to go with it – Tom Waits, always reliable
As someone with an intimate knowledge of secessionist lunatics and the trouble they cause – with complete indifference to its effects and an utter disregard of those who might demur from their obsessive worldview – I have watched the Catalonia situation with a mix of deja vu and disgust.
In retrospect, lancing the SNP boil by giving them their referendum might have been David Cameron’s signature achievement. Scotland, despite the SNP hype, is not ruefully regretting the majority rejection of the SNP raison d’etre.
And also, as someone with a pretty good knowledge of Spain, including Catalonia, over many years, I can observe that Puigdemont’s mob, in common with the SNP, don’t really have anything tangible in the way of active grievances. Their gripes are historical, though in Spain I would concede, some of the bad stuff still lies within living memory. Not so Scotland, I would suggest.
Other things they have in common are a failure of serious planning – currency, defence, capital flight, all that stuff – and the thinnest of veneers when it comes to respecting democracy. It was almost inevitable that the floppy haired egomaniac Puigdemont would turn out to be an unelected demagogue, in that no Catalan actually voted for him to become president. That would be too risky. Here’s Wikipedia:
On 10 January 2016, he was invested as the 130th President of the Generalitat of Catalonia by the Parliament of Catalonia. This followed an agreement carried out the day before between Together for Yes and the CUP, in which it was announced that he would replace Artur Mas as president of the Generalitat in exchange for a guarantee of parliamentary stability for his Government
Nice deal guys
However, enjoyable sneering aside (the SNP similarities keep coming), there is a very serious aspect to all this, or aspects. Spain’s tumultuous history comes to the fore, from the epic of Covadonga in 722, through the Reconquista of 1492 to the civil war of the 1930’s. For the last 5 years and more there have been clear signs that Catalonian separatism was encouraging an Islamist enclave to form, in part as a further divide with the rest of Spain. The recent horrific terrorist attacks, conveniently airbrushed now, combined with any casual observation in Barcelona and environs, will tell you that it has changed immensely. This is in part hardcore Salafist Islam, a problem for everyone, including the vain and solipsistic Puigdemont.
By contrast, the beleaguered Mariano Rajoy has shown a decisiveness and maturity so far, that it provides a little ray of hope.
The best summary of all this right now, with hard hitting criticism of all parties, is from Iain Martin, a man who knows a mad secessionist when he sees one, over at Reaction (which is worth its tiny subscription fee). I feel compelled to quote it at length:
One of the more obscure aspects of the latest, tragic events in Catalonia is the way in which the constitutional emergency has brought together under one banner some unlikely allies in Britain. Not only are the separatists in Barcelona being cheered on by activists from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland nationalist parties, as should be expected.
They all support the potential break up of Spain for the obvious reason that separatists love separatism, and, because they want to break up countries on principle, they enjoy the spectacle of it happening elsewhere, probably because they expect the impulse to spread beyond the borders of Spain.
But alongside the SNP et al, the Catalans also have the support of the Faragists, that collection of tin-pot populists clustered around the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage. In that faction, judging by their comments today, the delight at the declaration by the Catalan parliament of independence from Spain is rooted instead in the potential for the Catalan business to damage the European Union, which they despise and want to fall apart. In this way the Catalans are cast as the latest exponents of the Trumpian impulse – breaking norms, smashing up the system, as though it is all a great laugh, Carry on Up the Sagrada Familia.
According to the twisted populist reading, the EU is trampling on the will of the Catalan people. That is nonsense. It is not clear there is anything like a majority for a split from Spain. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, held legally in a nation state, the recent Catalan referendum was illegal, and the EU’s refusal to recognise the unilateral split is perfectly fair and sensible. National governments elsewhere across Europe are taking the same position, not because the EU told them to, but for the perfectly understandable reason that it is rooted in truth and respect for law. In the fantasy ultra-Brexiteer version of diplomacy, this is supposed to be cast aside, sanctioning the end of Spain when there is simply no majority for it.
There has always been a brainless, reckless strand at the Faragist end of the Brexit side of the argument, which operates on the assumption that anything bad for the EU, or Europe more broadly, is good fun and good for Brexit, as though this is a zero sum game and as though we are not all living in the same continent, in the shared space that is Europe. The temptation to mix the two up – Europe and the EU – must always be resisted. Europe is an old civilisation and an enduring concept. The EU is a relatively new political experiment.
In that context, what is happening in Spain is not a cause for celebration. It is a European catastrophe. After a difficult 20th century – and a return to democracy in the mid-1970s following the death of Franco in 1975 – Spain has re-emerged as a confident country with distinct economic strengths (in finance in particular) and restored pride. Catalonia is a disproportionately productive part of that success story. With only 16% of Spain’s population it nonetheless generates 20% of Spanish GDP and a quarter of national exports. It is, for now, a magnet for foreign inward investment.
Catalonia is, or was, doing well, and Spain is, or was, recovering strongly – with growth running just above 3%. The considerable difficulties that Spain encountered stemmed from joining the euro. They are being overcome after a robust programme of reforms.
Now, this weekend, the unity and economic health of that major European democracy is in peril. Direct rule will be imposed. Civil unrest seems certain and violence highly likely. In simple human terms, once the celebrations in Barcelona are matched by counter-demonstrations, a lot of people are at risk of being hurt.
There is another important and overlooked reason for non-Spaniards to fear the break up of Spain. It is on the European front-line against the Islamist war on Western civilisation. Islamic State talks of retaking the Iberian peninsula, and it was from radicalised communities in the Pyrenees that the cells emerged to perpetrate recent attacks. Spain falling apart in the face of such violence would signal to the enemies of European civilisation that great countries are disintegrating and the West is weakening.
Some things, you see, are bigger than Brexit. All Europeans – in or out of the EU – should be extremely concerned by the crisis in Catalonia and should hope for some statesmanship and compromise.
It is indeed a catastrophe, and no-one knows how it will end.
I have an enduring soft spot for Dutch art in general, well beyond the big names. The second tier, like Hobbema, Avercamp and so on are not just technically gifted, but also supremely evocative of real life, only several hundred years ago. Taking your time to closely scrutinise their works is like entering a time machine. One could say the same for the Brabantine twins Bosch and Bruegel, except with those supreme masters their admittedly great landscapes are frequently in the context of the wackier end of the imagination. Not always though, as I detail here.
Back in 2010 there was a terrific exhibition at Holyrood Palace, featuring works from the Royal Collection, called Dutch Landscapes. No-one could even approach the scale and quality of the Royal Collection if starting from scratch today, not even Bill Gates. It is an amazing body of work, technically still in private hands. The original cover of the book that went with the exhibition, was a painting by Jan van der Heyden. He was a bit of a polymath, not least because he seems to have invented the fire engine. This painting of the Vliet, near Delft repays your attention. It is a classic of structure, technique and numerous small details – the flying birds, the bridge, the human activities. As with most of these Dutch Golden Age pictures, it seems like a good time and place to be alive, health/social circumstances permitting (see also 1950s USA, Habsburg Spain etc).
As a comparison, which in terms of the aesthetically pleasing rural idyll shows you what has been lost, here’s an up to date view of a scene from the same vicinity:
…and if you didn’t believe the fire engine thing, here’s JVDH’s sketch of his design. Quite an all rounder...
One feels for the EU-trapped Greeks, who are an exceptionally friendly and helpful people. Athens was always flawed as a city for visitors, one suspects – it’s not like Prague or Paris – but the lack of public money and successful business is certainly showing. Even so, some things are timeless.
**it’s a big pic, click and press +, if you want detail
From a long but rewarding read by Daniel Johnson in the always interesting Standpoint magazine, considering the theme of Europe v the EU, through the lens of the life of Spanish intellectual Jose Ortega y Gasset:
Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.
Venice as the antithesis of Brussels is a great concept, and entirely in keeping with the flavour of those cities. Venice is the one you want to revisit, for sure.
Many painters have tackled Venice of course, Brussels not so much (though this, from the greatest Belgian of them all, is stupendous). Turner, the most brilliant of all British artists, did many, many such scenes, and the one I’ve chosen is not a favourite as such, just a good example of the prolific Turner’s stunning technical and creative facility. And it is indeed a metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky.
In these exciting times, when morons/Lib Dems drone on about the entirely fictitious entities of hard and soft Brexit, I recommend interested parties to read a charming Spectator piece from last year: Reasons to be Cheerful. A symposium on the benefits of Brexit. All of it is good, with contributions from right across the spectrum of beliefs and politics.
Here is my favourite, because it begins to address a problem that’s blighted British medicine, the EWTD and the associated serfdom of medics in the NHS. It doesn’t mention the equally pernicious New Deal junior doctors’ contract, but it’s a fine start. The author is one of the great British medical writers, Theodore Dalrymple (AKA Anthony Daniels), a terrific writer and experienced clinician, with quite a fan club online (1, 2). Here he is:
No one wants to be treated by a dog-tired doctor, but even less does he want to be the parcel in the medical game of pass-the-parcel that is now commonplace in our hospitals. The European Working Time Directive has transformed doctors into proletarian production-line workers, much to their dissatisfaction with their work and to the detriment of their training and medical experience. It means that doctors no longer work in proper teams, patients don’t know who their doctors are and doctors don’t know who their patients are. The withdrawal of the directive would improve the situation.
Every working doctor that I know would recognise the problem described. Whether abandoning the EWTD (I would) and introducing a more sensible hours regulation would help is a moot point.
But we now need to at least have the conversation.
I confess that I hadn’t heard of the Dutchman Carel Willink, and I owe my exposure to him to ace film critic, acquaintance of Russ Meyer, and all round arts maven, Anne Billson (whose extensive film database is a very witty and stimulating bargain on Amazon),
But if you like Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Paul Delvaux, then you’ll like Willink. Technically very gifted and versatile – his portraiture is outstanding – he had the ability to produce startlingly evocative dreamscapes like the one in this post. The elegaic mood and unspoken history in them remind me of neighbouring Belgian Fernand Khnopff, albeit the style is very different. Khnopff was inspired by the unique gloomy atmosphere of Bruges (which is still there, despite the tourism), and his literary parallel is with fellow Belgian Georges Rodenbach, whose beautiful (and readable) Bruges-la-Morte is effectively a symbolist novel. In Willink’s work symbolism mingles with surrealism, classical landscape and technical precision. It’s an interesting observation that notwithstanding the Greek de Chirico, all this is very Nordeuropa, in a line that stems from the fantasy and improbable landscapes of Bosch, Bruegel and particularly Patinir, the most obscure of these three giants.
Time moves quickly. When I was looking for slides for an operation that I thought I’d done two years ago at the most, I found it was actually five years that had passed. It’s nearly 7 years since Dave became PM but it frequently seems like only yesterday. The other side of the tempus fugit coin though is that significant events, and the relevant knowledge that they provide, slip away in the memory all too quickly.
The current drivel regarding Russia is a perfect example. When I was a lad Russia was only a bogeyman because of its central place in the Soviet communist empire, which fell apart twenty six years ago, roughly. That was why we had a Cold War, not because Russia = Bad. Whether we like it or not, Russia (and Iran/Persia) are big powerful proper countries (unlike say Iraq), with very long histories and very distinct identities. We would be mad to not talk to them, to assume a relationship of permanent enmity. That’s not to say you should trust them, it’s strictly business.
You would guess none of the above from the hysteria that passes as foreign policy debate in much of the media.
Likewise, it’s salutary to remember that Britain was run by complete chancers for a long period – the Blair/Brown Terror – which seems pretty fresh in my memory, for lots of reasons, but if you are a first time voter this year, you were about 8 when we finally got rid of Blair and reasonably enough you would be unlikely to have useful political memories of the time.
Which brings me to an absolute zinger of a piece by the venerable Peter Oborne in today’s paper. He is reflecting on the nefarious past of an A1 hypocrite and member of the Blair Fixer Triumvirate, the other members of which were Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, both sadly still making themselves available for their tired commentary. I refer to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s smooth and somewhat sleazy chief of staff.
Oborne provides a very timely synopsis of much that was wrong then, and hopefully we can learn, or relearn, the relevant lessons of corrupt cliquey government and its abuse. I can only quote a few gems, but do read the whole piece. Its relevance to the current EU debate is very striking:
I was a junior political reporter in the early years of the Blair government. I can testify that it was disgracefully responsible for systematically setting about destroying the career of any civil servant who was not prepared to be unthinkingly loyal to New Labour — and then replacing those who refused with trusted Labour cronies….
….Within days of winning power in 1997, Tony Blair bullied pliant civil servants into waving through special laws which gave Powell the power to give orders to top civil servants.
It is no exaggeration to say that Powell’s relationship to civil service integrity could be compared to that of serial killer GP Harold Shipman’s to medical ethics — or gangster Al Capone’s to law and order. From the moment he entered Downing Street with Blair in 1997 to the moment they left together ten years later, Powell worked ceaselessly to undermine and destroy it….
The brutal truth is that during the Blair Years, Powell’s conduct was scurrilously partisan and he constantly flouted codes of honesty and decency.
Time and time again, he was caught up in the most putrid corruption scandals. Lies about the threat posed by Saddam. The stench of the Hinduja passports scandal when Labour was said to have helped two billionaire Indian brothers obtain British passports after giving £1 million to the Millennium Dome — leading to Peter Mandelson’s resignation. The scandal over Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour.
Powell was always lurking, playing a key role.
If anybody brought back to British public life the corruption and ‘jobbery of the 17th and 18th century’, it was Powell and his friends Blair, Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. Indeed, an illustrated ‘map of power’ in Downing Street at the height of the Blair years, showed Powell at the apex.
His No. 10 empire — in a clear breach of the civil service ethics which Powell told the BBC yesterday he cared so much about — stretched to include power over the prime minister’s private secretary.
And who occupied that position when Powell held most sway at No 10? None other than a rising young civil servant called Ivan Rogers. What a small world we live in!
A brilliant piece that could only be written by someone who saw it all unfold at close quarters.
There are plenty of people now who tut tut about the Iraq lies and the subsequent war, but would have you believe that the other stuff from the Blair era was wonderful. Don’t be taken in….
When you’ve built the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe, for its time, you would expect it to tower over the landscape and the trees. The Chateau de Vincennes does exactly that in the last of the twelve month cycle. It’s still there today, though without the many smaller towers you see in the painting (and in the model below).
The chateau took a battering over the centuries, and housed a community of English nuns and the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, though not at the same time. It was further damaged by a rentamob once the French Revolution was well underway. The Duc de Berry’s interest in it is that he was born in the chateau, 676 years ago last week.
Vincennes was a heavily forested area near Paris – now part of the Parisian urban sprawl – and as you might expect, there was a lot of hunting, in this case a wild boar hunt, with dogs, a potentially risky business. Oddly enough, still no snow, that seemed to wait till after Christmas in medieval France, judging by the Tres Riches Heures. By this point in the series – about 1440 – the duke was dead, the Limbourg brothers were dead, and the probable artist was the Master of Shadows, which is a cool name, in real life Barthélemy d’Eyck, which is still not bad.
16. A dismal attempt at being an international statesman comes unstuck
Or even being a competent trade negotiator, really. As the Glasgow Herald stated in April: Nicola Sturgeon has signed a potential multi-billion pound investment deal with a firm owned by a Chinese construction giant implicated in “gross corruption” on an industrial scale. The deal had been mysteriously kept secret until a Freedom of Information request zapped it. Clearly she didn’t find all that corruption too offputting. Must be the company she keeps. Hilariously, Norway, with whom the Nats endlessly compare Scotland, as Norway are a successful independent small country had already blacklisted the railway group’s parent firm over corruption fears. When this was publicised, Ms Sturgeon started backtracking and havering, leading to this reasonable comment from Labour:
“The fact that discussions have been going on for a year without SNP minister providing any detail is extraordinary. This deal stinks and it has done from the very beginning. It’s time for the SNP to stop the ducking and diving – Nicola Sturgeon should order the full publication of all documents relating to this deal, going as far back as a year ago when talks first began.”
Fast forward to this week, and it turns out that the Chinese have pulled the plug on the £10 billion investment. Even more bizarrely, they did so in August, but that was also kept secret (a bad habit the Nats are developing). Did Nicola hope that everyone would forget about it?
Attacking rivals Ms Sturgeon added: “We have an opposition that demanded the cancellation of this memorandum of understanding, we have an opposition that had a hysterical over-the-top reaction to this memorandum of understanding. So, while I take responsibility for learning lessons, I really do think the opposition also have to reflect on their behaviour, which led to a political climate in which these partners felt they couldn’t proceed.” But Tory leader Ruth Davidson said it was “embarrassing for our country” adding: “Rather than blaming us, or blaming Brexit, or blaming the weather, will the First Minister remove the shroud of secrecy from deals like these and be straight with the Scottish people?”
That probably is too much to ask.
17. A dismal attempt to lean on the Irish comes unstuck
The majority of world leaders (a term that sounds grander than its reality) understand that intrinsic to the concept of leading a country, is nationhood. Come to think of it, that is meant to be the SNP’s whole schtick. Intrinsic to that is a generally accepted frame of geopolitical reference – Portugal is separate from Spain, Sicily is part of Italy. That kind of thing, primary school geography. Even the EU adheres to this. Along comes Nicola Sturgeon, nudging the Irish to informally recognise Scotland as a separate country when it comes to international negotiations, because, y’know, all Scots hate Brexit (they don’t). Here is the commendably straightforward Joe McHugh, the Dublin Government’s “minister for the Diaspora and International Development”: It’s a UK Government position and what I like about their approach is they’re looking to involve the devolved assemblies. I think that’s important. They’re already doing it, it’s already happening.
And Sturgeon gets another knockback. It should be humiliating (and humbling) for her, it’s certainly humiliating for Scotland.
Gordon Brown managed to wreck his own party by taking large swathes of voters for granted. In fact, that’s basically how the SNP rose to power. Obama and Clinton have now managed to wreck their own party by taking large swathes of voters for granted.