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.
Considering what a unique, populous and proud city Barcelona is, and by extension the rest of Catalunya/Catalonia, it’s a bit odd that its artistic heritage is primarily in its buildings, a bit in its literature, and very little really of fame in the visual arts. It’s not like Paris, Rome, Berlin or any of the other competition. It doesn’t come close to Madrid in that respect, as the obvious rival conurbation.
Rumbustious Aussie art critic Robert Hughes‘ excellent homage to Barcelona – 500+ pages of discursive history and opinion – makes this point well (Hughes’ own potted history of the place is here). Relatively few tourists flock to the externally impressive Palau Nacional for its contents, which are “the country’s (but mainly Catalunya’s) art history from early medieval times to the mid-20th century”, which sounds great but there’s an emphasis on ‘specialist’ stuff such as early Spanish Romanesque. That sounds harsh on the Catalans, but it’s not the mighty Prado.
Hughes however specifies a few works, and one caught my eye. Here’s his description of Modest Urgell’s El toc d’oracio:
Which may sound a bit sentimental or cheesy, but I think it’s superb. Including the bat.
So many pigs. I think there’s at least 18, and unusually for Les Tres Riches Heures, the only building is a small nondescript generic castle. The peasant in the foreground is dislodging acorns by throwing his stick at them – a technique still employed by conker hunters to this day. Apparently a pig can scoff 10kg of acorns a day. Over to a fascinating jamon iberico website:
Many centuries ago, the rulers of western Spain decreed that each town and village should maintain pastures studded with oak trees, called the dehesa, for the long term stability of the region. This forest/pasture continues to serve many purposes. The holm and cork oaks provided firewood for the people, shade for the plants and livestock, cork products, and acorns (bellota) during fall and winter. During the spring and summer cattle and sheep graze the fields. During the fall and winter, when the acorns are falling from the trees, the pigs are released to fatten up. This ancient human-maintained ecosystem survives intact to this day.
It’s generally held that the painter of this one is Jean Colombe, not the Limbourg Brothers, and it’s certainly less exquisitely crafted, though still terrific. The landscape seen through the trees is an early example of the classic ‘blue landscape‘ later reaching its apogee with the enigmatic and wonderful Joachim Patinir.
The temptation to pontificate and publicly philosophise is one any sane person should avoid. You just end up producing stuff that looks pretty stupid/conceited within a short space of time. Everyone cites Fukuyama’s hubristically titled The End of Historyas an example of this. They’re right. A 2016 snapshot suggests that while Western-style liberal democracy produces societies that are nice to live in, imposing Western-style liberal democracy on, to pick an example at random, anywhere in the Middle East, tends not to be a success. Possibly the opposite.
So with 3 days till a very very significant US election, and with Brexit being possibly undermined by the kind of people a majority in the nation has had enough of, it’s worth considering – with humility – what our ‘society’ is all about – how did it develop, how it could crash and burn.
There are two themes that I want to emphasise. Two out of many I know, but this is big ticket stuff. First up is morality. Yup. How unfashionable.
If there is no objective standard of morality, then the universe is simply a vast empty wasteland. It does not determine what our values ought to be; rather, we project our values onto it. These values would then not be derived from Nature or Nature’s God. Instead, they would originate with us. But exactly which part of us would tell us what to value? Not reason, since reason (on this account) does not apprehend anything objectively good in the world. No, it would simply be our base wants and desires, which are arbitrarily shaped by our environment. Ethics would be a hopelessly subjective enterprise, driven ultimately by emotion rather than reason. This kind of moral subjectivism often appears, on the surface, to be every bit as dogmatic as the old moralism, but it has a crucial difference: Subjective moral norms are impenetrable to rational scrutiny or argumentation. In a culture that has imbibed this philosophy, public shaming is a more powerful tool than debate, and it is more powerful still to combine shaming with a harsh curtailment of free speech. In many ways, we are seeing this logic play out in our culture in real time.
These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in
Do we, in this 21st century, still have “have this curious idea that we ought to behave in a certain way**”. I think we do. We certainly adhere to the follow on in that we “do not in fact behave in that way”. Apply these formulae to the current presidential race, it’s all there.
The whole issue of absolute v relative morality was a specialty of one of the heroes of The Knife, the chain smoking, practical anti apartheid, fervent Catholic, hyperintelligent Fellow of All Souls, Sir Michael Dummett. He summed it up beautifully in his description of the moral relativism that surrounds us: “it will bring down a curse upon us worse than that which God called down on the builders of Babel; rather than our speaking different languages, not to be speaking a genuine language at all.”
That Babel fits perfectly with the current hypocrisy of the campaign. It’s quite breathtaking. Dyer continues in his Lewis article with the pay off: One of Lewis’ main contentions in Abolition is that moral subjectivism ultimately undermines the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions. Natural rights, the value of the individual, the common good, human dignity, and social justice are meaningful only in light of what Lewis called the “human tradition of value”
Serious stuff. So from where did we derive “the key concepts at the base of all of our political institutions”? Which brings me to my second topic, nothing big, just Western Civilization.
I live in the middle of Western Civilization, metaphorically if not geographically. I agree entirely with George Neumayr‘s brilliantly concise take on Europe in 2016: Postmodern high culture’s insouciance about the intellectual and moral foundations of the West has magnified a crisis of civilizational confidence throughout Europe. The false claim that the roots of democracy run no deeper in the cultural subsoil of Europe than the Enlightenment has hollowed out Europe’s understanding of its own worth, by ignoring the contributions made to the modern freedom project by Biblical religion, the ancient Greek confidence in reason, and the classical Roman conviction that the rule of law is superior to the rule of coercive force. A Europe unwilling or unable to give an account of why its idea of the human person and human community is superior to others on offer in the 21st-century world is unlikely to be able to defend itself against external threats, or to cope with those once-external threats that have become internal threats.
You may not like that view, but it’s based on facts, of the kind which are becoming unpopular. Neumayr invokes the Böckenförde dilemma to describe the potential catastrophe which is leading to the populist wave across Europe (and the US). Not that I have a problem with populism, far from it, although it can certainly have unsavoury manifestations: The modern, secular liberal-democratic state rests on a foundation of moral and cultural premises — on a fund of social capital — that it cannot itself generate. Put another way, it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make the machinery of democratic self-governance work. So if Europe is suffering from various forms of a democracy deficit, that might well be because it is suffering from a more fundamental social-capital deficit, which is to say, from a moral-cultural deficit. The rest of the West, including the United States, is most certainly not immune to this deficit. But it seems more advanced in Europe, with more immediately visible consequences.
The Böckenförde dilemma is well described as:
..the existential dilemma of liberal democracy, which on one hand contradicts its principles if it does not guarantee the freedom also of those wishing to destroy it, and on the other cannot allow that this destruction be implemented.
I don’t want to conflate morality with religion, they’re separate, however intimately connected. Given next week’s events though, it’s worth noting that back in 1796, in his Farewell Address, George Washington had no such qualms:
Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
So, there you have it. The Knife’s prescription for cultural survival: acknowledge the existence of absolute morality, and understand where we come from.
**If this sounds a bit like ‘conscience’, then maybe it is. For an analysis of conscience v the unconsciousness beloved of Freudians, try the awesome Fulton Sheen, in Peace of Soul