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Apologies for the pun but David Hockney, Art-God and all round hero, has been grumping about again. Not that I can blame him: not only do I admire his work, his radical libertarian instincts are right up my street.

What’s got his goat this time is the plans by Angela Eagle to ban drawings of children. Hockney points out that this makes a good deal of great art child-porn, to which Eagle replied that the law wouldn’t be used to ban legitimate works of art. So, not only (in words borrowed from Proudhon) are we ‘watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, [and] commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so’, those same creatures are now going to decide what is ‘art’ and what isn’t. Zut Alors.

More Hockneyisms

On Gordon Brown:

“a dreary atheistic Calvinistic prig, who I’m sure will never be elected in England. He goes along with a ‘health lobby’ whose view of life itself I detest.”

On Cannabis:

“Why is the stuff still illegal? I assume it’s the power of the alcohol lobby being behind most things. Alcohol has damaged and killed friends of mine, but I’ve never known anyone harmed by the weed, whose relaxing pleasure I have enjoyed for 40 years.”

On Climate Change:

“Oh no. Here’s another hair-shirt person coming towards me and telling me to ride a bicycle. I blame computers. They can make predictive models of anything, and tell us we’re all heading towards doom. But in our grandparents’ day, what do you think people were worrying about? Hellfire and eternal damnation caused by our bad conduct. Global warming has just replaced God. Something to feel guilty about. The new religion.”

On refusing a Knighthood:

“I don’t value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect.”


Denis MacShane has just written a paper called The Crisis of the Democratic Left which is written in the aftermath of the local elections. It contends that there is a crisis in the left which is reflected by the fact that only three EU member states have governments formed by parties associated with the Party of European Socialists. MacShane attributes a collective loss of way to ten factors: all are interesting, if not necessarily completely spot on. However, the one that interests me most right now is the idea that the left shows no interest in culture, especially high culture, or history.

This is something that resonates personally: I’ve certainly felt reluctant to talk about the latest art exhibition, opera performance, or musical recital I’ve been to when in the company of party members. It just doesn’t seem appropriate. Perhaps to that extent it’s a self-perpetuating thing of which I am equally guilty of continuing as anyone else. Private Eye regularly claims that this is the most philistine government ever elected: though I disagree with that assessment (the arts are flourishing through better funding) the broader idea, that the left shuns culture, is one that is hard to dismiss immediately.

To some extent, it’s a problem that is more marked in the UK than elsewhere in Europe: it was either Nicholas Henderson or Peregrine Worsthorne that decried the fact that whilst French Socialists are happy to sit in offices adorned with Louis XV furniture, your typical British Labour minister is expected to make do with something akin to a portakabin with plastic chairs. Look, for example, at the furore created when Derry Irvine engaged in redecorating the Lord Chancellor’s apartments.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that part of the New Labour project was explicitly anti-historical, treating the UK as a young country. This in itself perhaps came out of a desire to ignore the past as a time of obscurity for the party, a time of division, drift and defeat. The knock-on was that Britain forgot who it was, lost a sense of self-esteem and became confused about it’s true identity: knocking on doors regularly reveals the fact that a good number of people have a negative view of the country, that there is an impression that things are going down-hill, that decline is inevitable. The boom in popular history books and TV programmes is surely indicative of a wider hunger to rediscover the past?

Whilst the politics of decline have been ever-present in post-war Britain, the reality is that far from declining, Britain is in a remarkably strong position internationally: our armed forces are second only to the US, London is a global city to rival New York, unemployment is low and growth has remained robust in the face of difficult global economic circumstances. Yes, more needs to be done, but one would imagine that for starters there is enough to be proud of, non?

The problem is that national self-esteem is inextricably linked to the question of national identity. This in turn is related to culture and a country’s approach to it. Returning to the example of French Socialists, I am enamoured with the French idea of Grandeur. This is most epitomised by the actions of the ‘old fascist’, De Gaulle, in the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Paris (and will hopefully drag us closer to the conclusion of this terribly long entry).

The poet Paul Valéry had died in 1945 and it was one of De Gaulle’s first acts to grant Valéry a state funeral. More than that, De Gaulle led the cortege through the streets of Paris to the cathedral of Notre Dame despite the fact that there were German snipers still on the roofs of many buildings. In this way De Gaulle connected with a sense of Grandeur, a sense of nation that transcended institutions and focussed on cultural identity. He set the mood music for a revived French nation in the aftermath of its lowest ebb.

In the UK, we are fortunate in that we do not have to recover from anywhere near as big a dent to our collective self-confidence. However, whilst the government is currently trying to address the identity question, it seems to be tackling this solely in terms of reforming institutions, passing laws or creating obligations. Until we can broaden out our conception of identity to include its cultural context, to change the mood music of the nation if you will, I can’t help but think that these efforts will be in vain.


Apologies to Dan for nicking this concept, but life in the gilded cage has thrown up a couple of wonderful old boys. I was fortunate enough last night to be invited to a dinner in honour of John Brademas, congressman for twenty-two years, President of New York University for ten, and now a philanthropist through his charitable foundation. John was majority whip during the Carter Presidency and often had breakfast at the White House: he is planning to write a book on the leadership issues of the era and one of his many foundations is the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress which hopes to shine the cold light of research on a little understood part of the US system of government.

John was Oxford in the 1950s as a Rhodes Scholar and his PhD thesis centred on the Spanish Anarchist movement. As a huge fan of Orwell, and in particular Homage to Catalonia, I was interested to find out how he conducted his research given that Franco was at the zenith of his power at the time: leftists in Spain were being supressed and any serious insight into the history of the civil war was viewed with good deal of suspicion. The answer, I was told, was to utilise two sources: a large archive in Amsterdam furnished him with a lot of useful information but he said he was also indebted to the head-waiter of a smart Spanish restaurant in London who had been a communist leader in Spain during the war! As the author or sponsor of many important pieces of legislation in the fields of education, the arts and culture, John was a true progressive in Congress, is a patron and advocate of the arts outside, and a tireless fund-raiser for NYU.

The other good old boy was Tony Quinton, a philosopher, Tory peer and former All-Souls Prize Fellow. I was sat next to Tony during dinner and he was a fantastic conversationalist on as wide an array of subjects as could be imagined: I distinctly remember skirting over topics as diverse as MySpace, Gin, and Irish Erotic Literature. Somebody asked him if he still writes to which he replied ‘only cheques these days.’ Top man.

To Covent Garden this afternoon to see Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. To those unfamiliar with the story, it is loosely based around the political intrigues surrounding the court of the first Doge of Genoa. Essentially, a commoner is elected Doge against the interests of the ruling patriachy who then scheme against him. This is the historical fact which takes secondary importance against the convoluted primary story of Boccanegra’s estranged daughter who is unknowingly adopted by her grandfather after her mother dies. To add to that, her father seduced her mother out of wedlock: that her mother was part of an aristocratic family adds another element to the feud between the Guelf patriarchy and the Ghibelline Doge. To cut a long story short, the Doge dies (of poisoning) but not before Adorno, the son of a man he killed, marries his daughter. The final reconciliation occurs when the old man asks for Adorno to be made Doge which Fiesco, his other enemy and grandfather to his daughter, assents to. Still following at the back?!

Anyway, the set was fantastic, the singing and music expertly conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, and the pace was just right. My only criticisms would be that Marcus Haddock as Gabriele Adorno was at times rigid and uncomfortable with the acting demanded by his role, and that the audience felt the need to clap during every pause whether it was after a solo or not which started to grate and interupt the flow. All in all though, the standard was good: Orlin Anastassov as Jacopo Fiesco had a voice like chocolate, Natalia Ushakova as the estranged orphan Amelia/Maria was both beautiful and elegant in her movements, Marco Vrotagna brought the necessary raw masculinity to his Paolo Albiani, and Lucio Gallo in the title role commanded the stage with ease.