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Articles on this Page
- 09/25/13--08:08: _Miliband challenges...
- 09/25/13--08:33: _Labour's plan to re...
- 09/25/13--15:16: _Cameron has morphed...
- 09/25/13--23:23: _Morning Call: pick ...
- 09/25/13--23:54: _Labour wins a confe...
- 09/26/13--01:28: _Morning Wrap: today...
- 09/26/13--01:31: _CFTC, FCA fine ICAP...
- 09/26/13--01:34: _Barclays to withdra...
- 09/26/13--03:14: _Journalese and Vinc...
- 09/26/13--03:30: _The Pet Shop Boys o...
- 09/26/13--03:39: _Pretending to be ri...
- 09/26/13--03:41: _The Notebooks of Le...
- 09/26/13--03:42: _The Returning Offic...
- 09/26/13--03:54: _Democracy Ltd by Bo...
- 09/26/13--04:10: _Clement Attlee: An ...
- 09/26/13--04:11: _What Should We Tell...
- 09/26/13--04:13: _Love songs in age: ...
- 09/26/13--04:21: _Breeches, brocade a...
- 09/26/13--04:28: _The music of horror...
- 09/26/13--04:34: _The V&A makes way f...
- 09/25/13--23:23: Morning Call: pick of the papers
- 09/26/13--01:28: Morning Wrap: today's top business stories
- 09/26/13--01:31: CFTC, FCA fine ICAP £55m over Libor rigging scandal
- 09/26/13--01:34: Barclays to withdraw wealth management services in 130 countries
- 09/26/13--03:14: Journalese and Vince Cable's view on One Direction
- 09/26/13--03:30: The Pet Shop Boys on texting Cameron and Russian homophobia
- 09/26/13--03:39: Pretending to be rich to get closer to the Beatles
- 09/26/13--03:41: The Notebooks of Leopardi: He diagnosed the sickness of our time
- 09/26/13--03:42: The Returning Officer: Tavistock
- 09/26/13--03:54: Democracy Ltd by Bobby Friedman: Formula wrong
- 09/26/13--04:10: Clement Attlee: An unromantic hero
- 09/26/13--04:11: What Should We Tell Our Daughters?: The age after innocence
- 09/26/13--04:13: Love songs in age: Fabulous Fashionistas
- 09/26/13--04:21: Breeches, brocade and bonbons
- 09/26/13--04:28: The music of horror films
- 09/26/13--04:34: The V&A makes way for the diggers
The Labour leader says the debates should be "just like at the last general election", appearing to rule out the participation of Nigel Farage.
Ed Miliband returned to the Labour conference stage this afternoon for a Q&A with party delegates and took the opportunity to make a significant intervention. After declaring, in reference to his pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017, "we know where David Cameron and Nick Clegg stand. They just want to allow energy prices to keep on rising", he added:
We should have that debate over the coming months. We should also have that debate in the TV election debates. It's time for David Cameron to stop ducking and diving and agree to those TV debates, just like at the last general election, so the country can make its choice.
It's thought by many that Miliband intended to make this challenge in his speech but forgot to do so during his note-free 75-minute peformance, although it's also possible he was seeking another newsline.
His suggestion that the debates should be "just like at the last general election" is being interpreted as ruling out the participation of Nigel Farage. If so, that would remove one of the main barriers to cross-party agreement.
Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust, says former Conservative special adviser Tom Burke.
Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze met with a predictable, if not always credible, response from the energy industries. Led by Angela Knight, who was last heard from a few years ago asking us to stop being nasty to bankers, we were warned that this would halt investment and turn out the lights.
The current energy market doesn’t work either for consumers or for all the non-energy businesses in Britain. Lack of competition and transparency has created an unfair market that consumers don’t trust. The only lights going out now belong to households that can’t afford the electricity.
But what about investors? Will they really go on strike? Is it true that only ever larger profits must be made in order to to deliver investment , even if it is at the cost of consumers?
Keep two key points in mind as you listen to this argument. First, when you drill down into company accounts you see that some of the companies with the highest profits are investing the least in new plants. Rather than plough returns into a broken energy market they have opted to pay out dividends. Centrica has made the highest profits but 74% of this has gone back to shareholders.
Across the "Big Six", an average of 56% of their profits are going into dividend payments. This is a perfectly legitimate business strategy if there is no urgent need for investment. But it certainly questions the link between higher profits and investment. If there are no value-creating projects to invest in, you cannot argue that the lights will go out if you don’t invest.
Second, profits have grown over the last three years but investment has slumped. Large scale clean energy investment went from £7.2bn in 2009 to £3bn in 2012. And this takes us to the fundamental point. The market isn’t working any better for investors than for consumers.
The reality is that what investors need is long-term certainty. And the complex and incoherent measures in the Energy Bill are simply adding to the uncertainty. And this is why it was so encouraging to hear what Labour had to say on reforming the market. Commitment to the 2030 power sector decarbonisation target will help convince investors that there will be long-term demand for clean energy.
Combined with the proposals to revitalise the investment in energy efficiency, the contracts for difference for new generation and an Energy Security Board that will mean one body charged with doing everything necessary to meet the country’s energy needs, this will create a market that will offer investors much more stability than they have at present.
Tom Burke CBE was formerly a special adviser to three Conservative secretaries of state for the environment, and director of Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance. He is currently a Founding Director of E3G
The PM has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.
The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.
1. Wake up, Mr Hague – change is in the air (Daily Telegraph)
Ignoring Iran’s peace overtures is the latest in a series of errors by the Foreign Secretary, says Peter Oborne.
2. Miliband can win where Kinnock could not (Times)
A repeat of its 1992 performance might be enough to win Labour the keys to No 10, writes Tim Montgomerie.
3. Scant choice in UK’s 2015 election (Financial Times)
However much they talk about clear differences, the parties have rarely been closer on economics, says Chris Giles.
Don't expect much more from Merkel and Brussels – but the US and Chinese competition has problems too, says Timothy Garton Ash.
5. A good speech, but what about the economy, Ed? (Independent)
He must hope the policy proposals do not wither under pressure, says Andrew Grice.
6. Green energy or cheap? Ed can’t have both (Times)
It is breathtaking hypocrisy for the architect of expensive renewables to call for a price freeze, writes Matt Ridley.
7. Ed Miliband and business: talking loud, saying something (Guardian)
A speech by an opposition leader has made eight out of the nine front pages of the national papers, notes a Guardian editorial. The interest is justified.
The Labour leader has made it his mission to roll back Thatcherism, just as his father would have wanted, says Dominic Sandbrook.
9. Hoping for the best about climate change just isn’t good enough (Independent)
Those who benefit from reckless behaviour have huge influence over governments, writes Tony Juniper.
David Cameron needs to follow Labour's lurch to the left and put the Tories firmly back in the centre ground, writes Ian Birrell.
Around half of the survey took place before Miliband's speech but Labour is already seeing the benefits from its time in Brighton.
Party conferences are among the few political events that can have a direct effect on the polls (most voters usually aren't paying attention) and it looks like Labour has alread benefited from its time in Brighton.
The latest YouGov poll shows that the party's lead has risen from five points to nine, with Labour up two to 41%, the Tories down two to 32%, UKIP unchanged on 11% and the Lib Dems down two to 8%. Significantly, nearly half of the fieldwork took place before Ed Miliband's speech and its accompanying pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017, suggesting that the party could enjoy a further bounce in today's survey.
Another poll by YouGov found that voters view energy prices as the greatest threat to the economy, ranking them ahead of unemployment, benefit levels, inflation, interest rates and income taxes. A report due to be published by the pollster next week, entitled Utilities - Tariffs and Loyalty, found that 83% of UK customers believe that "energy suppliers maximise profits at the expense of customers", with only 2% disagreeing. In addition, 56% agree that "energy companies treat people with contempt", with only 7% disagreeing.
There's also some good news for Miliband. The number viewing him as the best potential prime minister has risen from 21% at the start of September to 26%, although Cameron retains a commanding lead of nine points.
It's common for poll ratings to fluctuate more than the usual during the conference season and the real test will be whether Labour can maintain its lead into next week. If the Conservative conference ends with Miliband's party ahead, some Tories will begin to worry that the Labour leader's "populism" is proving, well, popular.
News stories from around the web.
JPMorgan in $11bn settlement talks over mortgage securities (FT)
JPMorgan Chase is preparing to settle all of its outstanding mortgage securities issues for about $11bn as part of a deal with US state and federal authorities, according to people familiar with the situation.
Court papers tell how ‘Lord Libor’ wanted more (FT)
Curry dinners and annual shipments of champagne allegedly did not cut it for Colin Goodman, then a cash broker in ICAP’s London office.
Rural broadband rollout attacked by committee of MPs (BBC)
The Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the government had failed to ensure proper competition by awarding all 26 rural broadband contracts to BT.
It accused the Department for Culture, Media and Sport of giving away public money without proper checks.
Housebuilders baffled by Ed Miliband's land grab threat (Telegraph)
Even compared with his energy freeze bombshell, Ed Miliband’s threat to seize undeveloped land owned by property developers sounded extreme.
BlackBerry billionaire Prem Watsa defends $4.7bn bid against market doubts (Telegraph)
The Canadian billionaire behind a $4.7bn (£2.9bn) offer to take the ailing smartphone maker BlackBerry private has insisted he will complete the deal.
The first broking firm to be fined for failings related to the critical benchmark interest rate.
The US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the UK Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have imposed a civil monetary penalty of £41m and £14m respectively on inter-dealer broker ICAP Europe over London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) rigging scandal.
In its investigation, the CFTC found that staff at ICAP intentionally circulated false and misleading information concerning Japanese Yen borrowing rates to market participants on its derivatives and cash desks to manipulate the official fixing of the daily Yen Libor between October 2006 and January 2011.
The US agency also found that the UBS senior Yen trader called on ICAP Yen brokers more than 400 times for assistance in rigging Yen Libor.
As per the CFTC order, the ICAP brokers referred to the panel bank submitters as ‘sheep’ when they copied the Yen cash broker’s Suggested Libors, while at least two banks’ submissions reflected the Suggested Libors up to 90% of the time.
David Meister, director of enforcement at CFTC, said: “Certain ICAP brokers repeatedly abused their trusted role when they infected the financial markets with false information to aid their top client’s manipulation of Libor.”
The FCA in its investigation found that ICAP Europe has violated its Principles for Businesses. It also found that ICAP Europe brokers conspired with traders at UBS to manipulate the Japanese Yen Libor rates for the benefit of the traders. Moreover, ICAP Europe did not audit its derivatives and cash desks from October 2006 to November 2010.
The British agency noted that UBS made at least 330 written requests to ICAP Europe brokers for inappropriate submissions, apart from oral requests.
Tracey McDermott, director of enforcement and financial crime at FCA, said: “The misconduct in relation to Libor has cast a shadow over the financial services industry. This is our fourth penalty in relation to Libor and our investigations continue. The lessons however go far wider than Libor and we will take a very dim view of those who do not learn them.”
ICAP Europe, a subsidiary of UK-based ICAP, is being run by the former Conservative Party treasurer Michael Spencer. It is the first broking firm to be fined for failings relating to Libor, a critical benchmark interest rate used worldwide as the basis for trillions of dollars of transactions.
The banking giant’s move will include job cuts.
British financial services provider Barclays is planning to shut down wealth management services in 130 nations by 2016, as part of its plans to reduce costs and improve profits.
The banking group will reduce the number of countries in which it provides wealth management services to 70 from about 200.
The decision will result in job cuts in Barclays Wealth & Investment Management unit that currently employs about 8,000 people, though the bank did not reveal the exact number.
The bank spokesman was quoted by Reuters as saying: “This is part of our new strategy, focusing on reducing complexity and competing where we can win. We don't expect overall global headcount to change significantly, but some roles will fall away as a result of new segmentation and investment in technology.”
The bank, however, plans to invest £400m in its wealth unit over the next three years.
In April this year, the British banking giant revealed plans to restructure its wealth business so as to work more closely with retail and corporate banking divisions.
Peter Horrell, CEO of wealth and investment management at Barclays, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying: “The wealth management landscape continues to evolve at pace. We are responding to this by reducing complexity in our business, enabling us to focus on bringing the right services and products to clients in locations where we have scale.”
On Monday, the bank appointed Horrell as CEO of its wealth and investment management business. He was earlier the interim CEO of the business.
Barclays decision follows a similar announcement by Credit Suisse Group, earlier this week, about its plan to stop offering wealth management services in a few markets by 2014.
As George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. Perhaps all reporters should take a compilation of 'journalese' words more seriously.
Journalism is rarely confused with literature and news reports that rank as great journalism usually do so more for the quality of the story than for the writing. Those of us who make our living filing copy against ever-tighter deadlines often have to be satisfied with getting all the facts into a sensible order, with words in between them that make sense.
So perhaps it’s unfair that I’ve written a book that questions some of those words. For much of the past year, I have been collecting the phrases seen only in news reports, or those that carry quite a different meaning from the one on the surface. These include phrases such as “potentially fatal” (meaning: not actually fatal in this case), “arcane rules” (regulations we don’t understand) and “senior backbencher” (backbencher who returned our call) as well as clichés such as “chilling foretaste”, “lethal cocktail” and “crunch talks”.
Some newspaper reporters have taken the journalese project slightly personally. “I feel guilty every time I write a story, thanks to you,” one remarked to me recently. That wasn’t my intention and I could never have got such a long list so quickly without the enthusiastic support of other hacks.
Indeed, people’s general delight when I describe my journalese collection shows that, for many, these words are beloved friends. Who can read about “red-faced council chiefs”, “booze-fuelled rampages” (which often turn into “nights of shame”) or “two-timing love rats” without smiling?
And yet, as George Orwell knew, the words we use shape the way we think. It matters that politicians know any adjustment in policy will be written up as a “humiliating retreat”. In April this year, I was in the room when Vince Cable was asked whether he agreed with the man next to him that the pop band One Direction were paid too much. The then 69-year-old Business Secretary was unaware of the “teen pop sensations” and thought the question was about “one director”. As the man next to him was the head of the Institute of Directors, he believed he would be on fairly safe ground agreeing with him. As soon as the press conference ended, Cable’s error was explained to him and he gave an interview correcting his earlier words.
It was very funny but was it fair for newspapers to describe this as a “U-turn”? On the big question of executive pay, Cable’s view was unaltered, as was his absence of views on the smaller question of boy-band compensation.
My worry with journalese is that lazy writing goes with lazy thought. If all we write about are “cabinet rifts” (two adults disagree on the solution to a complex problem – always mention that their departments are on a “collision course”) and ministerial “slapdowns” (a politician we like has been rude about a politician we dislike), we risk missing bigger stories.
The political commentator Steve Richards argued in a BBC Radio 4 documentary this year that many of the “news judgements” made at papers come down to: “We write about this because we’ve always written about this.” We give house fires more prominence than housing policy. There’s a parallel point about the words we use. We write in journalese because that’s what the newspapers were written in when we were growing up.
Most of the strongest newspaper stories are free from journalese – they tell themselves. Journalese is like a poker player’s tell: it shows that the reporter knows the story is flimsy and he or she is trying to make it appear more solid.
So while I don’t want to make life difficult for fellow journalists and though I continue to love journalese, it may not be such a bad thing if reporters were slightly more reluctant to write that someone had “fleshed out” a policy (repeated the policy but with one new detail) in a “keynote speech”. (When I asked a Downing Street aide why all speeches were described this way, he said, “You lot won’t come otherwise.”)
Some things won’t change. Political scandals will continue to have ministers going from “defiant” to “embattled” to “beleaguered” to “shamed” (or, if an inquiry finds against them, “disgraced”). Yet I would like to see numbers move at speeds other than those of a “skyrocket” or a “plunge”. And perhaps we can find new ways for parties to adjust their political position, other than simply a “lurch to the left” or a “drift to the right”.
To those reporters left feeling guilty by the list of journalese, I suggest that they adopt the view of another “newsman”, who grabbed my book with delight and said: “Great! Is there a place where we can tick the words off when we’ve used them?”
Robert Hutton is the UK political correspondent for Bloomberg News. His book on journalese, “Romps, Tots and Boffins: the Strange Language of News”, is published by Elliott & Thompson (£9.99)
Part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster, the group are apparently too old for radio.
Earlier today, the two middle-aged men before me were sitting in a bus shelter in Acton, west London. The shorter of the two was wearing a hat. It covered his whole head. “It’s a very nice environment inside the mirrorball,” Chris Lowe says. “It’s like an internal disco ball, really . . . So nice. You can wear whatever you want and just plonk it on.”
His colleague, Neil Tennant, wore a matching glittery bowler: not conventional attire for someone who will be 60 next summer. Yet this ordinary/extraordinary scene sums up the appeal of the Pet Shop Boys. Take any everyday environment – a central London scene where you’ll find West End girls, dogfilled suburbia, a bus stop on the Uxbridge Road – and this peculiar pair will infuse it with flamboyance, archness and fondness.
Behind the sparkle of the Pet Shop Boys’ music, deeper things have always lurked. First, there is their fascination with both the high and the low arts. In 2011, they put on a ballet at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London and they are currently composing a song cycle about the life of the cryptographer Alan Turing; they have also written B-sides called “Sexy Northerner” and “The Truck Driver and His Mate”. Then there are their subtle explorations of big issues in song. In “Being Boring” (1990), Tennant wrote about a friend who had died of Aids. In their 1993 rejig of Village People’s “Go West”, they added new lyrics to comment on life after communism (it was a huge hit in Russia). For the 2009 Bside “We’re All Criminals Now”, they even wrote about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes (“Waiting for a bus in Stockwell/ Cameras on my back”).
Their longevity is impressive, too. It has been 32 years since Tennant, then an editor for ITV Books, and Lowe, a University of Liverpool architecture student in London on a placement, met each other at a hi-fi shop in Chelsea and got talking about dance music while waiting to be served.
Four and a half years later, they went to the top of the charts with their first hit, “West End Girls”, a song inspired by T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, with a new, atmospheric, electronic sound. In the video, they also looked very different from other popular male duos of the time: Tennant strutting around Petticoat Lane in a funereal black coat while Lowe stood behind him, blank-faced,fading into shuttered shopfronts. This dynamic – part Gilbert and George, part Jeeves and Wooster – has remained their preferred mode on video and onstage ever since.
In the flesh, Lowe is slightly more vocal and funny but Tennant remains the band’s warm, urbane spokesman. This afternoon, we are in the Pet Shop Boys’ white-walled PR office in Kensington and they are in offduty wear: jeans, polo shirts and sweatshirts, no OTT millinery. Lowe has even brought a tub of M&S flapjacks with him. “Posh!” he hams, his Blackpool accent still ringing clearly. Tennant’s Tyneside upbringing is softly present in his voice, too, more pronounced than on the records. The pair drink tea from mugs with single words on them, the kind you get in fancy knick-knack shops. Tennant’s says “God”. Lowe’s says “Whatever”.
We are here because the Pet Shop Boys’ latest album, Electric, is their most successful in years (it reached number three in July, their highest chart placing in two decades). This followed a slew of high-profile activities: a much-praised support slot on Take That’s blockbuster Progress tour in 2011 and a memorable appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony (they arrived on winged rickshaws and wore orange pointy hats).
An upbeat mix of disco, house and pop, Electric is also their first album to be released not by Parlophone but by their own label, x2, in partnership with Kobalt, a new company that allows artists to retain rights over their music (Paul McCartney and Björk are also on its roster). Electric arrived only eight months after 2012’s introspective Elysium and the process seems to have revitalised them.
“I think we’ve learned that people don’t want from us a depressing album about ageing,” says Lowe, wiping flapjack crumbs from his mouth. “People want fun from us, a bit of a party, a bit of irony, with something a bit intellectual thrown in, the odd historical reference.”
All these things are found in their infernally catchy new single, “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct”, written about a character in David Lodge’s 1988 novel, Nice Work. The song’s protagonist mills about at home trying to pretend he’s not in love and spends time “searching for the soul of England/ Drinking tea like Tony Benn”. “He’s reverting back to the extreme leftism of his university years and so we’ve mentioned one of the biggest figures of the Labour Party of his youth,” Tennant explains. “I quite like doing things like that.”
It’s not the only such reference on the album, at least according to the Libération writer who told Tennant and Lowe that Electric was the most left-wing album the Pet Shop Boys had ever made, dwelling in particular on its second track, “Bolshy”. The song plays around with the etymology of its title – “bolshy” comes from the word “Bolshevik” – and it includes passages in Russian about starting feuds and hesitating to intrude. “Bolshy” also confirms the band’s long-running interest in Russia: as well as the update of “Go West”, the Pet Shop Boys made a new soundtrack for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin in 2004.
But now there is the new anti-gay “propaganda” law from Vladimir Putin and the Duma, I say. The band has always supported gay rights, albeit sometimes subtly (Tennant came out in 1994, to the surprise of nobody). One of the best-known Pet Shop Boys songs, “It’s a Sin” (1987), was a narrative about growing up gay and ashamed in the guise of a club hit (sample lyric: “At school they taught me how to be/So pure in thought and word and deed/They didn’t quite succeed”).
“Our idea in those days was to be slightly subversive, to say things without really following through,” Tennant says, “which I think is quite a good approach. We never wanted to preach or anything like that, because politics in pop music is a very tricky thing.” The only two songs that have succeeded in that vein while being explicit, he says, are the Specials’ “Ghost Town” and Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” (the former about inner-city deprivation, the latter about the Falklands war).
In 1988, the Pet Shop Boys played a gig protesting against Section 28 and Tennant sees direct parallels between Margaret Thatcher’s and Putin’s politics. Was Section 28 frightening for him? “It felt weird, more than anything,” he tells me. “Like one of those things Thatcher did every now and then to vibe up the Tory right wing. You know, normally you pass a law when there’s a problem – when people are marching in the streets saying, ‘All they do these days is teach the kids you’ve got to be gay.’”
Tennant thinks that Putin’s attitude has much to do with the revitalised power of the Russian Orthodox Church. “It’s regained its position in Soviet society and Putin has schmoozed them as a result. He schmoozes everyone, actually, doesn’t he?” He remarks that if you go to Moscow or St Petersburg, you meet metropolitan, liberal people who find their government embarrassing. The band last played in Moscow in June: “I hasten to add, before this law was passed.”
On Electric, the Pet Shop Boys also tackle war. They do so in a surprising way: by covering Bruce Springsteen’s 2007 album track “Last to Die”. That song was inspired by a question John Kerry asked about Vietnam while testifying to Congress in 1971 (“How do you ask a man to be the last man to diefor a mistake?”). Lowe says that Springsteen’s opening riff is what won the pair over. Nevertheless, Tennant also changed a lyric to make their version more explicitly political.
“I changed ‘a mistake’ to ‘our mistakes’,” he says firmly. “So then the song casts more blame on us, as individuals in a democratic society, and the responsibility that we have for what happens in our name.”
Tennant finds public disillusionment with politics worrying and extends this to the current debate about digital privacy. “The public couldn’t care less about being snooped on and that’s very odd. Imagine a politician saying they were going to open your post before they delivered it to you, photostat it, then deliver it. On the internet, it doesn’t feel like crime because you can’t feel the crime happening. It’s the same way that people think of stealing music, to turn to that hoary old argument.”
Lowe has been quiet for a while. I ask him what he thinks about music being stolen online and he shrugs.
“I’ve sort of given up on it, really. I don’t think we expect to make any money from our music any more, do we? Music is just something that we do because we enjoy doing it. We just make money from touring.”
The Pet Shop Boys shy away from the internet in other ways (they aren’t fans of Twitter) but they do occasionally post messages on their website. Recently Tennant posted one in response to a campaign by the anti-Israel group Innovative Minds asking the band to cancel a gig in Tel Aviv in June. “What bugged me was that this group called Israel an apartheid state. That’s factually incorrect. That position actually does the cause – a cause we would probably to a large extent sympathise with – harm.”
The Pet Shop Boys didn’t play in South Africa in the 1980s, he adds, and tried to stop EMI releasing their records there. “If we’d played a concert there, it would have been to segregated audiences. When someone is buying a ticket in Tel Aviv, there is no segregation.”
The problem with modern political protest, Tennant believes, is that opinions are given precedence over facts. “Politics are too emotional now. Contemporary culture generally is too emotional, really, especially in music. These days, a performance can only be regarded as wonderful if it makes people cry. It’s that X Factor idea – that to properly sing a song, you’ve got to try to stop your mascara running. I’d rather people looked to the truth.”
Tennant and Lowe have other bugbears about the modern music industry. “I’ve realised recently just how ring-fenced pop musicis,” Lowe says. “Pop music wasn’t like that before. It’s now a very closed world.” Their age – Tennant is 59 and Lowe 53 – doesn’t help them, they say; the singles from this album, big, poppy, in-your-face songs, have barely been playlisted.
Tennant leans forward. “Radio people actually say to us now, ‘Oh, we won’t ever play your records, because you’re too old.’” Honestly? “Yeah. They’ve actually said that. They’re quite blatant about it. And someone else – who shall remain nameless – said, ‘If yours was Daft Punk’s next single, we’d have played it automatically.’” He shrugs. “Then again, they’re only 38.”
Why does that happen? “Because the system is unbelievably conservative and enclosed. For us to get played on the radio, we’d have to try a trick, do it under a different name.” BBC Radio 1 also takes YouTube hits into account when compiling their playlists. “These figures are called ‘measurables’. Don’t forget your measurables.” Tennant sighs. “That’s the world we live in.”
Perhaps the band’s next single after this one – “Thursday”, featuring the 31-year-old London rapper Example – will finally tick the boxes that radio producers are so keen on. But for now, there are more pressing commitments. By Christmas, they plan to finish their 45-minute work on the life of Alan Turing, A Man from the Future.
“It’s called that because of the scientific aspect but also because of his attitude to homosexuality,” Tennant explains. “Turing told his sister he was homosexual – she was appalled – in 1946! He refused to be anything other than matter-of-fact and honest about who he was.”
As I leave, Lowe puts the lid on the flapjacks with a wink and Tennant gives me some back issues of the Pet Shop Boys’ fanzine Literally which tell me a little more about the band’s passion for Turing. The fanzine also reveals one of their subtlest political acts yet.
A month after the closing ceremony for the Olympics, the Pet Shop Boys were begged by Boris Johnson and then David Cameron to play at the winners’ parade on the Mall. Despite initial concerns about overexposing themselves and with other commitments overseas on the same day (they were eventually flown back to Britain by the government, by private plane), they ended up playing and enjoying the event.
So Tennant texted David Cameron’s assistant to say so. His message read as follows: “Thanks for asking us – actually it was really worth doing. And sorry to bug you, but could you pass on to the Prime Minister that in Alan Turing’s centenary year it would be an amazing inspirational thing to do to pardon him?”
In the week when Electric was released, the government announced that the third reading of the bill pardoning Turing had been tabled for October. Sometimes pop and politics do shimmer together, after all.
“Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” will be released as a CD single on 30 September (x2/Kobalt, £7.99)
If this is the price I have to pay to see rooms once frequented by Ringo Starr, then I'll pay it.
Over the years I have been living in the Hovel, I have taken a mild interest in the changing use of what was once the Beatles’ Apple Boutique, nearby on the corner of Baker Street and Paddington Street. (I love the band with a fierce love and have discovered that every possible stage and nuance of a relationship is covered by at least one of their songs.) For eight months, this was where they sold smelly Afghan coats, velvet loons and Mary Quant knock-offs. When they realised that because of their trusting, open-door policy everyone was nicking the stuff left, right and centre, they gave up and officially let the grubby hippies pick up everything they wanted for free.
I have always been grimly amused by the subsequent history of what used to be the epicentre of the doomed counterculture. When I moved into the Hovel, almost six years ago to the day, the ground floor of the building was an employment agency. Then, for about a year or so, when everyone got jobs and no one needed employment agencies any more, it was a void, its windows splashed with whitewash. Now, it has become an estate agent’s.
This is cheering news. Everyone needs estate agents’; the people who work in them are the unsung heroes and heroines of the neoliberal project. Many is the time I have, on a whim, feigned an interest in a property in one of the swankier parts of town, simply so I could stroll around some A-list gaff whilelistening to a git in a shiny suit exhaust his stock of superlatives.
Actually, never is the time I have done this and indeed the last time I did anything remotely like it was in 1994, when my wife announced that we were buying the weirdly planned and pleasingly shabby old house off the “wrong” side of the Uxbridge Road, where she and our cat and our children still reside. On that occasion, the estate agent was charming and honest and was also a huge fan of mine because I had been quoted on the back of Fever Pitch, a book that is popular among estate agents, for some reason.
Back to Baker Street. “A unique opportunity to own the ultimate piece of Beatles memorabilia”, announces the sign in an estate agent’s but curiously not the one on the ground floor of the building. The sign shows a charming street scene: the Apple Boutique being mobbed by a crowd of monochrome young people. (Just look at the people in that picture, or in the last minutes of the Let It Be film, as a bemused public looks up at the Savile Row roof on which the Beatles are playing their last gig – there’s not a merry prankster to be seen among them, just dark suits and slim ties.)
This, it would appear, is a picture of the end-of-the-show free-for-all sale, hence the crowd; the building in the picture has been painted white, in deference to the outraged complaints of local shopkeepers when it was first decorated with psychedelic rainbows. The design company, as I recall, wascalled the Fool. Oh, heady, innocent days when you could call your design company the Fool!
“A boutique development of five stunning apartments in the former headquarters of Apple, the Beatles’ record company”, continues the sign. “To preregister your interest, please contact . . . ” It goes on, incidentally, to boast that the company was formed a year or two after John Lennon was shot, although it doesn’t put it quite like that.
The snag is, I don’t think I’ve got enough money to put a financial stake into a property on the corner of Baker and Paddington Streets. A quick, nauseating look at my bank balance at the cashpoint of the Barclays directly opposite reveals that I have about £0.00 to last me until the end of the month, once I have taken certain essential expenses into account. (Michael Gove: it is not about the “poor decisions” I have made. I suppose I could stop drinking, if I listened to certain counsels. But I can’t, for reasons I will explain in terms that even an imbecile can understand – I have to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to drink this much in order to deaden the pain of having to live like this. Got that?)
However, I don’t want to miss this opportunity to walk through this heritage, to look out of windows that Ringo Starr once looked from. And if I am asked whether I have the funds, I could reply that I do, for I have love; and, if four of the building’s previous owners were correct, that is all I need.
The first full translation of a reclusive Italian poet’s philosophical “hotchpotch” is a major event in the history of ideas.
Detail from a painting by Ferruccio Ferrazzi
Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) has been remembered as a poet who produced delicate verse inspired by a melancholy version of Romanticism, along with some sharp epigrams on the discontents that go with civilisation. This was always a crude view of the early- 19th-century Italian writer. Leopardi’s subtle sensibility eludes conventional intellectual categories and the true achievement of this subversive genius has been little recognised.
With astonishing prescience, he diagnosed the sickness of our time: a dangerous intoxication with the knowledge and power given by science, mixed with an inability to accept the humanly meaningless world that science has revealed. Faced with emptiness, modern humanity has taken refuge in schemes of world improvement, which all too often – as in the savage revolutions of the 20th century and the no less savage humanitarian warfare of the 21st – involve mass slaughter. The irrationalities of earlier times have been replaced by what Leopardi calls “the barbarism of reason”.
Even in his native country, Leopardi has not received the recognition he deserves as a thinker. Though a selection of his aphorisms appeared not long after he died in 1837, during a cholera epidemic in Naples, the Zibaldone– a “hotchpotch of thoughts” – was not published in full in Italian until 1898, the centenary of his birth. Composed in secret and meant as a series of memos to himself, the notebook has something in common with Pascal’s Pensées and Kierkegaard’s diaries but the voice – refined, detached and betraying a reticent intellectual passion – is Leopardi’s alone. Beautifully rendered into English by seven translators, superbly edited and annotated by Michael Caesar and Franco D’Intino under the auspices of the Leopardi Centre at the University of Birmingham, with its more than 2,500 pages elegantly printed on thin, Bible-like paper, this is not just a triumph of scholarship but a work of art of which its author could have been justly proud.
The first full English version of the Zibaldone is a major event in the history of ideas. With its publication, Leopardi will be ranked among the supreme interrogators of the modern condition. Originally comprising some 4,500 handwritten pages, this huge text is a methodical dissection of the ruling myths of the new world that was emerging around the solitary young man. Much of it was written when he was in his early twenties, in his family home in the small hill town of Recanati, in one of the most old-fashioned papal states, where his bookish father dressed in black and still wore the sword that symbolised his princely caste. Developing a hunchback from spending his days crouched in his father’s library, where he devoured ancient texts and taught himself Greek and Hebrew, Leopardi spent most of his life thinking, reading and writing. Unfortunate in his relations with women and forming few enduring attachments aside from a difficult threeyear involvement with a married Florentine beauty, suffering several spells of poverty along the way, he spent his last years living in the house of a close male friend in Naples.
The frail and sickly poet was also a thinker of intrepid bravery who produced one of the most unsparing critiques of modern ideals. Crucially, this was the work of a quintessentially modern mind – one that looked to the bottom of modern civilisation and found there nothing but conceit and illusion. An anthropologist of modernity, Leopardi stood outside the beliefs of the modern age. He could never take seriously the faith in progress: the notion that civilisation gradually improves over time. He knew that civilisations come and go and that some are better than others – but they are not stations on a long march to a better world. “Modern civilisation must not be considered simply as a continuation of ancient civilisation, as its progression . . . These two civilisations, which are essentially different, are and must be considered as two separate civilisations.”
His sympathies lay with the ancients, whose way of life he believed was more conducive to human happiness. A product of the increase of knowledge, the modern world is driven by the pursuit of truth; yet this passion for truth, Leopardi suggests, is a by-product of Christianity. Before Christianity disrupted and destroyed the ancient pagan cults with its universal claims, human beings were able to rest content with their local practices and illusions. “Mankind was happier before Christianity than after it,” he writes.
Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: “What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.” This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism – the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values – and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.
Leopardi’s account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche’s – an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world’s three great pessimists – “Byron, Leopardi and myself” –were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I’m not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)
What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science. A version of the same thought informs the work of Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest 20th-century English-language poet, who saw the task of poetry as being the creation of fictions by which human beings can live.
Unlike philosophers today, Leopardi aims to do more than provide a comforting justification for the intuitions of well-meaning liberals. Just as much as Nietzsche, though much more soberly, he is a critic of modern ethics. Leopardi found the unthinking moral certainty of secular thinkers highly questionable, not least because of their hidden debts to Christianity. In an irony of which he was undoubtedly aware, this opponent of the Enlightenment ideal of reason was in many ways a child of the Enlightenment, not least because he shared the Enlightenment suspicion of Christianity.
Yet Leopardi’s resistance to Christianity was not simply, or even mainly, an intellectual objection to its theological claims. It was a moral objection, which applied equally to the secular successors of Christianity. He criticised Christianity not because he believed it to be untrue (he accepted that human beings cannot live without illusions) but because he saw the militant assertion of its truth as being harmful to civilisation. The universalism of which Christianity and its humanist offshoots are so proud was, for Leopardi, an openended licence for savagery and oppression.
Leopardi was emphatic in affirming the constancy of human nature and the existence of goods and evils that are universally human. He was far from being a moral relativist. What he rejected was the modern conceit that aims to turn these often conflicting values into a system of universal principles – a project that fails to comprehend the irresolvable contradictions of human needs. “No one understands the human heart at all,” he wrote, “who does not understand how vast is its capacity for illusions, even when these are contrary to its interests, or how often it loves the very thing that is obviously harmful to it.” Modern rationalists imagine they do not succumb to this quintessentially human need for illusion, but in reality they display it to the full.
Assessing the impact of Christianity on the ancient world, Leopardi notes that the more that universal principles are accepted as the basis of action, “the worse peoples and centuries prove to be”. The crimes that Christians in the Middle Ages committed were “quite different, more horrible and more barbarous than those of antiquity”. Long before the atrocities of the modern era,he perceived that such crimes, like those of the medieval Christians, emanated from belief, not passion. From late-19th-century imperialism to communism and the incessant wars launched in our time under the gaudy banner of democracy and human rights, the most barbarous kinds of violence have been promoted as rational means to achieving a higher civilisation. Even the Nazis believed their crimes were based in reason: genocide and “scientific breeding” would lead to a type of human being superior to any that had existed before. The barbarism of reason is the attempt to order the world on a more rational model. However, evangelists for reason are more driven by faith than they know and the result of attempting to impose their simpleminded designs on the world has been to add greatly to the evils to which human life is naturally prone.
Some will find Leopardi unsatisfying because he proposes no remedy for modern ills, but for me a part of his charm comes from how he has no gospel to sell. The Romantic movement turned to visions of natural harmony as an escape from the flaws of civilisation. With his more penetrating intelligence, Leopardi understood that because human beings are spawned by natural processes, their civilisations share the ramshackle disorder of the natural world. Brought up by his father to be a good Catholic, he became a resolute atheist who admired ancient pagan religion; but because it was not possible to return to the more benign faiths of ancient times, he was friendly to Christianity in his own day, seeing it as the lesser of many evils: “Religion (far more favoured and approved by nature than by reason) is all we have to shore up the wretched and tottering edifice of present-day human life.”
Realising that the human mind can decay even as human knowledge advances, Leopardi would not have been surprised by the stupefying banality and shallowness of current debates on belief and unbelief. He accepted that there is no remedy for the ignorance of those who imagine themselves to be embodiments of reason. Today’s evangelical rationalists lag far behind the understanding of the human world that he achieved in the early decades of the 19th century.
Yet it is hard to think of Leopardi being disconsolate because of this. Quietly dictating the closing lines of one of his most exquisite poems, “The Setting of the Moon”, as he lay dying in Naples, he seems to have seen his short life as being complete in itself. On the evidence of this magnificent volume, he was not mistaken.
John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)
In 1903 the British army advanced against the Emir of Kano and the Sultan of Sokoto (in what is now Nigeria), as they had refused to submit to British authority. One of the officers, Wallace Duffield Wright, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in routing the much larger forces of the Muslim rulers. He received further honours in the First World War.
Wright was elected as the Tory MP for Tavistock in a 1928 by-election but stood down in 1931. John Ward Spear was the Liberal Unionist MP for the seat (1900-1906 and 1910- 18), defeating the Liberal Hugh Luttrell in 1900 and losing the seat back to him in 1906. Spear had his portrait painted by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Arthur Fellowes Prynne (who also painted many other West Country politicians). It still hangs in Tavistock Town Hall.
British elections used to be heroically corrupt.
On 15 September 1830 William Huskisson, the Tory statesman and local MP, was killed while attending the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The by-election that followed “found over £100,000 (£10m today) being dispensed for the benefit of a mere 4,400 voters”, according to Antonia Fraser in Perilous Question, her brilliant account of the battle for the Reform Act 1832.
British elections used to be heroically corrupt. Even after the introduction of the secret ballot in the Ballot Act 1872, staggering sums were paid out by competing candidates. “Not only could it be said that corrupt practices had increased, but the expenditure incurred at the last election was excessive,” opined the Earl of Northbrook when the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act was going through parliament in 1883. In the preceding general election, in 1880, the Conservative and Liberal Parties had between them spent roughly £2.5m – or £210m in today’s money.
Of that £2.5m, no more than £50,000 was spent by the central party organisations – the rest was spent at the constituency level. The controls that were introduced then, and progressively tightened right up to 1983, were all focused on constituency expenditure during the final few weeks of an election campaign. These controls, though necessary, were clearly not sufficient to cope with modern campaigning – increasingly centralised and extending over many months (sometimes years) before the election starting pistol was fired.
Comprehensive spending controls, with a ban on overseas donations and much stricter rules on the identities of donors, were brought in by the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). As home secretary, I was the minister responsible for this act but its provenance was a magisterial report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life under the chairmanship of Lord Neill.
In the closing years of Labour’s last opposition, we were increasingly successful in exploiting a succession of allegations of “sleaze” that had engulfed John Major’s government. But we were daft to imply that the Tories had a monopoly of sin.
In late autumn 1997 the Bernie Ecclestone affair blew up. Ecclestone, the Formula 1 boss,had given £1m to the Labour Party before the election. In mid-October 1997 he met Tony Blair to protest about a planned EU-wide ban on tobacco advertising, on which Formula 1 was heavily dependent.
Though the pre-PPERA rules did not require full disclosure of donations, the fact of Ecclestone’s largesse and his lobbying against the EU ban inevitably and quickly hit the press. The facts were damaging and so, too, as Tony very quickly acknowledged, was its handling. It severely dented our reputation as a party trying to conduct our politics in a better way. Bobby Friedman understandably devotes a chapter of his book to this saga – entirely fair if you’re writing one with the subtitle How Money and Donations Corrupted British Politics.
What undermines Friedman’s wider case is the sloppy way he has put this book together, which is a shame, given that the subjectmatter is so timely. “In the wake of the Ecclestone scandal,” Friedman writes, “Blair saw that reform could no longer be avoided and he asked Lord Neill’s Committee on Standards in Public Life to investigate the system of donations.”
That is simply incorrect. All this happened before the Ecclestone scandal blew up. There was an explicit commitment in the May 1997 Labour manifesto to ask the Neill committee “to consider how the funding of political parties should be regulated and reformed”, a reference to which was in the Queen’s Speech in May, with further details provided by Tony Blair to the party conference on 30 September 1997.
This is not the only irritating error in the book. We are told, for instance, about a donation to David Lloyd George of £50,000 in 1921, “equivalent to over £12m today”; a few pages later there’s a reference to Lloyd George selling baronetcies for “£25,000 (around £1.7m in current money)”. They can’t both be right. In fact, neither figure is: £50,000 in 1921 is about £1.9m in today’s prices, and £25,000 therefore £950,000.
Friedman recites at some length his version of the cross-party talks on party funding, on which I led for the Labour Party, under the chairmanship of Hayden Phillips, a retired civil servant.
In the summer of 2007 we were indeed tantalisingly close to a deal but Friedman is plain wrong in suggesting that the breakdown was Labour’s. Don’t take my word for it. This is what David Heath, the Liberal Democrat representative at the talks, said: “For the Conservatives to now, in effect, walk away is a tragedy and very short-sighted on their part,” and that the Conservative Party’s attitude to a deal “changed . . . markedly over the summer [of 2007] at about the same time as a certain Lord Ashcroft moved into Central Office”.
Away from his panting, conspiratorial narrative, Friedman is more sober in his last, analytical chapter on the future. He makes the crucial point that we already have state funding of political parties; that the total sum needed “to rid the political system of big money comes to around £23m a year – or roughly the cost of a postage stamp for every voter. This is not introducing state funding – just increasing it by a little under 50 per cent.” He considers the idea of a funding mechanism of, say, £3 for every voter; or, in my view, a better variant: that as people vote, they could if they wish tick a box to allocate such a sum to their party.
It may be that Ed Miliband’s reform will start the process to get how we fund politics into better order and cut the reliance on large donations. We need to. But we should also acknowledge that we are light years from the endemic corruption of the 19th century, and that by comparison with many comparable countries, party politics in the UK is both relatively clean and a remarkable bargain.
Jack Straw is the MP for Blackburn (Labour)
The left never understood Clement Attlee’s British patriotism, but the nation did. It’s time Labour properly rediscovered its great postwar leader.
During his bid for the party leadership in 2010, Ed Miliband named Clement Attlee as the politician he most admired – something he repeated in an interview in June this year. His definition of Labour’s “one nation” mantra also contains a nod to the “spirit” of the transformative Attlee government elected in 1945. Yet the “one nation” theme is, of course, taken from the Conservative Party. And it was not to any Labour greats that Miliband turned in his 10 September speech to the TUC conference, but to two 19th-century Conservative prime ministers. The first was the Earl of Derby, who legalised trade unions in 1867. The second was Benjamin Disraeli.
According to Miliband, David Cameron has governed in the interests of a privileged few and thereby failed to meet the standards set by his Disraelian forebears. Whether or not this message is starting to get through to the electorate, it is an unusual standard for a Labour leader to set. In truth, the act of scavenging in Tory history shows something else – which is that the Labour Party has a tortured relationship with its own past, particularly with those who have delivered its greatest successes.
The disavowal of Blairism is inevitable, perhaps, for the time being at least. But the failure to understand Attlee – the man himself, rather than simply the government he led – points to a larger failure of political imagination. Attlee remains, in the memorable phrase of Vernon Bogdanor, Cameron’s old tutor at Oxford, “the enigma of 20th century British history”. Surprisingly, however, it is those on the left who seem to have most difficulty in understanding him, or in coming to terms with the (sometimes uncomfortable) political lessons that he bequeathed his party.
The irony of this is that no figure in modern British political history encapsulates the true “one nation” spirit better than the man who led Labour to its landslide victory in 1945 and secured its highest ever share of the popular vote in 1951. Attlee would “get it”, even though his party has often struggled to get him.
The family tie between Labour and Attlee has long since snapped. In 1997, his grandson John, who inherited his title as the 3rd Earl Attlee, crossed the floor of the House of Lords to join the Conservative Party. He said that his grandfather would be “horrified” by the party Labour had become. John’s father, Martin, the 2nd Earl, left Labour in 1982 and became a founding member of the Social Democratic Party.
It was Ralph Miliband, taking his cue from Harold Laski, who did most to denigrate Attlee’s approach, with his 1961 book Parliamentary Socialism. Both Miliband sons have distanced themselves from their father’s criticism of a Labour Party “of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted”. Yet Ed Miliband’s evocation of Attlee says more about the circumstances in which he found himself leader than it does about Attlee. First, it is a means of distinguishing himself from Blair. Second, at a time of economic downturn, Attlee’s postwar government is being held up as a model for what bold reforms might achieve, regardless of austerity. “Despite a huge deficit we built a national health service,” Miliband has said of that period. What Attlee the man stood for, and the principles on which his government was founded, remained unexplored.
As the Observer put it in a profile of Attlee in June 1944, he was a “co-ordinator more than creator”. He was often overshadowed by the “big beasts” around him – Ernest Bevin, Aneurin Bevan, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps or Harold Laski. “A little mouse shall lead them,” remarked another of these heavyweights, Hugh Dalton, when Attlee became party leader in 1935. Or a “little nonentity”, as Beatrice Webb put it in 1940.
Attlee’s parliamentary career, which began in 1922, was a lesson in consistency, coherence and staying power. “Men who lobby their way forward into leadership are the most likely to be lobbied back out of it,” he once quipped.
“How could so modest, almost diffident, laconic a man ride all these political storms and remain serenely afloat?” asked Douglas Jay, the Labour MP. The best recent biography of Attlee, by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, argues that his modest leadership style was an advantage (in securing the loyalty of Bevin, for instance) and occasionally a curse (mishandling Bevan before his resignation in 1951). There was luck – he was one of the few Labour MPs to survive the electoral wipeout of October 1931 – and there was political skill, as might be expected of the longest-serving leader of any mainstream British party in the 20th century.
This is not the stuff of legend and may not be particularly helpful today. Attlee was deeply resistant to media training and spin, confessing that he had “none of the qualities which create publicity”. That said, his description of the qualities required of a prime minister have a certain resonance. “Ah! A sense of urgency, of despatch. A sense of the time and the occasion and the atmosphere of the country,” he once said. Political judgement was “not the same thing as intellectual power, often quite divorced from it. A lot of clever people have got everything except judgement.”
Are there practical lessons to learn from the experience of the Attlee government from 1945 to 1951, as Miliband suggests? The context in which Attlee operated was so different as to make any technocratic analogies far-fetched. Nationalisation took place in an altered economic environment, brought about by the imperatives of wartime planning. The foundation stone of welfare reform was the revolutionary assumption – which represented the definitive break from 1930s Treasury orthodoxy – that full employment was possible and economically viable.
If economic recovery is today’s political priority, it is also worth remembering that the wheels of the postwar revival began to fall off from 1948. It has even been argued that the government might have created better long-term conditions for socialism by postponing welfare reforms and focusing instead on the type of national reconstruction programmes undertaken by French planners and German social marketers. As the Anglo- German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf once put it: “All that they did was wonderful but clearly wrong – right in social terms, wrong in economic terms . . . It was the right government at the wrong time.”
On the modern left, two versions of the Attlee government from 1945 to 1951 predominate. One is a eulogy to the revolutionary legislative achievements of the period, such as the creation of the National Health Service and the William Beveridge-inspired welfare reforms, as witnessed in Danny Boyle’s London Olympics opening ceremony last year. The other, hinted at in Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ’45, is a story of how the “New Jerusalem” of a socialist consensus was betrayed in the postwar years by proto-Blairites on the left.
Just as Boyle’s version is sentimental and unspecific, so Loach’s is sectional in a way that Labour’s victory never was. The enduring appeal of the Beveridge report was not that it represented a victory for the working class, or socialism per se, but that it provided a benchmark of social reform around which the nation could coalesce. It was the universality of provision which was intended to form the basis of a new contract between citizen and state. It is worth remembering that it was a system which was supposed to be measured by its social outcomes, rather than the amount put into it by the government.
In that sense, it is worth reconsidering the ethical basis of the Attlee government’s reforms on pensions, health and welfare, even if they were developed against a completely different industrial and demographic framework from what we have today. It is notable, however, that those who have already done so – such as Frank Field MP – have come up with conclusions that many in the party are not entirely comfortable about.
In 2005, when Field was asked to consider what Attlee would make of the modern welfare state 60 years after Labour’s victory, his response was telling: “Attlee would be likely to be devastated on the change in attitudes to welfare. He believed that welfare was important because each individual had an inherent worth which a minimum welfare provision reflected. But the idea that one would claim welfare as a right without first accepting one’s duties would be abhorrent to him.” In many ways, the social dimension of Blairism represented a return to the New Liberalism of T H Green. That Attlee consciously broke with the New Liberal tradition in 1945 – and moved towards a much more statist, redistributionist model – meant that he was not an easy figure for New Labour to appropriate. That those loosely associated with the Blue Labour wing of the party are more comfortable on this terrain is unsurprising.
In October 2011, Jon Cruddas, the Blue Labour thinker who is leading the party’s policy review, delivered the annual Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture at University College, Oxford. He had never been particularly sympathetic to Attlee before then, preferring the socialism of “human virtue, creativity and self-realisation” of his hero, George Lansbury.
Yet, challenged to explore Attlee further, Cruddas discovered that “there remains a sense of something hidden deep within the character of the man”, which even his best biographers had missed. Cruddas correctly pointed out that “the essential elements” of Attlee’s character were in place before 1914. In other words, the essence of Attlee is contained not in the “spirit” of 1945, but in all the life that came before it, including the two world wars. He fought in the first with distinction, and in the second he served by Winston Churchill’s side in the war cabinet.
In many ways, Attlee is the pivot on which 20th-century British history turns. To fail to understand his political life is to miss some of the most important lessons – and unspoken truths – of British political life.
More than any other British prime minister of the past century, Attlee provides a clue to the things our modern political classes are most uncomfortable or awkward talking about: ethics, Britishness, loyalty, patriotism, duties and rights.
Born and bred in middle-class south-west London, he found his ideological home in the working-class East End. He greatly enjoyed the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, but adapted Kipling’s imperialistic verse to the conditions of the English working class and, when prime minister, brought an end to Britain’s empire in India. Indira Gandhi once said that he embodied the “non-imperial face” of Britain, “a reassuring counterweight to the haughty mien of the Raj in India. I came to appreciate the understatement which characterises the best in Britain and of which Lord Attlee was a good example.”
One reason for his stunted legacy is that he never styled himself as a deep thinker in the way that many of his peers did. Despite his familiarity with socialist ideals, he was cautious about uncritically imbibing the prescriptions of leftist theoreticians. His estimation of G D H Cole was typical: a “brilliant chap” with “a very clear mind”, but “he used to have a new idea every year, irrespective of whether the ordinary man was interested in it or not”.
Attlee’s core values were neither mysterious nor exotic; they were strongly held, simply presumed, and widely shared across Britain. For that reason, they did not need elaborate definition.
The driving conviction of his life was a belief in public service. In October 1905, he volunteered at a boys’ club in Stepney, east London, more out of a sense of duty to his old school, Haileybury in Hertfordshire, which supported the club, than for any ideological reasons. The experience of the East End confirmed to him just how destabilising was the scourge of casual labour and the unfair operation of the old Poor Law of 1834. Visiting Essex Hall, he encountered the work of the Fabians for the first time.
Guided by his elder brother Tom, a Christian socialist, he began to read the work of John Ruskin and, as Attlee described in typically matter-of-fact fashion, “came to the conclusion that the economic and ethical basis of society was wrong”.
Attlee’s unwillingness to theorise should not disguise the richness of his political thinking, or the authenticity of his place within the British socialist tradition. He had prints of Marx and Engels on the wall of his office and once raised the red flag over Limehouse Town Hall. But what appealed to him about the Independent Labour Party, over the Fabians, was that it was never “rigidly dogmatic”.
“It was inclusive rather than exclusive,” he later explained, “and it preached a socialism which owed far more to the Bible than Karl Marx . . . a characteristically British interpretation of socialism, a way of life rather than an economic dogma.”
Toynbee Hall, of which he became secretary, had been started by Canon Barnett and his wife as a Christian mission that sought to eradicate poverty by encouraging a moral revolution among the working classes. As for his personal faith, Attlee once remarked: “Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo.”
As Frank Field has suggested, Attlee’s background made him “attach absolute meanings to such concepts as duty, responsibility, loyalty and courage”. By the same token, class conflict was anathema to him. Commissioned by the government to explain the workings of Lloyd George’s National Insurance Act 1911, Attlee recounted how he “admired the public spirit of the country notables”, mostly Tories, who had been bitterly opposed to the act but who co-operated with its implementation after it became law – both “one nation” and “big society” in their truest sense.
According to Lord Longford, Attlee was “not only the least selfish politician of the first rank . . . but the most ethical prime minister in the whole of British history”. He lacked the “Christian earnestness of Mr Gladstone”, but was “happily without the latter’s power of self-deception”.
And it is worth noting that this ethical purview extended to foreign affairs. He was a committed anti-fascist and anti-communist. He supported intervention on behalf of the patriot cause against the fascists in the Spanish civil war, coming up against the realism of others in his party such as Bevin.
For much of the 1930s he believed that the League of Nations was the best guarantor of collective security, but as its authority collapsed, he became a critic of the appeasement of Nazi Germany and of Neville Chamberlain’s disastrous efforts to treat with Hitler at Munich. It was Attlee who steered Labour away from both pacifism and passivism in foreign affairs, thereby passing the first test of an aspiring party of government.
His proudest act was to join Churchill’s wartime coalition in 1940. His favourite cartoon was David Low’s “All behind you, Winston” of May that year, which depicted the Labour triumvirate of Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison rolling up their sleeves and marching into war alongside Churchill. Many years later, his wife contacted Low to buy the original.
The formation of the coalition government in 1940 is perhaps the most important moment in modern British political history. It ensured the type of national cohesion and feeling of common purpose that was absent at the outset of the war, and without which the fight could not have been sustained.
Monitoring early wartime broadcasts at cinemas across the country, British intelligence officers reported that Attlee’s flat cap was “said to have had a depressing effect on picture-goers”. Yet, though his presence was not inspirational, he – more than anyone – was the glue that kept the coalition together. Morrison was prevented from destabilising it, and Bevin was fastened to his side. As deputy prime minister, he managed to combine faultless loyalty to Churchill with primary responsibility for domestic affairs, preparing the ground for the revolution that was about to take place in the role of the British state. In his mind, the two causes – victory and reconstruction –were inseparable.
When he became prime minister on 26 July 1945 Attlee was shocked. Yet, as one of his MPs remarked, his victory speech was “typical”, in that it was delivered “without a trace of emotion”. Hype and triumphalism were not in his make-up and that fact, to some extent, had been crucial to the victory. The party the electorate had chosen was the dutiful, patriotic and measured entity that Attlee embodied from 1940 to 1945. Indeed, even as Laski attempted a coup against him before the election – a “what if” moment for the Ralph Miliband generation – it was Attlee who provided the reassurance that Labour’s New Jerusalem was nothing to be feared.
“The old school tie can still be seen on the government benches,” he assured the American government. Indeed, he was likened to Harry Truman, the US president with whom he built a sound working relationship. Addressing both houses of Congress in Washington, DC in November 1945, he was clear that his party’s political creed stood within the Anglo-American tradition of freedom but remained uniquely British in its version of socialism.
“You will see us embarking on projects of nationalisation,” he told the legislators, “on wide all-embracing schemes of social insurance designed to give security to the common man. We shall be working out a planned economy. You, it may be, will continue in your more individualistic methods.”
After 1945, his record in dealing with the Soviet threat was strikingly assertive and bold, and – together with his foreign secretary, Bevin – he played a leading role in the formation of Nato. Like Bevin, he was convinced that the atomic bomb was crucial to the projection of British power in the world. Rather than have a showdown with Labour ministers who opposed the bomb, such as Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton, he formed a secret committee to push the plan through before objections could be raised. Above all, he was a ruthless but consistent proponent of a strong tradition of left-wing British patriotism, at home and abroad. If “Attleeism” is anything, it is this.
Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, once recalled having a conversation with Attlee towards the end of his life, in which she told him that her favourite characters in history were the “romantic ones”: Charles II, Rupert of the Rhine and Byron. His response was telling: “Bad history, wrong people.”
In attempting to reconnect with an increasingly sceptical public, the Labour Party of today could do worse than rediscover its own unromantic hero. The left may have struggled to understand him; but the nation did.
John Bew, a New Statesman contributing writer, is reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department at King’s College London. From October, he will take up the Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
Is feminism capable of addressing the differences between women, as well as those between women and men?
The dust jacket of Melissa Benn’s book isn’t shy about suggesting that you’ll find answers to your feminist parenting woes within. “The dark art of male condescension – how to recognise and counter it”, promises the blurb, and “How to curb pornography – and the threat of New Puritanism”.
Yet this is no self-help-style troubleshooter. All these and more enticing how-to promises are not so much unfulfilled as left to spin urgently like bobbins dangling from the big question posed by the title: what should we do, what should we do, what should we do?
In point of fact, who is this “we”? When the book feels warmest, “we” seems to be a sorority of mothers such as Benn: feminists concerned about how they can prepare their daughters to negotiate the world. The book circles subjects such as girls’ susceptibility to the twin rigours of academic pressure and anorexia, and their chances of negotiating the career-crushing intrusion of childbearing and rearing. There are several discussions about violence against women but only one mention of female genital mutilation and none of forced marriages or honour crime. “Our daughters” feels like a narrow clan sometimes.
What Should We Tell Our Daughters? is not part of the trite genre of feminism that urges women to “have it all” but it certainly speaks from a milieu in which having it all wouldn’t be unimaginable. That does not mean the book limits its view to middle class anxieties alone, though. Benn touches sharply on the idea that while feminism has helped to spur huge advances in equality between the sexes, we also live in an era when the chasm of possibility between the bestand worst-off is widening drastically. Is feminism capable of addressing the differences between women, as well as those between women and men?
Addressing the manifesto of Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Benn rightly notes that “the majority of young women are left out of the lean in discussion altogether”. She questions how much common cause can be made over a feminism that specifically celebrates “exceptional women”: the chief executive, the politician, the investment banker super-mum. This political insight unfortunately doesn’t quite translate into a big theory.
Although there are nods to the impassioned agitating of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, and there is an inspiring passage about the power of women’s anger, this is not an angry book but an exercise in restrained pragmatics.
So, it is a shame that Benn’s pragmatism isn’t always strictly grounded in the best data. She is very widely read and when she describes the huge file of newspaper clippings she has assembled in her research, I can well believe it. This can read more like a work of collage than one of synthesis – a news story, a data point wrenched from some place or other and a case study, all clustered together. There is sense in the assemblage but Benn doesn’t subject anything to quite the scrutiny it deserves. Over and over, statistics that had their birth in press releases (for Netmums, Scottish Widows or Girlguiding) surface as though they were neutral markers of truth.
Statistics of slightly questionable origin do not derail the book, because they don’t direct the argument so much as adorn it. But they are a niggling distraction that we could do without, because the times when Benn drops the desultory number-crunching and offers analyses of television shows, books and conversations are the times when What Should We Tell Our Daughters? comes closest to answering its own question.
Frustratingly, we have to wait for the conclusion for that, when Benn finally turns to the long-promised subject of advice from mothers to daughters, quoting Anne Sexton and Mary Wollstonecraft. (“I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or her principles to her heart,” Wollstonecraft wrote of her own daughter, fixing exactly the dilemma that Benn has spent a whole book to come to.)
What Should We Tell Our Daughters? might have been more complete if it had been more partial. Partial in the sense of selective: if Benn had ditched the clumsy efforts at comprehensive evidence and instead approached her subject through the close reading at which she excels, I suspect the book would have uncovered more. And partial in the sense of taking sides, too: the question, “Is this good for women?” is too often put aside in favour of the question, “Can this be changed?”, when asking the first question harder might give more impetus to finding the answer to the second.
It might feel like a lie to tell our daughters (and our sons) that they can remake the world in better shapes but it is the kind of lie that is more likely to become true for being persuasively told.
Sarah Ditum blogs for newstatesman.com
Old age doesn't have to be a case of moving into a care home and "sitting in a circle with one's mouth open."
I can’t remember the last time I saw a documentary as inspiring as Fabulous Fashionistas (17 September, 10pm). Agreed, it had an awful and misleading title. It was also incredibly uneven and disjointed. Its director, Sue Bourne, seemed not to know exactly what to do with her wonderful interviewees and there were about a thousand questions she should have asked but didn’t. In the end, none of this mattered. Her subjects, whose average age was 80, made the film for her: funny, clever, deliciously stubborn and startling to look at, they have given me a blueprint for the future, of which I intend to make full and proper use when the time comes.
In essence, Fabulous Fashionistas– eew, I can hardly bear to write it! – set out to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to be, as Bridget Sojourner put it, a case of moving into a care home and “sitting in a circle with one’s mouth open”. Sojourner was one of six women in the film and, at the age of 75, she looked extraordinary: straight-backed and flat of stomach and with a style that seemed to be channelling (as the fashion people have it) Mary Portas and Diana Vreeland. You could no more imagine her in a pair of zip-up sheepskin booties than playing crown green bowls.
However, as Sojourner’s main source of income is her state pension, her magnificent appearance owes nothing to Bond Street and everything to Oxfam. Socking great cocktail rings, crimson turbans, Grecian-style T-shirt dresses: all of these things had come to her courtesy of charity shops.
Sojourner kept company with Daphne Selfe, an 85-year-old model with cheekbones like geometry and eyes like Parma violets whose face I recognised from the fashion pages of the Guardian; Sue Kreitzman, a 73- year-old cookery writer-turned-artist with a passion for colour, kitsch and Crocs; Gillian Lynne, the ballerina and choreographer who, at the age of 87, has a devoted husband more than 25 years her junior and is still working all over the world; Jean Woods, a 75-year-old fashion boutique assistant with a Sylvia Townsend Warner haircut and a fine collection of sequinned high tops; and the 91-yearold Baroness Trumpington, the working peer extraordinaire and mail-order addict. (“Is this minister aware that I not only knew Lloyd George but I was also his land girl?” she once said in the Lords. Cue much rumbling laughter on the cross benches.)
Everything these women said and everything they did moved and cheered me, whether it was Gillian performing her morning stretches, legs akimbo, or Sue informing us, “Beige is the colour of death,” or Jean explaining how, on being widowed, she walked into Gap and asked for a sales job (she was given one).
Oh, the splendid sight of Trumpers excitedly ripping open her latest parcel, inside which was hidden a mustard-coloured handbag. Bourne asked when she might use it. “Every day!” replied Trumpers, her fingers working, not even bothering to look up. Daphne the fashion star was interviewed in a fluffy Afghan waistcoat with diamanté bits on its shoulders. It suited her and she knew it, which made me smile. How brilliant to be listening to someone talking about the prospect of illness and death – it would all be rather a bore, she thought – and at the same time to be envying their innate style. In front of my computer, I began to feel quite dowdy.
As I watched, I made notes, which is what I usually do when I am reviewing a programme. This time, it was with extra purpose. I found myself writing a list of all that these remarkable women had in common, the better to work out how one might – luck allowing – not just endure old age but enjoy it, too.
First of all, they had been loved, and even though some were now widowed their long marriages were still in the background, a kind of larder of happiness, to be visited in lonely moments. Second, they were all slim and fit and put some effort into staying that way. Jean still goes running. Third – and most important – they had a sense of purpose: work or a hobby that got them out of bed however much their bones ached.
“It has filled my life,” said Sue of her art. As she told us this, her face flushed. Enthusiasm can make a woman seem positively girlish, whatever her age.
The trio Baroque Encounter play an unusually intimate gig at the Handel House Museum.
“Early music”. Earlier than what? We’ve come a long way from the bearded earnestness of the early period performance revival. There’s a freedom and a flexibility to the music of the 12th to 18th centuries that you just don’t get with the big Romantic repertoire, encouraging and even demanding experimentation. Whether you like your minuets and sarabands served straight up in britches and brocade or prefer something a bit more baroque’n’roll, there’s something to suit everyone.
Sitting in a wood-panelled salon, a series of Restoration worthies staring down at you from gilded frames on the walls, you’d be forgiven for imagining yourself back in Handel’s London. To some extent you’d be right: the meticulously restored Handel House Museum on Brook Street in Mayfair (next door to Jimi Hendrix’s former home) is a world away from the contemporary clatter outside.
Concerts regularly take place in Handel’s recital room, where the composer rehearsed and performed with the operatic greats of his day and once threatened to throw the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni out of the window. With a capacity of only 28, performances here are intimate, allowing you to hear this music as the original audiences would have done, in what is in essence a domestic setting. Proximity might dull the acoustic bloom you’d get in a concert hall, but what performers lose in soft focus, they gain in directness and human friction.
Playing on this unusual intimacy, a concert from the trio Baroque Encounter on 29 August invited us to take a musical stroll through London’s pleasure gardens. The group’s counter-tenor, Glenn Kesby, has an unworked simplicity to his sound that is well suited to the more popular repertoire of the 18th century. “The Little Coquette” by John Worgan was arch and appealing, its flightiness grounded by Claire Williams’s stylish accompaniment at the harpsichord, while “The Lass of Richmond Hill” by James Hook had all the freedom of the folk songs that it so closely imitates. Seduction took a more serious turn in “Lady Jane Grey’s Lamentation” by Giordani, its tragedy contradicted by the convulsive Lombardic rhythms.
Lauren Brant, on recorder, paid homage to the master of the house, performing Handel’s “Recorder Sonata in F Major”. A slight tightness to her sound in the larghetto gave way to a lively allegro, with the third movement gaining new colours in the harp-like effect of spread chords on the harpsichord. Among so many musical bonbons, Telemann’s cantatas offered something rather more substantial but even the earnestness of Kesby’s coloratura couldn’t obscure the tongue-in-cheek morality of works that exhort us to drink, gamble and worse, so long as we do so in moderation.
From authenticity in Mayfair to experimentation in Dalston. At the Arcola Theatre between 27 and 31 August, Grimeborn’s Handel Furioso, directed by Max Hoehn, cut through the complexities of warring kings and mistaken identities and did away with most recitative, becoming a simple boy-meets-girl tale played out by two white-faced singers in a minimal set.
Taking the model of the 18th-century pasticcio – an operatic equivalent of the “jukebox” musical – Hoehn used arias from Handel’s operas as well as some of his chamber duets to create this slight, fable-like work. Occasional harmonic lurches (and one unfortunate oboe) aside, the result is artless and engaging, distilling music and emotion down to their essence. The soprano Robyn Allegra Parton (as the girl) and the mezzo Anna Starushkevych (as the boy) found a dramatic sincerity and sweetness that amplified their archetypes with surprising emotional heft.
Some superbly creative accompaniment from Julian Perkins (directing a small period band from the harpsichord) led us from first love to last rites in a tour of some of Handel’s loveliest music. “Caro! Dolce! Amico amplesso” from Poro found the voices writhing among each other with innocent obscenity, while Ariodante’s “Neghittosi” gave Parton scope for musical rage in coloratura that convulsed with fury. Starushkevych failed to find the stillness at the core of “Dove sei, amato bene?”, but in her later“Cara sposa, amante cara” there was a darkening of both vocal colour and intensity, finally showing this sternly beautiful voice at its best.
Early music might be an ambiguous term, but that reflects the range and flexibility of the genre. There’s nothing archaic or precious about music that’s as comfortable stripped back to the basics in Dalston as it is in the Royal Opera House; that can take as much reverence as revolution. With English Touring Opera offering a season of Handel, Monteverdi and Cavalli this autumn and the prospect of an anarchic Rodelinda from Richard Jones at ENO in February, baroque is as contemporary as it has ever been.
“Handel Furioso” is at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 31 October and the Epstein Theatre in Liverpool on 2 November Handel House Museum: handelhouse.org
From the lullaby in Rosemary's Baby to Bernard Herrmann's final score in Taxi Driver, an unforgettable episode of BBC Radio 3's In Tune discussed music in thrillers.
An unforgettable episode of In Tune (weekdays, 4.30pm) discussed music in horror films and thrillers, from the curdled lullaby in Rosemary’s Baby to the Wagnerian thrum characterising the best Hammer soundtracks. The BBC’s cross-media “Sound of Cinema” season has been programmed in precisely the right way: as though by obsessives in relentless pursuit of exciting sensations. (Let’s stick on the 1933 King Kong at prime time on a Sunday on BBC4! Let’s have a foley artist snapping rhubarb near a microphone to replicate the sound of catastrophe-shattered limbs!) The composer and silent movie accompanist Neil Brand gave a burst of the “landing at Whitby” scene from Nosferatu on a piano, relishing his role as both jukebox and magician – you could hear the audience fizzing.
The Tippett Quartet played music from Psycho, so intricately full of hostile power that you found yourself wondering why its composer, Bernard Herrmann, bothered using an entire orchestra. And here was Herrmann’s widow, Norma, gossiping about her long-dead husband (whom she still dotingly called Benny) and his final score, which was for Taxi Driver. She confessed that when Martin Scorsese first asked him to consider working on the movie, the caustic Herrmann had replied: “I don’t do cabbies.”
It was a personal relief to hear this lady speak. In the brilliantly useful and contumelious 1991 Hollywood memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips describes her work as a co-producer of Taxi Driver and the inconvenient moment when Herrmann “woke up dead”, aged 64, hours after completing the score.
“His wife freaks out,” Phillips writes breezily, “not least because she literally has not a penny to her name.”
I’d often wondered what had become of this wife – in that weird way that one aside or even half an aside in a book can act like a stone in your shoe – and here she was, not dead in a ditch somewhere, but on BBC Radio 3, happy as a person sitting with a large bowl of Miracle Whip and a spoon, admitting that she really ought to get round to seeing North by Northwest one day because Benny’s music was rather good, don’t you think?
Brand played some of it and the audience went through the roof. This was the definition of euphoric radio.
Intuition is as much a part of design as logic
There is no going back now. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1909 Aston Webb screen is coming down to make way for the diggers, which will hollow out a 15-metre-deep void, forming the shell for the new gallery. It is a meticulous and painstaking process that has already revealed some unexpected details about the screen’s history.
The removal of the first stonework course from where it had lain for the past century revealed joints made from cement mortar (historical precedent had suggested that the screen had been built using lime). At the end of the 19th century, people experimented with cement because of its strength and resistance to water but, in many cases, it caused severe damage to the stone – hence the best conservation practice was and still is to use lime mortar.
Accurately predicting the continuity of historical convention has proved difficult, but it is the accidents of history and experimentation that move things forward. Accidents, chance encounters, intuition or twists of fate are as much a part of the design process as logic or forensic analysis. Each project is unique in its complexities. For our work at the V&A, an examination of its ceramics collection and the ceramics embedded in the building became our starting point for the design’s narrative. To create something that reflects the didactic ethos of the museum and marries art with industry, we set out to explore the limits of ceramics and re-contextualise it in the design of the new courtyard.
This has tested but deepened our relationship with the V&A. The research has been more complex and taken longer than we envisaged. I am grateful for the V&A’s unequivocal support and I have relished the slower pace of working with a museum.
We have collaborated with manufacturers from three European centres – Stoke-onTrent, Granollers in Spain and Makkum in the Netherlands – each with an extraordinary history and the dedication to take risks. When the ceramics industry departs from standardised volume production, development follows a more artisanal line, in which accidents and difference are prerequisites of advancement. It is a process of shared learning that relies on trust and mutual respect.
We asked a lot from our partners and it was a privilege to work with people who share a desire to explore. We have been rewarded with three different tile prototypes, each rather beautiful and representing a huge step forward. Next, we must make final selections of who and what is right for the courtyard.
Our obsession with ceramics has seeped into other projects. A bench made of ceramic plates has inspired a bridge of a similar construction and the cladding for the EDP Foundation Cultural Centre in Lisbon is created from three-dimensional ceramic tiles, designed to capture the light reflected by the water. The most ambitious piece of research that we have ever undertaken is for one of our smallest projects, a piece that challenges perceptions of ceramics’ materiality and structure. Pairing a hi-tech ceramic with an ancient crackle glaze questions the material’s history and modernity.
Reinvention is critical to staying relevant and for survival. Crackle glaze dates back to the Song dynasty in China – a technique that was a result of an accident in the kiln. Realising the delicacy and complexity of this accidental effect, ceramicists in the 13th century devised a way to reproduce it intentionally.
After 18 months of research with our French collaborators in Bazet and Limoges, drawing on developments and skills spanning almost 1,000 years, we arrived at the end of our self-imposed illogic. The perfected piece was placed inside the kiln for its final firing but a rare and unforeseeable accident caused irrevocable damage to the piece. It was a massive blow for us and our collaborators but one that, in time, will become part of the mythology of the work’s creation.
Amanda Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A