Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Tour of various places associated with Proust

Note: please ignore the "official" date of this post as I have been workign on a draft for the last week or so.

Because my stay in Paris was half “work” and half holiday, I got up early the next morning and was dressed by eight o’clock. Everything about my hotel appeared perfect (of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder). I went down to the ground floor, and was directed down into the basement where the hotel dining room was located.

This subterranean room was small and square, the upper half of the walls lined with mirrors so that it was not claustrophobic (this also allowed you to look at the other breakfasters without appearing to do so). Twelve small tables were in the room, the upright dining chairs having loose covers in a pattern of beige checks. The floor was covered with a fitted carpet of very wide stripes - Prussian blue and off-white.

My breakfast consisted of very strong coffee, croissants, Domainde Grignon natural yoghurt (into which I mixed some cherry jam). Free copies of the International edition of The Guardian were available, together with Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune. Black maids hovered in a sort of cubby hole and emerged to clear the tables whenever someone finished, giggling and chatting away in French (superfluous to mention the language, but it still struck me as a novelty).

Above: Business Center - they had spelt “Center” in the American way.

The “master class conference” I had been invited to was located over three big hotels in the centre of the city (different sessions in each), so I went by Metro to the Tuileries station and walked a short distance. I had only signed up to the morning seminars, allowing me the afternoons to do some sight-seeing. The facilities at the conference were excellent, and to my great relief all the transactions were in English. In fact, it was very noticeable how ubiquitous English had become in the French capital - a marked change even on five years ago. At all levels everyone seemed to want to speak English so that eventually I stopped trying to cobble together French sentences and just spoke in English as if I was in London. Another sign of globalisation I suppose (even the hotel business suite had a sign in English, although they had spelt “Center” in the American way).

Above: Anti-Sarkozy poster from the election period.

Supposedly just as important as the formal seminars were the breaks when you could meet people and talk informally. I say supposedly as I have never been much good at networking. The recent French elections were a topic, and a middle-aged German delegate with the jeering accent of Goldfinger (“I expect you to die Mr Bond…”) was gleefully saying that under Sarkozy the French will have to do some work for a change.

“He will tame the trade unions just as Mrs Thatcher did.”

“Mrs Thatcher didn’t tame the trade unions, she destroyed them” I told him.

Above: Parc Monceau - dry cakes in the shape of a shell.

At one o’clock I was back at my hotel, and shortly afterwards Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe arrived. Charles Frappe had agreed to give me a guided tour of various places associated with Proust (I hadn’t been all that keen, but Robert built him up as a great authority on the writer, so I went along with the idea - in any case Charles Frappe seemed to expect me to want a tour, and in the interests of peace I let him take the lead). As most of the sites were in the 8th Arrondissement they were all within a few blocks of my hotel.

We didn’t get off to a good start. When I confessed I hadn’t read all of Remembrance of Things Past but only Swann’s Way and Within A Budding Grove Charles Frappe asked me why I referred to the titles in English. I told him because I had read the books in English translation.

“Then you havn’t read Proust at all” he told me disdainfully, “you’ve read part of a novel by Scott Moncrieff.”

As we walked along the quiet streets I calculated the number of put downs I would tolerate before I started to retaliate.

We went first into the Parc Monceau, which has various Proustian associations. This park was one of the most lovely places I have ever been in (lovely in the sense that I immediately fell in love with it). We sat down on one of the benches on the side of the transitional path, looking across the lawns to a rockery stuck about with lupins and hollyhocks in pale pastel colours (all the tints and shades in the park were from a very muted palette). We were shaded by the trees from the warm sun. A light breeze was blowing - a wind so delicate that I feel justified in calling it a zephyr. The only noise was the far-off sound of a school playground.

Charles Frappe had gone into a nearby patisserie before we entered the park, and he now produced madelaines for us to eat - dry cakes in the shape of a shell. Given the association between Proust and madelaines, this would normally have been a crass touristy thing to have done, but so worked-up in his subject had Charles Frappe become that it somehow seemed the thing to do. By worked-up I mean that he had withdrawn into himself for ten minutes or so before bursting out into a flood of information, delivered in the style of a medium in a séance.

Getting up without warning, Charles Frappe led us out of the park past a dazzling white monument to the composer Gounod. We walked along the streets of the 8th Arrondissement, while he described the great impact Proust has had on twentieth-century world literature. This stiff waspish lecturing was delivered in an affected Loyd Grossman voice that was as irritating as it was impressive.

“I like living in Paris” Charles Frappe said as he led the way. “Magnificent light and noble buildings. And, just as important, noble spaces between the buildings.”

Above: it was a very intimate museum.

A short walk away from the park Charles Frappe took us into the Musee Nissim de Camondo. This was a large private house dating from the belle epoque, built by a Jewish financier to house his incredible collection of eighteenth-century French art and furniture. Charles Frappe told us it would give us a good impression of turn-of-the-century nouveau-riche excess that Proust would have encountered (although he could not confirm whether there was an actual Proust connection with the house).

It was a very intimate museum, packed with objects d’art but also showing the kitchens, and on an upper floor displaying the family’s bed linen and their lavatory arrangements. Each room led into another, circulating around three floors linked by the grand staircase. Very few other visitors were in the museum, although once our way was blocked by a party of burly French boys, listening respectfully to their teacher in a way that no English children would.

The reason so many personal items were on show was because the family had suddenly died out (the last members being arrested by the Germans in the Second World War and transported to the death camps) with the house bequeathed to the state. Both Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe seemed very affected by this family tragedy and compared it to the fate of the Nine-Eleven victims. There was nothing I could say.

Above: formerly the home of Mme Lemaire.

From the Musee Nissim de Camondo we walked through some residential streets.

“Have you noticed how bad Paris smells?” said Robert Leiper. “You’re going down the street and admiring all the beautiful architecture, and suddenly you get some disgusting smell. Then just as suddenly it’s gone.”

We stopped on a corner outside a veterinarian clinic which Charles Frappe announced was formerly the home of Mme Lemaire, the model for Proust’s famous Mme Verderin. It was impossible to relate the glass and plastic façade of the clinic with animated and elegant salon of the Verderins. A reasonably dressed middle-aged man came up and asked us for money - Charles Frappe told him to go away.

Above: a fabulous mille feuille cake.

From the veterinarian clinic we went down onto the Boulevard Haussmann where Charles Frappe took us into another museum (there was no discussion, he just walked in expecting us to follow). What a dismal experience this was. I felt bored out of my mind looking into the endless glass cases. In addition, Charles Frappe had a tendency of reading every exhibit label in full, so that our progress was very slow. At one point I sat down on a bench in a chamber full of grimy Renaissance relief plaques (like petrified talking heads on television screens) feeling I couldn’t go on. Even when we finally emerged from the museum it was only for a few minutes before Charles Frappe led us back into the building saying the museum café would be a good place to have lunch.

The café was a large hall with tables crammed in rows, nearly all of them occupied (by tourists!). The food was of indifferent quality, but fairly cheap. The only thing worth mentioning about the meal was a fabulous mille feuille cake which had obviously just been made. They also gave me a decent cup of tea. Robert and Charles Frappe being on a budget, ordered the cheapest things on the menu. Charles Frappe described how he would go for days subsisting on the canapés and white wine given away free at auction houses and commercial galleries.

For some reason Charles Frappe got on the subject of his sister’s researches into sexual psychology, notably lesbianism. Within a few inches either side of us were tables occupied by elderly American tourists who were clearly uncomfortable at having to listen to the Frappe theories on Sapphic love. To change the subject I asked Charles Frappe how he went about dealing in art.

“Always buy at auctions” he said. “Anyone who buys off a gallery wall pays at least a hundred percent mark-up, probably more, and will have to see a doubling of value before even recouping the original investment. Before you buy you should always see the original - never trust the catalogue illustrations, which make dull things glossy and fuzzy things fine.

“As attributions are not generally reliable, and provenance seldom exists, you must ultimately rely on your own judgement and whether you can convince others the work is genuine - dealers make their cash by showing people how they should look at a piece.

“Estimates are essentially statistical analyses of past auction prices, factoring in attribution, provenance, and size. At auctions lots move at about a hundred an hour so you will have to make very quick decisions. Dealers make their money through waiting for a person to come along who is willing to pay more than they were, so you have to think fast.

“The auction houses charge a twenty percent buyer’s premium and a fifteen percent seller’s commission, so going through them involves a thirty-five percent transaction cost to the
Investor - you have to add this on to your calculations.”

The bill was paid and we left the café. Emerging onto the Boulevard Haussmann again, Charles Frappe was silent while he consulted a map of Paris. Looking up, he gave his final word on the subject of art dealing:

“I am always struck by the huge sums people pay for their houses and the absolute crap they hang on their walls.”

Above: Proust had become a virtual recluse, living in an apartment on the second floor.

Further along the Boulevard Haussmann we stopped outside a bank. Charles Frappe described how in the last years of his life Proust had become a virtual recluse, living in an apartment on the second floor. His room has now been reconstructed in a museum in the Marais area of Paris.

Above: a very modest building.

More walking, and we came to the secondary school Proust attended. Jean-Paul Sartre also went there, as well as other writers. It seemed a very modest building to have produced such a stream of talent.

Above: a tourist trap.

By the Opera we passed the Café de la Paix where Proust used to meet his friends - it’s now a tourist trap.

Above: Boucheron.

Finally to the Place Vendome, Charles Frappe pointing across the road to Boucheron where one of Proust’s characters buys a diamond necklace for his mistress. In a way I had come full circle as we were standing outside the hotel where I had attended the morning’s seminars. I didn’t mention this to Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe, as I wanted to keep them away from the place to avoid running into anyone I knew (I didn’t feel Charles Frappe was the sort of person I could easily explain).

As it happened, Charles Frappe showed no inclination to go into the hotel, although he described its various Proust connections. In return I described how, in the 1990s, a British MP and his wife had gorged themselves into a state of animalistic abandon while guests of the hotel’s Middle Eastern owner (who had fattened them up in the way geese are force-fed, and then butchered them to produce the media fois gras of the cash-for-questions corruption scandal).

Monday, May 21, 2007

Eminence grise or an evil svengali...

Above: Charles Frappe told me I wouldn’t understand Sarkozy unless I read Ottenheimer’s account of the campaign.

I was on the boat about two hours that first evening. The room we were in comprised the foc’sul of the boat, rented by Charles Frappe from the owner (Charles then subletting a share of the room to Robert Leiper). Although it was a large room it seemed small because the walls were so high. It was also claustrophobic as the only windows were high up near the ceiling. The walls were painted beige and were covered with paintings. In one corner were bunk beds, the upper one of which was level with one of the windows. There was an armchair and a sofa, a coffee table heaped with books, a tiny dining table with two uncomfortable-looking chairs. In another corner was a sink and microwave cooker, and next to this a door (half-open) leading to a shower room and wc (I was informed the drains went straight out into the Seine). There was a slight metallic smell to the room.

Charles Frappe did not get up from the sofa as I was introduced. He was much older than Robert Leiper, with watery eyes a delicate shade of light-sky-blue. He had a long face, elongated in shape so that he resembled representations of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. His face was smooth and unlined, the upper lip had a congenital tremble. His head was balding with wispy fair hair (no trace of grey) around the sides (it was unusual to see someone going bald who hadn’t decided to shave their entire head). In build he was thin and tall.

His manner towards me was cold, and I got the distinct impression that Charles Frappe didn’t like me. In fact, it was obvious he was only being sociable in deference to Robert Leiper, who painfully wanted us to get on. For instance, Robert Leiper had to push him several times before he would show me the art collection displayed on the walls and in stacks of canvasses around the room.

These paintings were all by famous artists and represented a small fortune in terms of value, but were marginal works (“It’s a connoisseur’s collection” Charles Frappe told me haughtily). So there were mistakes by Augustus John, an almost-finished painting by a follower of Degas, a nude woman by Etty (the hips too heavy for the girl to be attractive). In all we looked at about sixty works. Robert Leiper explained that Charles Frappe bought these works cheaply at auctions then sells them on at a ten-fold mark-up. Robert had given all his money to Charles to invest in the same way. None of the works were insured, so if the boat went down that would be the end of things.

We discussed the recent election, although I got the impression that none of us really knew what we were talking about. Charles Frappe told me I wouldn’t understand Sarkozy unless I read Ottenheimer’s account of the campaign. He said he would lend me a copy.

In more general conversation I was struck by how similar Robert Leiper and Charles Frappe were in their backgrounds despite an age-gap of nearly twenty years. Both came from California and had lived in New York working in sub-academic jobs. Both were experts on particular writers – Charles Frappe an authority on Marcel Proust, Robert an “expert” on Scott Fitzgerald (although his expertise doesn’t really amount to much more than an undergraduate dissertation). They were both Catholics (Charles Frappe lapsed, although he had once been a sort of lay-Jesuit). Both had been working (in the same office) a block away from the World Trade Centre on the ninth of September two-thousand-and-one, and both had been traumatised by the experience. Both had undergone profound Nine-Eleven soul-searching, had given up their jobs and eventually sought refuge in this floating bedsit in Paris, where they lived an intensely frugal existence.

Looking at them together, I thought that they were so similar that Charles Frappe could be the person Robert Leiper turns into twenty years from now. I say “could” as the possibility needs to be resisted strenuously (Charles Frappe did not come across as a particularly nice person, whereas Robert Leiper, for all his faults, is basically a good guy). Not that it’s any of my business. But I got the impression that Robert had fallen under Charles Frappe’s influence, and it probably wasn’t a good influence. Whether Charles Frappe is an eminence grise or an evil svengali remains to be seen.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paris – Day One

I suppose the general perception of France (as seen from London) is that the French are like ourselves, only different. France has a reputation for lofty aspirations, however impractical they might be to implement. The French prefer logic whereas the English rely on common sense.

Therefore I set out on my recent visit to Paris thinking that I knew about France and the French. This was my first prolonged stay in the country for several years, and I was not expecting much to have changed. On previous day-trips to Paris I had seen a society where the machinery-of-living (to use a German concept) was working smoothly and effortlessly. The streets were clean, the people well-dressed, the restaurants full. I knew that there had just been a hotly contested presidential election. I knew that the British newspapers talked of France as the new Sick Man Of Europe.

But I was not expecting much in the way of change.

Above: the Gare du Nord.

I arrived by Eurostar at the Gare du Nord at about twenty past five. The late afternoon was warm and sunny, with shafts of light coming down through the station roof like searchlights. I waited until most of the other passengers had got off before moving myself (I hate walking along a platform in a crush of people). I was probably among the last half-dozen to leave the train, walking the short distance to the concourse where Robert Leiper was waiting. I had only half-expected to see him since we hadn’t made a definite arrangement to meet. He looked thinner than when I had last seen him in February, and his mood seemed to be one of reserved wariness (as if he were afraid of me in some way).

Above: the 8th Arrondissement is a very good area of Paris (and there’s nothing wrong with being bourgeois).

We went to my hotel in the 8th Arrondissement. Robert Leiper was impressed by the district. He was further impressed by the star rating of the small hotel where I was staying.

“The Eighth District is very bourgeois” he told me, slight sneer in his voice.

“I am nothing if not bourgeois” I said (coming from a genuinely working class East End family I am scornful of middle class people who try to pretend they are proletarian – my parents and grand-parents were glad they had escaped from poverty).

I didn’t understand why he was being hostile. Did he begrudge me an hotel in the 8th? Originally I had intended to stay at his accommodation on a house-boat permanently moored on the Seine, but the thought of sleeping on a rocking boat made me uneasy and I had transferred to an hotel at the last minute – possibly this switch had offended him in some way.

I gave him a copy of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph to read in the hotel sitting room while I went upstairs to unpack and have a wash – this took about twenty minutes. There was a tiny lift, big enough for about one person and a suitcase, but as I was only on the second floor I used the stairs (good exercise as well). My room was comfortable but a little small (I had stayed at the hotel before, years ago, and remembered the rooms as being twice the size, so they may have divided some of the rooms in two).

We walked down from the hotel to the Boulevard Haussmann (about two blocks away). It was a fine evening, so we kept on walking right into the centre of the city, over the river, and down the Rue de l’Universite, looking for a bistro that had been recommended to me. As soon as the restaurant came into view Robert Leiper seemed to have a little fit of suppressed rage.

“It’s a joynt” he said, spitting the words out.

“It’s a what?”

“It’s a joynt. You know, a joynt. This is NOT a good place to go – c’mon, I know a bar where we can get a cheap meal.”

I didn’t want to fall out with him, but equally I was not going to let him decide where I would eat. There seemed nothing wrong with the restaurant which looked respectably and authentically French (not surprisingly, as we were in France). Not replying to Robert Leiper, I went into the bistro and asked for a table for two. Robert followed me in and sat down in the seat opposite. The restaurant was a big square room, fairly dark, with a zinc topped bar and a huge range of decorative objects (wooden carvings, vases, strange curios). It was about seven thirty.

Above: I ordered the specialty of the house – poulet au pot.

Only one other table was occupied, and Robert Leiper took this as proof that the restaurant was no good. I ordered the specialty of the house, which was poulet au pot. A big vessel was brought to the table containing chicken stew – pieces of chicken with slices of carrot and potato (it was very good). Gradually the tables around us began to fill up until they were all occupied. All the voices were French and there didn’t seem to be any tourists among them (part of the attraction of the restaurant was its “authenticity”). I liked the place – it was exactly the experience I wanted.

I talked to Robert Leiper about his life in Paris over the last five months. He was very evasive about how he managed to stay in the country without a visa. I asked whether I would meet any of the French people he had got to know, and he told me he didn’t know any French people. Then he hesitated slightly before saying he wanted me to meet an American friend of his – Charles Frappe. The next half hour was dominated by his descriptions of Charles Frappe. How he was a great writer and intellectual, how he had taught Robert so much in the last few months, how he was a brilliant amateur art dealer etc etc etc. By the time we left the restaurant I was completely fed up with hearing about Charles Frappe and had no desire to meet him.

Above: one of the monuments on the Pont De Alexandre III – when I took this photograph I was feeling very apprehensive about meeting Charles Frappe and was trying to string out the walk so that it would be too late.

We walked back to the city centre and across the Seine, turning down onto the embankment. I was surprised at the hundreds of houseboats permanently moored, two deep, along the river. We walked for ages until Robert Leiper stepped down onto one boat, crossed over the deck and half-jumped onto the boat beyond it. I followed, feeling very uneasy about stepping between to rocking boats. In through a white door and down a short flight of stairs that was more like a ladder. I was so preoccupied with keeping my footing that it was only when I was completely inside that I had a chance to look at my surroundings.

“Charles” said Robert Leiper, “we’ve got a visitor!”

Monday, May 07, 2007

It means a break from work

There will be no postings on this site for the next few days as I will be in Paris. I'm looking forward to it (good food, new films, several days of getting up late). As well as being a sort of holiday it means a break from work - which has taken a downward turn recently (following a catastrophic Nick-Leeson-style mistake by a colleague sales have nose-dived, my immediate boss is on the way out and the rest of us feel we are living on borrowed time).

Bank Holiday Weekend

Above: Bank Holiday Weekend. May Day was last Tuesday, and under the rules that govern the granting of public holidays in the United Kingdom the holiday was postponed until the following Monday (nothing must be allowed to interfere with the efficient working of the economy). I got up late and went out into the garden where the horse chestnut trees, covered in "candles", were spilling drifts of white honey scented blossom upon the lawns so thickly that you felt if you stood still you would soon be smothered (like the rose petals of Heliogabalus).

Above: I went down onto the plain, to the small market town between the hills and the sea. The roads were lined with hawthorn hedges white with may blossom. The town was in a festive mood, celebrating the coming of May (in this twee shop window display you can see teddy bears dancing round a May Pole).

Above: To get to the bank I had to walk across the marketplace which was filled to bursting with the May Fair. Originally a great county event dating back to the late middle ages, the week-long Fair has degenerated into carousels, rides and complex soaring machines that excite their participants with the terror of centrifugal force. Although it was just noon, already the town centre was full of teenage girls shrieking, and teenage boys smelling of Lynx deodorant. I heard the sound of singing, and saw this religious service taking place. Obviously a relic of the medieval origins of the Fair, a priest (standing on the edge of one of the roundabouts) was blessing the proceedings, watched by various civic dignitaries. In front of them was a largish crowd (older people joining in the responses, younger people waiting for the rides to start, eastern European migrants looking completely bemused). The alfresco service launched into All People That On Earth Do Dwell, the organ of the carousel providing the music (in only two or three notes).

Above: When the service finished I walked round the carousel to see what happened next. The religious dignitaries (Vicar, Beadle, Warden and cross-holder) disappeared into the Assembly Rooms. It was as if the building had swallowed them up.

Above: Soon afterwards the civic dignatories (Mayor, mace-holder, head of the Girl Guides etc) followed them. I wondered how far I would get if I tagged on behind - the worst that could happen would be getting thrown out (and that in itself might be an interesting experience). In the end my nerve failed me.

Above: There was the ringing of a bell, and the civic party came out onto a very small balcony. Over loudspeakers a recorded fanfare played, followed by the National Anthem (this photograph shows the dignitaries in the act of singing God Save The Queen). The Mayor proclaimed the May Fair open.

Look closely at the photograph. Here you see a microcosm of the British State. From the right are a tail-coated and white-gloved flunkey, next the Town Clerk, then the Mayor (in fur-lined red robes), the Vicar and the Head of Police. They were very cramped on the balcony, but somehow they all fitted in (if this had been an episode of Dad's Army you would see Captain Mainwaring just edging himself into view, elbowing aside Hodges the Air Raid Warden).

The scene was both absurd and magnificent. Absurd because of the self-importance of the participants in their ruritanian fancy dress. Magnificent because of the physical demonstration of historical continuity and social organisation.

To consider each of them in turn:

The Town Clerk and the Mayor represent continuous local government dating back to the establishment of the borough in the ninth century. English history was shaped by the early cohesive nature of town and county councils which maintained the rule of law and prevented the barons from creating semi-independent fiefdoms (as was the case in France, where the counts often ignored the central government). In England the Royal Writ ran from Westminster out to all the counties (literally the "writ" was a piece of official writing conveyed by runners).

The priest represents the Established Church of England. Established by Act of Parliament as the only true form of the Christian religion (Holy, Catholick and Apostolick - meaning that the apostolic succession has been maintained, implying that the Church of Rome is the one that has lost its way, fallen into error etc). The Establishment of the Church of England means that although other religions are tolerated (there is complete toleration and freedom of expression in the United Kingdom) only Anglicans are officially recognised by the state.

The Head of Police represents the agents of official force (and as Bakunin has pointed out, all official laws, rules and regulations ultimately depend upon the threat of state violence).

The displays of flummery and civic courtesy came to an end, and the offical party withdrew into the upper floor of the Assembly Room (where they no doubt had a banquet).

Above: these garish balloons represented the good-natured irreverence with which the fair-goers treated the condescension of the civic dignitaries.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The politicians should over-rule the planners and tell them to put the arch back up

Above: I bought this coloured print of the Euston Arch at a print shop in Kings Parade, Cambridge.

In April Network Rail, which owns almost all of the infrastructure of the rail system in the United Kingdom, announced that British Land would be responsible for rebuilding Euston Station, a bland and featureless rail terminus on the Euston Road. The current 1960s building replaced a Victorian complex that was not only important from the point of view of industrial arachaeology, but included structures by the classical architect Philip Hardwick, including a fine Boardroom and the world famous Euston Arch (actually a propylaeum). The destruction of the arch was extremely controversial, and ever since there have been calls to rebuild the arch, ignored by the modernist intellectual elite who dismiss the idea as architecturally revanchist (Network Rail say they are not in the business of building monuments).

More on the rebuilding: http://www.bdonline.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=3084771

Above: in a recent article in The Guardian (you may have to click on the image to enlarge it so you can read it) Simon Jenkins persuasively argued that other major cities (specifically Moscow) have enhanced the built environment for their citizens by rebuilding structures destroyed in the past. From a PR point of view rebuilding the Euston Arch would generate enormous reserves of goodwill for Network Rail (which has a dreadful reputation among the public) as well as restoring the morale of the rail workforce, most of whom care deeply about the rail system. This is one of the few occasions when the politicians should over-rule the planners and tell them to put the arch back up.

Above: also in The Guardian was this front page lead article on how safety mistakes made by Railtrack (which used to own the railway infrastructure) still havn’t been corrected by Network Rail. The whole railway system used to be owned and run by the state through British Rail. This nationalised company was de-nationalised at the fag end of the Conservative government in the 1990s – an action that was very unpopular, and which did not have widespread support in the country. Instead of renationalising the railway system, the incoming Labour government left it to wither, with disasterous results. Having fallen between two stools (an incompetent outgoing government and a negligent incoming one) the rail network experienced a series of spectacular accidents in which many people lost their lives. John Major’s government was wrong to denationalise without popular support, but Tony Blair’s government was equally wrong not to try to make the privitisation work (I suppose they weren’t interested in someone else’s initiative).

And why has Gwyneth Dunwoody MP (Chairperson of the Select Committee on Transport) remained silent about Network Rail’s shortcomings? Normally she is popping up on the Today Programme, signing Early Day Motions, calling rail officials before her committee etc. Her silence seems weirdly uncharacteristic (especially as she was hyper-critical of Railtrack whenever they were at fault).

More on Gwyneth Dunwoody:

PS I have to declare an interest – I have many personal connections with the old British Rail.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The media induced skimmity ride has become one of our cultural exports

Today there are elections in the United Kingdom – council elections in England and elections for the regional assemblies in Scotland and Wales. Because these are fixed date elections it seems as if the campaigning has been going on forever. This is one of my favourite newspaper headlines from the campaign – it was printed in the Daily Telegraph (which doesn’t usually feature sex scandals).

Yet again a politician has been caught “romping” with young girls. This time it’s Angus MacNeil, a Scottish Nationalist MP (for a Westminster seat) who “romped” with two teenage girls, but told the newspapers he was “too drunk to have sex”. Ironically Angus MacNeil is the MP who accused Tony Blair of corruption in the “cash for honours” scandal and presumably believes in the highest standards of behaviour in public life.

This is a piffling little sex scandal and doesn’t really compare with the David Mellor sex scandal of 1992 when he appeared at his garden gate supported by his wife and children (and in-laws I think) denying everything, until fresh revelations made it clear he was a liar. The garden gate episode has entered the popular imagination and has more recently been satirised on the comedy show Little Britain. I think people enjoyed the David Mellor downfall because he was so incredibly arrogant and self-obsessed.

In the interests of party political fairness, both New Labour and the Liberal Democrats have also had regular sex scandals.

Thomas Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge records the old custom of the “Skimmity Ride” where effigies of people caught misbehaving were paraded through a town or village on a donkey, accompanied by an impromptu orchestra playing music on kitchen utensils (beating kettles and trays with spoons etc). Excited onlookers would jeer and yell insults as the procession went past. Finally the effigies were hanged and burned.

In a small community this sort of public humiliation would have been devastating. For the targets of a skimmity ride there would be no going back. Unlike today when no sooner do you get rid of a disgraced politician he pops back up again in the government (or in David Mellor’s case you can hear his nauseating voice on Classic FM).

The 1989 Billy Joel song We Didn’t Start The Fire refers to “British politicians sex” (specifically the 1963 Profumo Affair), indicating that the media induced skimmity ride has become one of our cultural exports.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


Selfridges in Oxford Street - one of the greatest department stores in London. Unlike Harrods, Selfridges welcomes everyone. The building is a fine example of Edwardian architecture, although you can't really see it properly.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The archetypal television historian

Above: Victoria Wood tutting her way through the British Empire.

On the subject of Victoria Wood, I watched her new television series Victoria’s Empire on Sunday - a sort of history-travelogue where she goes to former British territories and talks to people about any lingering British influences, fussing over the interviewees like a mother hen. It was quite well filmed, but the content was idiosyncratic and had no real depth (it was disquieting to see an intelligent woman pretending to be slightly dim). The Guardian reviewer yesterday (Lucy Mangan) said she preferred this mumsy approach rather than the rigours of AJP Taylor methodology, which is a depressing endorsement of the drift towards dumbing down.

History programmes are a popular genre on television (making media stars of a number of academics). The presenters of these programmes range from the buttoned-up repression of David Starkey (scowling at the camera and furiously spitting out his opinions) to the body fascism of Betony Hughes, almost bursting out of her over-tight jeans (following in a fashion first set by Michael Wood) as she describes the sexual behaviour of the ancient Greeks. In Time Team the presenter Tony Robinson runs towards the camera in a frenzy of over-excitement while the resident professor Mick Aston (who is actually quite witty, as well as being very competent) parodies himself in an ever-changing parade of multi-coloured striped jumpers (“wear something bright so it shows up well on television” the director probably told him).

And I am always disappointed with archaeologist Francis Pryor whose dubious television work on the Anglo-Saxons (lots of unsubstantiated claims and conclusions – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence as the cliché goes) is in contrast with the outstanding excavation he has done at Flag Fen (one of my all-time favourite archaeological sites).

Above: Lawrence Westgath – his style was relaxed and easy-going as he coaxed people to talk about unspeakable things.

One of the most impressive historical programmes I have seen recently was Lawrence Westgath’s examination of the legacy of slavery (repeated twice about three weeks ago). Dealing with powerfully emotive and controversial issues, his style was candid and polite, full of intuitive questions. Don’t know who Lawrence Westgath is (a Google search produces a blank) but you feel as if you want to see him tackle other subjects (Lawrence Westgath on the history of the Northern Ireland conflict, or the decline of the motor industry in the Midlands, or even the legacy of Jane Austen – almost any subject would benefit from his fresh approach).

But for me the archetypal television historian has to be Catherine Hills from Cambridge University who presented a series on archaeological continuity during the early 1990s. This programme has never been repeated (as far as I know). Probably if I saw it again I would be disappointed, but it lives in my memory as filled with revelations and original insights, so that I felt every word was worth listening to (the programme opened each week with Catherine Hills standing beside a blazing bonfire at night-time, like Eustacia Vye in the opening scenes of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native).

Oh, and I’d definitely clear my viewing schedule to watch an avatar of AJP Taylor presenting the Origins of the Second World War.