Blasting & Blessing: a sunstruck edition


When I find myself actually lingering amidst the garish neon colours and pumping Japanese techno-pop in the Oxford Street Uniqlo, whence I’d repaired to buy yet more summer-type T-shirts, just to enjoy another minute or two of air-conditioning, there can be only one explanation: Soho, like much of the rest of Britain, is in the grip of a heatwave. London’s peerless parks come into their own at moments like this, together with — as we have seen — the reliable air-conditioning systems of downmarket clothes emporia, cold showers, iced coffee, torpor and idleness.Since, however, weather on the wrong side of 30 degrees celsius is not exactly conducive to labouring over a hot MacBook Pro for any longer than entirely necessary, by way of intellectual exertions, the following observation will, I’m afraid, have to do. For anything else, it really is just too darned hot.

First, bless Marc Sidwell, whose excellent The Arts Council: Managed to Death, summarised in this Standpoint piece, appeared yesterday. Sidwell wishes to abolish the national Arts Council. While he may not have been the first to try to bring the curtain down on an organisation which, in the course of its 63-year history, has only become more vexatiously managerial, more socially instrumental in its motivation and more profligate in its deployment of taxpayers’ money, rarely can the case have been made so calmly, clearly and near-unarguably. If Sidwell seems to retain, for instance, a little more faith in the efficacy of the DCMS than I do, the sheer reasonableness of his message makes it all the harder to dismiss. Present at the launch of this well-produced and information-packed report was Nick Starr from the National Theatre, an earnest and likeable soul who struggled to explain why the Arts Council somehow needs to know the sexuality of its grant recipients whilst at the same time obviously not using the information to make funding decisions — just collecting data as an end in itself, presumably, as if that were somehow better. Also present was Ed Vaizey MP, Shadow Minister for Culture — typically urbane, jovial and who said absolutely nothing that couldn’t have been said just as plausibly by his Labour counterpart. All of which was, incidentally, just a little bit rather disappointing, as at a time when public expenditure is surely due to come under increasingly rigorous scrutiny, the sort of well-thought-out reforms advocated by Sidwell read less as tinkering for the sake of it, let alone as free market fundamentalism, than as a graceful response to fiscal necessity. In any event, consider Sidwell’s report very highly recommended.

Secondly — and perhaps slightly unfashionably — bless John Blundell, whose departure as General Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs became public knowledge yesterday. Relaxing in our armchairs with a large measure of hindsight, it’s possible to have loads of mildly discreditable fun second-guessing some of Blundell’s decisions, going wide-eyed over the faintly shocking anecdotes that IEA events have always produced with such wide-armed generosity, and generally going on about how much better everything used to be, back in the glory days of Harris, Seldon and Wood. To do so, though, would be to forget something which all too many of us, here in the United Kingdom but also far from these shores, really ought to remember — which is to say, the kindness, understanding and decency with which John and his wife Christine encouraged the IEA’s penumbra of students, young academic staff and others, providing opportunities to explore a world of classical liberal scholarship and practice while at the same time, asking so very little in return. Put bluntly, had it not been for their efforts, I wouldn’t have my spuriously respectable-sounding PhD (Cantab) today, and while it is probably true that classical liberalism might well have survived this eventuality, that in no way blunts my gratitude towards these two dedicated, decent people. Nor, without them, would I have enjoyed some extremely educational moments — lunch alongside the absolutely charming Prof. David Starkey, for instance, late chances to spend time with Lord Harris of High Cross and Prof. Arthur Seldon, or indeed an actual conversation (June 2005) with a lucid, lively and indeed downright sparkling Lady Thatcher, celebrating the IEA’s achievements.

Selfishness aside, some of Blundell’s initiatives came off remarkably well — the filmed interviews with major classical liberal thinkers will doubtless remain indispensable long after much else has been forgotten — while the struggle to find a role for the IEA during those Blairite years of consensual drift and ideological complacency was inevitably an uphill one. As far as the future’s concerned, Danny Finkelstein gets this exactly wrong: not just in forgetting that the IEA’s charitable status explicitly prevents it from assuming the sort of campaigning role occupied by the TaxPayers’ Alliance (remember Graham Mather’s tenure, anyone?), but also in ignoring the basic effectiveness of the IEA’s original project, which was to de-mystify the ‘science’ of economics so that normal men and women could more easily evaluate the economic arguments encountered in the course of everyday life, political participation included. Or does Finkelstein really think that there isn’t a public case to be made for free markets, deregulation and slimmed-down public spending? In any event, I wish the Blundells much happiness and success in whatever they take up next — and good luck to the next General Director, who will have his work cut out for him.

What else? Let’s bless, at least in principle, this plan to improve Westminster Abbey, almost as if our established church were a going enterprise, rather than just a sort of sub-National Trust official conservator of ancient buildings, a provider of wedding venues for socially ambitious agnostics and a haven for the odd notions of Dr Rowan Williams — to whom, for the avoidance of doubt, I not only accord the sense of deference that any reasonably devout child of his church ought to bear for this hugely misunderstood, intelligent man, but also quite a lot of respect and agreement, e.g. here. Unsurprisingly, our materialistic and miserablist age being what it is, public response has been negative, the general drift of the objection hinging on the persistence of child poverty, the existence of ‘social needs’ here and elsewhere around the world, and the supposed frivolity of elaborating an ecclesiastical building when we might, instead, spend the money on all sorts of other things. Against which, I suppose, one can set not only Matthew 26:11, but also, rather more usefully, John 12:2-8. And then let’s keep our fingers crossed that the Prince of Wales ends up in charge of it, in the hope that the project goes the way of e.g. the late Queen Mother’s statue, not her Hyde Park gates.

And what is there to blast? I must be going absolutely repulsively squishy-soft in my old age, because I can’t think of anything much to blast today — not even the heatwave itself.

Of course, it won’t do to be frivolous about heatwaves. Hot weather exacts a terrible toll on the very old, the seriously infirm, the foolish and unlucky. It would be badly wrong to wish for one. Still, now that the present heatwave is upon us — it’s notionally 32 degrees celsius in London as I type this — why not enjoy its frankly unwholesome charm?

London is, of course, famously at its best, or at least its most open and alluring, in the midst of a catastrophe. And while the inevitable sunburns, Tube problems and mild yet persistent inconvenience do not a Battle of Britain make, this freakish heat is enough to break down the barriers that prevent strangers from chatting, staring, interacting in a vaguely Mediterranean way. As I walked back up to Soho from Westminster yesterday evening, just before 9 pm, the West End could hardly have looked more improbably beautiful. The marble of Trafalgar Square was turning rose-red as the sun dropped, the good-humoured crowds were in no hurry to leave — and shimmering on the hot air was the common realisation, as sometimes happens in times of disaster, that an external event had suddenly suspended the normal rules, so that everything was thrown open to a cheerful, existential chaos — a magnificently indeterminate state of being due to end only with the falling barometer, thunderclaps and shrieks as the wet streets empty, the redundancy of those daring strappy tops and silly sandals, a return to jumpers and sturdy, sensible shoes — in short, the covered-up routines of our normal lives, in many ways so comfortable, yet also less revealing, less dangerously alive. For a few days, though, London has become a foreign place, requiring exploration, uncertainty and compromise. Our city has been re-imagined for us. And I, for one, am vastly enjoying this unexpected holiday, so unpredictable in onset and uncertain in duration.

And finally, one quick housekeeping announcement, free of blasting or blessing, actual or implied: the end of next week marks the onset of school holidays here, complete with predictably radical effects on my physical autonomy, intellectual energy and indeed my ability to function at much above a lively four year old’s attention span. Hence, by way of an experiment, I may try to post slightly more often, but at derisory length, rather more like a ‘normal’ blog. Or, well, I may not. How will this fascinating drama resolve itself? Only time will tell …

(P.S. The photograph at the top of this post — St James’s Park in the sunshine, on the day the Irish Guards trooped their Colour — was taken by my son, who is still too young to have retained an intellectual property lawyer. Yet.)


Filed under art, blasting & blessing, culture, London, politics

7 responses to “Blasting & Blessing: a sunstruck edition

  1. Gaw

    What a wonderful tour d’horizon! You showed remarkable restraint in not ‘blasting’ that bit of Westminster that isn’t the Abbey. But then, why stop enjoying the sunshine when there’s surely not much more to say on that topic?

    It really is almost miraculous how sunny weather can change almost everything, even it seems the length of your posts. I do hope, by the way, you don’t become too ‘normal’!

  2. Thanks, Gareth. Some might argue that the danger of my becoming ‘normal’ is, all things considered, not one of our more pressing problems.

    Still, as for Westminster, I’m actually just a bit bored of the whole subject right now. Let us pause and savour this rare moment when I’m in harmony with most of the rest of the human race ….. !

  3. I find it hilarious that 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit (which is how we stubborn Americans insist on measuring temperature, and which is what Google tells me 32C converts to) qualifies as a debilitating heat wave. Around New York City in the summer temperatures in the low 90s are cause for celebration. Definitely not comfortable temps, but hardly a disaster.

    Let me know when it hits 39C.

    We’ve had a cool late spring early summer. Spring usually lasts about two weeks around here, but this year’s been surprisingly mild. We’ve barely hit 85 (29C). It’s been quite nice.

  4. Having grown up in North Carolina myself, where by London standards we probably experienced a debilitating, mild-melting heatwave for, oh, about four or five months out of the year — with high humidity, too — I sympathise, Chris.

    On the other hand, North Carolina was set up for that sort of thing — I am fondly remembering screened porches, watermelon, sweet iced tea and fireflies — and North Carolinians were accustomed to hot weather. Britain, on the other hand, isn’t particularly well-suited to heat, and few of us are used to it, and so it really is a bit of an adventure.

    So, in other words, yes, I know there are doubtless plenty of places with hotter weather, just as there are places with more vexing political problems, less interesting art exhibitions and so forth — but, well, we blog with what we’ve got, as it were.

  5. I’m just always surprised at how not hot it is (I hear) in England. I should move.

  6. I just noticed the reference to Danny Finklestein.

    Being wrong is something he should be used to.

    I don’t know a single issue he has been right on since 1997.

    I’m still waiting for him to acknowledge that blogging has a role in British politics, something he poo-pooed at a debate in 2004 after Rathergate.

    But then this is someone who ran the Tories’ media and policy direction do brilliantly in the run up to the 1997 general election.

    So if Mr Finklestein has a prediction about, say, the price of gold in the next two years, or what restaurants are “must visit,” please let us know. A backwards weathervane has its uses.

  7. Ooh, harsh, Antoine!

    And yet, looking back at the Finklestein offering that caught my attention, it’s hard not to be reminded of a characteristic weakness in Finklestein’s writing, which is the habit of imagining that there’s a simple, straight-forward, progressive, right-thinking answer to something — whereas the truth is in fact far more complicated, ambiguous and indeed murky, which is probably why what Finklestein wants to happen hasn’t happened yet, and in fact possibly shouldn’t happen at all.

    The clarity of those prescriptions is, of course, a gift to the whole Comment Central school of journalism, or indeed leader writing more generally, wherein all issues require definitive resolution within 200 words or so. So perhaps one simply ought to shrug and accept the limitations of the genre. Still, I do think he got it completely wrong about the IEA — while you make a persuasive case that he gets it wrong about a great deal besides. And I’ll certainly let you know if he posts on the price of gold ….