Category Archives: culture

Envoi

There are times for writing, and then there are times when writing simply isn’t possible.

As regular readers of Fugitive Ink may have noticed, more and more often over the past year or two, there hasn’t really been much time for writing hereabouts. Months pass between posts. When I’ve tried the sort of solution to this that seems to work for some bloggers — a random photograph, a word of explanation — the result has rarely been satisfactory.

Probably readers find this on-again, off-again business frustrating. Certainly, I find it frustrating.

And yet there’s something unsurprising about it, too. In truth, writing isn’t the main focus of my life, for the simple reason that I’ve never really wanted it to be the main focus of my life. Other things matter more. At the moment, those ‘other things’ simply don’t allow time for writing — let alone for the reading, thinking and intuition that really ought to underpin any worthwhile writing. Also, politics at the moment has taken on a strangely bitter taste. Picking fights can be fun when doing so is a matter of choice — but when it becomes a matter of inevitability, the fun tends to fade.

So for the moment, anyway, I am going to turn my attention elsewhere. At some point in the future, I may be back. In the meantime, however, many thanks to all the friends of Fugitive Ink for the encouragement and enlightenment you have provided over the past three years.

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On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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On Tate Modern’s first ten years

There are times when art matters a lot to me, but also times when it hardly registers. Over the past few weeks, for obvious reasons, politics has engaged, entertained and enraged in a way that art has not. It turns out that the end of an era, when viewed in the right sort of light, trumps even a very good picture. Who knew?

Of course, there have been exceptions. The magisterial Paul Sandby show at the Royal Academy, the important Paul Nash exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the happy rediscovery of Rupert Lee (one of Nash’s less well known contemporaries) at Gallery 27 in Cork Street were each as distracting as art ever can be, although of course not without their own various penumbras of political content. Who, for instance, could glance at Rupert Lee’s hurried, inelegant yet startlingly honest sketch of a dead fellow soldier without reflecting that for us, as much as our Great War predecessors, this remains a forbidden image — that during an election campaign in particular, there are some truths about conflict judged a little too ripe for consumption by the voting public? And by the same token, who can view Paul Sandby’s cool evocations of well-ordered, civilised, richly productive landscapes, or for that matter his vicious attacks on Hogarth, without wondering at the distance that Britain has travelled in a mere two centuries when it comes to making political arguments by means of popular culture?

So perhaps the distinction between art and politics isn’t as firm as that first sentence might have implied. All of which brings us to another topical matter — Tate Modern’s tenth birthday. Can it really be right that a decade has passed since those days when the atmosphere in the Turbine Hall was all but literally electric with the buzz of novelty, controversy and Cool Britannia ambience? Continue reading

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That debate again: picking over what’s left

Good news. As of Monday morning, the ravens had not yet deserted the Tower of London. They were, in fact, on notably frisky form, hopping and cawing and picking combatively at long-dead scraps of meaty-looking detritus as only ravens can.

Their slightly ghoulish cheerfulness seems to match the public mood, or at very least my own. Having recently despaired of the present general election as tiresome beyond words — see here — I’ve now decided that it’s actually quite entertaining.

The thing that changed my mind was, of course, last Thursday’s debate, to which my responses were uncharacteristically mainstream. Which is to say, once I’d stopped distracting myself by trying to figure out which shade of Farrow & Ball Estate® Emulsion most closely matched the strangely immobile surface of David Cameron’s face — in the end I plumped for Ointment Pink®, although admittedly this is a point upon which reasonable bloggers might, with honour, differ — I fell in with the general view that Gordon Brown looked old and tired, Cameron stiff and anxious, while Nick Clegg — hands in his pockets, eye-contact firmly established, making at least some of us wish that we were called ‘Jacqueline’ — positively shone, at least in relative terms.

Of course, television is an intrinsically stupid medium. Televised debates are, at best, an acceptable test of how well someone performs in a televised debate — nothing more. Most people who are really good on television couldn’t be trusted to run to the shops for a pint of milk, let alone tasked with negotiating the trackless and hazardous landscape of coalition government. So to that extent, the debate shouldn’t have mattered much at all.

And yet it’s transformed the mood of campaign. Where once there was the joyless run-up to a cheerless coronation, now, at least as far as CCHQ is concerned, we must surely be enjoying the beginnings of a bloodbath. Continue reading

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On James Lees-Milne and the National Trust

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, bequeathed to the National Trust by the 11th Marquess of Lothian upon his death in 1940.

Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental?

— James Lees-Milne, ‘The Country House in Our Heritage”, in The Destruction of the Country House by Roy Strong et al, Thames & Hudson, 1974.

i.

A professed enthusiasm for the published diaries of James Lees-Milne comes, we learn too late, at the cost of having to defend their late author against a catalogue of failings — only some of these entirely imagined or misguided.

A few accusations, at least, can be fended off easily enough. Wasn’t JLM a snob? Yes, of course he was — but then he was neither the uncritical confidante of duchesses, the worshipper at the gaudy shrines of wealth and success nor the self-congratulatory anosmiac in matters of public and private morality that some believe him to be, not least because to have been any of these things would have exemplified a predictability both boring and unattractive — and JLM was, of course, neither. Wasn’t he a reactionary, though? Not really, more’s the pity. Because for all the encouraging rants against trade union militancy, redistributive taxation and Irish republicanism notwithstanding, there’s also enough Harold Nicolsonian liberalism, Duke of Edinburgh-style ur-environmentalism and dandyish personal eccentricity here to ward off any accusations of ideological consistency. Politically, as in most other ways, JLM remains hard to pin down. In these paradoxes, maddening though they can be, lies more than a degree of his diaries’ enduring appeal.

Admittedly, there are problems. JLM was, on the basis of these same diaries, both anti-semitic and racist — but so very mildly so, by the standards of his age and class, that one often ends up wondering more at the mildness itself, than at the unremarkable nastiness and stupidity of yesterday’s rightly discredited prejudices. He was capable of remarkably homophobic pronouncements — somewhat oddly, given his promiscuously bisexual, mostly guilt-free history. His patchy wartime service — six months in the Irish Guards, followed by a year of convalescence and a welcome return to civilian life — looks unimpressive, especially when compared with the heroism of so many of his contemporaries, although the stress-induced onset of hereditary Jacksonian epilepsy would clearly be a kinder explanation than whatever combination of nervous collapse and cowardice unsympathetic critics might otherwise postulate in its place. JLM also went on a lot about liking houses more than people, which is rarely a good sign — although in practice, the individual qualities of house and person tended to soften the edges of any comparison — so perhaps he can be excused on that particular score.

In any event, however, we may perhaps agree that JLM was not an unambiguously admirable human being. As the diaries make plain — nor does Michael Bloch’s brilliant biography do anything much to dispel the impression — JLM could be petty, headstrong, arbitrary, vain, self-justifying and also extremely selfish. But JLM was, as the diaries also reveal, clear-eyed regarding his failings. And herein, I suppose, reposes his greatness as a diarist. For the perfect imaginary companion, while he surely ought to be more alert, more perceptive and more fluently confidential than even his brightest readers, at the same time cannot be seen to be superior to them. ‘You were silly like us …’ Even more than his wit and social reach, JLM’s contradictions, his failings and that unsparing yet somehow affectionate self-criticism are what render the diaries perfect company, as much so on tiresome days as on happy ones. A better man would, in short, have been a worse diarist. His enthusiasts end up loving him as much for his contradictions, contrariness and flaws, real though these may be, as despite them.

Yet for all that, there is one aspect of JLM’s story which continues to fill me with unease — his relationship with the National Trust.

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‘Earth: Art of a changing world’ at the Royal Academy

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

Edward Burtynsky, 'Super Pit #4, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia', 2007, Chromogenic Colour Print. © The artist, courtesy Flowers, London

‘Brave’ contemporary art or climate change agit-prop — which is more tiresome?

Such is the quandary with which, at least in theory, Earth: Art of a changing world presents visitors to the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens site, in the second of three annual GSK Contemporary seasons. If, in the event, Earth turns out to be something rather different from what either climate change sceptics or enthusiasts might reasonably have expected, the result is, nonetheless, revealing.

Don’t get me wrong. Earth isn’t without the odd pleasant surprise. For one thing, low expectations do pay good dividends. It’s still simply not that easy to gather together work by 34 artists without stumbling over something that merits at least brief consideration, perhaps even a degree of visual interest.

And then, even when faced with the reliable disappointment that is our contemporary art scene, there’s a point at which basic human sympathy starts to assert its own modest if stubborn demands.

Consider, just for a moment, the plight of the exhibition’s organisers. Faced with the need to bundle together a disparate job-lot of contemporary art in a manner unlikely to repel the out-of-town Christmas-shopping crowd who constitute so lucrative a slice of the RA’s winter audience, the Earth theme was, all things considered, a perfectly rational choice — capacious enough to include pretty much anything, of course, but also right-on enough to cast a flattering glow of moral rectitude across faces long since hardened by the rigours of several hours’ of full-throttle seasonal consumerism, while at the same time not excluding at least the possibility of ‘edginess’, that sparkling decorative flourish without which no contemporary art exhibition could ever be complete. Comprendre, c’est pardoner, this being the season of goodwill and everything. Continue reading

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On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

Amongst the lesser pleasures of parenthood should be numbered the opportunity, not only to re-visit the favourite books of one’s own early childhood — those fictive universes invariably now out-of-scale and slightly unconvincing, like some once-familiar infant school encountered in later life, the ceilings far too low, the chairs too small, the prospect out the window disenchanted, no water-dish put out for the headmaster’s gentle ambling dog, presumably now dead these thirty-something years or more — but also — perhaps even more so, because less obviously blurred with the stuff of memory and mortality — the opportunity to encounter as an adult the children’s books one missed in childhood. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is very much a case in point.

Some children’s books are, admittedly, too much like hard work for the old. I spent most of 2006-07, for instance, reading Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The experience was, looking back on it dispassionately, akin to that of some seventh-century anchorite walled up in his desert fastness, having bid farewell to the world outside forever, resigned to mouthing that hieratic, unearthly liturgy through dry lips — reading while the light held, reciting when it failed — in those early months perhaps seeking to understand the words he enunciates, later meekly accepting them, finally seeking only to appease his sometimes angry, often capricious but eternally untiring Listener.

Yet although I expended more time, effort and persistence on my examinations of this slim volume than I had, for instance, on any text related to my own doctoral dissertation, the Tiger‘s essential mysteries did not, in the end, reveal themselves to me. Almost certainly, I was not worthy of them. Continue reading

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