Saturday, 19 January 2019

Brexit UGH!

I am moved to take up my long-neglected blog by the succession of politicians coming on to the radio to recite the ludicrous cant that “the people have spoken” (and variations on that theme) and that the referendum vote determines everything for ever. Do the people saying this really believe this formula? It seems evidently untrue on various grounds:
1) the conduct of the campaigns on both sides relied on systematic lying and mendacious PR. The lies of the leave campaign – the promises of huge financial gains and some kind of golden age of independence  - were more potent and attractive than the project of fear run by the remainers;
2) The British rarely have referenda and do not understand that a referendum is about a very specific issue and asks a specific question. It is not an opportunity to express a wide variety of dissatisfactions with the status quo and our political “masters”;
3) a vote is of its time. The vote to leave was highly coloured by fear of Syrian refugees, which was not a genuine Brexit issue. The idea that such a vote is for ever is absurd. On that basis we would have one general election to create a government for all time, since “the people have spoken”. 
4) the referendum was in 2106. In the meantime much has changed and become apparent – not least how much we have to loose from severing our complex and rich entanglements with Europe. We can see now that the leave options are profoundly unappealing;
5) a referendum on the actual options available cannot be “undemocratic” as repeatedly claimed, or a “betrayal of the people”.  At this point is the only democratic option available.

Along the way, we may note that the gridlock in parliament, caused by the monoliths of the 2 big parties, held together only by the lust for power, demonstrates the need for truly radical reform of our political system.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Leonardo Salvator Mundi sphere

After a long (too long) gap, I have been drawn to posting again by the nonsense that it being written and spoken in the public forums about the optics of the sphere held by Christ in Leonardo's Salvator Mundi. The text below is adapted from emails I have been sending to many correspondents who have sent messages to me.

That this question should have arisen at all is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and functioning of Renaissance art in general and Leonardo’s art in particular.
We should remember that Leonardo was drawing on his documented knowledge of rock crystal to devise a large sphere for Christ to hold, as an iconographical invention. He was not making a “portrait” of an actual sphere. Indeed spheres that large were not known at that time. Nor was he following all its optical consequences to their logical conclusion. I have been asked on many occasions why the drapery behind the sphere is not radically affected by what is in effect a large magnifying glass. The answer in a word is decorum; that is to say “pictorial good manners”. Leonardo observed many visual effects in the real world, such the blur of very fast-moving objects, that he would never have incorporated into paintings. He said that such extreme effects belonged to the world of “speculators” on natural phenomena rather than to the art of painting. He and other artists knew about refraction in water, but he certainly would not have portrayed Christ’s legs as optically bent in a Baptism. Leonardo’s paintings re-make nature not only accordance with natural law but also in obedience to the rules that governed functioning images for his patrons. He would not have disrupted the efficacy of the painting as a devotional image. His painting drew on his knowledge of optics and how the working of the eye (e.g. MS E) affected the clarity of objects at different distances, as in the Salvator Mundi, but they were not raw demonstrations of optical science, any more than they were stark demonstrations of anatomy. In the Mona Lisa for example he does not follow the visual implications of looking at a woman inside a balcony against a bright landscape, although he know precisely what the actual effect would have been.
Many of the things in the press (such as Leonardo never using a frontal pose) have been very poorly thought through. But de-bunking a $350 million painting gets column inches.
I have a book on the Salvator coming out next year with Robert Simon and Margaret Dalivalle. There is also a chapter in my personalised Living with Leonardo, published by Thames and Hudson in March.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

University courses, student loans/debts

Back after a long break, more or less resolved to blog at more regular intervals (thank you Walter!), but not at all optimistic.

Today the English and Welsh A-level results are out, determining university entrance. As well as the stock media debates about standards, fairness etc., this year there is much discussion of the massive debts incurred by students and the poor rates of repayment (determined by subsequent income). The interested parties - experts on education, school teachers, students, politicians of various hues - trot out their opinions on a ritualised annual basis, looking to score points rather than really thinking. No-one seems to be stepping back and asking radical questions (at least not those who obtain media time).

Let's ask some basic questions. Why is it that at age 18 (or so) we have determined that teenagers should embark on monolithic studies of three years (or four in Scotland) in highly defined areas in a way that determines much in their future lives, and more or less ensures that they will thereafter undergo no further formal education.

Why three or four years at this point in someone's life? There is no good basis for this "rule". If there is one single lesson I learnt over the course of my many years in the education world, it is that people develop at very different rates and ways, and have very diverse forms of intelligence and skill. Our current system cannot handle this diversity and fails most 16 to 18-year-olds to greater of lesser degrees.

My suggestion is that we think of scrapping the current assumptions about further education.

At school leaving age (itself open to revision), each student would be given a set number of further education credits (perhaps equivalent to a 3-year course) that they could take up at any point in their lives. Each credit would be "spent" on a course in a particular area of activity, ranging from carpentry to chemistry. This might be taken immediately following school, or after some kind of work experience. Subsequent credits could be taken in a continuous batch of studies over the same kind of period as now (above all for people of an academic inclination, who might move on to post-credit, "graduate" work), or at any time and after any interval of years. Someone might, for instance, gain some work experience in the law or in the building trade immediately on leaving school, and decide that they need to to upgrade their formal qualifications (ideally in collaboration with an employer).  Or they might decide to study something different, having gained some experience and a broader perspective. Or they might study for 2 years, leaving for employment, with the equivalent of one year's credits still available for future use. Someone else might want to change direction at any point in their life, either radically or re-tooling in their present area of activity to master new directions which were not apparent during their initial training. The requirement of jobs are not static in the present age of rapid technological and other changes. Someone who missed out on schooling, not having engaged with study, would have the opportunity to re-engage and gain valuable credits. None would be cast on the rubbish heap at 16 or later. Practical intelligence would be given as much chance to flower as academic intelligence.

No-one would be obliged to take up their credits. Someone who went straight into employment may achieve what they desire without further formal study. Someone who retires with, say, a year's credits still available might seek a fulfilling direction in the many years that will remain for many retirees.

Higher education providers would need to re-thing what they teach, how they attract students and the relationships of the qualifications to the worlds of employment. Students would be able assess the trajectory of their lives from a broader perspective. Schools would need to think about what diverse students need to launch themselves on worthwhile lives. Less exams and more actual teaching.

This flexible system might seem like a recipe for chaos in not knowing how many are going to be studying what. But the Open University has taught us that such numbers are forecastable on statistical basis. The system would settle down quite quickly.

The finance dimension needs thinking through. It may be that the equivalent of a year's study is met automatically by the state. Subsequently, courses could be financed by a cocktail of official and private support, the latter involving employers and perhaps direct loans. It may be that employers would contribute to a central pot of funds for later qualifications and re-tooling courses.

I have been the beneficiary of the present system. It suited a clever state-school boy of the 1950s and 1960s. There are increasingly few that it really suits over the full course of their lives. Let's seriously ask, "why three or four years in a row?'.

Saturday, 25 June 2016


I feel ashamed to be British. We have succumbed to  narrow-minded jingoism and covert (sometimes overt) racism, encouraged opportunistically be those who should know better.  The cosy political and financial cabal's in London must take their fair share of blame, and Corbyn's  Labour party has been wholly impotent.
It's clear that two factors won the day for brexit. The first and most prominent is immigration. Campaigners reporting from the "doorstep" indicated that this was almost the only issue that really counted. The second is decades of neglect of the regions, particularly in the North of England, which allowed those who have been "left out" to blame the EU - in spite of EU regional aid.  This does not apply to Scotland, which thinks behaves as a country.

We are now cut adrift in the North Sea, battered by financial and social storms and bereft of credible leadership.

What to do? We should strive to be internationalist on a world-wide basis, fostering genuine British values independently of the corrupt power structures that pertain in so many walks of life, above all financial. This means that we should do everything to stop John Major's "bastards" from taking over.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Gove and Johnson

Michael Gove paints a picture of Britain as a "progressive beacon" outside the EU. There is nothing "progressive" about Gove. He belongs to the intellectually dogmatic radical right. Let loose, he will privatise everything in sight. Johnson is of the emotionally opportunistic radical right.  Beside them, David Cameron's pragmatic right looks positively desirable.  The idea they can legitimately speak for a broad spectrum of society is absurd. They exploit inflammatory issues to draw in sectors of society with which they have nothing in common.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Jo Cox, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage

Let us characterise political and social views in the EU debate as a continuous spectrum. At one end is a tolerant internationalism, coupled with a proper recognition and respect for one's geographical and ethnic origins. At the other is committed racism and bigotry, underpinned by potential violence. All the mainstream politicians stand not too far from the middle of that spectrum - or claim to. The issue is which way they are facing when they look for support. There is no doubt that Johnson is consciously facing down the spectrum, implicitly looking for support from those closer to the racist end. Farage is more or less openly soliciting such support, while disclaiming racist views on his own behalf.
At the extreme end of the spectrum stand Brevic, the Norwegian killer, and now Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox. Those using fear of invading foreigners in the EU debate should ask themselves hard questions about which end of the spectrum they are facing.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brexit and EU referendum

The debate, which has degenerated into a slanging match, has essentially become economics vs immigration. In the long term and in the big picture immigration is a secondary issue, inflated by politicians and press who are exploiting residual jingoism. What has been lost is any sense of the greater ideal of the European "family" , based on our shared heritage and future place in the world.
When I first visited America, I realised that I was European - as well as British, English (with a Scottish family), a resident of Stirlingshire. Do you remember at school proudly writing down one's address as (in my case)
122, Clarence Road,
Great Britain,
the Northern Hemisphere,
the World,
the Universe?

To which level we assign power over us is a matter of informed cultural and political choice. We are governed and regulated by entities ranging from local councils to the UN.  Europe is just part of the spectrum, and not as monolithically dominant as the bilious Brexiters spuriously claim.  On balance, the legislation passed by Europe compares very favourably with that passed by our national government.

Leaving Europe would be a disaster.