Monday, 21 September 2020

COVID corruption and cuddly cronies

 I have now resorted to switching off the radio when government ministers appear with monotonous regularity on the Today programme to misrepresent everything to do with the Covid crisis.  A regular spokesman is Grant Shapps (Transport Minister!!) presumably because he is a master of deception. He founded a web marketing company that pushed books on how to become 'stinking rich', using the false name, Michael Green.

The really big corruption is not tackled by BBC and other media interviews. The emergency measures to deal with COVID suspended the need for competitive tendering for government contracts. This has allowed the assigning of millions of pounds to private companies like Serco and G4S (of Olympics infamy) which have direct links with the Tory party and  advisers, most notoriously Cummings. The head of the testing regime, Dido Harding, is a Tory peer and wife of former MP with no relevant experience of health administration. Now, as a cuddly crony, she is to rewarded for incompetence by being appointed to be head of the National Health Institute which replaces the falsely maligned Public Health England.

Where is the outcry? It seems to have become accepted that the political system is now corrupted by big money and a Johnsonian mode of nepotism. We have always faced vested interests, but this is something new and in excess of past excesses. 

Monday, 13 July 2020

back operation and new book

I see that I have not updated my medical bulletin. In case anyone is interested.

Three weeks after the operation, my back pain suddenly diminished to almost nothing, which was the object of the spinal decompression.  The crushed nerve to my right leg means that it is not working optimally, but I am doing physio to strengthen the muscles etc.  I am walking better, but not over distances of more than about 1 mile. I am determined to make progress.  My physio is Marcel Wallace, Marina Wallace’s son, who lives in Vancouver!
Major thanks to the excellent surgeon, Roy Chaudhary. He was confident that the op had gone well. He was right.

I have delivered my book, "Heavenly Visions. Dante and the Art of Divine Light", to Lund Humfries. Aiming for publication in April during Dante's 700th anniversary.  I see it as a new "paragone", the comparison of the arts. Whether the text is any good, the visuals should be spectacular.

This is a fragment from the introduction.

"The present book is in part about Dante Alighieri’s understanding of light [based on Mediaeval optics]  and the legacy of his Paradiso. This involves both the direct sense of the considerable impact of his extraordinary vision, and also the general diffusion of his literary portrayal of the extra-terrestrial realm of spiritual light. But it is also a paragone study in what poetry can do and what painting can do.  We will see Dante and the painters mutually striving to meet one of the greatest of all visual challenges. That challenge was how to describe extremities of divine light that were beyond the scope of our earth-bound sense of sight."

Universities and colleges. A radical solution

The government, such as it is, seem to be looking at tertiary education and the university/ college divide.
Three years ago I wrote a blog on this, offering a radical solution. I am copying part of it below. (This also helps a bit with my failure to write as regularly as I keep promising myself.)

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-think 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, 13 June 2020


I sent this to the Guardian but they did not reply

Scandalous statues in Bristol and anywhere




The toppling in Bristol of the bronze statue of Edward Colston, slave trader and major benefactor (or should it be benefactor and major slave trader?) raises complex issues, and my own opinion has changed somewhat in the light of recent events.


My instinct as an art historian is not to approve of the destruction / vandalism of a work of art – though in truth the statue by John Cassidy of Manchester in does not rise above the competent. We obviously should not decide such an issue on the basis of its perceived quality of a work of art. BUT there is a memorial to Colston in the decommissioned church of All Saints in Bristol. It was designed by  the excellent architect James Gibbs (Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields etc.) with a funeral effigy by John Michael Rysbrack, as good a sculptor as there was in Britain at that time. With such an artistic pedigree, do we protect the memorial while not regretting (too much) the fall of Cassidy’s routine bronze? There’s also a fine swagger portrait of Colston by Jonnathan Richardson, previously in the Mayor’s office (present location withheld). Do we slash it with a sharp instrument?


There are long historical antecedents to acts of destruction. Our churches and collections of Mediaeval art bear vivid witness to the iconoclastic destruction of “papist” images. The issue of “graven” images runs as a centuries-old sore across the various Christian denominations. Such British pre-Reformation images as still survive are now likely to admired in historic venues and museums administred by non-Catholics.  We may also recall the dynamiting of the very giant Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001. That was a World Heritage Site. There is a huge number of such events, which we are now likely to denounce.


I have tended to think that statues of people who incite our disapproval in whole or in part are an integral part of the historic fabric of a place, which cannot be productively re-modelled, and that it is best that they are seen to serve as memorials to values that we no longer espouse. However these matters are complicated and not readily subject to a simple formula.


Let us take as an example the vandalism in 2017 of statue of the pioneer gynaecologist, J. Marion Sims , and its subsequent removal from its pedestal on the edge of New York’s Central Park. It was taken to  the cemetery where Sims is buried. Sims’s “experiments’ on  black women are taken as outweighing his apparent virtues, as measured on today’s scales. But let’s look at Central Park itself, one of the signature assets of the Big Apple. To create it in 1857 about 16,000 people were involuntarily displaced, and schools, churches, a convent and residential village were destroyed. As we might suspect, the residents were mainly black.  Do we renounce Central Park? Do we return the sites to the descendants of the displaced? 


Many of our valued places, institutions and artworks were bankrolled by money that we would now regard us unclean, including not a few Oxbridge Colleges – and good number of Renaissance masterpieces.


My answer was that we should not hide the past and that it is better to know about it than deny it. Education, in this case, is the conventional answer. Now I am not so sure. 


The erecting a public monument is political-cum-social act. Removing it is a legitimate response to the original act.  I say “removal” very deliberately not destruction. The statues are mute but visually eloquent witnesses to our history and our deployment of art in the service of causes that we have (or should have) long since abandoned. Local solutions should be found as to where to re-locate them, ideally where they can serve an active cultural role. The empty plinths, like that in Trafalgar Square, can support major works by contemporary artists. Let’s build something new on the debris of what we now regard as shameful attitudes.


Two footnotes.

1. For 99% of the time no-one notices the statues, unless they portray someone very famous like Churchill. They are just part of the urban scenery.

2. It is interesting that a bronze effigies of largely forgotten, eldery white men can still be invested with such presence and meaning when the occasion arises.


For Central Park, see Sarah Waxman

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

spine operation

The operation on my spine, to make space for trapped neves, seemed to go well.  I was home the next morning, in good shape, apparently a miracle of Biblical proportions. But... and it is a big but, since that time I have experienced severe back pain, which means I can only just get around the house.  The wound is very clean, so no infection. It might be muscles spasms. I am in touch with the surgeon and we are working on the problem. Very disappointing.

In my next blog, I will talk about the destruction of 'racist' statues, but don't have ooomph to do it now.

Monday, 1 June 2020

I go into hospital for my 'spinal decompression' surgery tomorrow. Operated though a keyhole. I hope to be operational again in reasonably short order. We will see... More afterwards.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Dante book and no blog

No recent blogs. Sorry.
I have been writing intensively. "Visions of Heaven. Dante and Divine light in Art".
I am giving priority to finishing the chapters before I have an operation on my back on 2nd June. Spinal stenosis has crunched my mobility. I hope my ability to get about will be restored to a workable degree.
I am more than half way through the last full chapter. Watch this space (if you want to) once the chapter is in draft.