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.

Thursday, 30 April 2020

Covid glossary

A Challenge -  something we have failed at
"The Science" - which of the varied opinions, theories, analyses is most useful politically
Open / Transparent -  anything we can't keep hidden
Ending the Lockdown - planning based on guesswork
Promises - obsolete statements
Flattening the curve - why there is another peak
Press Conference - an opportunity to parade well-rehearsed words that add up to nothing
Media Interview -  ditto
Leadership (BJ) - making a lot of blustering noise that adds up to nothing
Brexit - we are leaving, or not
Care Homes - highly profitable enterprises
Ethnic Minorities -  a group of people against whom we once discriminated and still will when all this is over
Those at risk - those who can be sacrificed.

(Contributions welcomed)

Saturday, 25 April 2020

acronyms and arrogance

During current crisis we are assailed with acronyms. To give one example, an intensive care unit becomes an ICU. Oh yes, we also have PPE.
This is part of a broader and pernicious trend.  I still take Nature on a regular basis, having written a column for a number of years. At one time I could understand about one third of the content, could see what is going on in another third and could not grapple with the other third. Now, the great majority of the articles are closed book to me. Synopses are dominated by acronyms to which I do not have access and the articles themselves by torrents of data translated into graphs of a kind I can't handle.
Given my forthcoming (when?) back operation I have had to learn that CSF = cerebrospinal fluid. If it leaks, I am in trouble.
What is the purpose of acronyms? To economise, but not to a really significant degree. Their main purpose is make the user sound knowledgeable, like an insider and a professional. They are an affectation. They also carry a kind of high-tech air like all the acronyms that plague computer-speak.  How many know what a URL stands for? We may know what it does. But it stands for 'Uniform Source Locator', which is as incomprehensible to me as the acronym. 

I am the founder and sole member (to date) of SAAC. This is the Society for the Abolition of ACronyms. Yes, I know it's not a proper acronym, but that applies to many (most?) these days. There are also many organisations for which bizarre names have been concocted because they provide a good acronym.  

This is loosing battle - like most of mine - but I'm not giving up. 

Sunday, 19 April 2020

virus, science, and more on the scrapheap

'We follow the science'. That or something like it has been the politicians' mantra. But there is no such thing as "the science". There are well-informed. clever people who pursue research, ranging from specialist modellers of probabilities and possibilities to  racing researchers set on the holy grail of a vaccine. We hear that vaccines are not far away. We hear that a vaccine is never going to do the job against this 'clever' virus.  We hear that we will be out of the wood (according to various timescales) or that we will have to live (and die) with the virus for the foreseeable future. We are told that people with antibodies are safe. We hear that we do not know whether we can acquire immunity from a second infection.  With a such a new and unpredictable virus, there are huge uncertainties.  Translating these uncertainties into policies is the politicians' job. When they get things wrong they get the blame (unless their name is Trump). But the scientists should also share the blame. They appear on the media (flattered and self-important) to make ex-cathedra pronouncements based on their particular skill-sets. "The evidence tell us...". Evidence only tells us something there is a theory and/or a set of assumptions. I am concentrating on what is actually happening, listening to the news and hearing the main scientific pronouncements, but the rest seems to me to be media noise. Hooray for Radio 3. Science is hugely powerful and very necessary, but "science' tells us many things. Which of these things do we "follow"? There will be huge winners and losers in this game of scientific snakes-and-ladders.

A footnote on the Sumption survival of the fittest thesis.
State what seems to be unassailable premise: ‘old people are more likely to die that younger ones’. What flows from this,  by a series of steps which have the air of logic, is that if everybody cannot be treated, the old should not be.
But the initial premise has tacit assumptions / biases in it. The ‘old’ are singled out, not infants, pregnant mothers, the disabled, those on social care, those in care homes, those with severe mental problems… The only outcome of the premise is that the old should be left to die.
If I start from the ethical premise that everyone has the same right to a further year (on other unit of time) of life and be given assistance to achieve that goal (unless the quality of life is such as to bring this into question), the outcome is utterly different. At the end of the year, the same equation kicks in. The old will of course on average die more quickly than younger people , but a caring society should not pursue remorseless  if tacit policy to cleanse of society of old people.
Of course, I am biased in this. My birth certificate tells me that I am "old". I would like to think this is fake news, but it seems to be true.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

NHS - Immigration - Virus

The MRI scan of my back was set up by someone of Asian ancestry. The scan was made by someone of (probably) far eastern ancestry. Both the NHS physiotherapists were of Asian ancestry. The local post office is run by a husband and wife of Asian ancestry (who are trying to get me a large bag of rice from the cash and carry since the Co-op is not coping with shelf-strippers). The local store and newsagents is run by a family of Asian ancestry. The 'Indian' restaurant is doing take-aways.. and so on.
They have been pleasant, helpful and professional. They are essential members of our community and are at risk in the frontline.
And yet we read of the Home Office refusing to fast-track or register qualified practitioners and willing workers who do not fit with their hostile immigration rules. An organisation like the Home Office can be collectively racist even if the individual members are not. The net effect of procedures and criteria, with each person / department protecting their own backs, in the face of their political masters and tabloid press, is racist.
This is a time when we can all show our friendship and gratitude to who have chosen to join and participate in our community.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

spinal stenosis

Today an MRI scan on my back to determine what precisely is wrong and what, if anything, can be done about it. The test was conducted at the Manor private hospital in Oxford, which goes against my principles. However the NHS refused a scan and were not too much bothered if I am assigned to the scrap heap. The virus is the (only) thing. Two days ago I tested how far I could walk in Blenheim park. My right leg is only partly functional. I struggled to the pleasure gardens and back, not much more than I mile. 3 months ago this would not have counted as a walk, let alone exercise. By the evening I had difficulty in walking at all. As I said before, it's notable how perspectives can change.

A few years ago I wrote a bit of formatted prose on a neighbour whom I could see in the lane from the window of my study on the first floor. It was printed in the booklet of his funeral service. It has a new resonance for me, now that mobility is a challenge not an assumption.

The Man with Two Sticks

A man frail and tall, not old in counted years,
Shuffles inch by inch from the shadowed lane
With a caring lady who can hardly go so slow.
The radiant sun enters his upturned eyes.
 A quantum of the youthful energy for which he yearns.
Where is the laughing running boy who knew
Nothing of impediments?

“I will get the car” she says, striding up the gentle slope,
Released into normalities of time, space and locomotion.
A low wall is close but separated from him
By a daunting distance of straining effort.
He reaches out for the stony seat with a probing stick,
Turning bit by unwilling bit to crease and settle.
An old lady goes by arthritically. She is envied.

The black car arrives. 
He is folded and loaded. 
To go to somewhere once familiar, once easy,
Now transformed into a theatre. Of impossibilities.

An inch is a foot is a yard is a mile.
A day is a week is a month is a year.
Their will and love annealed in the flame of patient hope.
The channel is swum. Everest is conquered.
“All on your own, yes, all on your own”,
His mother’s reward for infant steps. Long ago. 

Monday, 6 April 2020

on the Judge's scrapheap

The former high court judge and general man of opinions, Lord Jonathan Sumption, wrote a challenging piece in The Times, sent to me by a friend. In attaching it I am probably breaching copyright but I could not find any contact address on the internet I've inserted some comments. He may well be right overall. But his prescription stands a good chance of chucking me on the scrapheap.
Maybe that is also right overall.

Coronavirus lockdown: we are so afraid of death, no one even asks whether this ‘cure’ is actually worse

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” The words are Franklin D Roosevelt’s. His challenge was recession, not disease, but his words have a wider resonance.

Fear is dangerous. It is the enemy of reason. It suppresses balance and judgment. And it is infectious. Roosevelt thought government was doing too little. But today fear is more likely to push governments into doing too much, as democratic politicians run for cover in the face of public panic. Is the coronavirus the latest and most damaging example?

Epidemics are not new. Bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, meningitis, Spanish flu all took a heavy toll in their time. An earlier generation would not have understood the current hysteria over Covid-19, whose symptoms are milder and whose case mortality is lower than any of these.

What has changed? For one thing, we have become much more risk-averse. We no longer accept the wheel of fortune. We take security for granted. We do not tolerate avoidable tragedies. Fear stops us thinking about the more remote costs of the measures necessary to avoid them, measures that may pitch us into even greater misfortunes of a different kind.

As someone who (statistically at least) is nearer the bottom on the wheel or fortune than many, I am reluctant to acquiesce to dying conveniently. 

We have also acquired an irrational horror of death. Today death is the great obscenity, inevitable but somehow unnatural. In the midst of life, our ancestors lived with death, an ever-present fact that they understood and accommodated. They experienced the death of friends and family, young and old, generally at home. Today it is hidden away in hospitals and care homes: out of sight and out of mind, unmentionable until it strikes.

I think the idea that death was in effect domesticated in earlier eras is oddly romantic. The Boccaccio account of the bubonic plague that I posted here does not suggest that the ravages of disease were comfortably 'accommodated'. Death was what it always has been. Essentially nasty.

We know too little about Covid-19. We do not know its true case mortality because of the uncertainties about the total number infected. We do not know how many of those who have died would have died anyway — possibly a bit later — from other underlying conditions (“comorbidities”, in doctor-speak).

What is clear is that Covid-19 is not the Black Death. It is dangerous for those with serious existing medical conditions, especially if they are old. For others, the symptoms are mild in the overwhelming majority of cases.

The prime minister, the health secretary and the Prince of Wales — all of whom have caught it and are fine — represent the normal pattern. The much publicised but extremely rare deaths of fit young people are tragic but they are outliers.

Yet governments have adopted, with public support, the most extreme and indiscriminate measures.

We have subjected most of the population, young or old, vulnerable or fit, to house imprisonment for an indefinite period.

We have set about abolishing human sociability in ways that lead to unimaginable distress.

We have given the police powers that, even if they respect the limits, will create an authoritarian pattern of life utterly inconsistent with our traditions.

We have resorted to law, which requires exact definition, and banished common sense, which requires judgment.

These things represent an interference with our lives and our personal autonomy that is intolerable in a free society. To say that they are necessary for larger social ends, however valuable those ends may be, is to treat human beings as objects, mere instruments of policy.

And that is before we even get to the economic impact. We have put hundreds of thousands out of a job and into universal credit.

Recent research suggests that we are already pushing a fifth of small businesses into bankruptcy, many of which will have taken a lifetime of honest toil to build. The proportion is forecast to rise to a third after three months of lockdown.

Generations to come are being saddled with high levels of public and private debt. These things kill, too. If all this is the price of saving human life, we have to ask whether it is worth paying.

The truth is that in public policy there are no absolute values, not even the preservation of life. There are only pros and cons. Do we not allow cars, among the most lethal weapons ever devised, although we know for certain that every year thousands will be killed or maimed by them? We do this because we judge that it is a price worth paying to get about in speed and comfort. Every one of us who drives is a tacit party to that Faustian bargain.

The inability of people ('society') to understand  risk is one of the great anomalies in human behaviour. Does anyone ever educate children about what risk is and how it can be handled? I've been on boards where we have conducted risk assessments. Little was really understood, and the fact that the risks were all neatly tabulated on some sheets of paper seemed to neutralise them, courtesy of  a managerial exercise,

A similar calculation about the coronavirus might justify a very short period of lockdown and business closures, if it helped the critical care capacity of the NHS to catch up. It may even be that tough social distancing measures would be acceptable as applied only to vulnerable categories.

But as soon as the scientists start talking about a month or even three or six months, we are entering a realm of sinister fantasy in which the cure has taken over as the biggest threat to our society. Lockdowns are at best only a way of buying time anyway. Viruses don’t just go away. Ultimately, we will emerge from this crisis when we acquire some collective (or “herd”) immunity. That is how epidemics burn themselves out.

In the absence of a vaccine, it will happen, but only when a sufficient proportion of the population is exposed to the disease.

As someone who is 'vulnerable' by dint of age, I am reluctant gamble on my resistance to further the march of 'herd immunity'.  I feel I still have much to do. As always, I think my next book is to be the really good one. I am happy to accept personal restrictions, until such time as the 'absence of a vaccine' is rectified. 

I am not a scientist. Most of you are not scientists. But we can all read the scientific literature, which is immaculately clear but has obvious limitations. Scientists can help us assess the clinical consequences of different ways to contain the coronavirus. But they are no more qualified than the rest of us to say whether they are worth turning our world upside down and inflicting serious long-term damage. All of us have a responsibility to maintain a sense of proportion, especially when so many are losing theirs.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

The Black Death

Refreshed by being able to spend some time in the garden. Sorting out ceramic pots on my terrace, with a distant view of Blenheim Park, which will disappear as the trees green over. The Duke stands high on his triumphant column, rigidly unmoved by events. The mere view of buds swelling, fresh bright greens, produces an inner uplift by some kind of organic resonance.

It seems to me that there is a bizarre kind of privilege in experiencing the current crisis, amongst the biggest to afflict humankind - much to the appreciation of other organisms that are now thriving without the plague of our civilisation. My garden is seething with nature.

We read of other great cataclysms as historical events, sanitised by distance and by knowing what was to come. This now is the real thing; we are an integral part of it and we have little sense of what is to come, individually and collectively. This will leave a great  mark on history, not least because of governments' reaction and the rules they have imposed.  What that mark will be seen to be involves such huge unknowns that I cannot really achieve the mental embrace that would make comprehensive sense of it now and what is coming.

We have it bad, but as a historian, there is a perspective, In the 'Black Death', which ravaged Europe from 1346 onwards, Florence lost 60% of its population.  We have the most vivid eyewitness account by the great author, Giovanni Boccaccio. It is contained in his Decameron, in which a privileged group of seven young women and three young men and fled to isolation in a villa outside Florence.  They exchanged stories. In current circumstances, Boccaccio's scene setting does not make pleasant reading. But it does put things into dreadful perspective:

"In the year of our Lord 1348, there happened at Florence, the finest city in all Italy, a most terrible plague; which, whether owing to the influence of the planets, or that it was sent from God as a just punishment for our sins, had broken out some years before in the Levant, and after passing from place to place and making incredible havoc all the way, had now reached the west. There, spite of all the means that art and human foresight could suggest, such as keeping the city clear from filth, the exclusion of all suspected persons, and the publication of copious instructions for the preservation of health, and notwithstanding manifold humble supplications offered to God in processions and otherwise, it began to show itself in the spring of the aforesaid year, in a sad and wonderful manner. Unlike what had been seen in the east, where bleeding from the nose is the fatal prognostic, here there appeared certain tumours in the groin or under the arm-pits, some as big as a small apple, others as an egg; and afterwards purple spots in most parts of the body; in some cases large and but few in number, in others smaller and more numerous--both sorts the usual messengers of death. To the cure of this malady neither medical knowledge nor the power of medicines was of any effect; whether because the disease was in its own nature mortal, or that the physicians (the number of whom, taking quacks and women pretenders into the account, was grown very great) could form no just idea of the cause, nor consequently devise a true method of cure; whichever was the reason, few escaped; but nearly all died the third day from the first appearance of the symptoms, some sooner, some later, without any fever or other accessory symptoms. What gave the more virulence to this plague, was that, by being communicated from the sick to the hale, it spread daily, like fire when it comes in contact with large masses of combustibles. Nor was it caught only by conversing with or coming near the sick, but even by touching their clothes, or anything that they had before touched. It is wonderful, what I am going to mention; and had I not seen it with my own eyes, and were there not many witnesses to attest it besides myself, I should never venture to relate it, however worthy it were of belief. Such, I say, was the quality of the pestilential matter, as to pass not only from man to man, but, what is more strange, it has been often known, that anything belonging to the infected, if touched by any other creature, would certainly infect and even kill that creature in a short space of time. One instance of this kind I took particular notice of: the rags of a poor man just dead had been thrown into the street. Two hogs came up, and after rooting amongst the rags and shaking them about in their mouths, in less than an hour they both turned round and died on the spot.

These facts, and others of the like sort, occasioned various fears and devices amongst those who survived, all tending to the same uncharitable and cruel end; which was, to avoid the sick and every thing that had been near them, expecting by that means to save themselves. And some, holding it best to live temperately and to avoid excesses of all kinds, made parties and shut themselves up from the rest of the world; eating and drinking moderately of the best, and diverting themselves with music and such other entertainments as they might have within doors; never listening to anything from without to make them uneasy. Others maintained free living to be a better preservative, and would balk no passion or appetite they wished to gratify, drinking and revelling incessantly from tavern to tavern, or in private houses (which were frequently found deserted by the owners and therefore common to every one), yet strenuously avoiding, with all this brutal indulgence, to come near the infected.

And such, at that time, was the public distress that the laws, human and divine, were no more regarded; for the officers, to put them in force, being either dead, sick, or in want of persons to assist them, every one did just as he pleased. A third sort of people chose a method between these two: not confining themselves to rules of diet like the former, and yet avoiding the intemperance of the latter; but eating and drinking what their appetites required, they walked everywhere with perfumes and nosegays to smell to, as holding it best to corroborate the brain: for the whole atmosphere seemed to them tainted with the stench of dead bodies, arising partly from the distemper itself, and partly from the fermenting of the medicines within them. Others with less humanity, but perchance, as they supposed, with more security from danger, decided that the only remedy for the pestilence was to avoid it. Persuaded, therefore, of this and taking care for themselves only, men and women in great numbers left the city, their houses, relations, and effects, and fled into the country, as if the wrath of God had been constrained to visit those only within the walls of the city, or else concluding that none ought to stay in a place thus doomed to destruction."

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Salvator Mundi and Dante (small revsions)

If I leave it until the eve., I have run out of steam to blog. A lack of exercise (confinement and very bad back) are not doing me any good.

At one time, I had over 3000 following my blog. Now it is just in double figures. Perhaps the title of this one will give it a boost.

I had been sitting on the news that the Louvre had published a book on the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, which made a very fleeting appearance in their bookshop before being hastily withdrawn. The book by Vincent Delieuvin included new technical analysis, and was intended to be ready when the Paris exhibition opened. As we know the painting was not in the show. The odd rogue copy escaped - and compounds the Louvre's embarrassment about a national museum 'promoting' an artwork in private hands. Their book essentially validates what Margaret Dalivalle, Robert Simon and I wrote in our book for Oxford University Press, which the press have essentially buried for some unknown reason. Throughout they made a big mess of the book, particularly visually. Maybe our complaints account for their lack of interest in it. For me, never again with OUP. The press are outsourcing much of the editorial and production stages of books to disastrous effect.

See the accurate story about the SM in the 'Art Newspaper'

I had been keeping the story for the Oxford and Edinburgh literary festivals (I am banned from Hay, apparently). But we know what has happened to the festivals, sadly.
The ownership is assumed to be Saudi Arabian - but I have seen no hard evidence to that effect.

Since this is an art-historical blog, I will say a bit about the book I am currently writing (for an as-yet unknown publisher). A this stage, It is called "Let there be Light". Dante and the art of Divine Radiance, for the 700th anniversary in 2021 of the poet's death. A rather long formal outline follows! I have chapter 2 in draft, specifically on Dante's optics and the failure of his sight. This chapter is getting its first scrutiny by the exceptional young scholar of Italian literature, Maria Pavlova of Warwick University, who provided crucial support for the Mona Lisa book.
(Is there, I wonder, a chance of someone pinching the idea?  If someone can do it properly according to my [undisclosed] deadline, they are welcome to try.

"Let there be Light". Dante and the art of Divine Radiance

Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe are arguably the greatest European writers. They share not only untrammelled imaginative capacity, but also a huge base in learning. For all three (somewhat controversially in the case of Shakespeare) their learning embraced the sciences of their eras. The texts by the three authors also paint compelling visual images. Of this literary trinity, Dante enjoyed the most immediate succession in the visual arts.

Dante’s Vita Nuova (New Life) and Convivio (Banquet), in which he provides commentaries to sets of his own poems, use optical themes in the service of his love for Beatrice. The latter openly demonstrates a good grasp of Mediaeval optics in the visual dialogue between the poet and his beloved lady.

His Divina Commedia, written during the first and second decades of the 14th century while in exile from Florence, is without rival in its vision of hellish realities and heavenly glories that lie decisively beyond our accessible experiences. The poet is conducted successively on tours of Hell and Purgatory by the revered Roman poet Virgil, who is a pagan, and finally guided through the spiritual realms of Paradise by his beloved Beatrice, who had in effect been beatified by Dante after her early death in 1290. Hell, the first of the three books, is the most vivid, replete with strikingly varied repertoire of notable sins and picturesque sinners – in keeping with the cliché that the devil has the best tunes. Purgatory  follows, a halfway house in which certain sinners who had not adequately repented and were not reconciled to the Church can nevertheless be purified for admission to heaven. It is also peopled by characters with memorable stories to tell.  The sublime realm of heavenly Paradise is less varied verbally and visually as Dante and Beatrice ascend though spheres of spiritual wonder.  The divine spirits inhabit upper zones radiant with glowing light and infused by sweet sounds. But there are limits to the number of ways in which pure goodness can be characterised. There is only so much variety that can be extracted from virtuous figures clad in white “nighties”.

A major running theme in the Divine Comedy, particularly in the Paradiso centres on Dante’s acts of seeing, conducted according to optical rule with respect to the kind of visual experiences that can be accomplished on earth, and the overwhelming of his earthly senses by heavenly light, which does not obey his rules of geometrical optics. This sets an obvious challenge for artists.

Unsurprisingly, Inferno has exercised a special fascination for commentators and illustrators. It has even inspired a popular video game. However, if we approach the visual impact of Dante from another direction – from that of the artists’ stock repertoire of devotional images of Biblical figures, virtuous saints, spiritual events and heavenly realms – emphasis switches to the Paradiso and its dazzling vision of the beauties of heaven. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong affinity between Dante’s vision of the divine realm and the portrayal of heaven in 14th-century Italian art, radiant with reflective gilding and golden rays of intense light. This tradition extends from Giotto to Fra Angelico in the 15thcentury. As had been the case in early Christian mosaics, real light reflected from gilded surfaces served to denote the radiant glories of the infinite heavens and the presence of specific rays of non-natural light. Most self-respecting miracles were accompanied by discernible radiance. The use of gold allowed divine light  to be clearly differentiated from the standard illumination of objects within the space of the painting.  

The problem comes with the switch to consistent naturalism of space, form and light during the 15th century. If a highlighted form within a picture uses the brightest tones of which paint is capable, how is divine light to be characterised? Internally consistent  naturalism excludes recourse to actual gold.  Alberti in On Painting (1435-6) insists that the painter should not use actual gold in depicting a golden object but exhibit high skill in using paint to imitate the lustre of gold. The notably ingenious solutions used by major artists to differentiate natural and divine light provide the focus of the latter part the book. The artists include Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Bernini and Pietro da Cortona and Baciccio.  Raphael emerges as the knowing hero of the enterprise.

The book opens with a broad look at the massive role of light in religious traditions, as expressed in the Bible by the separation light from darkness in the opening verses of Genesis (from which the title of the book comes). Light became the subject of intense scientific exploration in the Middle Ages in Islam and Christianity. The mathematical precision of direct light, reflection and refraction was taken as a decisive sign of the glorious perfection of God’s design.  Optics combined rationality and rapture. Dante was deeply interested in this optical tradition, which lies behind a number of his accounts light in the Paradiso. The science of optics provides our earthly explanation of heavenly effects that lie ultimately outside our finite understanding. The final breakdown of the poet’s sense of sight in the face of the most sublime of heavenly visions is characterised in terms of Mediaeval optics. 

A chapter will be devoted to how illustrators of the Paradiso grappled with divine light. The artists range from the glorious Giovanni di Paolo in the Renaissance to the visionary William Blake and the intense Gustav Doré in the 19thcentury. 

The blinding of Dante sets the tone for the artists’ portrayal of unseeable brightness. When Saul falls from his horse in Michelangelo’s Vatican fresco, the hand with which he shields his eyes casts no shadow. Divine light does not obey earthly rule. Raphael shows himself in a series of paintings to be the greatest master of spiritual radiance. Correggio works his radiant magic in his dome illusions. When Baciccio evokes the glories of the name of Jesus in the huge vault of the Jesuit Church in Rome he does so with an ineffable light that explodes from the IHS logo though encircling clusters of glowing angels, whose pink bodies are bleached by the extreme luminosity of the light source. 

Perhaps the largest and most conspicuous portrayals of the radiant heavens were the massive theatrical spectaculars that were staged to mark major religious festivals and great dynastic occasions. Typically the stage sets involved massive dome-like constructions within which the planets orbited.  These visual and musical extravaganzas came to be known as Paradisi. There are scant visual records of them, but some written descriptions survive and allow us to understand how they related to the portrayal of heaven in paintings and played a major role in realising the Dantesque vision.

The Dantesque quality of these and other visions of divine light are not demonstrably in each instance attributable to a direct attempt to emulate Dante in the Paradiso, but they are part of the diaspora of Dante’s vision. For some artists, their knowledge of Dante is likely to have played a direct role, not least for Raphael and Michelangelo. There is also the impact of Dante’s sources, most notably St. Augustine. We also need to take into account the influence of Dante on how other writers summon up visionary experiences. And there were artists who gleaned the Dantesque vision from preceding artworks. Like the penetrative light that Dante describes in the Paradiso, his dazzling vision diffused on a ubiquitous basis, in a way that lies beyond the pedantic questions of direct influence.
Behind all this is an enormous and enduring question. If God exists in a realm ultimately beyond the limits of our understanding and the data of science, how can we ever truly know God? This question is as pressing and insoluble in today’s physics and cosmology as it was in the Middle Ages, when the doctrine of the “double truth” was developed to embrace the philosophy of Aristotle within the framework of Christian doctrine. The stakes behind by Dante’s vision of Paradise could not be more momentous.

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

After the Corona Virus (revised a bit)

There has been a notable strain of idealistic and even utopian predictions about human society after the ravages of the virus. At the heart of these is a sense that war (as happened in the 2nd world war) brings people together in a more caring and unified society. Related to this is a sense that those who want to reduce the size of the state in our economic lives are being routed. Who would have thought of that a Conservative government would be devoting truly huge sums of money to paying wages and rescuing collapsing companies? We are effectively semi-nationalised. I would love to think that society will be transformed for the better. But I think all the signs are pointing in the other direction.

 1) The great global semi-monopolies - Amazon, Google etc - will emerge even more dominantly, consolidating their hold on markets and fortifying their unaccountability to local political regimes.
What to is stop the mega-companies merging to form huge controlling entities resembling the state of affairs in Orwell's 1984. The difference is that Orwell's mega-entities were the product of conventional politics, power and wars. He did not, unsurprisingly, see that the totalising would be achieved through the electronic society.

2) The mega-companies will drag along political regimes and governments by their coat tails. The exception might be China, which will act as if one of the mega-companies.

3) That so many people are resorting to buying things online (by necessity) is going to feed the mega-companies, while the more modest local business will already be out of business or seriously crippled. I do not see this as being reversed.

4) One obvious positive is that employers and employees may find great advantages working from home - scrap the rush hour, enhance family life etc. etc.  My view is that an employer should pay somebody on the worth of the job done, not on the basis of being in the office 9-5.

4) The draconian powers being introduced to control the citizenry suite those who aim to stifle dissent  and unapproved behaviour on a longer-term basis.

5) The arts will be more than ever necessary in the face of the totalisation for their assertion of human values and interaction.

6) People will forget.

Saturday, 28 March 2020


Am I scared? As far as I can judge at this time, wearied by an afternoon of intense grappling with Dante's Paradiso - far less vivid in human terms that the other two books but saturated in theological theory - I don't know. Some of my acquaintances seems to be devouring news avidly over the course of each day and implementing any detailed precautions that anyone sounding authoritative might recommend.  Maybe they are right to do so. But the constant diet of news and opinion seems to drive personal disquiet. Like so many events, the news and opinion machines now have a gigantic life of their own. Very long lead-ins to football matches (when there were such things), often days ahead,  just 90 mins of actual play, followed by long and wordy inquests lasting over days.
I listen to the Today programme. My companion is then Radio 3, which has adequate if compact bulletins, and I tend to look at BBC News online at some point later in the day. The remainder of the time I get on with this and that, above all research and writing. The number of emails, which I thought would decrease after the Leonardo year, has steadily climbed, as have phone calls and occasional video calls. With social distancing, the social media (which I generally dislike) have a role in fostering a kind of social nearness.

Should I be scared? Probably. I am in an 'at risk' group because of my age, if not my general fitness. In 1989 In had bacterial meningitis and was totally paralysed with searing pain. That was truly awful. But the pain recedes into the past and seems like it happened to someone else.

The death of someone who was a very close friend alters things. Numbers are one thing. Names are another. She was middle-aged (seemed younger) and exuded a life force. She is one of those that we cannot believe has died. But she did so after only 6 hours in hospital.  Terrible.

Anyway, I will check the online BBC news.

Friday, 27 March 2020


A missed day. Not last I imagine.

One positive is that animals of all kinds seem to be thriving given the withdrawal of humankind from their habitats. A greater range of birds in my garden, including little darting coal tits twitching with electric energy. And a pheasant, at one point joined by two companions. These are the clever pheasants, as far as they can be clever at all. Having watched the slaughter of their companions in Blenheim Park, they decide 'let's scarper', and become semi-urbanised. The birds are bred in fortified enclosures like Russian gulags or concentration camps - wooden huts surrounded by fences of stern metal wire. To protect them from predators. There is an irony here.

One autumn I wrote one of my bits of formatted prose. I do not know enough or have enough skill to write proper poems. I offer this one, without expectations. At least he last line might remind us that slaughters other than viral persist to shame of all of us. Think of Syria.


Walking in the park of autumn,
Leaves of beech copper-gold, 
Rustling dry as old bank notes 
Clinging to the skeletal branches.
A final declamation of their passing display
In the face of dogged evergreens 
Resistant to season and year. 

Unseen shots pump from distant shotguns,
Echoing bluntly across the mirrored lake.
Fluttering pheasants, tender in iridescent glory
Tumble limp and folded from the steel grey sky
Towards the eager jaws of favoured hounds.
Geese graze cropped grass 
Complacent in the slaughter of those who are not of their kind.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

getting up

My first alarm goes off. 7.38. Mobile phone, relatively melodious.  I don't need to get up. No-one will notice. It's been somewhat like that since I stopped being employed by the university. I always feel horrid in the mornings. often very horrid. But I do some stretching exercises, albeit with a lack of joy. Clanging raucously, the second alarm intrudes harshly. A beside clock given by my son, Jonathan, thus of special value. It is 7.41. I grumpily press the stop button. Maybe a bit of stretching left to do.

What is different is the nature of the day that lies ahead. I have in the past spent a fair percentage of time'in isolation' (writing etc.), but that was not the norm  and it was my choice.  I bath and dress 'properly', keeping up appearances, which seems to be a matter of morale, oddly. I shave every 2 or 3 days - my grey growth means that the 9 o'clock shadow no longer appears.  Just spikiness. I am planning some more some video communications with family and friends, and would prefer not to look a negligent mess - but that also applies to audio phone calls;  odd.
I do have a support structure, the people I call 'team Kemp', who all have equal value to each other and to me, including Steph, who does housekeeping - at more than the recognised distance and on the grounds that she is helping to care for a cussed 'old' b***** in an at risk category. In the team she is of course what used to be called a 'sweeper' in football. (There's more gruesome puns where that came from.) Remember Franz Beckenbauer. Judd, my long-term PA is key mid-fielder, organising the shape of the team and linking defence to attack.  Caroline, my agent is a powerful striker, driving lucrative (I hope) contracts into the financial goals.  Johnnie, my accountant in St. Andrews, keeps goal with uncanny agility as the tax-person strives the net the maximum score.
(Ed. this metaphor is becoming strained).

Tania is encouraging me to put the blog on some part of the social media. I boycott most of them because of their exploitative nature, esp, Facebook, on which I have been stalked!!  Let's see. Numbers are not the issue for me.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

To late, too late
For anything substantial. The day sort of went - somewhere. It did signal the contrasts of of where we are. There is the personal, the bits and pieces of getting by, the routine, either daily or qualitatively. The morning occupied by assembling an exercise machine, the sort of thing that comes in bits as a matter of routine rather than necessity, Accompanied by a booklet of exploded diagrams of parts with highly specialised names - a jigger double left-handed gromet etc - with laconic instructions, which my daughter when young inadvertently called 'destructions'. Anyway, it was assembled in due course, sitting on the terrace in the garden, and will serve to keep up my exercise levels at a time when I can't go to the gym and cannot do much walking because of severe back and sciatic pains.

The other dimension is the big implications of the plague. My instinct is that we might be heading for the abyss. So many business shut down. So many jobs lost. So many free-lancers with their livings abruptly severed. Such huge government debts in almost every country. How can the precarious, ramshackle edifice of universal capitalism survive under its present assumptions and 'rules'? The system has long been at a state of criticality, as interlocked technologies are poised (in an unrecognised way) to collapse through the weight of their own interdependent complexities.

That's all. not good but it should get better.

Monday, 23 March 2020

the plague etc.

A great graphic on a horrible plague:

2 days in a row with my blog, maybe a record.

What of the plague?

Whatever happens, two of the last public events I attended were a fitting end (before eventual resumption?). On 11th, the opening of the National Gall show of Titian's late mythologies for Phillip II. Great tragedies of women in extremis, realised in blazing paint. Maybe they involved some voyeurism - Titian wrote to his patron promising to show nudes from back and front - but the intense and complex human dramas disarms the kind of formulaic viewing that too often passes as analysis. The other was a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, courtesy of my close friend Tania Correia, which recreated a  massive Beethoven concert from 1808, conducted with punchy elegance by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Again a heroic assertion of the human spirit - though Pierre-Laurent Aimard  played the Fourth Piano Concero more as we might imagine Liszt would have done than Beethoven with his Walter piano forte. If his piano had been assaulted as heavily as Aimard's modern titan, I suspect it would have gone the same way as Hendrix's guitar.

At some point I will write about the plague and what it 'means' - or will be seen as meaning. But not mentally geared up for that.

To a large degree I am less afflicted than many. My schedule of talks is gone - cancellation of visits to Florida, Venice, Stuttgart and Beijing. But since I work out of home, my daily routine is less disrupted than most people’s. I’m writing a book on Dante and divine light in art (for Dante’s 700th next year), which I can do largely from home since the Dante texts are all online. The visuals will be radiant. Though Dante is difficult. Also planning a big Hockney show for Cambridge in summer 2021. There are of course piles of unread books.

The problem is not one of boredom or lack of things to do. It is of variety. The same rooms, the same views, the same kind of cerebral and visual activities. Lively contact with people is vital for my morale. As a keen player of sport (previously) and avid listener to Radio Five, I really miss the games and contests. I admire great skills of the word-painting commentators, from whom I have learnt a lot.
Masters of the modern ekphrasis. They are my friends. I don't have a television.

Not in my stride yet, but bear with me....

Sunday, 22 March 2020

resumed blog

My blog has been shamefully lapsed. My resolution in these viral times is to resume on a daily basis, as a way of thinking out loud. I'm not looking for debates, which I would prefer to go via my email, but rather offering news, opinions, ruminations, in case anything might be of interest to a friend or two. It is also a way of keeping in touch with more people than I can contact in other ways.

This is now too late in the day to do anything substantial. My intention is to look at some of the big issues that are looming up in the present crisis and to tell of slighter, more local and personal things.
I have long been intending to blog on current events but have never done so on a timely basis. A case in point is the suicide of Caroline Flack, the tv presenter. The press concentrated on the role of social media and the abuse received by people in the public eye. The bigger point was largely missed; that is to say the skewed value system that parades the sexual merits of improbably fine bodies housing minds that are encouraged to be sparklingly superficial. Programmes such as 'Love Island' exploit the participants, the public and the presenters through the glossy mechanisms of false celebrity. The tenor of the whole enterprise is of 'false nudes', in which size and shape of tits is of more importance than humane values of emotional empathy. However, that is now past - old news with no learnt lessons. But there's plenty to come. Some I hope cheerful and postive.