Letter from London

Dear H,

The country is in a very uneasy state. Yesterday was the Queen’s Speech to Parliament, in which the government (with no actual contribution by the monarch—she only reads it) sets out its legislative programme, in this case for the next two years.

But can Mrs. May, the Prime Minister, achieve what she says in it? She is in a very shaky position. After the general election that she called, she hoped to achieve a thumping majority for the Conservatives, as the polls predicted. She failed—and found herself in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives the largest party, but still with only 318 seats, when she needs 326 seats to rule with a clear majority over the Labour Party and the smaller parties.

She did not resign but, as I write, is still trying to get the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, who won ten seats, to pledge her their support. If she fails, she might even then still struggle on. But there would probably be a call for another general election, and if that happened, whatever would the outcome be? Would there be a Labour government under their very left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was widely thought to be a fool, but whose honeyed—though totally uncosted—promises won for him that powerful return of support for Labour?

That is the mere beginning of the uncertainty. The Brexit talks with the European Union have just begun this week. Mrs. May has vowed to see them through to a successful conclusion, with Britain free from trade restrictions with the rest of the world, and with control of her borders. Even if we achieved that, could we prosper without Europe? And in her greatly weakened position, can Mrs. May achieve anything like that anyway?

The future is quite obscure. And some people tremble at the thought of chaos. Nevertheless hope survives—and perhaps it will all work. At any rate, the economy seems at the moment to be holding up. If the worst comes to the worst, at least we have our famous genius for muddling through to fall back on.
A timely show is an exhibition of works by Grayson Perry, a madcap artist in many genres who is famous for dressing sometimes in a skimpy frock (in which he looks absurd), and who has been making his presence felt strongly in the country lately. The exhibition is called, teasingly, “The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!” Perry does not believe that it will be that, but he is flying the flag for art that is both provocative and easily comprehensible.

As for the frock, he insists that he is a man and does indeed appear to be quite contentedly married. He made a series of television films to try to define what a man is, showing the life, thoughts and feelings of distinctive groups of British men, from thugs to bankers, but unhappily failed to reach a conclusion of any great value. He still doesn’t know. Who does?

His show is in the beautiful Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, with high white walls and plenty of light flowing in. He began as a potter, and among the most viewable works in the show are his vases. They are tall and elegant but are startlingly covered with little hand-drawn people and scenes in which he is trying to portray, with due irony, the state of Britain today. One vase is entitled Luxury Brands for Social Justice. The title is a sample itself of the other parodies of absurd political slogans or remarks by hyper-educated rebels that are also scrawled all over the vase, such as “War and poverty are bad, I learned it at university,” or “I’ve read all the academic literature on empathy.”
Two vases tackle the question of Brexit and our supposedly divided nation. Remainers and Brexiteers were polled about what each liked most about Britain. When the answers came back, they revealed that both sides actually liked exactly the same things. So Perry’s two vases representing their tastes had to be almost identical, with teapots and fat men drinking beer prominent on them.

Grayson Perry. Matching Pair, 2017. Glazed ceramic Diptych. Each: 105 x 51 cm. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London (photograph Robert Glowacki) © Grayson Perry

Perry has a sharp and honest eye for the multifarious quaint or disturbing aspects of the nation today and unique ways of portraying them. Carpets and tapestries illustrated by him are also on display here. But what I like best in the show is the way the ancient and glorious form of the vases shines through all the contemporary muddle and clutter that the show evokes. They remind one silently of a different kind of world—and I suspect that the artist’s real hope is that that is what they will do.

A show with implications about our current taste in art was Howard Hodgkin’s “Absent Friends” at the National Portrait Gallery. Hodgkin helped to design the show, which opened two weeks before he died at the age of 84. He had achieved fame and popularity as a dashing abstract artist, with paintings of blazing colour and arresting shapes.

However, this exhibition was presented as a show of portraits by him. It would have been virtually impossible to guess this if you had not been told. Most of these paintings were pure abstractions but were claimed, to some degree by the artist but mainly by the curator, as evocations of Hodgkin’s feelings about the supposed “sitters.”

All the paintings had an abstract richness and forcefulness, but it would be pretending to say that they gave you any idea of what Hodgkin’s feelings actually were and certainly not objectively what the sitter was like. Critics tried, interpreting a yellow, somewhat grape-like cluster as tears, or a bustle of white blobs around what might have been a head as an indication that the sitter was a thinker, his head swarming with ideas. A rose-pink phallus-like shape was said to be David Hockney in a Hollywood swimming pool. One could certainly have some fun guessing.

What I thought the exhibit really showed, however, was that our taste for abstract art has now almost totally faded. The curator, knowing that was so, was struggling to show that these were not just abstract paintings. But they were, and few people were convinced by him. Nor did he persuade them that the abstract art of the past is not by now a dead fish.
The most massive and rewarding show of earlier art has been “Michelangelo & Sebastiano: The Credit Suisse Exhibition” at the National Gallery. It told an unfamiliar but striking story. Sebastiano del Piombo was a Venetian painter whom Michelangelo, already famous as a young man, became friends with and saw that the two of them could work together. Sebastiano had a capacity for softness and spiritual tenderness in oil. Michelangelo was the great draughtsman, whose powers arguably showed at their highest in sculpture. (We were reminded of that here by a fine copy of one of Michelangelo’s most marvelous works, his Pietà in St. Peter’s, with the dead Christ lying across the knees of his sad and solemn mother.)

So Michelangelo started providing drawings for his colleague, and Sebastiano converted them into intense paintings, such as the altarpiece in San Francesco in Viterbo, where Michelangelo laid the dead Christ on the ground before the Virgin, and Sebastiano illuminated the figures with pale moonlight. This is a work by two outstanding artists.

Sebastiano del Piombo. Pietà, c. 1516-17. Oil on panel 106.3″ x 88.6″. Museo Civico, Viterbo. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The same is still in a sense true in later paintings by Sebastiano, after there had been a split between the two. One of the finest is The Visitation, depicting the meeting between the pregnant Mary and the pregnant Elizabeth, mother-to-be of John the Baptist. The firm form of the figures is something that Sebastiano took from Michelangelo, but the infinitely tender touch by Mary on Elizabeth’s shoulder is all Sebastiano’s own. This was a dramatic story of a kind such as you rarely see in an art exhibition.

Sebastiano del Piombo. The Visitation, c. 1518-19. Oil on canvas, 168 cm by 132 cm, Louvre Museum. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The novelist Julian Barnes has been having a somewhat rough time. His novel The Sense of an Ending won the Booker Prize (now called the Man Booker Prize) in 2011, but it got a mixed reception from readers. It had the fashionable theme of our not really knowing the truth about anything. Its main character was a rather feeble, comfort-loving Englishman who had totally suppressed the memory that he had had an affair long ago with his girlfriend’s mother, with tragic consequences, and now from a school friend’s old diary, it was revealed again to him. That all seemed rather implausible.

But was the revelation really true? We were never allowed to be quite sure. No-one’s account was allowed to be reliable. Barnes was exploring the possibilities of a novel about human uncertainty. But most novel readers are dissatisfied if they do not have a distinct end to the plot. A novel, in fact, proved to be not the best medium to illustrate the theme.

This year a film based on the novel appeared and got a far worse reception, even though it had a very good performance by Jim Broadbent as the feeble man. Even critics who admire Barnes found it exasperatingly hard to follow, and also very depressing.

At the same time Barnes got caught up in a Brexit row. A Remainer himself, he wrote an anti-Brexit article in the London Review of Books in which he said that he hoped that “Europe will make us stump up all we owe, that a hard Brexit will ensue, that the European Union will make us wait as long as Canada for a trade deal.”

The Daily Mail was outraged, and their columnist Stephen Glover savaged him. Glover even said, “Do we call that plain nastiness . . . ? It wouldn’t matter if he were a fool in a pub, but he is a fêted writer, one of the most influential in Britain. Behind him are legions of less prominent intellectuals who will go on talking about Brexit as though it is the end of civilisation.” Admittedly the Mail was annoyed because he also said that the paper had downplayed the recent murder of the pro-Remain Labour MP, Jo Cox—which they hotly and not unreasonably denied.

Yet Barnes has something very much more important to be proud of. His most recent novel, The Noise of Time, is superb. It is a fictionalised, but factually very accurate, biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich. It brilliantly unfolds the terror, the anguish and the agonising moral compromises that an artist who wanted to be true to his art, yet remain alive, had to make in Stalin’s Russia. I thought I had read enough of that ghastly yet moving history in the works of such Soviet writers as Nadezhda Mandelstam. Could an Englishman get convincingly into those souls? Well, by some magic of empathy, Barnes has, and has written a gripping book.
Queen Elizabeth reached her 91st birthday, and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, his 96th, but without any fuss or special ceremony, though both received glowing encomia in the press. The Duke was especially praised for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, which he set up in 1956 and is now found in 141 countries. To get an award, young people have to achieve good physical skills, take part in social work and go on challenging expeditions. He likes this kind of robustness in people and has kept up a steady interest in his scheme.

However, the press could not refrain from quoting some of the famous so-called “gaffes” that he has made on official occasions, such as when he said on a visit to Canada, “I declare this thing open whatever it is.” At Bristol University, where the engineering faculty had been closed so that he could open it, he remarked, “It doesn’t look like much work goes on at this university.” And when shown at Sheffield University a plastic dummy used in medical training that had been engineered to say “I don’t feel well,” he replied, “Frankly you don’t look well!”

Another person associated with the Royal Family who was in the news was Pippa Middleton, the sister of Prince William’s wife. She was married in May and found plenty of goodwill in the press, though she was tut-tutted over the ostentatious lavishness of her wedding. However she brought out a book about how to give a party that was mocked for the naivety of its advice. Craig Brown, who writes a humorous column for the Mail, offered her some tips for her next book, such as that she might tell her readers that sandwiches are made by placing two slices of bread together with their buttered sides pointing inwards rather than outwards—and that unsuitable sandwich fillings include soup and stew.

I went to the memorial service in St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, for Alexander Chancellor, who was for nine years a brilliant editor of The Spectator, having set it off in 1975 on a new and very successful course that still continues. Though The Spectator was a traditional political weekly, he seemed to hold no strong views on politics. He simply loved good writing and had an exceptional gift for finding it—or gently helping new contributors to produce it. Tina Brown, who employed him at one point as editor of “Talk of the Town” at The New Yorker, said that his ear for writing was “pitch perfect.”

Ferdinand Mount, the novelist and former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said in a speech at the service that he loved Chancellor’s charming and witty conversation but only once ever heard him holding forth vehemently on any subject. This was a question about punctuation. If there is a quotation mark that ends a quotation at the end of a sentence, should the full stop that is also needed at the end of the sentence come before it or after it? “Unfortunately,” added Mount, “ I have forgotten what his view was.”

But pat to the need comes a new edition of the Times Style Guide, made for the staff but purchasable by the world. It answers this question that endlessly worries writers and editors.

The Times’s answer: if the quotation is less than a full sentence, the full stop should come after the quotation mark. (Example: She is going to classes in “Health and Beauty”.) But if the quotation is a complete sentence, then the full stop should come before the quotation mark. (Example: He said, “I deny it.”) So now we know. If we can remember.

The garden bridge, with growing trees and flowers, across the Thames in London, which was planned by the remarkable designer Thomas Heatherwick, has been cancelled. The Mayor of London has decided that he cannot find the funds, and there were also many nasty remarks made about it, such as that it would become “a ludicrous patio for corporate jollies.” Heatherwick himself wrote a touching elegy for it in the Evening Standard. He had seen it as a bridge where you could “dawdle and gaze and don’t get whooshed about by cars” and compared it to the High Line in New York. He still hoped the idea might be revived.

But he has plenty of other work waiting. He is going to design a new London HQ, or “campus,” for Google in that remarkable area behind King’s Cross that used to be industrial wasteland and where wonderful buildings have been going up.

I went to see one of the latest of these, the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre named after the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. This an imposing building clad in orange terracotta tiles and iridescent panes of glass, and topped by a great vaulted roof that shelters its outside machinery. Inside it is particularly impressive. You stand in a vast atrium and on one side see floor after floor of glass-fronted laboratories, with (one understands and hopes) great scientists working away on human health within them.

What I find most extraordinary about the area, though, is that only a few hundred yards from this temple of modern technology is an ancient leafy churchyard, a haunting place packed with ghosts of the past. This is St. Pancras Old Churchyard. The little church in it is a Norman church almost entirely rebuilt and restored over 700 years but still keeping its old form with its round-headed windows and door. In the large churchyard, the old plane trees and lime trees are now very tall and cast a sad but wondrous green light over the sparse grass and grey tombstones all round you.

Over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of Londoners, many of them eminent in their day, were buried there, including the composer J. C. Bach, the sculptor John Flaxman, and French émigrés who had fled the Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was buried there with her husband William Godwin. Shelley and his future wife, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, are said to have plotted their elopement in 1814 at meetings by her grave.

Everywhere, in the damp air under the trees, you seem to sense physically the remains of all the people buried there. Yet not all those who were once there are still there. In 1854 the churchyard was cut in half to make way for a new railway line, whose trains still rumble by beyond a wall. All the tombstones and coffins had to be removed from the half where the trains would now run, and an architect, Arthur Blomfield, was contracted to organise the work.

This is where Thomas Hardy enters the story. At the time he was an apprentice to Blomfield, and he was given the job of superintending the removal. In an early poem, “The Levelled Churchyard,” he imagined the “sighs and piteous groans” of the removed bodies that were being stifled and mixed up under a heap of stones.

Graveyards and tombs constantly crop up in his later poems with voices of the dead emanating from the ground. In fact it is hard to believe that the grim task did not have a significant influence on Hardy, contributing at least some element not only to his mournful view of life but even to his unhappy atheism.

There is even a kind of monument to Hardy in the graveyard. Many of the flat tombstones were piled up haphazardly at the foot of an ash tree. The tree has grown, and its large roots above the ground have taken the stones into them. They now look as though they were a strange excrescence coming from the living tree.

The tree is called “Hardy’s Tree,” with a notice in front of it, and might almost be regarded as a surrealist statue of Hardy himself. Somehow I do not think all that biomedical technology nearby (a tremendous contribution to human well-being though we must hope it will make) would have made a man like Thomas Hardy any happier. Nevertheless, the world is teeming with interest, and we must not let even a genius like Thomas Hardy make us forget it.
Derwent May