Letter from London
As I write in the second week of April, the coronavirus pandemic has swept aside virtually every other topic not only from the media, but from daily life and domestic chat. The government has taken powers to control our employment, shut down our entertainment and our travel and limit even our domestic shopping. Every part of the economy has been underpinned by the state at mind-boggling expense. To cap it all Prime Minister Boris Johnson caught a severe dose of the disease and was under intensive care. The death toll is grisly, and the Government is being blamed for not being prepared for such a plague. But as most of these features are similarly replicated in New York, I’m not going to expand on a subject that is bound to change, possibly for the worse, in the next month.
Instead I’m writing about the normal world that existed in London until the end of January 2020 and which I trust will resume in due course. At the end of last year, we concluded a huge national debate by electing a government committed to taking Britain out of the European Union. In any other circumstances, Brexit would have been the main business for Parliament at least until the end of this year. But now we have a government elected on one platform yet up to its neck fighting a “tsunami” that no one anticipated. For a few weeks after his election victory in December, Boris Johnson behaved as if all would be plain sailing. All too soon, however, his most senior minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had resigned. Only weeks later the woman holding the third most important office, the Home Secretary, was denounced by her top civil servant for orchestrating a vicious briefing campaign against him and for shouting and swearing at more junior staff. Under our system it’s essential for cabinet ministers to get on with the Permanent Secretary in each department, otherwise the situation becomes toxic and the implementation of new policies becomes much more difficult. The Prime Minister authorized an inquiry into Priti Patel’s behavior as Home Secretary, but at the same time, declared his total support for her competence and conduct. As more hostile allegations quickly emerged from whistleblowers in three other departments and a court case is in the cards, it looks likely that this affair could make damaging headlines for months to come.
At his side in No. 10 Downing St., the Prime Minister has an unusually prominent Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has made it plain he wants to “Take back control” not just from Europe but from all departments of government. He is so assertive and abrasive that he is invariably associated with any significant new policy or event in Whitehall. If this new style of government becomes standard practice, it will in time trickle down to the more peripheral subjects such as the arts, culture, journalism and broadcasting.
The new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Oliver Dowden, has announced that his first task will be to bring the BBC to heel. This public corporation, for which I worked for thirty years, makes an unmatched contribution to our democracy, our economy and our national identity. It runs nine national television channels, ten national radio channels and 40 local radio stations, plus a vibrant online platform. It tries to provide something for everyone, and indeed more than 90% of the country tunes in to at least one of these outlets every week. But as it sees part of its mission is to speak truth to power, it has always bruised egos among those in government whatever their political color.
Five years ago, a Conservative government, pleading the need for austerity, demanded that the Corporation shoulder the cost of the BBC World Service (the equivalent of Voice of America) and the cost of free TV licenses for the over-75s, even though both obligations were started as government policies and did not emanate from the BBC at all. The BBC is financed with a license fee paid by anyone owning a television set, even if, as some claim, they never watch a BBC programme. Now this more radical Conservative government wants to decriminalize the non-payment of the licence fee to make it only a civil offense. As over a hundred thousand people are taken to court each year for non-payment, it’s clear that such a change would substantially reduce the Corporation’s revenue, thus forcing it to cut services still further and perhaps rein in its criticism of this Government.
The BBC’s current Charter runs until 2027, but while this or other governments of the same stripe continue, the BBC will be under constant attack. Five out of 14 of the Executive Board of the BBC are appointed by the government giving them the edge in the appointment of the Director General. No wonder the current DG, Tony Hall, is retiring this summer, leaving his successor to face what will be a “war of attrition” intended to lead to the break-up of this unique cultural asset.
Another member of Johnson’s government attracting attention is the new Attorney General, Suella Braverman. Before being appointed in February aged 39, she declared that judges should be vetted politically before appointment. When the Supreme Court rebuked Mrs. May’s government for not giving backbench MPs a role in the Brexit divorce bill, a popular newspaper labelled the twelve judges “Traitors!,” which opinion alas drew considerable popular support. Now that the Brexit cause has triumphed, it’s expected that this Government will establish a Commission on the Constitution, Democracy and Rights designed to pave the way for the PM to exercise more control over the judiciary. It’s a dreadful prospect that Britain might go the way of Poland and Hungary.
The new Attorney General also published a critical article on Human Rights litigation, especially when used to demand “Judicial review” of government action. It looks therefore like one of her targets could be the European Court of Human Rights, which is not part of the European Union but an adjunct of the Council of Europe, which includes 47 countries from Azerbaijan to Portugal. British governments of all complexions have lost cases at Strasbourg, causing much resentment in conservative circles. By what right (ask these critics) has a judge from a dodgy country like Albania, Malta or Moldova to pass judgement on any British practice or legal decision? It’s likely that one way or the other this government will at the least review our own Human Rights Act and perhaps its commitment to the Council of Europe.
However, this year Johnson’s most trenchant critic has been John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons for the last ten years to 2019. On leaving the Speaker’s chair, he published his autobiography jovially titled Unspeakable. For the last three years in particular Bercow orchestrated and usually controlled some of the liveliest political entertainment we have ever seen. In the book he has burnt his political boats by delivering frank, withering verdicts on many of his ex-colleagues in his old party. He describes Johnson as
not stupid, but highly intelligent. . . . However, he is careless with words and facts and, even by the standards of a profession in which self-regard is not uncommon, he is disproportionately preoccupied with whatever serves the cause of advancement for B. Johnson.
Speaker Bercow, who was originally a Conservative MP, helped to thwart two Prime Ministers, both May and Johnson, from rushing through their Brexit deals without parliamentary scrutiny. Nevertheless, Johnson showed at the election last December that most of the voters wanted Britain to leave Europe. Now that he has a large majority, he’s only boxed in by his own bombast, his promise of a smooth, advantageous exit from the European Union with blue skies beyond. His political minder keeps him away from any broadcaster worth his salt because he will certainly be confronted with some of his expensive failures, such as an airport in the Thames estuary, or his most recent jeu d’esprit, a bridge from Scotland to Ireland. He’s lucky that the official opposition is still in disarray after taking four months to elect a new leader. The Labour Party is still split on Europe as it was 46 years ago when a Conservative government took the U.K. into the European Common Market.
Lurking in the background of the English cultural scene is the strategy for the next decade announced earlier this year by Arts Council England. “Let’s Create” is a very ambitious plan to make the arts reach all groups, races and ages in society. It is responding, it claims, to the growing demand for cultural democracy and to a changing population. “We believe that greatness can be achieved across the spectrum of cultural activity in this country. We do not consider that certain types or scales of artistic activity are inherently of higher quality or value than others.” Really? Does this mean a bright future for rap and breakdancing or even for painting your face as featured on the Council’s website? We have not been told.
At the moment the Council supports 828 different cultural organizations with £465 million a year. But it complains that there is a persistent and widespread lack of diversity and inclusivity in their leadership and governance. Loftily it declares it wants to develop a “National Cultural Ecology” beginning in the “pre-school years,” no less. So far the London Area section of the Council is not able to explain how it will translate this rhetoric into action. It could be a radical change of emphasis and direction but filled I fear with many potholes. I was told to “Watch this space.”
One new play which none could ignore was Tom Stoppard’s latest, which he, coyly, hints may be his last. Leopoldstadt is a family saga concerning well-off secular Jews who live in Vienna from 1899 to 1938. The owner of the family firm thinks he and his siblings and their progeny have assimilated with the help of a new law which for the first time allows Jews to live in the city as full citizens. Previously they had to wear a yellow patch. This is “the promised land” proclaims Herman, and his generation are “the torchbearers of assimilation.” From there the play progresses through the twenties and thirties, in ten scenes and two intervals, to a climax on Kristallnacht in 1938. In format it resembles Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia about nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals.
Leopoldstadt is an engaging play tackling a subject still very much alive today. Don’t be fooled however by ecstatic advertisements, which as usual quote very selectively from the media critics: “Momentous,” “Breathtaking,” “Compelling,” “Devastating,” “Unforgettable” and so on.
In fact, none of the knowledgeable critics gave it unreserved praise. Some felt it was too long, and one even confessed he fell asleep. There may be too much explanation in some parts, but with real characters amid a beautiful set, it grapples with one of the mysteries of our time. Why do so many people in seemingly sophisticated non-religious Western countries hate Jews? Why, despite evidence of the Holocaust carried out by Germany with the help of all too willing recruits from Austria, Ukraine and elsewhere, does this psychosis persist?
In the last three years it’s even raised its head in Britain’s Labour Party, which lost much good will, as well as many Jewish members and Jewish votes, through being unable or unwilling to control an outbreak of this infection in its own ranks. The extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany must rank as the most vile episode in European history, yet many people have been unable to see its simple imperative. Western civil society must live up to its own lofty ideals and tolerate differences of belief and behavior, or it could let slip its assumed moral leadership. And even destroy itself.
With 37 parts, this is a very costly play to produce. Nevertheless, sometime after the coronavirus emergency has blown away, it seems certain to reach Broadway, not just because of Stoppard’s reputation, but also because of its relevance to America as well as to Europe.
When writers or directors claim they have adapted a classic to the conditions of the modern world, they trigger immediate suspicions about why they are leaning on the crutch of a well-known work, be it a play or a film. What is this world they assemble for us? Is it one I recognize? Too often it’s a dumbing down to a lower pitch. In Cyrano de Bergerac, the adaptor, Martin Crimp, has exalted rap to an art form for almost three hours. Amid the thump, thump of the music, the constant use or rather pretended use of microphones, the actors declaim monosyllabic verse not to each other but straight at the audience. On a bare stage, clothed in unimaginative black style-less costumes, they attempt to modernise what was originally a pleasing if improbable story. Only the black women actors have colorful costumes. True, brutal minimal, drab dress is common on our streets, but on this stage it certainly doesn’t attract my interest, let alone lift my soul. The original is a story of unrequited or unachieved love, but this play tries so hard to hit the bottom rung that to my mind it neglects or even destroys much of the artistry of Rostand’s play. This is further underlined by the frequent use of foul expletives. In contradiction to my judgement, this play moved from the National Theatre to a West End commercial theatre.
This production of Cyrano has also highlighted what could be a new trend to mount long or some would say long-winded productions. In February, when five plays were running at the National Theatre, three were almost three hours in length, and one (My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante) was five hours and ten minutes. In March, they staged a revival of The Seven Streams of the River Ota by Robert Lepage, which takes seven hours to make its point. Are the directors of these plays a trifle too indulgent towards their authors?
The Iliad and the Odyssey must be the most influential stories in European literature. Archaeologists and historians have yet to find Troy with certainty, and indeed it may never have existed, yet Homer’s elaborate tale of jealous gods and humans at war has spawned a vast outpouring of paintings, sculpture, pottery, poems, and stories that continues to this day nearly three millennia later. Earlier this year the British Museum assembled one of its most dazzling exhibitions entitled “Troy: myth and reality,” which demonstrated how artists of all stripes have been fascinated by the story. Keats may have encapsulated this thought in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.
Among the hundreds of items on display was Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad together with handwritten notations in red ink. William Blake, William Morris, Filippo Albacini, Canova and many more were moved by the story to produce enduring masterpieces. The Achilles heel is not only part of our anatomy, but an everyday figure of speech. I regret having to tell readers that this exhibition is so extensive that it’s unlikely to travel. Still most of it can be found either in the British Museum or in Berlin.
In Boston next year, as of now, you will be able to luxuriate in more beauty derived from Greek mythology under the title “Titian: Love, Desire, Death.” The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has assembled from five museums six paintings by Titian which were all commissioned by King Philip II of Spain. The Venetian artist was given a free hand in the mid-sixteenth century to produce erotic paintings from classical myths, primarily from Ovid’s Metaphorphoses, to adorn royal palaces in Spain, Naples and the Netherlands. Some of them were actually delivered to Philip while he was in England to marry Queen Mary Tudor, later known as “bloody Mary” because she ordered the burning of so many Protestants. What this loyal Catholic made of these erotic pictures has not been recorded.
Some of these paintings are familiar because they have been on permanent display in national collections in Spain and Britain. Venus and Adonis for example comes from the Prado in Madrid. It shows the nude goddess clinging to her handsome lover, entreating him not to go hunting, in a pose that surely could only be imagined by a man. Diana and Actaeon, acquired jointly by the English and Scottish national galleries nearly forty years ago, depicts a hesitant but curious young man stumbling upon a bevy of naked beauties accompanying Diana having a bath. Titian was in his late sixties at the time but did not lack for testosterone.
We are fortunate that they have all survived the rigors of political upheaval, war and the passing of time. Danaë, which shows a beauty who was impregnated by Jupiter disguised as a shower of golden stars, was looted from Spain by Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who was in turn robbed of it by Wellington after his victory at Vitoria in 1813. So for two centuries it has been hung in the Duke’s London residence, Apsley House at Hyde Park Corner.
Titian called this commission his “poesie” implying that they were not just illustrations for the ancient stories but feats of imagination which embellished them. Letters between the King and Titian indicate that they were intended to be displayed together, but that probably never happened until now. The curator Matthias Wivel says “this is the realization of a dream once thought impossible.” Assuming the pandemic fades away, the exhibition will go on to Edinburgh and Madrid, and eventually ending its run at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. To adapt Wordsworth: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / a sight so sensuous in its artistry.”
The world of culture and media continues to promote the cause of female equality. Some notable recent appointments are the editors of the Financial Times and the Sunday Times. Another even more significant perhaps seismic change was the appointment at the end of last year of Rebecca Salter as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, the first woman in the 251 years since the Academy’s foundation. She is a painter and printmaker whose current work is monochrome and severely abstract. Her work can be seen in many galleries including the Library of Congress. The dams which held up women’s equality have also been breached in most business, legal and political circles. There are many positive signs of good progress, but there are still some very prominent positions in British life, such as Leader of the Labour Party, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Archbishop of Canterbury and Director General of the BBC, which have not yet been held by a woman. Regrettably there is still much evidence that too many women are victims of male prejudice, aggression and violence.
However, female advance does not always mean female success. For example, three women who have held the third highest job in government, Home Secretary, have not acquitted themselves too well. The most prominent of these was Theresa May, who held the post for six years before becoming Prime Minister in 2016. She has been widely criticized for imposing a “hostile environment” for migrants and one which did not even achieve its policy goal of reducing the net inflow. In 2018 when May was Prime Minister, the scandal of the “Windrush generation” emerged in which the Home Office cruelly and often illegally deported back to the West Indies many people who had lived in Britain for decades, simply because they could not produce evidence of their citizenship. Many lives were impoverished and even shattered before compensation was ordered by the courts.
Another rather different sign of women’s progress is the proliferation of stand-up comics who by and large are as coarse or frank or vulgar about previously taboo subjects as any man could be. I was particularly struck by many of the topics and punch lines used by a raft of female comedians at a cabaret organized to raise funds for Abortion Rights.
Until recently this 80-year-old organization has been very respectable and restrained in its rhetoric in order to gather political support. The law was reformed 53 years ago and has been much liberalized in practice. More than a fifth of all pregnancies are aborted in registered clinics as part of the National Health Service. Even so the law could be improved or better still repealed to make abortion solely a medical procedure rather than one controlled by law. Reform minded MPs have twice demonstrated that decriminalization of abortion has strong majority support in the Commons, but Conservative governments have not given the parliamentary time for them to guide a bill into law, in part because its opponents are almost all Conservative MPs. Boris Johnson never seems to have shown his hand on this subject by voting one way or the other. In view of the health emergency and the demands of Brexit, progress to decriminalize the abortion law looks very unlikely.
Incidentally, pro-Brexit partisan ire may have been used to block Professor Mary Beard being made a trustee of the British Museum, which is funded by government. At the launch of the Titian exhibition in the National Gallery, where, as a television pundit whose last series was about “The Male Nude,” she attracted far more attention from the photographers than anyone else, she told me that the story was at least half correct. She had been blackballed, but she thinks it was Theresa May’s government rather than Johnson’s. Why, she is not sure but hopes that in time the Museum itself will be able to appoint her despite her open opposition to Brexit and official disapproval.
Foxes are now a common feature of city life. Most often seen at night but we are struck by how bold they are during the day in our suburban garden. They loll about in the sunshine and only retreat over the fence into a vegetable garden very reluctantly. In January, an alert photographer took a picture of one young fellow swimming briskly across a fountain in Trafalgar Square just below the National Gallery. Where had he come from? Probably St. James’s Park, which is nearby. Where was he going? To buy tickets for the Titian, of course.