Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Lucre for Lucifer

Driving home from Yorkshire yesterday, I listened to Sir Ronald Cohen explaining the Big Society to Eddie Mair. The idea is one he claimed to have invented, long before it occurred to the war crimes suspect in Number 10. The banks, dear things, are going to be funding most of it, for one obvious reason. The State is maxed out on its credit card. So too are businesses and individuals. That only leaves the voluntary sector to be dragged into the mire of debt.

York’s heritage is cared for by a plethora of voluntary organisations. There is the York Civic Trust, sponsors of those elegant enamelled plaques (left) that adorn historic buildings. There is the York Conservation Trust, whose ownership of many historic properties in the shopping streets protects them from unthinking alteration in the name of commercial progress. There is also the York Museums Trust, latest addition to the constellation, which now manages the municipal attractions.

The idea that councils should divest themselves of museums and galleries, libraries and archives, is gathering pace. For much of the 20th century the trend was the other way. The council as the representative body of the community was considered a safe pair of hands, in much the same way that the parish church has served as the obvious repository for a village’s collective past. The tide started to flow the other way with the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986. Now more and more we inhabit a post-democratic world where shadowy boards of trustees do deals with private philanthropists, whose very existence is a measure of the growing inequalities of wealth.

The war crimes suspect would have us believe that getting the State into debt is bad but getting volunteers into debt is not. Which is unsurprising. Social innovation is a fancy term for dreaming up ever more fiendish ways to extract surplus value. The core contradiction of capitalism is that wages must be kept down to protect profits but incomes must be kept up to fuel the profitable consumption of goods and services. Debt fills the gap.

Debt in turn is a source of profit for those endowed with the mathematical skills to manage it, society willing. Society usually is, even when the calculations go pear-shaped. Occasionally, folk are bright enough to see through the veil and the money-lenders are then punished, for being too clever by half.

One such reaction occurred in York in 1190 when the city’s Jews became the victims of a pogrom. Having taken refuge in the castle (today’s building, left, is later), they all ended up dead, some murdered by the besiegers, most dying in a suicide pact, an English Masada.

Europe’s Jews were hated as usurers but indispensable for that same reason. In the later Middle Ages, others got in on the act, initially by finding ways round the Christian prohibition on usury. Lenders first made money not through the charging of interest but through the manipulation of exchange rates. Out of their profits, the Italian bankers funded some of the world’s greatest art. What we do not see is the other side of the account, the suffering of those through the centuries whose lives have been ground down by debt. Often as not, and as now, the result of deliberate government policy.

Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Hun

"Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you."
Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)

Coventry was a convenient point at which to break the journey home from Yorkshire. A pagan-inclined person might see in its name the tree at which the coven met. Scholars prefer to make up a man named Cofa, genitive Cofan. What is not in dispute is that at the city’s heart is a hill, one so sacred that the Christians built a church there in the name of St Michael the Archangel and all his heavenly host. They were taking no chances. Appropriately enough, St Michael is now an unofficial patron saint of the Royal Air Force.

The latest St Michael’s is the post-war cathedral designed by Sir Basil Spence, its portico reaching out to the ruins of its gutted Gothic predecessor. Coventry was mediæval England’s fourth largest city, after London, Bristol and York. The devastation of war has diminished but by no means extinguished its appeal. Alas, it is not the devastation of war alone that has created the modern city.

Every time I visit Coventry I discover another piece of the bigger picture. Last time, I visited its museum, into which many gorgeous relics of its past are gathered, relics that tell of a very different city from that which now exists. Here I learnt that when the Labour Party first took control of Coventry Corporation in the 1930’s it began to draw up plans for comprehensive redevelopment. Adolf Hitler was philosophical about RAF raids on Berlin, noting that they would ease the job of rebuilding, bigger and better, once the war was won. For Coventry councillors too there was no cloud without a silver lining.

So much of central Coventry is new that the easiest assumption is always to blame the bombs. It ain’t necessarily so. The guidebook to Coventry Cathedral includes two shots of the area to its east, as they were before the old streets were flattened in the 1960’s to build what is now Coventry University. It would be most instructive to take a map of pre-war Coventry, to mark on it (a) the buildings and streets that survive; (b) those destroyed by the Luftwaffe; and (c) those destroyed by Coventrians themselves; then to total the numbers and areas for each. Similarly instructive maps can be drawn up for Exeter, Plymouth and Swansea, to mention only those cities with which I am most familiar and which are most haunted by the memory of the Blitz.

The loss of life in all these places – tiny as it was compared to the torrential fire rained down on German cities – is what remains worthy of memory. Coventry does it subtly, with the tomb of the Unknown Civilian nestling, barely noticed, in the shadow of the old cathedral. As to the destruction of property, it is time for a more honest account of who did what to whom, and when and why, and what was lost and gained in the process. Coventrians and their politicians may elicit less sympathy when the full story has been told.

Northumbria’s Capital

A weekend away. In Yorkshire. My association with York goes back to a holiday in 1975 and when I lived up north I visited many times, twice as a member of the Yorkshire Ridings Society. Every year on Yorkshire Day – the first of August – members walk the city walls to read out at each of the mediæval gates or Bars a declaration that the historic Yorkshire and its Ridings continue to exist, whatever folk in London may decree to the contrary. The Yorkshire Declaration of Integrity is read four times at each Bar, in each of Yorkshire’s ruling languages down the centuries – Latin, Old English, Old Norse and modern English. Norman-French is missing, but no-one wants to talk about the Harrying of the North. The readings take place first outside Micklegate Bar, to the West Riding, then Bootham Bar to the North Riding, inside the walls at Monk Bar to the City & Ainsty, finishing beside Walmgate Bar with an address to the East Riding (except that now a further reading takes place in the city centre). The ceremony began in 1977, the 1100th anniversary of Yorkshire’s formation by the Vikings, and each year it starts one minute later to mark the onward march of time. So much imagination crammed into one expression of pride of place must be without equal. It would be good to see others try.

York does imagination. Its four major mediæval Bars now have five big siblings, the park-and-ride sites around the outer ring road that mark the modern points of arrival – Askham Bar, Grimston Bar and Rawcliffe Bar, plus two more with longer names that lack the Bar label. Masterpieces of modern design they are not but they are the product of careful thought nonetheless. The car park at Askham Bar is shared with a supermarket and a day nursery and with proper foresight is sited next to the East Coast Main Line. Trains in the livery of Northern Rail whizz by, a glorious provocation both to those who would have all trains run from London and to those whose imaginative powers fall short of visualising Northumbria Restituta.

One of the city centre’s most delightful spots is Holy Trinity, Goodramgate, its leafy churchyard surrounded by the old high brick walls of buildings that front onto busy shopping streets. One such wall is formed by Our Lady Row, a terrace of timber-framed properties dating from 1316, their upper floors jettied over the pavement of Goodramgate. Inside the church, now redundant, are mediæval stained glass (above) and a fleet of Georgian box pews, bobbing on uneven floors. Every city needs somewhere like this. It makes a refreshing change from the usual litany of granite benches, concrete spheres and ill-placed fountains.

And so to the Minster (left). Rehearsals for a rock concert were underway. ‘Spawn of Satan’ or some such band. During the war, the glass was taken out of the windows in case it was shattered by blast. It might have been a wise precaution on Saturday, judging by the volume. High on the nave ceiling was pointed out to me the roof boss depicting the Ascension: the soles of two feet disappearing into a cloud. Easy for some. For mere mortals, there was no escape from the power of the amps, even below ground. And below ground is the most interesting part of the Minster.

The Undercroft is the result of engineering works 40 years ago to stabilise the tower. Winding its way between the concrete plinths run through with reinforcing rods is an archæological trail reaching back to the Roman headquarters building where Constantine was proclaimed emperor in 306. I remember when the Undercroft was new and I remember the impression it made upon me. Continental equivalents are numerous. Notre Dame and St Denis at Paris, the Duomo at Florence and the Vatican at Rome all attempt the same presentation of the history beneath our feet. Other English cathedrals must surely be capable of the same, the opportunity patiently awaited.

Foremost among the treasures displayed beneath the Minster is the Horn of Ulph. The man himself was an Anglo-Danish landowner, who gave his estates to the Minster shortly before 1066, reportedly to prevent his sons squabbling over them. The horn came with them as the ‘title deeds’. There are other examples of this custom from Wessex, the Pusey Horn and the Savernake Horn, both now detained in London museums, but the Horn of Ulph remains with its grateful recipient. It is documented only from the 14th century but the object itself dates without question from the 11th. It is actually a tusk of elephant ivory, carved at Salerno in Italy, possibly by Arab craftsmen since it carries Asian motifs. We may ponder what other treasures, now lost, a small world might have delivered to England’s largest county a millennium ago.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

South Ken's Swag Bag

London’s story is told most directly in its churches, large and small. It is told too in its own museums, pre-eminently the Museum of London, at the Barbican, the London Transport Museum, in Covent Garden, and the Museum of London Docklands.

There are many other museums and galleries in London. Some are there not because they are especially relevant to London but because London is a capital city. Most capitals have a National Gallery. London and Edinburgh both have a National Portrait Gallery too and the former, commendably, has three regional outposts. Then there are the national museums that could be anywhere in England. London has those for science, natural history, the army, RAF and the sea, Yorkshire those for arms & armour, railways and the media. London has one on world wars, with an outpost on the edge of Manchester. In fact, we have quite a lot of museums about wars. Just one about peace and that’s in Yorkshire too. It was set up in Bradford in 1994, no thanks to the State.

Among the big game, what that leaves most conspicuously are Britain’s most controversial museums, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert. Controversial because they are the proud product of an imperial narrative that might is right. They ooze the abuse of wealth and power and I visit their galleries as I would a prisoner of conscience. On Saturday I was at the V&A – with the Friends of Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives – and felt more alienated than ever by what goes on within its walls.

The first thing that strikes anyone who has visited both the major museums is the wasteful overlap. It is the legacy of a century and a half of collecting wars between their curators that in any sensible country would never have got started. Any sensible country would have one institution responsible for paintings owned by the nation, not the seven in London that I can think of without even trying. On what basis do the BM and the V&A both maintain equally outstanding collections of jewellery, prints & drawings, and Islamic, Indian and Chinese art?

Next to strike is the realisation that the museums’ curators must spend much time being sycophants. The evidence is the new and refurbished galleries and gardens that now bear the names of Far East corporate sponsors, ex-employees of Goldman Sachs and others with egos as big as their wallets. Philanthropy is a Victorian tradition now making a comeback as part of the Pig Society – children up chimneys will surely follow – but the best amongst the Victorian donors did the decent thing. They chose ‘no publicity’ for their acts of charity, citing 1 Corinthians 13:4. In William Morris’ News from Nowhere, the narrator, finding himself in London ‘after the Revolution’, learns that Westminster Abbey has been cleared of “beastly monuments to fools and knaves”. It looks like the revolutionaries must now add the national museums to their work programme. For if television without interruptions is worth paying for properly, in the shape of the BBC, then so is culture without the heavy hand of commerce and the market price of fame.

Last is the realisation that all this sound and fury signifies, what? What is the role of these self-serving imperial museums in a decent, co-operative world? Who benefits from having the Parthenon marbles split between London and Athens, or the Franks Casket between London and Florence? Or the treasures of St Cuthbert between London and Durham? Because this is not simply an international issue. What is the Gloucester Candlestick doing in the V&A when it clearly belongs in Gloucester? In niches on the stairs stand the four mediæval statues of kings from the Bristol High Cross, on loan from the National Trust, which substituted replicas on the High Cross itself, now at Stourhead in Wiltshire. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with substituting replicas where that will better protect the originals. Nor with lending the latter. But Bristol is about to open a new £27 million museum to tell the city’s story. It would be nice to think it could be allowed some evocative exhibits of real relevance and quality in place of the third-rate tat we can actually expect. And all because London has nabbed the best, just by being the biggest.

Beware the cry of reductio ad absurdum. Absolute dispersal would indeed be absurd, but no more so than absolute concentration. No-one is saying that every Italian painting has to go back to Italy, or that universal museums are wrong in principle. But a line can be drawn between the ordinary and the extraordinary and that line should be determined by whatever the dispossessed desire to display. It is in their own interests not to push for what they cannot. I support the restitution campaigns, subject to security concerns, where relevant, being satisfactorily addressed. Those curators who oppose the loss of their star attractions can continue to denounce as ‘cultural fascists’ the communities who want their treasures back. But I know and you know that the real cultural fascists are those who hide behind gunboat museology, preferring the letter of the law of property to the spirit of scholarship in context. The defence that a museum did good work in the past won’t hold in the present, let alone the future.

And the answer to what all this signifies? In the case of the V&A, it is an elusive answer. Its original purpose – to provide the best models from the past to improve standards in art and design – is long gone. Modern British artists and designers have either never visited or else learnt nothing. The BM at least has the strapline, ‘Illuminating World Cultures’. It’s an impressive description for torchlight shining on loot but at least it’s something. The V&A appears not to have a strapline – at least since the days of ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’ – and no-one seems able to say what it’s for. What it does best are the temporary exhibitions of stuff from elsewhere. Currently running is one of imperial Chinese robes from the Forbidden City, case after case of incomparably exquisite embroidery on the finest silk, a breathtaking glimpse into the heart of oriental court culture. Several of the robes bear swastikas, a Chinese symbol for ten thousand and therefore of the emperor, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years. That exhibition alone was worth the visit. So too are the refreshment rooms decorated by Morris, Gamble and Poynter in their respective house styles, the first museum restaurant in the world when they opened in 1857. The V&A might, one day, make a very good home for a museum of the Victorian age. But right now, the chaotic jumble of the permanent collection, magnified by a chronically unhelpful layout, is truly an insult to the nation that paid for it.