When booze costs more, boozers will go Dutch – or Russian

Standing a round is a fine British tradition. It’s also a prohibitively expensive one when a dozen colleagues go out for a swift half after work. (Translation for outlanders: ‘a swift half’ is a flexible measurement covering the range between two and 12 pints of beer.)

People still do it though, but, if the government acts on its threat to raise the minimum price of an alcohol unit, the British may start carrying calculators to pubs. ‘I only had three rum-and-Cokes. Was it five or six pints you had, Kevin? And you, Fiona? Right then, that’ll be…’ We’ll swap Anglican generosity for Calvinist frugality, but without also acquiring Calvinist industry.

Yet the proposed measure will affect social drinkers only the way the shockwaves of an explosion affect bystanders a hundred yards away. The proposed, and supposed, target are asocial drinkers, those who throw up on a parked car before zigzagging into the path of a moving one.

To dismiss that sort of thing as innocent fun, as Guardian writers do, would be ignoring a serious problem. The first time I realised its gravity was some 20 years ago, when a friend of ours was playing a concert in Chester. Incidentally, for the benefit of those who equate loutish drunkenness with poverty, Chester is one of Britain’s wealthiest cities.

We went out for a late supper after the concert, alighting back in the street at about midnight. It was Friday, and there wasn’t a single sober person of either sex to be seen anywhere in the centre. The girls were screaming, ‘Darren [Wayne, Lee, Jason etc.] get a f****** taxi’, but no taxi would stop for those staggering Darrens [Waynes, Lees, Jasons etc.] – a fare of a few quid wouldn’t have covered the likely clean-up job. A young man was slowly sliding down the wall next to the restaurant door, a trickle of vomit coming out of the corner of his mouth. His girlfriend, high on passion, low on squeamishness, was kissing him on that very mouth with drunken abandon.

Such scenes have become commonplace all over the country, and their spread seems not to be sensitive to demographics or geography. Hence it’s foolhardy to expect that those who have to fill with booze the empty space inside themselves will be deterred by having to pay a little more for it. Artificial restrictions on the supply of a desired commodity are unlikely to reduce the demand. They are, however, almost guaranteed to encourage much illegal activity.

Thirteen years between 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution put Prohibition into effect, and 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, ought to have been enough time to hammer the point home: state interference doesn’t solve social problems. It either makes them worse or creates new ones. In this instance too, the price America paid for a marginal fall in cirrhosis cases was too high. The first organised black market was created to fill the void, and American English was enriched by new words like ‘speak-easy’ and ‘bootlegging’.

The example of another country I know intimately, Russia, shows that people who want to get drunk will do so, regardless of the cost. Back in the old days, a half-litre bottle of vodka cost the daily wage of a young doctor. But intrepid Russians managed to get legless with metronomic regularity by either distilling their own moonshine or resorting to liquids not manifestly designed for human consumption, such as floor varnish, methanol, antifreeze, cologne, deodorants and some such.

Benny Yerofeev, the late poet of Russian dipsomania, remarked that while few people in Russia know what the great poet Pushkin died of, everybody knows how to prepare floor varnish for drinking. I hope you won’t find it patronising if I divulge the secret to the uninitiated: you take a three-gallon bucket of floor varnish and empty a four-pound bag of salt into it. The salt will form a blob that will start sinking to the bottom through the dense liquid. As it sinks, the blob will get heavier with the oils, ethers and other impurities it has absorbed. In about four hours you’ll be left with a brownish liquid, which would be unlikely to cause any sleepless nights to the makers of Lagavulin, but which can be drunk with relative impunity, at least in the short term.

I’m not suggesting that the proposed measure will drive the British to similar extremes – only that people tend to find a way around state activism. The problem, if the government really wanted to solve it, ought to be tackled at its roots, which are all cultural and social. Palliatives won’t even achieve their real aim of winning more votes for the coalition by portraying it as resolute and hardnosed. Older people whose pensions have been wiped out largely by the government’s incompetence won’t look kindly at having to pay more for their glass of wine with supper. They’ll be likely to punish the government at the polls.

Nor will the treasury get much fatter, which is the other underlying purpose of the measure. People who normally drink cheap wine or spirits will switch to strong lager or fortified wine (which is the most cost-effective route to befouling one’s clothes before passing out). And criminals will start flogging stolen or fake alcohol the way they now flog cheaper cigarettes off the back of a lorry.

In short, the proposed measure is ill-advised. And I only use this adjective to be charitable.










Mediocrity is god, and BBC Radio 3 is its messenger

Forget all those non-words like diversity, multiculturalism, equal opportunity, the right to [fill in the blank], sexism… and so forth ad nauseam. They denote nothing, but they all connote the same thing: mediocrity is god who will smite any infidel.

You can see the high priests of this god everywhere, and you’re welcome to choose your own field by way of proof. My today’s choice is music, if only to let Dave off the hook this once.

In the last few days I couldn’t help hearing two typical performances on Radio 3, accompanied by equally typical commentary. In one, Murray Perahia, the patron saint of giftless pianists, played the last movement of the Emperor Concerto as if dead set on proving that it’s possible to convey Beethoven’s genius by just playing all the notes in the right sequence. In the other, Mitsuka Uchida communicated to the world her startling discovery that Mozart wrote his Sonata in A not when he was 27, but some time after his death.

I don’t know if you follow music, but these two are regarded these days as ineffable talents, the ultimate exponents of their art. Sure enough, Radio 3 announcers, whose giggly voices have the same effect on me as the word ‘culture’ had on Dr Goebbels, intoned a few sweet nothings to that effect.

At the same time, one of them described Glenn Gould, arguably the greatest instrumentalist of all time, as a pianist ‘who divides opinion’. That much is true: the opinion is divided between those who understand musical performance and those who don’t. In general, on the rare occasions those same announcers introduce a truly great musician of the past, they have to make inanely condescending remarks implying that the art of performance has moved on since that time, but here’s a little something of curiosity value.

Musical performance has indeed moved on – down to the level at which aesthetically challenged philistines feel comfortable. Just compare, in their performance of the same pieces, Schnabel to Uchida or Yudina to Perahia or Sofronitsky to Lang Lang or Gould to Hewitt and you’ll hear the difference between sublime artistry and nondescript mediocrity, hiding behind digital competence. (Note that I deliberately use as modern examples those universally lauded as the great masters of today. I could make the contrast even starker by naming, at random, any of the dozens of fly-by-night ‘celebrities’ who haven’t yet attained the iconic status, all those Yuja Wangs of this world.)

Why can’t those Radio 3 announcers hear it? Several reasons. First, they all can play a bit, and they naturally respond to those musicians who play the way the announcers themselves would if they had the fingers. True artistry, even if those BBC folk were capable of recognising it, would remind them too painfully of the real reason they are announcers and not musicians. Mediocrity tropistically reaches for mediocrity – it abhors the unsettling discomfort that a great performance inevitably causes.

And then of course they work for an outfit institutionally, if not statutorily, committed to promoting mediocrity – and then only if we are lucky. When we’re unlucky, they pay millions to utterly offensive types like Jonathan Ross, who aren’t amusing even on their own pathetic terms. When that is the case, they clearly contravene the BBC Charter that calls for ‘promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence’. It’s almost embarrassing to have to say that Jonathan Ross asking our PM to what use he as a boy put a photo of Lady Thatcher doesn’t quite achieve such noble aims.

However, it should be equally evident that neither does Radio 3, with its consistent commitment to mediocrity. This comes across not only in their choice of performers, but also in the selection of music. ‘Cultural excellence’ they are obligated to ‘stimulate’ doesn’t cover minor Baroque composers performed by a minor Baroque band whose members play their original instruments with the opposite of originality. Nor does it comprise an umpteenth performance of a late Romantic composer, prefaced by the remark that he is undeservedly forgotten. Let me tell you: if a composer is still forgotten after 130 years, it’s not undeserved. Those Radio 3 chaps would be entirely within their Charter’s remit to let sleeping composers lie.

With the profusion of newly digitised CDs of great musicians of the past (there aren’t many at present), Radio 3 could play nothing but sublime works sublimely performed. Occasionally, by way of promoting education and learning’, they could throw in something distinctly average as an illustration of our downward cultural slide – and explain why the stuff is distinctly average. That way Radio 3 would have a sporting chance of reversing the depressing trend rather than pushing it to risible extremes.

But they can’t and won’t do that. The god of mediocrity is athirst, and the BBC is there to provide his sustenance.




From ‘Grexit’ to ‘Spain in the neck’: time for neologisms, puns and break-ups

It took an Herculean effort for me to use the socially acceptable ‘neck’ in my entry into the coinage sweepstakes.

Still, if I say so myself who shouldn’t, even my neutered term hits a double whammy by being both a neologism and a pun. The newly fashionable ‘Grexit’ is also a double whammy as it’s a portmanteau word, a sum of two borrowed parts. But it isn’t a pun, unless it’s a subtle play on grex venalium. If that’s what it’s meant to be, then it edges ahead of my contribution, for being not only neologistic and punning but also posh.

For those of you who had the good sense to play truant during your Latin classes, ‘grex venalium’ means a venal throng, a heard of hirelings. One can’t think of a more fitting term to describe our European leaders, as they’re leading the continent into an abyss.

Take Romano Prodi for example, who no longer heads the EU Commission, but still has EU interests close to heart. Said interests, he has suggested, will be irrevocably damaged should Greece leave the euro: ‘Exit would bring down the whole house of cards, with one state falling after another: it would reach Portugal, Spain, then Italy and France,’ he said.

Yes! my friends must be screaming, as they punch their left palms with their right fists. But the prophesy isn’t quite accurate. Those states will suffer even worse than they are suffering now, but they won’t fall. What will fall is the EU, and not before time. The ensuing thud will be deafening, and we should all start wearing earmuffs. But in the shorter term a tumble awaits most politicians involved in pushing Europe over the edge, and I’d like to commiserate with the sheer scale of the human tragedies unfolding before our very eyes.

Just look at poor Angie. First she lost Nicky, the love of her life. Then she lost the right to choose her next mate by being pushed into bed with François, a man whom she secretly despises. Now she has lost North Rhine-Westphalia, a big chunk of her trousseau. By itself that wouldn’t be so tragic, except that this loss is a harbinger of the ultimate one to come: the poor dear is going to lose her job. And what has she done wrong? Hasn’t she been a perfect little wife, keeping her eye on the family finances and raising her children in her own image? Didn’t she teach them to look after the billions, and the trillions will look after themselves? And now they’re all turning against her, one by one. That’s gratitude for you.

Or look at Dave. By thunderously taking Nicky’s side in his predictably doomed struggle to save his marriage to Angie, Dave acted in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘…bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you…’. Nicky had indeed been cursing Dave, even telling him to shut up, something your Mum must have told you never to say. And yet Dave, like an abused wife who refuses to walk out on her loutish hubby-wubby, stood by his man. When François came to London for a stag do before taking a plunge with Angie, Dave wouldn’t even talk to the impostor. Loyalty or what? Now, as a reward for the one selfless act of his life, Dave won’t be invited to the wedding – or any subsequent bash thrown by the newlyweds. On the plus side, when he himself is thrown out on his ear, he won’t have any problems finding a title for his memoir. Bipolarisation of Europe suggests itself.

But at least Angie and François can find some ersatz solace in each other’s embrace. Think of all those marriages breaking up all over the continent, where the divorced spouses have no fall-back mates. The coalition in Holland has gone Dutch, and the country is about to see red: Holland is about to move left of Hollande (I told you it was time for puns, especially bad ones).

And Italy had done a full Monti, only to show the world that her economy is sagging and badly in need of a lift, and her southern regions need a Botox treatment. She may have to shun the wedding of Angie and François – that is, assuming the marriage is still on, and François doesn’t leave Angie at the altar.

I’d treat you to more rotten puns whose sole aim is to laugh in the face of tragedy. But I can’t: tears are suffocating me too much, I can’t get another word out. So I’ll have to tell you about the major Spain in the neck some other time.







Why not tell the truth, Mr Gove? You know what it is, don’t you?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one should never start by saying ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’. Yet no other phrase could better introduce the First Law of Modernity:

Large-scale government programmes always produce results different from those intended. The likelihood of such results being opposite to those intended is directly proportional to the zeal put into the implementation of said programmes.

Few programmes have ever been implemented more zealously than the systematic effort to turn British education from the envy of the world into its laughingstock. The rot set in in 1965, when Tony Crossland, Labour Education Secretary, announced, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every f****** grammar school…’

Next to the determination to win the Battle of Britain, this was the only sentiment I can think of that has ever drawn cross-party consensus. The subsequent two generations of politicians have achieved the task set in such a forthright fashion, and the sainted Margaret Thatcher, when still Education Secretary, shut down more grammar schools than any of her Labour colleagues.

Grammar schools, and the Tripartite system in general, were based not on any ideology but on a simple empirical observation that holds true all over the world: only about 25 percent of all children are academically inclined or capable. Yet 100 percent of the children should leave school equipped to handle life’s challenges as best they can – be it as future barristers or mechanics.

Conversely, comprehensive schools that replaced the old grammar and secondary modern schools were based on an ideological, which is to say false, premise. Their architects proceeded from the assumption that equality was an end both desirable and achievable.

This was a pie in the sky, and the pie was rancid. True equality can only exist in heaven; in earth, people are created unequal in strength, intelligence, character – well, in everything. Earthly inequality is thus a natural order of things, and it can only be distorted by unnatural means. Even then it won’t disappear; it’ll be replaced by a worse type of inequality or else camouflaged by demagoguery.

An important thing to remember is that downwards isn’t just the only possible direction of levelling but, for its champions, the only desirable one. To Burke ‘compulsory equalisations,’ could only mean ‘equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary.’ To modern egalitarians they are the shining beacon.

Now Michael Gove laments the entirely predictable, nay inevitable, results of the egalitarian hurricane that has swept away any semblance of decent education in Britain’s state schools. He has noticed with his eagle eye that most walks of life, including, amazingly, pop ‘music’ and some sports, are dominated by alumni of public schools.

What do you expect? A domination by comprehensively educated school-leavers who can’t read, write or add up? If comprehensives taught such skills, some pupils would master them better than others, thus defeating the founding purpose of these ‘schools’. It’s much better to make sure everyone is equally illiterate. This underlying sentiment, supposedly based on the desire to increase social mobility, is guaranteed to eliminate it, enshrining for a lifetime the conditions to which a child is born.

‘We live in a profoundly unequal society,’ laments Mr Gove. Truer words have never been spoken. In fact, they are so true that I’d like him to produce an example of a single equal society in the 5,000 years of recorded history. I, on the other hand, can offer many recent or current examples of countries where an attempt to create such a society resulted in the worst butchery the world has ever seen.

‘When more Etonians make it to Oxbridge than boys and girls on benefit, then we know we are not making the most of all our nation’s talents,’ says Mr Gove. One gets the impression he shares Tony ‘Anthony’ Blair’s aspiration that half of all Britons should have a university education – something guaranteed to reduce universities to the intellectual level of inner-city comprehensives.

I don’t have the same access to data as Gove has, so I’m not going to challenge the counterintuitive proposition that children on benefit are the secure depositories of ‘our nation’s talents’. But if they are, then such talents would come to the fore more readily if ‘benefits’ weren’t available, and the children saw before them the example of their parents working hard to earn a living. And if we had state grammar schools able and willing to spot those talents and to create conditions in which they could thrive.

‘For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible,’ thunders Gove. He ought to know better than to use hackneyed non-words designed to conceal hackneyed non-thoughts.

In real language, social justice would mean giving everyone his due. If such justice operated in Britain, half of her population, betrayed and brutalised by egalitarians, would starve to death. For Gove and other with-it politicians, ‘social justice’ means further promotion of the same harebrained philosophy that has destroyed our education in the first place. If that’s justice, give me injustice any day.

What’s even more galling is that one senses that Gove knows all this. Given a free hand, he’d probably wish to do a Crossland on the comprehensives and replace them with the old system, the one that in the distant past made Britain one the best-educated nations in the world. But even to hint at such a desideratum would be as ‘politically inexpedient’ as any other sane policy.

That’s why he’ll continue to treat the cough rather than the lung cancer, he’ll continue to mitigate the symptoms of what he probably knows to be a systemic flaw. Systemic flaws, Mr Gove, are eliminated by changing the system. Not tweaking it cosmetically to the accompaniment of meaningless twaddle.

The $592-trillion Ponzi scheme is a time bomb ticking under your house

The debt crisis exploded in 2008, and its shock waves have lost none of their destructiveness. The fault largely lies with governments whose frenzied borrowing and overheating printing presses turn currencies into Monopoly money.

This madness started in the run-up to the First World War, when most countries went off the gold standard enabling their governments to become players in the economic game, rather than its referees. The results were spectacular. In the last 50 years of the nineteenth century the British pound underwent a total inflation of 10 percent. The corresponding figure for the last 50 years of the twentieth century was an economy-busting, soul-destroying 2,200 percent.

That much is well known and understood. However, neither governments nor their quasi-independent central banks are the only culprits. For they aren’t the only inflators of the money supply – private institutions do their fair share.

Various JP Morgan outfits take pride of place in this activity, which manifestly runs against the constitution of most Western states. Private companies aren’t supposed to assume the functions of elected governments, yet this is precisely what JP Morgan has been doing for the better part of a century. By their own standards, they’ve done a good job, worth billions in bonuses. But by our standards they, and their able colleagues, have brought the world to the brink of disaster.

By way of historical background, it was Morgan bankers who were the principal architects of the Federal Reserve system, masterminding its strategic offensive against the gold standard and thus enabling the state to get those presses in high gear. And it was the House of Morgan that floated war loans for Britain, effectively breaking US neutrality and financing a steady flow of supplies across the Atlantic. That left the Kaiser’s Germany no choice but to launch unrestricted submarine warfare, dragging America into the war.

This was Morgan’s entry into global politics, inseparable from global economics. Since then their bankers have designed many sophisticated weapons of mass economic destruction. It was mainly those weapons that triggered off the current explosion and set up the next one, of a much higher yield.

Prime among such weapons are various schemes of increasing the money supply through the derivatives markets. The spirit behind such technically legal tricks is roughly the same as that animating illegal Ponzi schemes, of the kind that landed Bernie Madoff in prison for a surreal term.

It was derivatives schemes that emboldened American banks to offer unsecured mortgages, eventually blowing up the global market. A bank wouldn’t just proffer an unsecured loan of, say, $450,000 hoping that the borrower would dutifully repay it, with interest, over 25 years. It would protect itself by issuing a derivative bond on the loan and selling it to another bank. To make it worthwhile, the value of the bond would be stated as $600,000, which the buyer would accept. After all, the price of property has nowhere to go but up, has it not? So what’s a $150,000 surcharge among friends? Just in case, however, the buyer would then issue his own bond, this time for $900,000, and sell it on. And so forth, until in some instances the combined value of the derivative bonds would reach 15 times the original value of the house.

The expectation that the market value of the property would reach this figure in any foreseeable future was no longer merely optimistic. It was insane. Any tenuous link with the real world that may have existed had been severed.

Without going into much tedious detail, as derivative markets in mortgages tottered, exactly the same disaster was brewing with other bank securities. Just as with mortgages, clever banks thought they had protected themselves against a calamity. But they were too clever by half.  

They over-relied on various safety valves, prime among which was Credit Default Swap (CDS) developed by JP Morgan Chase in 1997. Essentially, a CDS means that the seller of a security assumes a certain amount of risk in case of defaults. Like mortgage bonds, CDSs can act as secondary derivatives; they too can be sold on at a profit.

Before long the idea turned into a standard practice all over the world: you buy my CDS, I buy yours. A few spins of that particular wheel, and everybody was insured, including the insurers. Unfortunately, reality has its own logic, and this hasn’t yet been universally repealed. And simple logic suggests that, when everyone is insured, no one is. To mix the metaphors slightly, when the penny drops, the piper has to be paid.

In this instance the piper is demanding rather exorbitant amounts. The Bank for International Settlements currently estimates the total paper value of outstanding derivatives, including CDSs, at $592 trillion, which is roughly 10 times the annual GDP of the whole world, with its five continents and variously industrious populaces. The face value is only about one tenth of that amount, but even such a paltry sum is clearly repayable in the virtual world only.

Yet you and I live in the real world, where people have to pay for their housing, food and clothes. The virtual world has placed a time bomb under the real one, and it’s ticking away. Should it go off, as most such bombs do sooner or later, it would take Kafka’s imagination at its most macabre to describe the ensuing human catastrophes. I’m not even going to try.



Disgusting Horatio Nelson and eerie Lucian Freud

None of Freud’s paintings could possibly adorn a chocolate box, which proves he’s a true artist (Mr Renoir, ring your office).

Some of his canvases are calculated to shock, some do so simply because real art always unsettles. So, as I walked towards the National Portrait Gallery to see the Freud exhibition, I didn’t expect my senses to be mollycoddled. I expected a shock.

And one came – even before I went in. Hanging on the fence was an expensively produced poster advertising another exhibition, of Admiral Nelson’s portraits. It was called Nauseous Sailor.

Now in the language of William Shakespeare and Kenneth Clark ‘nauseous’ means ‘disgusting’, ‘vomit-inducing’. Surely that’s putting it too strongly, I thought. Nelson had his failings, a propensity to consort with courtesans for one, but he’s generally regarded as a decent sailor.

In fact, the square next to the Gallery is named after one of Nelson’s exploits. You know, the one in which he established that Britain was a naval power and France wasn’t, a state of affairs that lasted until Dave bought a time share on a French carrier. Could a nation really have thus honoured a ‘disgusting’ sailor?

It didn’t. By erecting Nelson’s Column, the nation honoured its great hero. Unfortunately, the same nation later did to its education what Nelson had done to Villeneuve’s navy. The broadsides were so overpowering that even today’s supposedly literate curators don’t know the difference between ‘nauseous’ and ‘nauseated’. The institution once graced by the directorship of the erudite, elegant writer Kenneth Clark is now led by ignoramuses.

Why not just call the exhibition Sea-Sick Sailor? Not only would the title be accurate, but, thanks to the alliteration, it would also be catchier. Sea sickness is the unambiguous description of Nelson’s affliction – after all, a sailor can be nauseated (or ‘nauseous’ in the ignoramuses’ lingo) for a variety of reasons, such as too much grog, or else constant exposure to pretentious pseuds.

If I expected my newly jaundiced mood to change inside the exhibition, it didn’t. It’s not that I changed my assessment of Freud as one of modernity’s few great craftsmen. In fact, from the first painting to the last, one knows one is in the hands of a master. Freud’s best portraits, like those by Rembrandt or Velázquez, don’t just depict the sitter’s face; they capture his psychology.

Thanks largely to the artist’s grandfather, psychology has in our time tried to fill the space formerly occupied by the spirit or, even earlier, the soul. A futile attempt, if I ever saw one. For, if the spirit reaches outwards and upwards, psychology is inward and solipsistic. Preoccupation with it is a sure sign of a man who uses himself as the starting point of the universe – his is the single-point perspective, making anyone smaller as he moves away from the egotistic centre. A modern man looks inside himself to find the truth. Alas, he only finds himself there.

That’s where Freud’s portraits differ from those by Rembrandt or Velázquez: like them, he offers psychological insights; unlike them, he offers no spiritual ones. Hence his models lose a crucial part of their humanity, becoming merely vessels containing the artist’s own view of the world.

And what an eerie view it is. Freud obviously didn’t celebrate the beauty of life, as all great artists do – regardless of how gloomy their subjects are. Nor did he celebrate the beauty of the human body: his nudes tend to be either worryingly skeletal or grossly obese; most are unattractive. This is understandable in an artist preaching that life is ugly. It’s lamentable in a master held back by his monovision.

Though a true artist may sometimes be gentle, he is never genteel. Freud is neither gentle nor genteel; however, he’s often genital. Many of his paintings feature highly detailed close-ups, which by some may be taken for a manifestation of stark, unflinching realism. I see it as a lapse of taste.

Hard as I try, I can’t imagine Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus with her legs wide-open, or any of Rembrandt’s merchants letting it all hang out. Great artists, no matter how raunchy they are in their life or even art, always retain a certain chastity of expression, an aesthetic purity of vision. They don’t rely on gynaecological images to make a point; they have finer tools at their disposal.

It would be too pat to say that Freud inherited his grandfather’s preoccupation with those particular organs. The real reason probably lay deeper: the artist was challenging traditional notions of taste, morality and aesthetics. Such a challenge is too difficult even for such a superb painter to pull off without plunging into the lower depths at which poor taste resides.

And superb he is. The task Freud set himself was dubious, but he went about it with consummate skill. The technique he used since about 1960 relied on huge brushes and thick paint. This gave flesh a disconcerting quality, and, as Freud tended to clean his brush after each bold stroke, his palette never remained stable. Each touch was chromatically, though not dramatically, different from the next, and at first glance his variations of tone may look almost monochrome, their subtlety at odds with Freud’s audacity of stroke. And his backdrops retained the same flesh tones, seldom trying to provide a contrast.

Freud cleaned his brushes with hotel linen, which he then used as his squalid backdrops. This was essential to his eerie view of life, as were his breath-taking angles and compositions. Freud often looked down on his models, literally as well as figuratively, distorting their bodies and shocking the viewer’s optical preconceptions.

Still dazed, I walked out and went to a small pseudo-Italian café for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, which the pretty girl at the counter called ‘a panini’. My distaste for modernity heightened by the exhibition, I wanted to say ‘it’s a panino, dear,’ but didn’t. There was no fight left in me.  








Hollande makes even Dave look good – well, better

François Hollande’s victory in the French elections raises all sorts of interesting questions, not all of them related to France’s sovereign debt. Such as:

Will Carla stay married to Sarko? My guess is she probably won’t: she doesn’t look like a ‘for better or for worse’ kind of girl. It’s one thing for this ex-model to marry a President of France; quite another to stay married to a failed politician wearing elevator shoes when out and presumably elevator slippers when in.

Will Sarko’s rich friends stay his friends? Same answer. Rich people anywhere, and in France especially, seldom befriend politicians for disinterested reasons. Their admiration for the politician’s sterling personal qualities tends to diminish when he loses clout.

Will François marry his live-in girlfriend? Again, probably not: he lived with Ségolène Royal for 30 years and sired her four children without ever tying the knot. Unlike the thrice-married Sarko, he doesn’t seem to believe in the institution of marriage – or probably any other traditional institution either. He’s a socialist, isn’t he?

And what is it about both contestants’ women? One was serially attracted to pop ‘musicians’ and nude photo sessions, the other is a pugnacious feminist who throws punches in public. Both, in other words, are showy on the outside and rather vacuous inside. Come to think of it, the same can be said about their men’s policies.

It’s Hollande’s proposed policies that raise a more serious question: will he ever learn to think about economics without stumbling over one non sequitur after another? Take his views on growth and austerity. These, he evidently thinks, exist in inverse proportion: the more of one, the less of the other. That’s like saying that the more money one has, the less it rains. It’s not cabbages and kings; it’s apples and oranges.

Austerity and growth live on different planes: the former, in the public sector; the latter, in the private one. The two planes, however, defy Euclid and vindicate Lobachevsky in that they can intersect. And when they do, one notices that their relationship isn’t so much inverse as symbiotic.

As any serious economist will tell you, promiscuous government spending leads to huge debts, and huge debts lead to crises – especially in countries that aren’t free to set their exchange rates as they see fit. In the last quarter of last year, France’s national debt was €1,700 billion, 83 percent of her GDP. By comparison, her debt in 1985 was a dangerously high but still manageable 37.9 percent of GDP. The cost of servicing such a huge debt today must be similar to the country’s total budget in 1985.

François’s remedy? Dramatically increasing government spending, thus providing for growth – and damn the austerity. We, and obviously the French, are so conditioned to saluting whenever growth is run up the pole that we don’t distinguish good from bad growth. But it’s useful to remember that the private sector is like a muscle, and the public sector is like a malignant tumour. Either can grow, but with very different results.

Allow me to clarify. Let’s say a government borrows £100,000 and uses the money to hire an optimiser of facilitation. Then it borrows another £100,000 and hires a facilitator of optimisation. The country’s GDP has just grown by £200,000, but her economy has suffered serious fiscal damage, to say nothing of the moral kind. The muscle hasn’t grown; the tumour has.

It’s not as if France’s public sector needed beefing up. It already consumes 56 percent of the economy officially and considerably more unofficially, when you take into account all those supposedly private firms that wholly depend on government income. In Stalin’s Russia the corresponding figure was 80 percent, so the gap is closing. And we know what happens when égalité replaces libérté. Out of the window goes fratérnité.

I’m eagerly awaiting Angela’s reaction. She has staked her whole career on austerity, and her job prospects aren’t looking good. The Greeks appear likely to get a communist government (or as near as damn), something quite a few Englishmen died to prevent at the end of the big war. The Dutch are about to go the same way. Romania has had a change of government. So has Italy. So has Spain. And the French have elected François, thereby enlisting to fight his frankly idiotic ‘war on finance’.

I pity Angela. There she is, achieving with washing machines and toasters a feat the previous generation of Germans failed to achieve with tanks and Stukas. The eurozone countries can’t devalue their currency, which means they can’t compete against German goods on price. Competing on quality is the only way to stay afloat, and you know which way that’s going to go. They are in the doldrums, Germany rules, QED.

And now? She’ll fight tooth and polished nail to keep François et al from acting on their promises. But even if they succeed only partly, the euro will have to go, with the EU itself on its heels. Meanwhile, François et al will inflict the kind of misery on, among others, France that no austerity would. Really, while the EU with its open labour markets still exists, Dave should stand for office somewhere on the continent. Who knows, he might be taken for a statesman there. 






Deaf composers and daft critics

When a few years ago a Telegraph critic described Maxim Vengerov as ‘the best violinist not only of our time but of all time’, those who understood such matters cringed to the point of gurning. Referring in such terms to a vulgarian whose fiddling is as fast as it’s mindless was like calling Vinnie Jones the best footballer (or actor) of all time.

Since then I’ve known to take today’s musical criticism with a grain of salt, a wedge of lime and a glass of tequila. Clearly that genre has gone the way of musical performance – straight into the gutter. It’s as if writing and playing nonentities have colluded with a largely illiterate public to push real music down to the level of pop, long on cult appeal and short on musical content.

A few days ago I found more prima facie evidence of such a plot in an article written by a professional journalist but an amateur critic (call him AM for short). His name doesn’t matter – for my purposes he’s a phenomenon, not an individual.

He starts out by declaring in a tone that brooks no argument that ‘Beethoven is the Shakespeare of music’. Yes, and Shakespeare is the Praxiteles of drama, and Joyce the Schönberg of literature — such metaphors only ever hit the mark when they are witty (‘Wagner is the Puccini of music’).

But forgetting the lazy phrasing, the underlying assertion is that Beethoven is history’s best composer. This view, unlike say Enoch Powell’s worship of Wagner, is legitimate, though I happen to disagree with it. As a rule I refrain from ranking artists like athletes, but I make an exception for Bach, whose music to me represents the highest human, not merely musical, achievement.

Bach and Beethoven were antipodes in that, in a vector opposite to Beethoven’s, Bach looked back in his content and forward in his form. His inspiration came entirely from his own spirit, and his own spirit entirely from God. Beethoven, by contrast, drew some of his inspiration from the outer world around him, be that nature or, in say his Third Symphony or Fifth Piano Concerto, politics.

Bach revolutionised music for every instrument he knew, including the human voice, and some he didn’t know but anticipated with the prescience of a seer, such as the modern piano. But for all that, there was noble restraint in Bach’s music, a kind of artistic chastity that Beethoven often lacked.

Like a libertine who goes after anything with a pulse, Beethoven’s genius was splashing out in every direction, pursuing every possible or impossible idea to the bitter end. As a result, some of his music was bombastic, and some, especially his vocal work, not altogether convincing. Probably aware of this, he followed the classical form more rigidly than many listeners realise, and the popular view that he was the first Romantic composer has more to do with his spirit than his craft.

Still, let’s not argue about tastes. Beethoven was a genius, his overall output comparable to Bach’s, and our AM is within his right to place him on the highest perch. But having done so, AM then unleashes an uninterrupted stream of meaningless gibberish, of the kind that’s symptomatic of our time.

He claims that what he regards as Beethoven’s greatest achievements, his late sonatas and quartets, are ‘neglected by millions of intelligent, open-minded music lovers’. He includes Hammerklavier among such neglected pieces, whereas it rightfully belongs in the bombastic category (its great fugue apart), but let’s not quibble about that.

Let’s just say that, if such ‘music lovers’ do indeed neglect Beethoven’s superb late works, their minds are so open, their brains have fallen out. True, not many people walk around whistling the finale of Op. 111, but then one doesn’t hear them whistling Bach’s Goldberg Variations or Schumann’s Fantasy either. I’ll put it bluntly: anyone who knows and understands music knows Beethoven’s late or any other work well.

But it’s true that such overachievers aren’t counted in their millions. Here AM expects sublime artists to have the same broad appeal as that enjoyed by drugged-up plankton screaming amplified anti-capitalist obscenities all the way to the near-bankrupt capitalist bank.

Real music wasn’t written for millions; it was written for few by fewer. For even to begin to appreciate the grandeur of a Bach or Beethoven one has to have within his soul a particle of the same soaring spirit that animated their work, some semblance of the same discerning taste. Such people have never been thick on the ground, and they’re almost extinct in a civilisation where Freddie Mercury is taken seriously.

Real music can’t be democratic, with the public voting by the show of hands, each clutching banknotes. When it is, it stops being real music. As proof of this, most pieces performed widely were financed by private patrons, a majority of whom had refined taste cultivated from infancy. Without all those Electors, Archbishops and Margraves, playing the harpsichord or viola in their music rooms, we’d have no B Minor Mass or even Missa Solemnis. Democracy is more likely to deliver Jesus Christ Superstar, and this is a rule proved by rare exceptions, such as James McMillan’s St John’s Passion.

By bemoaning the narrow appeal of great music, our AM shows that he shares the philistine cravings of the multitudes. This impression is reinforced by his girlish gasps at the playing of HJ Lim, the sexy but giftless 24-year-old just signed by EMI.

Now if AM’s ranking of Beethoven was justifiable, his remarks on Lim show that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. ‘Lim,’ he writes, ‘demolishes the stereotype of Asian pianists as mechanical virtuosos.’ That’s true in a way. Her banging, tasteless ‘virtuosity’ demolishes such stereotypes because she’s even worse than Lang Lang or Yuja Wang, which is saying a lot. Lim doesn’t understand the first thing about Beethoven and, in less barbaric times, wouldn’t have been let anywhere near his sonatas, late or early.

‘Her whirlwind technique renders familiar passages almost unrecognisable,’ continues AM. That’s also true: those who understand music wouldn’t recognise the passages mauled by Lim or other circus-type hacks, Asian, European or American, who’ve monopolised the world’s concert platforms.

Playing music they don’t really understand to a public that doesn’t really care, they do untold damage. And the likes of AM either exacerbate the damage or precipitate it, depending on your point of view. If, as Plato believed, music is the moral law, then we live in truly immoral times.








Happy days are here again: Russia is threatening war

Last Thursday, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Chief of Russia’s General Staff, spoke with soldierly directness about NATO anti-missile defences in Eastern Europe.

‘A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,’ he announced, bringing back fond memories of the Cuban crisis. You may think the general spoke out of turn, but he didn’t. In fact, he merely repeated the threat issued by President Medvedev last year.

NATO replied that under no circumstances would it wish to undermine the Soviet nuclear deterrent. We wouldn’t even think of defending ourselves against Russia, said American officials, and shame on you for having such beastly suspicions. Our defence system is merely designed to protect the West against a highly plausible missile attack from rogue states, Iran specifically. To that end NATO plans to deploy sea-based Aegis radars and interceptors, along with a more powerful radar based in Turkey. Installed next will be radar and interceptor facilities in Romania and Poland.

It’s that last proposed site that has upset the Russians. Put those blasted things anywhere you want, but leave Poland alone, they screamed. Poland is ours, they didn’t scream, but strongly implied. You install a radar in Poland, and we’ll launch a missile attack. Meanwhile, just in case, the Russians installed their own powerful radar in Kaliningrad, née Königsberg, the capital of East Prussia.

This whole brouhaha raises interesting questions: Why do the Russians need a radar installation next door to Poland? Why do they object to NATO having similar facilities? Do they have the capability to act on their threat?

A truism first: radars are used for defence. They warn of an incoming threat in good time for activating countermeasures. As radar systems are costly, they’re placed mostly on strategically significant sites, those covering the likeliest directions of enemy action.

A quick glance at the map will show that the Kaliningrad radar can’t protect Russia from Iranian missiles, unless those wily ayatollahs choose to bend it like Beckham. No, that radar covers Russia only against an attack from the west, which is to say from NATO.

Now, both you and Putin know that NATO will never launch a preemptive strike against Russia. If they didn’t do it during the Berlin blockade, the massacre of Hungary, the Cuban crisis, or any of the Middle East and Far East wars in which the Soviets either fought on the side of the West’s enemies or at least armed them, they aren’t going to do so now. In fact, Western Europe is disarming faster than you can say ‘austerity’, and the US is shifting its focus away from Europe and towards the east.

Call me an alarmist, but the conclusion seems straightforward: the Kaliningrad installation is there to protect Russia from NATO’s second strike, not first. In the strategic plans hatched by Gen. Makarov’s General Staff, it’s Russia that’s supposed to deliver the first blow, and they’re deploying systems designed to neuter NATO’s retaliation. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not privy to Russia’s plans; this is pure speculation based on logic. I’d be open to other explanations, but I can’t think of any on my feeble own.

This logical induction would also explain the vehemence of the Russians’ stance. If their strategic plans indeed include a possible first strike against NATO, it stands to reason that NATO radars and interceptors in Eastern Europe are a direct threat. And the Russians know how to handle such situations: worldwide propaganda against US warmongering backed up by threats. They tried this dual stratagem when Reagan’s administration was deploying intermediate-range missiles in Europe, and that time it didn’t work. It just may work now.

The last question is, does Russia have the military wherewithal to make good her threats? Here I hasten to add another disclaimer: I don’t claim any specialised knowledge of Russia’s military capability. What encourages me to write on such matters is that those who do claim such expertise have for decades been consistently and spectacularly wrong in their analysis.

This applies even to retrospective analysis – some ‘military historians’ still peddle the lie that the Nazis routed the Soviet army in the summer of 1941 because they had a huge superiority in tanks, planes and other hardware. In fact, the Soviets enjoyed an overwhelming seven-fold superiority in tanks, a three-fold superiority in planes, a huge superiority in artillery pieces and, certainly, personnel. And their T-34 and KV tanks at the start of the war remained unmatched until its end. The Nazis won their initial victories because of their much better military leadership and morale – all the more impressive, considering they were badly outgunned.

Western analysts invariably either underestimated or, as with Kennedy’s phoney ‘missile gap’, overestimated Soviet strength. One can detect that at present they’re erring on the former side. Newspapers and military journals are full of stories about Russia’s failed missile tests, and her defeat in Afghanistan is still held up as proof of her weakness (presumably America’s performance in the same theatre is a sign of her strength).

In fact, the Russians are doing rather well in the military department. Their 10,500 km Topol-M missile systems, of which they already have 36, will in a couple of years become the mainstay of their strategic forces. The Topols will be land-based, sea-based (the submarine version is called Bulava, ‘mace’) or mobile, devilishly hard to detect. Though they’re supposedly reducing the number of their ICBMs to 2,012 (parity with the US), the Russians have a huge superiority in non-strategic nuclear weapons – some 8,000 to 15,000, as compared to America’s 300.

For as long as the price of oil remains sky-high, which probably means forever, the Russian KGB-run regime will be awash with cash. And numerous statements by Putin and other officials, backed up with deeds, show that Russia will spend much of her hydrocarbon revenues on building up her military muscle even further.

A criminal regime armed to the teeth and making threats ought to be taken seriously. It’s a dangerous mistake to think that Russian politicians are like Barack or Dave, chaps who’ll think one thing, say another and do a third just to be elected. Putin and his stooges don’t have to be elected, and they occasionally mean what they say.







The trouble with Dave is that he isn’t posh enough

Any true meaning  of the word ‘posh’ vanished together with the mode of transportation from which this acronym derives. A jet circling around Heathrow has neither port nor starboard – there’s just the front and back of the plane, and where you sit depends only on how much you paid for the ticket.

Yet the word is still bandied about, usually pejoratively. The British are still fighting Victorian class battles, with the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. Except that the formerly rich man was taxed out of his castle long ago, while the erstwhile poor man has made a killing in fund management, bought the castle and converted it into Parvenu on the Park, luxury condominiums for the whole family.

The British have a convoluted relationship with Marxism. Marx built his slipshod theory on the correct observation that classes exist and the wrong assumption that they are innately antagonistic. Yet that part of Marxism struck a chord in the British heart, and the strings are still reverberating. What the British rejected was Marx’s notion that class was determined by the ownership of ‘the means of production’ – money, in other words.

Thus someone like the multi-millionaire Alan Sugar calls himself ‘working class’, and people nod their assent. On the other hand, a Sloanie living in a bedsit and spending his last 50 pounds on a gram of coke in a dingy nightclub is described as posh.

So it’s not money that determines class. What then? Accent? Most of our friends speak in cadences guaranteed to activate class hatred. But most of their children sound like chavs, djahmean? They mispronounce ‘waistcoat’, neglect to leave its bottom button undone and often don’t even own such a garment. Nor do they commit posh crimes: for example, a young aristo I know once knocked off a convenience shop in a very underprivileged way. After his stint at Her Majesty’s pleasure he started an internet porn business – again, not an undertaking his father would have instantly countenanced.

Does this mean the family has dropped several rungs down the social ladder in just one generation? It doesn’t. All it means is that our understanding of class is hopelessly outdated.

A brief glance at history will show that the greatest cultural achievements of Western societies date back to the time when the ruling classes were also the most cultured. Such societies were called aristocratic, and the driving force behind them wasn’t economic, as is wrongly assumed, but cultural. For in the West it was its culture that produced its civilisation, not the other way around.

Since Western civilisation came into being as a result of the great cultural upheaval 2,000 years ago, it had no option but to reflect culture faithfully and to preserve it vigilantly. Unfortunately, culture’s meat is civilisation’s poison and vice versa: in order to survive, the former has to be exclusive, and the latter has no option but to be inclusive.

The two had to be prevented from damaging each other, and this could only be achieved by concentrating political, financial and military power in the same few hands that fostered (though not necessarily produced) culture. This amounts to a working definition of an aristocratic society, which Britain more or less remained until 1914. Then out went the aristocracy, gassed in Flanders, taxed in Westminster. The social pack had to be reshuffled, and different cards ended up on top.

Surviving aristocrats lost the power to act as guardians of culture (in the broadest sense of the word), thereby losing their raison d’être and exiting stage left as a political force. ‘Left’ isn’t just a figure of speech here. Many of them realised that, by putting the clamps on the more dynamic classes, socialism would keep their own position safer for longer. This explains the seemingly paradoxical left leanings of many aristocrats, including, alas, some members of the royal family.

But the trick didn’t work because the conquering socialists, while detesting the enterprising classes, hated the aristocrats even more. Like that unfortunate Duc d’Orlèans, the British aristocrat tried to become a Philip Egalité, but, though allowed to keep his head, only succeeded in becoming irrelevant. The routing of the House of Lords and divesting the aristocracy of political power was an inevitable result.

That was a shame, for, say what you will about your Wellingtons, Salisburys, Pitts and Churchills, they sensed their umbilical link with millennia of English history, past and future. Imbued from early childhood with the notion of responsibility and service, they didn’t tend to put their own interests above their country. A Salisbury or Pitt wouldn’t have signed the Maastrich Treaty, and Wellington must have been an intutive eurosceptic. 

This brings us to Dave Cameron and other front-benchers who went to expensive schools, earning themselves the lifelong stigma of being ‘posh’. No doubt they’ve retained some posh mannerisms and cheap snobberies, but what they manifestly lack is the aristocratic sensibility of being at one with England.

In order to promote their petty aspirations they gladly abandon the outer quirks of poshness, never having been privy to its essence. Thus David has become Dave, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, come next election, he’ll push it closer to ‘Dive’. After all, his role model Blair learned, not always convincingly, how to use the glottal stop and drop his haitches (is that the proper pronunciation, Tone?). And Osborne will never become Prime Minister because his Christian (sorry, first) name doesn’t lend itself to egalitarian diminution. If he tried ‘Georgie’, it would only make matters worse.

In a way I pity these chaps. Deprived of true aristocratic spirit and culture, they’ve been cursed with quirky throwbacks that can only damage their careers. When opponents snipe at their schooling (not to be confused with education), Dave and George can’t even counter with ‘You wha’ mite?’ without sounding clownish. A tough life, too bad someone has to live it.