Friday, October 9, 2015

Organizations are being formed

It is a good thing I have no ambitions to be a political leader, to set up a political organization or to administer one. The first and the last of those two I am incapable of doing - it is not in my DNA - and the middle one I have tried back in the days of the Anti-Federalist League and early UKIP. It was not a success from my point of view. My biggest achievement in that field was the series of Red Lion Talks that ran with success, as people can testify, for several years in the Red Lion Pub in Whitehall. But that was not a political organization, precisely, more a series of talks given by various people to reasonably sized and varied audiences on topics to do with the EU and our membership of it. Call it education or propaganda. I am prepared to continued in that role but, of course, my being female and not an MP the offer will almost certainly be ignored.

Other people can do what I cannot and do not want to. The biggest Brexit organization so far has been launched with some fanfare on the BBC and other outlets quoted by Open Europe and also in City AM.

It is called Vote Leave, subheaded Take Control, which is not the happiest of names as it does not exactly trip off the tongue but then, frankly, its great rival, UKIP's doesn't either. Among the various reports on the birth of Vote Leave there is a sour note on Breitbart London, written by Raheem Kassan. This is not altogether surprising, given Breitbart's self-appointed role as UKIP's propagandist and Mr Kassan's past as Nigel Farage's closest adviser.

According to Mr Kassan, the new organization is entirely Conservative (which is not true), was rushed because the UKIP one was doing so well (which is possible) and has far fewer Facebook supporters than does (which is irrelevant). What matters is that is funded by arron Banks who also funds UKIP and is, therefore, linked to one party only. I have been told (see, I can do what Mr Kassan does, as well, though I do not get paid his salary) that Mr Banks is well advanced in his negotiations with the Electoral Commission but that information comes from UKIP and ought to be taken with a certain amount of salt.

At present I have no idea how well Vote Leave will do, though Matthew Elliott does have a certain track record in running referendum campaigns. Well, one to be precise, a much easier one in many ways than this one promises to be but one in which UKIP found itself on the losing side. The people of this country voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the first past the post system, something that UKIP needs to be reminded of periodically.
Vote Leave, whose supporters include Labour's Kate Hoey and UKIP's Douglas Carswell, says it wants to negotiate a new deal based on free trade and friendly co-operation.

The group is funded by people of different party affiliations, such as the City millionaire and Tory donor Peter Cruddas, Labour's biggest private backer John Mills and former UKIP treasurer Stuart Wheeler.

Its core message is about sovereignty, with "take control" the main slogan. It is planning to spend about £20m.
So far, so reasonable.

I have seen some of's ads on Facebook (money is already being spent there but I assume Mr Banks can afford it) and I have not liked them particularly. They are illiterate in their use of apostrophes, which would indicate a lack of proof-readers and one of them, at least, showed a certain inability to tell the difference between MPs and MEPs. Also heavy antagonism to the TTIP and equally heavy propaganda for the NHS are not indicative of a forward looking group. To be fair, Kate Hoey of Vote Leave also tells us that if we did not have to give money to the EU we could spend it on such things as the NHS. Waste is waste is waste.

Apart from that, for the time being I am inclined to Vote Leave's summary of ideas and issues as being more interested in the future.'s vision seems a little vague. Imagine is not a good enough basis for a campaign. Things might change, however. I feel reasonably sure that other  organizations will pop up before the Electoral Commission makes its decision.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

National Poetry Day

About an hour ago I overheard a conversation in the Members' Room of London Library between two people one or both of whom might have been a poet and a broadcaster though, sadly, I did not recognize either. The male member of the duo was holding forth about the sheer silliness of National Poetry Day, with which I mostly agree. It's like National Breast Cancer Day, he spluttered. We shall have young people with yellow buckets collecting money for National Poetry Day soon. I hid behind a book so he should not see me smiling and become even more self-satisfied. (Mind you, I am not sure what the point of a National Breast Or Any Other Cancer might be, either. Are there really people around who are not aware of those diseases?)

Still, it is good to have a few portraits of poets around and, to start with, here is one I am particularly fond of as it unites the greatest English language poet of the twentieth century with its greatest portraitist.

And that's enough National Poetry Day. Let us go on to World Poetry Day. Here is an unusual portrait of the great Anna Akhmatova (mentioned by me here, here, here and here). It is part of the mosaics created for the National Gallery by the Russian artist who lived in France but worked for and in England, Boris Anrep. Akhmatova represents Compassion. Let me note, in parenthesis, that it is very annoying to see people walk across those wonderful mosaics without giving them a glance. Not in the guide books, I suppose.

The last of the Akhmatova links in the paragraph above takes us to my translation of the introductory lines to her wonderful cycle about the Great Terror, Requiem, which I still have not translated in full. But on this day I shall re-post those introductory lines:
No, I did not live under an alien sky And was not protected by alien wings - I was then among my own people, Where my unhappy people were.


In the terrible years of yezhovschina I spent seventeen months in Leningrad’s prison queues. One day somebody recognized me. The woman immediately behind me, whose lips were blue with cold, and who, presumably, had never heard of me, seemed to shake off the numbness that had overtaken us all. Leaning close to my ear she whispered (we all spoke in whispers):

- And this. Can you write about this?

I said:

- Yes I can.

Then something resembling a smile glided across what had once been her face.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: Christie and servants

Have I really not blogged since last Tuesday? It felt as if I had been working but clearly not on this blog. Memo to self: finish all those blogs you have started.

In the meantime, I return to Agatha Christie and the Tuesday Night Blog Murders. In my previous posting I explained the basis of this series so I need not repeat myself. I know Christie did occasionally but she usually managed to have an extra twist to make the repetition not exactly that. See, for example, Sleeping Murder and Nemesis. Spot the difference in the two almost identical plots.

Today I wish to discuss the treatment of servants in Christie's books. Firstly, it is worth noting that of all the Golden Age Detective writers Christie was probably the most acute observer of social changes. Her books are of the period in which they are set and all attempts to move them to a different decade (because the clothes are prettier or the scenery more easily cobbled together) have been a failure. It is not possible to imagine the circumstances of The Body in the Library, published in 1942 but clearly of the thirties in the post-war period as the BBC TV series with the superb Joan Hickson tried to do if a little half-heartedly. The Bantrys could not have afforded the staff they had in the late forties and Christie would not have written that.

The early novels and short stories have a good many servants. Large houses have large staff, smaller households have usually two servants, a cook and a maid, bachelors' establishments have men servants. Even the vicarage where the murder is committed has a servant of quite unsurpassable incompetence. In The Moving Finger, also published in 1942 but also of the thirties, a very ordinary country solicitor has a cook and a maid as well as a part-time gardener and a nanny for his young sons. Again the BBC tried to shift the action to the post-war period and again it seemed unlikely: a man like Richard Symmington would not have had that big a staff in the later forties but neither could the series dispense with any of them, as they were all essential to the plot.

Christie knew that the world had changed with the Second World War, that taxes hit middle class people (about whom she wrote mostly) very hard, that the government interfered in people's lives almost constantly (as mentioned in, among others, Mrs McGinty Is Dead) and there were no more servants for most people. The staff of maids and cooks turns into foreign refugees (A Murder Is Announced), ubiquitous daily chars (Mrs McGinty Is Dead, The Pale Horse and others) or dubious au pairs (Third Girl). Griselda Clements who appears briefly in The 4.50 From Paddington would have long ago had to learn to cook and manage with a daily woman coming in to help and bringing gossip twice a week.

In the same novel we get a wonderful character (to make up for the flimsy plot) of Lucy Eyelessbarrow, a Cambridge graduate in mathematics, who decides to make money as an all purpose domestic worker. Her understanding of economics is clearly superior to many an academic economist: she sees a gap in the market and decides to fill it. As a consequence she can get any fee she names and controls her working conditions beyond the dream of any trade unionist. (And here is a really stupid cover, according to which Lucy must have been practising golf in a very tight skirt.)

When Cedric Crackenthorpe tells his sister Emma to tell Miss Marple who is walking up the drive that she is out, Emma wants to know whether she is to go down and tell her that herself or ask Lucy (who has told them that Miss Marple was her aunt) to do so. Cedric laughs ruefully and admits that he was thinking of the old days when a house like that would have had staff. In the decades after the war even a rich Hollywood star could not give a party without employing temporary help from the new "Development" that has grown up beside St Mary Mead. (The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side)

A few of the old servants survive as in After The Funeral but they are usually kept on at some expense to the family an out of loyalty.

Poirot is, obviously, an exception in that he manages to keep on his invaluable man servant George and the equally invaluable secretary Miss Lemon who, astonishingly, has a sister in Hickory Dickory Dock. The sister runs a hostel for young people and foreign students (a post-war touch) where all sorts of strange things happen.

Secondly, there is Christie's treatment of servants as characters and she is much maligned by critics who do not seem to know her work as much as they should.

There is no question that Christie wrote about the class she knew best: the professional middle class. Her characters, are doctors, lawyers, clergymen, writers, some businessmen though she is not enamoured of the big ones (A Pocket Full Of Rye), writers and other suchlike individuals. Interestingly, given that Christie was not precisely a feminist, she has a professional woman doctor in the 1938 Appointment With Death. There is the odd appearance of members of the aristocracy but they are rarely attractive (the Bantrys are landed gentry not aristocracy) and she has the English middle class suspicion of anyone who makes too much money. At the other end of the scale, she does not venture much into the working class milieu, though Mrs McGinty Is Dead comes close with its description of the victim's life as a charwoman and her lodger, who is possibly the least attractive innocent to be accused and found guilty of murder. There is an interesting detail in the novel that shows Christie's understanding of a class she rarely wrote about: Poirot is launched on the investigation by the fact that not long before her death Mrs McGinty had bought a bottle of ink. Why should she have done that? Perhaps, her niece suggests, she had to write something to the government, a well known complaint in those years (and more recently). Mrs McGinty, unlike Poirot and people of his class, would not have had ink as a matter of course in her house. Is this a sign of Christie's supercilious attitude or of an ability to understand how other people lived? My view is that it is the latter. (But then, I would say that, wouldn't I?)

There are scattered references to servants that make us of the more sensitive age cringe. In The Incident Of The Dog's Ball that later became, with a completely different murderer, Dumb Witness, Hastings says about a housekeeper: "She entered with the gusto of her class into a description of her [late mistress] illness and death." It was, for some reason, a given in the Golden Age that servants adored talking about illness and death though why that should be so is never explained.

A number of Christie's plots hinge on that well-known fact that "nobody notices a servant". This extends to air stewards (Death In The Clouds), butlers (Three Act Tragedy), companions (After The Funeral) and governesses (The Secret of Chimneys) as well as others. Of course, the point is that in the Poirot novels he does realize the connection (as do others like the playwright, Miss Wills in The Three Act Tragedy and Helen in After The Funeral). In other words, people might dismiss servants as being of no importance but that fact is used by Christie for her own purposes as is the general English disdain for foreigners that allows people dismiss Poirot as a mountebank. They do not find out how wrong they are until it is too late.

The most delightful usage of "nobody looks at a companion" is in The Nemean Lion, the first of The Labours of Hercules in which Miss Amy Carnaby, a companion to the horrible Lady Hoggin, organizes a highly ingenious criminal conspiracy to extract money in order to help elderly single ladies who are falling on very hard times. She uses her pekingese dog, Augustus, pretends to be stupider than she is and assumes, correctly, that nobody ever looks at a companion.

In a later story Poirot tells Miss Carnaby that he remembers her as one of the most successful criminals of his career. 

And so we come to Miss Marple, whose attitude to servants is very different. She knows very well how useful conversation with maids in hotels can be if one is trying to unravel a mystery (A Murder Is Announced and At Bertram's Hotel), she knows how girls who are likely to go into service react in various situations (Body In The Library), she trains young girls out of an orphanage to be good servants when there are openings for servants in good houses and she does not lose touch with them when they leave. It is the news that one of her former maids had been murdered that brings her like an avenging fury to Yewtree Lodge in A Pocket Full Of Rye

Her ability to understand servant girls and the situations they might find themselves in as well as her compassion is demonstrated first in the very first short story she appears in, The Tuesday Night Club. In another short story The Case Of The Perfect Maid she is motivated partly, as she explains to the hapless Inspector Slack, by her indignation: 
I'm not going to have one of our village girl's character for honesty taken away like that! Gladys Holmes is as honest as the day and everybody's going to know it!
Clearly, not someone who does not notice or care about servants.

Miss Marple, too, has difficulties after the war. At first she manages to find young girls whom she can train but times change. Once she hires Lucy Eyelessbarrow (Raymond West helps again) whom she then recalls when she needs someone to do the investigating but Lucy has other plans and, anyway, Miss Marple could not afford her rates. The much referred to Faithful Florence runs her own life now and the companion (hired by the invaluable Raymond West) in The Mirror Crack'd is intolerable. Solution is provided by young Cherry Baker, the cleaner, who lives with her husband in a smart new but not very soundproof house in the "Development". She suggests that the two of them move into some spare rooms in an outhouse (not previously mentioned). Cherry can look after Miss Marple and will even learn to sweep the stairs with a pan and brush (a sacrifice about which Miss Marple is very doubtful) while Jim can act as a sort of a handyman in his spare time (when he is not laying out toy railways or listening to classical music). That the arrangement suits everyone is proved by Cherry's reappearance as a well established person in Miss Marple's home at the end of Nemesis.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday Night Blog Murders: The Mystery of Raymond West

This was Curt Evans's idea. He is really Curtis J. Evans (not the theologian, at least I don't think so), author of a number of books about writers of the Golden Age of Detective Stories, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, Clues and Corpses: the detective fiction and mystery criticism of Todd Downing,  The Spectrum of English Murder and editor of Mysteries Unlocked: essays in honor of Douglas G. Greene to which I proudly contributed. He also runs one of the most interesting blogs dedicated to detective and mystery literature. (In parenthesis let me note that, though there are many wonderful blogs on that theme, I do intend to set up one of my own very soon.)

Why don't we or, at least, some of us, suggested Curt, write a series of blogs about Agatha Christie (this being her 125th anniversary year) on Tuesdays and call it the Tuesday Night Blogs (some of us cannot resist adding the word "Murders" to it). Any Christie afficionado will recognize the reference. The Tuesday Night Club, a short story published in The Royal Magazine in December 1927 saw the first appearance of Miss Jane Marple and signalled a tentative new departure for Agatha Christie.

Six people assemble in Miss Marple's drawing room: the hostess, her nephew, the modernist writer and poet Raymond West, the elderly local clergyman Dr Pender, the local solicitor Mr Petherick, Sir Henry Clithering, the retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard and the artist Joyce Lemprière who is also, we must assume, of the more modernist persuasion. As a result of a rather pretentious comment by Raymond West they decide to tell stories of unsolved crimes and try to come up with solutions. In fact, a certain amount of cheating goes on because the solution is known to several of the people who tell the tales but at first the crimes do appear to by rather mysterious. At first, Miss Marple is allowed to be part of the "club" on sufferance - a spinster who has lived all her life in a village, what would she know about real life or crime? Her comments about life and crime being just as real in a village as anywhere else are dismissed kindly but condescendingly, particularly by her nephew.

It is not much of a spoiler even to people who have not read these delightful stories to say that with everyone, including Sir Henry and, especially, Raymond West baffled, Miss Marple (as illustrated above) solves every single problem by using her knowledge of human nature. By the end of the series nobody can argue that village life is boring or uneventful. As Raymond West says "The cosmopolitan world seems a mild and peaceful place compared with St Mary Mead." Unfortunately, he later forgets this revelation or so it seems. The other thing we find out is that at the end of the sixth story Raymond proposes to Joyce just as Miss Marple had always known he would.

The stories were published monthly till May 1928 and a second series about Miss Marple solving crimes in a circle of dinner guests that brought back Sir Henry Clithering and introduced Arthur and Dolly Bantry, was published in The Storyteller between December 1929 and May 1930. Those six tales seem to be told in one sitting after dinner at the Bantrys while the Club was supposed to have met every Tuesday for six weeks.

The twelve stories were collected in book form in 1932 when a thirteenth one was added, Death by Drowning, in which Miss Marple solves a crime as soon as it happens, ahead of the police but we do not really see how she does it. By then, however, she had appeared in Murder at the Vicarage, published in October 1930 and a much loved (even by her creator) new detective had come into existence.

There are several questions one can ask about the Tuesday Club mysteries. Do those people really meet every Tuesday evening for six weeks at Miss Marple's small house? Can her circumstances really allow her that kind of hospitality or is it discreetly supplemented by gifts from, say, Fortnum and Mason by Raymond West or Sir Henry Clithering? Does Raymond West stay with her all those six weeks? Where do Joyce Lemprière and Sir Henry stay? If the latter with the Bantrys as he does the following year, why are they never invited? Does Dr Pender retire soon afterwards and a younger vicar, Leonard Clements, in whose study Colones Protheroe is shot, succeed him? Can someone as naive and incompetent as Sir Henry Clithering really become Commissioner of Scotland Yard?

The biggest mystery of all surrounds Raymond West. Let us see what we know of him. He is a terrifyingly intellectual and high-brow novelist and poet whose books are all about very unpleasant people doing rather strange things. He marries the artist Joyce Lemprière who, for some reason, becomes Joan in Sleeping Murder and At Bertram's Hotel. In the latter she is described by Miss Marple as Joan West, the artist. We know that Miss Marple is not given to senile forgetfulness so there must be a reason for this strange change in names but we never find out what. Did Raymond West marry two women artists, divorcing one? Would Miss Marple not refer to it in some roundabout fashion? Whose are the two (at least) sons mentioned in 4.50 from Paddington? It is, of course, possible that Joyce Lemprière works in two different genres and prefers to use one name in painting and another one in, say, book illustrations.

Raymond West appears in Murder at the Vicarage, when he comes to stay with his aunt, obviously unmarried, and pronounces on the stagnant life of the village only to be corrected gently by her: stagnant ponds, she explains, are full of life. He and his wife appear in Sleeping Murder, when Gwenda Reed stays with them at the same time as Miss Marple does and screams with terror during a production of The Duchess of Malfi. Her husband Giles is, apparently, some kind of a cousin of theirs,  which would make him Miss Marple's relative as well though she, surprisingly, pays little attention to that. On the other hand, Raymond clearly knows nothing about some other niece of Miss Marple's called Mabel about whom she tells her Tuesday night story.

In Sleeping Murder Raymond West refers to his aunt as "the original Victorian dug-out" and makes his usual condescending remarks about her knowing so little of life and spending her whole life in a village. His wife reminds him that St Mary Mead did have a rather exciting murder and Miss Marple had done rather well over that. Well yes, admits the nephew, she is good at puzzles. In other words, the Wests do know about Miss Marple's various adventures though they go on pretending that she has a very dull life.

Even their younger son, David, who works for British Rail (something of a rebel, by the sound of it) makes silly jokes about parochial scandals when his great-aunt asks him about trains that leave Paddington at a certain time.

We know that Raymond West is very fond of his aunt and often suggests treats like the latest incomprehensible Russian play as well as sending her his books. She gently refuses the treats or most of them and pretends to read his books. He suspects that she does nothing of the kind and assumes that is because her eyes are not as good as they once were. That, as it happens, is completely untrue. She remains a very sharp-eyed lady with nothing much wrong with her physically apart from rheumatism and the occasional cold that can go into bronchitis.

On a more practical basis the Wests help with money, either regularly after the Second World War when people on small set income become rather impoverished, as we know from They Do It With Mirrors or through gifts and treats such as a trip to the Caribbean after a bad bout of illness or a week at Bertram's Hotel. Both, as we know, turn into criminal investigations at which Miss Marple excels. Given that the Wests also inhabit a big house in Chelsea and have a reasonably high life style, one has to wonder where the money is coming from.

Miss Marple refers to her nephew in various other novels and stories, proudly telling everyone how successful he is and even quoting his joke about her having a mind like a Victorian sink, which would indicate that he realizes something about her activities. In fact, he and "Joan" discuss this in At Bertram's Hotel when they decide to treat her because she never leaves the village (which is patently untrue). Of course, there was her Caribbean trip and it is rather a pity, says "Joan" that she became mixed up with that murder to which Raymond replies that it is the sort of thing that tends to happen to her. Or, in other words, he knows quite well what sort of a life his aunt leads in between gardening and attending amateur performances of plays at St Mary Mead.

He makes another interesting comment in At Bertram's Hotel; his last book did very well so he is happy to pay for a treat for his aunt. Why exactly does he feel the need to spend his hard-earned money on his aunt every time and how well did that book do? The truth is that no matter how successful Raymond West's modernistic, miserable and undoubtedly boring books might be they cannot pay for his life style and all those treats for his aunt as well as the more substantial help in the years after the war, not even if his wife's income from her paintings are added to the household budget.

On the other hand, let us look at some dates. At Bertram's Hotel was published in 1965 so the events described in it must have happened in 1964, the year in which A Caribbean Mystery, Aunt Jane's murder investigation on her holiday, was published. That was immensely successful. All Miss Marple's adventures were. Could there be a connection between those two events?

One assumes that Raymond West must have done his bit during World War II and being a writer he would have been recruited into the Ministry of Information where he was told to produce literature for the masses that kept them happy. Clearly his own novels would do nothing of the kind so he reverted to something he had done some years before and wrote up one of his aunt's investigations in Gossington Hall (the Bantrys' home), St Mary Mead and the nearby seaside resort Danemouth and published in 1942. In 1930 he had come to an agreement with another author (or maybe several) and published Murder at the Vicarage under the nom de plume Agatha Christie. In 1942 he revived that and put that name to The Body in the Library. Actually, he nearly came a cropper on that as another well known writer, Ariadne Oliver, had already written a novel under that name but the publishers sorted the matter out with some help from the Ministry of Information, who were anxious to see Raymond West's book in print.

Thereafter, it all became a good deal easier. At present it is not clear what Raymond West's relationship was with the other Agatha Christie or, for that matter, Ariadne Oliver but it is surely obvious that he made his money by writing up his aunt's various investigations while pretending, ever less credibly, to dismiss her as a Victorian relic who knows nothing about life. He is unlikely to have fooled her. Being an honourable man, Raymond West felt that he must repay his debt through various gifts, treats and, when necessary, outright financial assistance. Miss Marple accepted it all (though not the Russian plays and the West novels) with a gentle smile. No doubt, when she inherited a large sum of money from Mr Rafiel at the end of Nemesis she, too, repaid by planning a few very special treats for the whole family.

Does this explain the strange name change of Raymond's wife? I think it does. If Joyce Lemprière was known as a modernist artist she would not want the critics and buyers to think that she also did illustrations to detective stories. What better way to get round that problem but to use her second Christian name, Joan, and her married name West?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

And that is why we need Passion For Freedom

Passion For Freedom is not an organization many people know about it, which is a pity. This is what they say their aim is:
What we do:

Create space for artists and writers who discuss subjects omitted in politically correct circles.

Invite people to open and uninhibited discussion. Nothing is more important than critically informed debate. It’s how society has advanced through the ages. Gather like-minded people creating a network of actively engaged citizens who hold high the value of individual’s freedom.
On the whole, I rather dislike the phrase "politically correct". It is meaningless and is used all too often on the right (roughly speaking) in the same way as the word "fascist" is used on the left: to silence arguments that cannot be answered.

In any case, a good many of the causes Passion For Freedom espouses: support for bloggers and journalists like Raif Badawi or opposition to the invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine by Russia are widely described and reported. Other causes, such as the fate of women in Islamic societies tends to be mumbled over by many people, particularly though not exclusively on the left but are still discussed. Nevertheless, we all need to support people who are fighting for freedom in conditions that are considerably less favourable than those in this country.

As this blog maintains: За Вашу и Нашу Свободу - For Your Freedom and Ours.

Passion For Freedom is holding its annual (we hope that is still true) London Art Festival at the Art Galleries and I went to the special VIP evening yesterday. (No, I don't know either why I was considered to be a VIP but I had a good time met several friends and chatted to some interesting people. So, I am not complaining.)

I am sorry to say that I do not agree with Douglas Murray's ecstatic review of the exhibition. Most of the art was anything but stunning, though I am delighted that people can produce the art that means so much to them about issues that mean so much to them. But if you want to see a wonderful painting that tells us all we really want to know about lack of freedom and having to create in code, look at this late work by Kaziemir Malevich. Back in the Soviet Union he was arrested twice for espionage and "encouraged" to paint in the more acceptable figurative way. (As a matter of fact, he might have gone back to figurative painting, in any case, as abstraction and suprematism could go only so far.) This is his 1932 work, Harvesting.

That truly is stunning and courageous beyond what most of us, certainly in this country, ever have to display.

Anyway, back to Passion For Freedom, who cannot help that Malevich died a good many decades ago, of cancer and rather prematurely, but at least not in the Gulag or an execution chamber.

On the other hand, the situation is not quite as rosy as we would like it to be. Apparently, one work of art was not there because Mall Galleries and Westminster Police because it was deemed to be "too inflammatory". Well, yes, I guess, works about freedom can be somewhat inflammatory. Oddly enough, there could have been nothing controversial about the point being made in Mimsy's tableaux that were removed as they showed - goodness me - that peaceful citizens are at risk from that murderous organization called ISIL or ISIS, whichever you prefer.

This is what the Guardian wrote:
Isis Threaten Sylvania is a series of seven satirical light box tableaux featuring the children’s toys Sylvanian Families. It was removed from the Passion for Freedom exhibition at the Mall galleries after police raised concerns about the “potentially inflammatory content” of the work, informing the organisers that, if they went ahead with their plans to display it, they would have to pay £36,000 for security for the six-day show.

In Isis Threaten Sylvania, rabbits, mice and hedgehogs go about their daily life, sunning themselves on a beach, drinking at a beer festival or simply watching television, while the menacing figures of armed jihadis lurk in the background. “Far away, in the land of Sylvania, rabbits, foxes, hedgehogs, mice and all woodland animals have overcome their differences to live in harmonious peace and tranquility. Until Now,” reads the catalogue note. “MICE-IS, a fundamentalist Islamic terror group, are threatening to dominate Sylvania, and annihilate every species that does not submit to their hardline version of sharia law.”

The decision to remove the work from Passion for Freedom came after the Mall Galleries consulted the police, who raised “a number of serious concerns regarding the potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy’s work”. The gallery cited a clause in the exhibition contract which allowed it the right to request removal of an artwork.
Ironic, is it not, that the Mall Galleries put this up on its website in connection with the exhibition:
The annual PASSION FOR FREEDOM Art Festival is a rare collection of international works of "courageous artists" who have answered three pivotal questions:

What is freedom?

How easy is it to lose it?

How hard is it to get it back?
The gallery is now in an excellent position to answer question two and possibly even three.

The Telegraph, I am glad to say, also covered the story and has even given readers the chance to vote on the issue. I hope readers of this blog will do so and vote the "right" way. Remember: Your Freedom and Ours.

In the meantime, here are two of the tableaux that have been banned from the Passion For Freedom exhibition:

Truly controversial. I feel more than a little embarrassed by this story.

Friday, September 25, 2015

A few points that might interest people

A few days ago I quoted from Oleg Khlevniuk's recent biography of Stalin and I propose to do so again. I am going to avoid the description of the real horrors: the collectivization and subsequent famine or examples of Soviet "justice" first introduced by Stalin and some of his colleagues and henchmen during the Civil War (he and Voroshilov were highly unsuccessful commanders and strategists but rather good at torturing and murdering their opponents) and repeated subsequently until they reached their apogee during the first great purge in the thirties and the second purge (less well known) in the later forties early fifties.

What I want to concentrate on is the period when times were better. Some years ago a friend told me about reading Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich soon after it came out in English and being horrified by the ending. Some of my readers might remember how it ends. After a day of quite unspeakable horror for anyone who had not gone through those camps, Ivan Denisovich, the canny peasant, goes through the events and enumerates various small successes, sighing contentedly that it had been a good day. That? A good day? Well, all things are relative.

So let us look at the very end of Khlevniuk's book when he describes the situation in the Soviet Union not long before the dictator's death, in the "relatively prosperous year of 1952" not during the famine of 1931 -1933 or that of 1946 1947.
Most people lived primarily on grains and potatoes. Budgetary studies conducted on the eve of Stalin's death, during the relatively prosperous year of 1952, established the following daily nutritional intake in worker and peasant families: the average Soviet citizen consumed approximately 500 grams of flour products (primarily bread), a small amount of cereals, 400 - 600 grams of potatoes, and approximately 200 - 400 grams of milk and milk products.

These items accounted for the bulk of the typical diet. Anything else, especially meat, was a special occasion. The figure for per capita consumption of meant and meat products averaged 40 - 70 grams per day and 15 - 20 grams of fat (animal or plant oils, margarine or fatback). A few teaspoons of sugar and a bit of fish completed the picture. Average citizens could permit themselves an average of one egg every six days. These rations are approximately equal to the dietary norm for prison camps.
Let us not forget that these figures were compiled and published by the Central Statistical Directorate and were probably on the generous side. The reality was probably worse, especially for the peasants.

How very different from the descriptions of the long and, in their own way, painful suppers that Stalin held for his henchmen in the Kremlin or one of his dachas. Somewhat different from the lives of the various privileged sections of Soviet society, the bonzy, who could shop in special shops where many other goods were available, both home-grown and imported and whose salaries together with the special konverty (envelopes with extra bonuses that remained a secret between the organization and the recipient) amounted to a great deal more than the pay most people received.

Of the good listed above, the more luxurious ones, such as meat or sausage were not available outside the big cities and people from all over the country had to travel to them in order to buy a few things to feed their families with.

Those were the good years. What of the vozhd, the leader himself? We have had, as I mentioned above, many accounts of the sort of feeding that went on around his table, even during the hungry years of the war and the famine immediately after, never mind the relatively good years after that.

Here is an account of the sort of budget that went on the immediate Main Guard Directorate under its leader of many years, Nikolai Vlasik. (He, too, was demoted in 1951 and arrested in 1952 but released in 1956.) Some of the accounts, especially of Stalin's last days, come from him.
Under Vlasik, the Main Guard Directorate became a powerful and influential government agency. In early 1952 it comprised 14,300 people and had an enormous budget of 672 million rubles. Vlasik's directorate was responsible not only for protection, but also for the maintenance of the apartments and dachas of top-level Soviet leaders, keeping Central Committee members supplied with consumer goods, handling the transportation and lodging of foreign guests, and overseeing the construction of new government buildings. In 1951 approximately 80 million rubles of the directorate's budget went toward maintaining the dachas and apartments of the fourteen highest-ranking Soviet leaders (including expenses for protection and servants). Staling was, of course, the most expensive of the fourteen. A total of 26.3 million rubles were spent on his apartment and dacha in 1951. This sum probably did not include such expenses as automobile transport.

Serving in the Guard Directorate was both prestigious and lucrative. In 1951 the average compensation for members of Stalin's security team (including uniforms, housing, etc.) was 5,300 rubles per month, at a time when the average monthly wage throughout the Soviet Union was 660 rubles and the average per capita income for collective farm workers was approximately 90 rubles per month. In addition to material benefits, Vlasik's relationship with the leader gave him significant political influence, leading to his increasing involvement - with Stalin's encouragement - in the political intrigues that roiled round the vozhd (leader). Having a powerful patron and sense of impunity was intoxicating. Vlasik drank and enjoyed a promiscuous love life, and so did his subordinates.
There was, of course, a down side: if the vozhd so desired you could be arrested with all that entailed. Earlier a number of the personal security guards were executed or chose to commit suicide as an easier way out.

By and large it was Stalin's colleagues who trembled with fear and tried to protect themselves at all costs. Towards the end of Stalin's life, as the second purge raged, Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Malenkov had been demoted and were waiting for worse. Molotov's wife had been arrested during the second purge, largely because she was Jewish, and not only did her husband not dare to speak up for her but he he agreed to divorce her on Stalin's orders. She was released after the dictator's death and, as far as I know, the two re-married.

Stalin's invitations to come sup with him and watch a film or just "have a bit of fun" were never refused though guests tended to wonder whether they would be returning home after the party or going somewhere quite different. And those were the "good years".

Friday, September 18, 2015

Where does the money go?

The House of Lords is again under attack and I intend to spend some time and several postings defending it though not defending the Prime Minister's extraordinary decisions for the appointment of new peers.

First of all, some good news for people who like the idea of hereditary peers in the House and have some idea of history: we now have a Duke of Wellington in Parliament as the latest holder of that title has just been elected by Conservative Peers to the House of Lords.

It would have been nice to report that it was a "damn close run thing" as the Duke is supposed to have said or "It has been a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" as he actually said to Thomas Creevey but this blog has to record that the 9th Duke won hands down.
A total of 48 other hereditary Conservative peers voted in the election under the alternative vote system and, after four transfers of votes, the Duke ended up with 21 votes, beating the Marquess of Abergavenny and the Earl of Harrowby, who picked up six votes each.

Before the vote, the 70-year-old peer said: “I have aspired to serve in the Lords since I first became interested in politics. I stood for the House of Commons in 1974 and was elected to the European parliament in 1979 for two terms.

“Since then I have been chairman of a life insurance company, a luxury goods company and a fund management company. I have been a commissioner of English Heritage and am currently chairman of the Council of King’s College, London.”
What was that about wanting politicians who have experience outside politics?

Moving on to related matters. Tuesday saw a long debate in the House of Lords about future developments and reforms. I intend to write more about that debate, which I have not finished reading yet. Right now, I want to turn my attention to Lord Pearson's Motion to Resolve on which he spoke twice: once during the debate itself and once after it.

As I shall say in future postings I did not agree with everything the noble lord said in his main speech though I do not disagree with his fight for more UKIP peers, given the fact that the Prime Minister decided to give a peerage to a number of Lib-Dim politicians whose great achievement was to lose their seats in the May General Election. I also found his comments at the end of the debate interesting and useful for anyone who wishes to become involved in the discussion:
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, chided me for not including the Scottish National Party in my Motion and remarks. The reason for that omission is that, regrettably, it does not want any seats here, let alone the 35 which its performance at the last general election would give it under the Liberal Democrat coalition policy.

One other important suggestion has been brought home to me during this lengthy but creative debate. We should not concentrate so much on the total size of your Lordships’ House as on average daily attendance. The Library tells me that, as of last week, actual membership was 775, but our average daily attendance is only 483. Yet, before most of the hereditary Peers left us in 1999, we numbered some 1,325 Peers, but the average daily attendance was only some 446, so it is not much more today. Of course, it is daily attendance that costs taxpayers money. Peers who do not attend do not get the daily allowance. If the public understood that better it might do something for our suffering reputation.

That said, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have supported me. Ever an optimist, I hope that the Prime Minister will take note of our debate. I beg to ask leave to withdraw my Motion.
Will the Prime Minister pay attention to that and any future debates? Who can tell?

The figures and the fact that Peers get paid expenses for daily attendance only are worth noting, however.