Thursday, 30 January 2014

In search of enlightened dictators

Australian friends, many of them, seem utterly horrified by their recently elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. So much so that various forms of civil disobedience are canvassed.

It seems to me that whenever this sort of situation occurs, a yearning for another form of government bubbles to the surface – usually the desire for some kind of benevolent dictatorship, which will sort things out with justice and “common sense”.

Thinking like this must have driven the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges to support two generals Videla in Argentina and Pinochet in Chile. Of course, we know now that, whatever their initial intentions, both men turned decisively to tyranny and repression in defence of their power. It was several years before Borges understood the reality of his mistake.  

Have there ever been enlightened dictators who stuck to benevolent principles throughout their rule? I doubt it. Perhaps the closest to that ideal was Lee Kwan Yew (who was consistently re-elected and thus never threatened) in Singapore.

But the stream of hope turned to torture is seemingly unavoidable.

Let’s see whether the Egyptian people can find a satisfactory way through their current difficulties. As for the Syrians…

Monday, 27 January 2014

The dawn of modernism?

I was thinking about what I’d missed in 2013. Lots of things, for sure. But, reading the perceptive blogpost From the Choirboy Motel on the Young Vic’s production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House* made me ache with regret that I’d not taken the trouble to go and see it.

It made me think of the impact that the play had in Melbourne when it first opened at the Princess Theatre in 1889. Perhaps expecting the usual sort of drawing room comedy, there were rowdy scenes following the première. The critics were universal in their condemnation of the supposed moral degeneracy of the drama. “Excessively didactic,” noted The Argus in Melbourne, “… insufficiently dramatic… the character of Nora… unnatural,” and so on.

The play had originally opened in Norway ten years earlier, the first English translation being commissioned from William Archer by Janet Achurch** and husband Charles Charrington, who took the lead roles, initially in London, then in Australia and New Zealand. It caused ructions wherever they took it.

Was this play the dawn of modernism?

Curiously, another less controversial play taken on the Australasian tour by the Charringtons was an adaptation of a Rider Haggard story entitled Devil’s Carefoot by the upcoming (now substantially forgotten) Australian playwright, Haddon Chambers.

**Janet Achurch photographed by H Walter Barnett (probably in Sydney), 1889  

Friday, 24 January 2014

All over for Facebook?

It's “all over for Facebook?” according to the Daily Telegraph, noting that the early-adopter young are now abandoning the site as their elders move in.

As a consequence it’s seen as “uncool” according to a research study conducted by Professor Daniel Miller of UCL: “Mostly they feel embarrassed even to be associated with it.”

Now researchers at Princeton are predicting that FB will lose 80% of its users by 2017, resulting in Facebook themselves, using the same logic, saying that by 2021 Princeton will have no students. Hilarious! 

Given that the flight of the young from the site, and its increasing adoption by wrinklier folk, means that its age profile is shifting upwards, I would imagine that Facebook’s management will be delighted to be able to sell advertising space to folk with real disposable income.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Detail versus the Big Picture

So many seem to have been credited with the notion that the Devil (or is it God?) is in the detail – Goethe, Flaubert, Mies van der Rohe and Aby Warburg among them, not to mention Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

But is it really the detail that matters most?

I remember, at an international meeting of Synectics people in Washington DC, my esteemed colleague Vincent Nolan enjoined us all to attend to the detail. And immediately he was flatly contradicted by Sandy Dunlop.

“If anywhere,” said Sandy, “he is in the Big Picture.”

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Farewell then International Herald Tribune

Perhaps the change I noticed most in Paris was the quiet disappearance of the International Herald Tribune, replaced by an international version of the New York Times.

Originally launched in 1887, the steadfastly old-fashioned Paris-based IHT had always for me been part of the city, a Gallic flavour added to its equally démodé parents in New York and Washington.

The paper had accompanied me happily through five decades of international travel.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The difficulty of writing about music

I’ve never much enjoyed the work of Elvis Costello. Not much of a voice (no comparison with his unremembered dad, Ross McManus). Dreary music. And all those pretentious, supposedly cool lyrics.

But since I’ve been spending a good part of my recent life writing about music and musicians, I do keep close to hand (and mind) one of Mr Costello’s most apposite sayings:

Writing about music is like dancing to architecture.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Learning to write

I wrote a year or so ago (22 November 2012) about the dedication of the great Bohemian violin pedagogue, Otakar Ševčík, to teaching not so much how to play, but  how to practise.

I see that the recently departed novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard extends the same point in her memoir, Slipstream. In it she credited her piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Harold Craxton, in the same way, adding that he taught “… how to learn; how to take the trouble and go on taking it; and above all how to listen to what I was doing.”

And she continued: “Although I never emerged as a serious pianist, his lessons have been useful to me in learning to write.”

Ševčík would have been proud of her.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The urgent versus the important

It always amazes me that so many senior executives have so much trouble managing their time. The idea that they might systematically sort their to-do list into four prioritised categories often seems to come to them as a massive new insight.

Just in case this might be useful for you, this is what I teach:
  • Urgent and important things: get top priority and most of your time
  • Important but non-urgent things: get the rest of your time
  • Urgent but unimportant things: are delegated - all of them (or dumped)
  • Unimportant, non-urgent things: are dumped immediately

In the case of a group of senior academics at City University London, all of whom felt desperately overstretched, they told me that I just didn’t understand. Of course, that’s true. But they doubtless remain continuously in borderline meltdown.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Apps vs art

In an online article in spiked,* Wendy Earle of Birkbeck, University of London, argues for minimal information and technology in art museums, encouraging visitors to interact directly with the works themselves. 

At an exhibition in Paris of British Aestheticists (Désir et Volupté – with Alma-Tadema, Leighton, Rossetti, Burne-Jones etc) at the wonderful Musée Jacquemart-André, I noticed that the punters were nearly all reading the information panels and/or using various “apps”, leaving scarcely anyone to look at the paintings.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the French. I notice it everywhere – a real hunger for information and guidance, as though people are afraid simply to trust themselves, to look and wonder.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Operatic visions at the Opéra

One of the few places without an endless queue in Paris was Charles Garnier’s masterpiece, the Opéra. I’d last visited some forty plus years ago. Garnier was chosen from a vast list of applicants, virtually without experience as an architect. 

That great writer, the late Ian Nairn, captures it vividly in his indispensable Nairn’s Paris:

Quite rightly just l’Opéra, not a name like Covent Garden or La Scala. This is the final justification of the gilded acres of Versailles and Fontainebleau: a declamatory roulade of allegory that would pump a sense of occasion into the limpest libretto. The outside gives clear warning of what is about to happen, but it is only tuning up; overture, grand march, love duet and final chorus are all inside, in the gorgeous sequence of double staircase leading to the auditorium on one side and a third-floor foyer – what a name for it! – on the other, immediately behind the façade. This is more operatic than the opera…

Then he goes on to spoil it by nominating Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène as the ideal, “unforgettable” work to hear there. I’m not sure anything by that fine composer of bubbling light operas has ever made it on to the stage of the Opéra. Something much more sérieux is the ticket.
Anyone for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, preferably on a nuit de sept étoiles?

Friday, 3 January 2014


This is my 500th blogpost. Phew!

I think of them as unsolicited postcards.

Clearly there has been more from me in recent times on the arts (and on science) than I’d anticipated at the start in 2009. Do any particular ones stick in your mind for whatever reason?

What would you like to see more of? And what less?

All feedback welcomed. 

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Conversing in French

It was my eleven year old daughter Dora’s first time in Paris and her first experience of my rudimentary French.

On day two she concluded that, for me, conversation in the language consisted mostly of “voilà” and “pas de problème”. Oh, and "l'addition, s'il vous plait".
But then, what more is really useful?