Category Archives: Greatness

At last, it’s all over. For now.

I’ve been waiting a long time to write that headline, or something like it. The recently held, unnecessary, ego-driven election to determine who runs the UK seems to have gone on forever; like some kind of degenerative, wasting illness that has to be endured.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard politicians speaking (or in some cases, barking) about almost everything, but we haven’t heard any of the detail we want to hear. For example, there’s been virtually no mention of the kind of country we can expect to be living in. None at all. At least, none that I can relate to.

Instead, we’ve heard only that we can expect ‘strong and stable leadership’ from an administration led by The Maybot, Theresa May, (what a joke that empty mantra seems now, after so many climb-downs on her part!) or one that’s ‘for the many not the few’ from ‘Jezza’ Jeremy Corbyn (at least that one sounds plausible, even though it seems to have been invented by a marketing guru).

It’s still a great shame we were not offered a No Confidence space on the ballot paper. For all that the turnout was encouraging to those that would clutch at any straw blowing in the wind, that’s where a great many Xs would’ve ended up.

After all, do we really want a government lead by a woman who looks and sounds as if she is the product of a machine? One that was made on the home counties production line, with all the small-mindedness that that implies? Do we really want to be governed by a person who, at the outset, looked like a young middle-aged woman dreaming of past glories and future triumphs but, by the end, looked like an old middle-aged woman, broken and sad, contemplating her own mortality?

Do we want a government led by a person who was once described by Ken Clarke as “bloody difficult”? By someone who refuses to debate matters on tv? By someone who tells us that ‘strong leadership’ will be needed in the now-stalled negotiations with the European Union, when we must know (unless we are all ostriches) that She Who Tells Us will not be at the negotiating table herself (just as she wasn’t in the tv debate), but that a person with the mindset of a man like David Davis, who describes Brexit as “the defining issue of our age”, will lead the team? Or might it be a member of the DUP?

Or do we want a government led by a person who, at the outset, looked like a broken old milddle-aged man not knowing what to do with retirement but now looks like a young middle-aged man rejuvenated by the thought that the even younger civil servants will do most of the heavy work, and that there are equally pressing issues, other than the dreary one of  leaving the EU, that have to be attended to?

The Conservatives made almost no mention of Britain’s housing crisis, our failing mental health provisions, or child poverty.

They didn’t even have the guts to present themselves as a team. The Supreme Leader was the only one we were asked to think about.

And now we are stuck with that thought; with her. For another five years, or for as long as it takes for her to change her mind – yet again.

Those of us who can’t abide the woman will – like my late mother who used to turn off the telly every time Mrs Thatcher hove in view – have to bear her as we bore Mrs T and survived. I guess we’ll survive Mrs M.

But will she be remembered? Margaret Thatcher

Now that the election is all over, we can only hope that she will disappear into obscurity.

I doubt there’s much hope of that. We all still recall ‘That Woman’. But Mrs May is likely to be remembered as The One That Got Away. For now.

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He’s at it again

It’s hard to believe, but last week he put his foot in his mouth again.

For one who supposedly wants to be leader of his party, George Osborne is making a pretty poor go of it. And it gets worse and worse.

His Budget last week was, in itself, a bit of a mishmash of old ideas muddled with new thinking. He had trailed some of it already. Not much of it came as a surprise. He continued to favour the better-off in British society and failed to help those less able to help themselves.

As result, the present Cabinet has lost one member – Ian Duncan-Smith, for whatever reason – and may lose more before his Master, it’s chair, David Cameron, decides enough is enough and retreats to whatever ‘retirement’ he choses.

Meanwhile, George seems to think that all he has to do is grin and we’ll like him.

Personally, I’ve always been a little circumspect about people who grin too much. They seem to be hiding something else behind the façade of friendliness.

Sometimes it’s no more than politesse. At others it’s malice; it could be idiocy.

In George’s case, it seems to be a combination of the last two. He looks like a malicious idiot.

And he did it it again last week.

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Art and the age of invention

In the London art world at least, 2014 may well be remembered as the year of the old men.

Three of Europe’s most influential artists – Henri Matisse, JMW Turner and Rembrandt van Rijn – have all been honoured with major exhibitions at the capital’s Tate Modern and Tate Britain galleries, and the National Gallery.

Whether by coincidence or collusion, these three shows have focused on work produced in the artists’ later years.

But that’s not the only thread that draws them together.

For me, the most astonishing thing about all these exhibitions has been the sheer invention on display.

Cutting edge

Matisse was old and infirm when he began to create images using scissors and paper.
Matisse-The-Parakeet-and-the-Mermaid-1952

Yet his mind was quick and his hands as strong and deft as ever.

Working at an incredible speed – and often far into the night – he produced images that, in many ways, have come to define his life’s work.

His version of The Snail, which hangs in Tate Britain, is probably one of his best-known works; famous for often evoking the retort: “My five-year-old could’ve done that!”

But Matisse wasn’t five. He was a very old man, confined to bed, or at best his wheelchair, unable to see the real world around him, yet driven to create and – critically – to experiment with new techniques.

And determined, too, to fill his world with images of joyful life and playful fun, as The Parakeet and the Mermaid so aptly demonstrate.

A man gone mad

Turner was another who, in his later years, broke free from anything resembling the chains of convention – which he always railed against – and, in his sixties and seventies, produced some of the most remarkable images of his entire life.
Joseph-Mallord-William-Turner-Paintings-Whalers-Boiling-Blubber-Entangled-in-Flaw-Ice-1846
So extreme were his ideas about light, and so seemingly perverse his use of oils and watercolours, many contemporary art lovers believed he had not so much lost the plot but suffered a complete disconnect from his senses.

Today, of course, when we see a painting like Whalers (Boiling Blubber) Entangled in Flaw Ice, Endeavouring to Extricate Themselves, which Turner produced when he was 71, we know we are looking at the work of a man who, far from being mad, was still trying to push his medium to its limit; still wanting to show us the sensations of the world rather than its mere surface.

The Dutch master

Born 169 years before Turner, and dead exactly 100 years before Matisse was even born, Rembrandt van Rijn never stopped experimenting.

How much he influenced the other two is open to question.

But, if nothing else is certain, he should have been a role model of determination and invention.

rembrandt.1661Here, in this late self-portrait, he is experimenting with the effects of light and paint on a flat surface, working with the very stuff of oil and pigment to create an image that says: “I may be old, bankrupt and out of fashion, but I’m not finished yet. See, I can still draw circles!”

If we are to take anything from these three remarkable exhibitions – and there is much to enjoy and savour in reflection – it is this: that age never diminishes the creative spirit and infirmity cannot destroy the will to communicate ideas.

Matisse, Turner and Rembrandt have not only been role models for the thousands of painters who have followed them, but also for us all.

At the end of this, the year of the old men, we should remember that vigour and imagination, skill and dexterity, truth and vision are attributes and virtues to be valued and striven for, right to the end.

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A tale of two Gs

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in the company of Ken Clarke, one of British politics’ big beasts.
That night, recounting his achievements and countering his critics, Clarke seemed like a man at the end of his political tether; a misunderstood old-school patrician slightly confused by the antics of his upstart public school successors.
Today comes the news that Gordon Brown – another big beast of British politics – is to retire from Parliament at next year’s general election.
Both men have been in pubic service – and in the public eye – for decades. So it’s little wonder they both feel it’s time to take a back seat somewhere; or, more likely, a front seat in some international institution or another.
For both men, the questions are “What next?” and “How will they be remembered?”.
In Clarke’s case, he may always be recalled in the same breath as Margaret Thatcher.
In Brown’s case, he may never be disassociated from his erstwhile political friend and adversary, Tony Blair.
But there is another comparison to be made.
Two G forces
Gordon Brown was Britain’s longest-serving peacetime Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In that role, he oversaw extraordinary levels of economic growth and (admittedly debt-fuelled) prosperity for the UK.
As Prime Minister, he was responsible for saving – not ‘the world’ as he mistakenly put it in Parliament – but the world’s banking system as we knew it – and, to a great a extent, still know it today – when it was brought to its knees by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Throughout his political life, he has believed in the idea of politics as public service.
His is a record of devotion to Britain, to the betterment of society and to the selfless notion that working to improve the lives of others is a laudable activity.
There seems little doubt that, once he leaves Parliament for the last time next May, he is destined for some new role in public service.
But what of the other G?
A chancer on the make
George Osborne, Britain’s current Chancellor, is a man for whom the ‘chance’ in his job description seems more closely allied to ‘risk’ and ‘luck’ than to the serious business of managing Britain’s economy.
Tomorrow he will deliver his much-trailed Autumn Statement, in which he will outline spendings and savings that he’ll no doubt describe as being good for the British economy.
He may well, as always, blame the last administration for the “mess” he inherited in 2010.
He may even quote Liam Byrne who, as outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury, reportedly left a note saying: “There is no money.” And there is still none.
He may claim to have righted what he saw as a sinking ship.
But he will still be presiding over levels of near-unstainable debt and continuing austerity that can be seen in the UK’s fragile economic growth, the collapse of our manufactured exports, the general state of dereliction in parts of the country and the increasing numbers of people relying on food banks for survival.
Unlike Brown, Osborne, one suspects, will quietly slide into some well remunerated, superannuated business slot when he retires.
A truly big beast
Not for him any notion of ongoing public service.
He is, after all, of the generation that, as Brown puts it, sees politics as, “at best, a branch of the entertainment industry”.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Osborne shares anything with Brown who, speaking in Kirkcaldy yesterday, said: “I still hold to the belief in something bigger than ourselves. I still hold to a belief in the moral purpose of public service … which I hope to inspire in my children.”
It’s my belief that, when the tales of these two Gs come to be told, Brown’s will have the greater heft.
For all his failings, he was a good politician and a great public servant.
I cannot see Osborne bettering him on either count.

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Remember this Obama speech

Barack Obama was a stand-out hit at Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Even sitting here in my study in London’s Earls Court, watching events on my Mac, I could feel the warmth and affection in the Soweto crowd’s welcoming cheer.

And, when he spoke, I could hear that he returned their emotion.

He asked us to remember Nelson Mandela as “a giant of history”, and thanked the people of South Africa for “sharing Nelson Mandela with us”.

Now, I wonder, how many of us will remember Barack Obama.

A man for his time

He has, for me, been a man both for and of his time.

He made history by becoming the first African American President of the Union.

But history will record that, as President of the Union, he failed to achieve his prime ambitions.

And remember, he cannot be a third term President, so he has no third chance for a second tilt at history.

Nevertheless, if we are wise, we will remember his words today.

Especially we should remember this passage from his address at Soweto:-

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

No easy answers

Obama went on to say that the questions we face today have no easy answers.

But, he said, “South Africa shows us we can change”, and that we can choose to live in a world “defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes”.

We must hope that, while Mandela’s legacy will surely be remembered, Obama’s words on this celebratory occasion will also be recalled long after he has left the White House and his people have chosen another President of their Union.

We should remember what he said. And the man who said it.

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A question of greatness

This morning all the world’s media was, rightly so and as I expected, full of the news of Andy Murray’s triumph in the Men’s Singles competition at Wimbledon.

There’s no doubt that his is an exceptional achievement – the first Briton to win the title for 77 years – and he deserves our congratulations.

Not only has he fulfilled a personal dream, he has relieved the nation of the ancient burden of hope – so often wrecked by despair – that it’s borne for three-quarters of a century.

As a result – and it is a great result – we can all share his joy.

But to liken his triumph to that of England winning the FIFA World Cup in 1966 or the Rugby World Cup in 2003?

This seems fanciful at best, hubristic at worst. And it questions the nature of greatness.

Clearly, Andy Murray competes in a fiercely contested one-on-one sport. Self-evidently he has a superb support team of trainers, dieticians and the like. Obviously, he’s good at what he does.

But the fact that is he is not the first Briton to have won Wimbledon’s supreme men’s prize, only the first for a long time, should mute the clamour of adulation and attention he’s received since Sunday evening.

He’s not, like Bradley Wiggins, the very first Briton to win the gruelling competition of his choice: the Tour de France, now in its 100th edition.

For me, Wiggins’s is a far greater achievement.

Andy Murray is undoubtedly a great tennis player and, for the time being at least, a national hero.

But for me, there is no questioning the fact that Bradley Wiggins has the edge, for he has no precedent.

There never was another Briton before him – not an Englishman, a Welshman, a Scot or an Ulsterman – who had ever won the Tour de France in all its 110 years of history.

Andy Murray has achieved greatness. But he wasn’t the first Briton ever to win Wimbledon.

Bradley Wiggins’s greatness lies in the fact that he was – and forever will be – the first Briton to win the Tour de France.

That is true greatness.

Chapeau, Sir Brad!

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