Two hours in the dark exploring sexuality with Cate Blanchett and Steven Dillane

The National Theatre announced last year that there would be a ballot to have the possibility to see Cate Blanchett in a play. Rather as with warnings that “what follows contains sexually explicit material” attracts many people to view what they might not otherwise have viewed, so the ballot attracts–there must be something delicious involved. We failed in the first round but got tickets in a second round. Knowing that the sexual violence and explicitness had caused somebody to faint, we went with trepidation. I didn’t faint, but I did fall asleep twice during the two hour performance.

When we Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was, as the subtitle indicates, inspired by Pamela, which was a best seller published in 1740. I’ve not read it but surely should. Martin Crimp, the author of the play, summarises the plot: “A 15-year-old servant (Pamela) is approached by the master of the house (Mr B), who solicits her for sex. She resists and he abducts her. Encouraged by his housekeeper, he tries and fails to rape her. More twists and turns ensue, they realise they’re in love, they marry.”  Pamela is smart, and the book is filled with her diary entries and letters, and, writes Crimp, Mr B was more interested in possessing her writing than her body.

Last night’s performance was visually striking, very physical, and superbly acted by Blanchett and Stephen Dillane (whose son once went to the same primary school as ours ours). I found it something of a miracle–like watching Daniel Barenboim play nine Schubert sonatas from memory–that they could remember all the words and the complicated manoeuvres and costume changes, especially when the play lacked a clear narrative. The whole play was set in a garage that included a car as well as a lot of sinister looking equipment such as you might see in a torture chamber. Blanchett repeatedly changed clothes, ranging through a dominatrix style black swim suit with suspenders, a maid’s costume, and a huge, fluffy wedding dress; and Dillane much of the time was also dressed as a woman. They exchanged a blonde wing to show who was the woman at any time, and lights going on and off indicated the 12 variations.

Despite having so much going for it, the play never caught light for me–hence the sleeping.

Perhaps I would have liked/understood it more if I had read the novel and the programme before seeing the play. The National Theatre described the play as dealing with “the messy, often violent nature of desire and the fluid, complicated roles that men and women play.” That’s not very helpful, and Michael Billington writes in the Guardian after giving the play 3/5 stars: “I can only assume that anyone shocked by the play’s arguments about the overthrow of oppressive masculinity and the malleability of gender must have spent the last decade in monastic seclusion.”

But the programme taught me more. Catherine MacKinnon, a first-wave feminist, argued in the 70s that desire is not innate and that sex under patriarchy is inherently violent: “pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice.” One consequence was “political lesbianism,” but McKinnon believed that sex was “so gender marked that it carries dominance and submission with it, no matter the gender of its participants.”

My second girlfriend, Susan, schooled in a convent became a female separatist in the late 60s, a cause of much amusement to friends who thought that it might be the result of my clumsy affection. I met her some 25 years later, and clearly her heart and body had never been in “political lesbianism,” although heterosexual sex seemed to have no attractions either. I first had sex in 1971, at the advanced age of 19, and perhaps it’s just as well that I hadn’t read MacKinnon’s work. I felt more pathetic than dominant in the sexual act, whereas my father never seemed to suffer from any kind of sexual queasiness.

Second-wave feminists like Ellen Willis reacted against McKinnon, arguing that she perpetuated the Victorian idea that men desire sex and women just put up with it.  Women’s right to pleasure in sex went together with rights to equal pay and opportunities. Willis has prevailed, and “generations of feminists and gay and lesbian activists have fought hard to free sex from shame, stigma, coercion, abuse, and unwanted pain.”

Third and fourth wave feminists have gone further, arguing that “sex work is work, and can be better work than the menial labour undertaken by most women.” Sex workers, most of whom are women, need legal protection not rehabilitation. What, Willis asks, would women’s sexual choices be if they were not constantly negotiating? Esther Perel, a couple’s therapist, writes: “Most of us are turned on at night by the very things that we’ll protest about during the day.” Or, as Jaqueline Rose, a psychoanalyst writes, “sexuality is lawless or it is nothing.” The task for (fifth-wave?) feminists now is “to treat as axiomatic our free sexual choices, while also seeing…such choices under patriarchy, are rarely free.”

Perhaps all of this was explored in the play last night, but it’s not a tribute to a play when the programme arouses (deliberate pun) more thoughts than the play itself.




“Home, I’m Darling”: feminism, housework, and Brexit

“What was that play about?” asked Lin of Home, I’m Darling by Laura Wade. I don’t know: good plays are about everything and nothing. But I’d pick out themes of feminism, housework, and Brexit. The Guardian review, written by a woman, called it “a scalpel-wielding dissection of the fetishisation of wifeliness, a 21st-century cultural cul-de-sac populated and policed almost entirely by women.”

The play was fun, that’s for sure–with the popular music of the 50s and the characters jiving and lindy-hopping in a tiny space. The play begins with a couple in their (to us now) ghastly 50s house, with Judy (Katherine Parkinson) in an extraordinary sticky-out, brightly coloured and patterned skirt, eating breakfast and declaring that they are “appallingly happy.” She takes the greatest pleasure in getting Johnny’s (Richard Harringon) toast (white, of course) exactly right and spreading it with her homemade marmalade. It’s the claustrophobic 50s, which many in the audience–including us–clearly remembered. But all that is exploded in the final moments of the first scene when the wife opens a laptop.

The couple have opted to live in the 50s with the décor, foods, and kitchen appliances from that time, and the wife staying at home, delighting in housework, and, with pleasure, doing everything for her husband. Judy winces when guests use words like vagina and fuck, although interestingly she’s keen on sex. (Sexual intercourse wasn’t invented in 1963, as Philip Larking well knew, as did my father who told my brother of the wonderful sex he had with my mother.) There were, of course, no gays or blacks. A guest asks if they use only medical treatments from the 50s, and Judy snaps “We’re not a religious cult.”

Dome Darling

Inevitably their 50s fantasy comes under strain–from financial woes and the threat of adultery (allright, so long as nobody knows)–but it doesn’t crack. The finest speech in the play belongs to Judy’s mother Silvia (Susan Brown) who spells out the horrors of the 50s–always cold, rationing, horrible food, and grey, grey, grey. The audience broke into spontaneous applause at the end of the speech.

The play is about feminism in that a capable woman–Judy was a financial manager with a portfolio and six staff–might chose to stay at home and care for her husband. In contrast, Betty Friedan, a first-wave feminist, described woman who accepted being housewives as “in as much danger as millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.” There is still a tendency to look down on women who chose not to have paid employment (and men even more so), and Silvia, a woman who rebelled against the housewifely servitude of the 50s, thinks her daughter crazy. #metoo features in the play in that Judy makes clear to a friend that she wouldn’t object to some physical contact if she became his secretary. She feels very 50s when she tells her husband that she could accept him having an affair so long as she knew nothing about it.

Evidently, the programme tells me, the average man in Britain does 16 hours of housework a week and the average woman 26 hours. In the 50s, in the age before dishwashers, woman did almost all of it. “Women’s work” has shifted to being “not proper work at all,” says the programme. It’s true that managing a portfolio or even making rubber ducks or cigarettes has more status than cooking and cleaning at home.

I must admit that both Lin and I were surprised by the hours of housework. We don’t do anything like that and don’t have a cleaner. Lin does the washing (in a machine, 2 hours a week), the ironing (2 hours), cleaning (2 hours), loading the dishwasher (1 hour) and gardening (2 hours). I do the shopping (3 hours), cooking (6 hours), and empty the dishwasher (1 hour). So that’s 9 hours for Lin and 10 for me, well short of the 42 hours expected (but it would have been more when our children lived with us, with Lin doing most of it). I like cooking and find it an excellent contrast to reading and writing, which I do most of the time; and shopping gets me out.

Brexit was never mentioned in the play, but in Britain now Brexit dominates everything. Inevitably I thought of Brexit because there is a strong feeling that many people voted for Brexit as a vote for going back to “a simpler time” when “Britain was Britain,” “taking back control. Ironically Brexit could return us to the 50s through making us much poorer and even for a while reintroducing rationing.

Home, I’m Darling is well worth seeing and is surely a play that will last.

Home Darling 2

Searching for the tombs of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra

People in the 19th century became fascinated by Ancient Egypt as archaeologists opened the tombs of the dead pharoahs: people were buried in tombs inspired by Ancient Egypt; London, Paris, and New York all gained a Cleopatra’s needle. The fervour grew with Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum was its busiest ever. The Egyptian galleries are still the most crowded at the museum, with children and adults alike fascinated by the mummies. The lecture we attended last night Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt was sold out, as was the live screening in an overflow theatre.

Why the fascination?

My hypothesis is that Ancient Egypt seems both close and far. It’s close in that the Ancient Egyptians were human beings like us, and some of them–Cleopatra in particular–are very familiar. Yet at the same time the Ancient Egyptians seem almost as a strange as people of another planet. We are fascinated by the idea of aliens and Martians, and here is a whole world of aliens that we understand well.

The lecture was given by Chris Naunton, a distinguished Egyptologist, a handsome youngish man wearing a black, short-sleeved tee shirt with the air of Indiana Jones. He described how we know the names and dates of almost all the pharaohs over three millennia, and the tombs of many of them have been identified. But there are some prominent pharaohs–Nefertiti, Alexander the Great, and Cleopatra–whose tombs have never been found.

Imagine the global excitement if the tombs of any of those three could be discovered. With today’s global media it would surely exceed the excitement of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The tombs of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra are almost certainly buried under the modern city of Alexandria, which has a population of five million. Naunton showed a map of possible sites within the city, but perhaps the tombs are most likely to be discovered when old buildings are torn down and deep foundations have to be dug for new buildings.

Naunton spent most time talking about the possible site of the tomb of Amenhotep I, who reigned from 1526 to 1506 BC. (I hadn’t grasped until last night that the Egyptian kingdoms lasted three millennia, a remarkably long time. I’ve found a list of the longest empires: the Japanese empire, which is still going, has lasted over 1740 years; next is the Byzantine empire, which lasted 874 years; the Roman empire managed just 503 years

Amenhotep I was one of the great builders of tombs, separating them from temples, and he must have a tomb. What’s more there is a written account of the position of his tomb, although the meaning is not entirely clear. Three different archaeologists have identified three different sites, and his tomb might be found soon. But it may be completely empty, and it won’t contain his coffin as that has already been found.

So it won’t have the excitement of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Naunton tried to describe the excitement associated with tombs rather than other ancient monuments. It was, he said, that a newly opened tomb, which would be filled with everything the pharaoh needed for the journey to the underworld, would feel as if the Ancient Egyptians had just left, gone out for a fag. They would be brought closer than at any other time.



The magic of writing

In Dunhuang, where Ai-ming stayed with Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, forty thousand manuscripts were recovered in a cave sealed around 1000 AD.

In 1900, when an earthquake caused the rocks to split, an abbott, the guardian of the caves, discovered the cache, towers of pages preserved by the dry air of the desert.

Mixed in with Chinese prayers were documents in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur, Sogdian, Judeo-Persian, Syriac and Khotanese; a Parthian fragment written in Manichean, a tantric instruction manual in the Uighur alphabet, a past due bill for a camel.

Ballads, inventories, circulars and donations.

A letter to a husband that reads, “I would rather be a pig’s wife than yours.”

Astronomical maps.

Board game instructions.

A guest’s apology for getting drunk and behaving badly.

A poem for a beloved donkey.



A beautiful novel that teaches us about China and its recent history

In her marvellous book Do Not Say We Have Nothing (a quote from the Internationale) Madeleine Thein, a Canadian writer of Chinese origin, refers to “this literary resurrection”–and that’s exactly what the book is, an attempt to bring the dead (both the real and the imagined) to life. On other pages she explains further: “She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.”

The book tells the dramatic and tragic history of China from the Japanese invasion to the protests in Tiananmen Square through the story of three characters, all of them musicians. One, a pianist, lost his whole family in the struggle against the Japanese–and so is regarded as a hero of the revolution when the Cultural Revolution comes. He hides his doubts and enjoys a privileged position, meaning that he must go along with much that is degrading. After emigrating to the West he kills himself.

In contrast, another girl, a violinist, is the daughter of “rightists” and so is assumed to be a “rightist” herself. In fact, her parents were imprisoned and almost starved to death because one of their forebears had been to the West and collected and hidden a cache of Western books. I’m not sure how much this idea that you are what your parents were is basic to Chinese culture and how much it was a principle of the Communist party. Knowing that she will be beaten and probably killed, the violinist, despite having written hundreds of pages of self-criticism, kills herself.

The third character, a composer and perhaps the most brilliant of a brilliant three, abandons composing, puts on the uniform of a worker, and works for some 20 years in a radio factory. But he joins the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which leads to his death.

So all the outcomes are tragic, and Thein is exploring her cultural past. The violinist who kills herself was born at about the same time as me, and I thought how different my life would have been if I had been born in China rather than Britain. Would I have been an enthusiast for the Cultural Revolution, a counter-revolutionary, or, most likely, just have kept my head down?

The structure of the book is complex, jumping backwards and forwards in time from a characters in China to a narrator in Canada with Thein’s background who is trying to find out about her father, whom we learn at the very beginning of the book had gone back to Hong Kong and then killed himself. You soon get adjusted to the complicated structure, but the book is a beautiful, inspiring, cruel, insightful read rather than an easy one.

Thein writes more about writing at places in the book:

“We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us—about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in—within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.”

“A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.”

In addition, the book contains two related themes: music and mathematics. The three main characters are all musicians, and there are many references to music, particularly to the music of Bach and Shostakovich. Bach’s music relates to the mathematic al theme but also is beautiful in its ordered structure, a contrast to the horror of the disorder of the events in China. Shostakovich is important because he too laboured under an oppressive, censoring communist regimen. The narrator is a mathematician and loves the beauty of maths, which against represents order rather than disorder. Thein clearly loves music and maths, and she manages to weave them into the story in a way that works perfectly and doesn’t feel at all gratuitous. I’ve gathered the quotes together below.

She also includes many quotes from Mao and others, together with counterrevolutionary quotes and observations on life. The book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016, the year that The Sellout won. Both books explore recent history.

I read the book because I heard Thein talking on the radio about what she thought of Britain and Brexit. I was struck by the wisdom and clarity of what she said. She is that thing, a public intellectual, that is greatly valued in France and almost despised in Britain.

Don’t Say We Have Nothing is a book well worth reading both as a beautiful insightful book and also for its understanding of China and its recent history. We all need to understand more about China, a world superpower that will soon overtake and replace the US.

Quotes from Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

On music

Without the musician, all life would be loneliness.

Bach, she’d always thought, was a coded man, a strange fish, a composer who loved God and devoted himself to the numeric order of the world, but whose heart was fragmented.

I ask myself why your symphonies are never performed, and I think it’s because they make us feel so much, they make us question not only who we are, but who we aim to be.

But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothes, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her. Was this what music was, was it time itself containing fractions of seconds, minutes, hours, and all the ages, all the generations?

How had this composer [Bach] from the West turned away from the linear and found his voice in the cyclical, in canons and fugues, in what Bach referred to as God’s time and in what the ancient Song and Tang scholars saw as the continual reiterations of the past, the turning of the wheel of history?

Time extended inside Bach, there were repetitions and canons, there were circles and spirals, there were many voices and honest humility as if he knew that reincarnation and loss were inseparable.

Shostakovich was a composer who had finally written about scorn and degradation, who had used harmony against itself, and exposed all the scraping and dissonance inside.

The music became as real as the concrete sidewalks and stout brick walls.


On writing

Such fictions were a false world in which her younger sister, if she was not careful, would lose her corporeal being and become only air and longing.

How many words are each of us granted over the course of a lifetime?

We were not unalike, my father and I; we wanted to keep a record. We imagined there were truths waiting for us—about ourselves and those we loved, about the times we lived in—within our reach, if only we had the eyes to see them.

I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller.

Believing everything in books is worse than having no books at all.

A story is a shifting creature, an eternal mirror that catches our lives at unexpected angles.

She told me, Wen the Dreamer, it’s foolhardy to think that a story ends. There are as many possible endings as beginnings.’”

She would populate this fictional world with true names and true deeds. They would live on, as dangerous as revolutionaries but as intangible as ghosts.

In Dunhuang, where Ai-ming stayed with Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, forty thousand manuscripts were recovered in a cave sealed around 1000 AD. In 1900, when an earthquake caused the rocks to split, an abbott, the guardian of the caves, discovered the cache, towers of pages preserved by the dry air of the desert. Mixed in with Chinese prayers were documents in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur, Sogdian, Judeo-Persian, Syriac and Khotanese; a Parthian fragment written in Manichean, a tantric instruction manual in the Uighur alphabet, a past due bill for a camel. Ballads, inventories, circulars and donations. A letter to a husband that reads, “I would rather be a pig’s wife than yours.” Astronomical maps. Board game instructions. A guest’s apology for getting drunk and behaving badly. A poem for a beloved donkey.


On life

The present, Sparrow seemed to say, is all we have, yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands.

Walter Benjamin’s famous evocation of the angel of history, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

The uncrossable sea between who he was and who he might have been.

But maybe, he thought, a parent should always have failings, some place into which a child can sink her teeth, because only then can a child come to know herself.

“And yet throughout the world, past and present, for thousands of years, those whom we call good men, righteous men, have been accustomed to the sight of such things, have sat and looked and considered them to be matters of course, have not demanded justice for the victims or offered help to them. This is the most appalling, unjust, and unequal thing, the most inexplicable theory under heaven.” Kang Youwei

This is what grief does. It is a confusion, perhaps a poison, that breaks us apart until finally we become something new.

Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him.

“Ah, Lord! Teach us to think that we might die so that we might become wise. Put your house in order, my child, for you will die and no longer remain among the living.”

We are here to learn and not to forget, here to question and not to answer. You are a man of questions. Of all the destinies of the world, this is a heroic one, and yet it carries suffering for it is hard to live with so little certainty.

Yet I understood, even then, that my life was strange, shaped by questions that seemed to have multiple and conflicting answers.

Many lives and many selves might exist, but that doesn’t render each variation false.

On mathematics

What every great mathematician required, an excellent memory and a sense of poetry.

I went on with my life, returning to the world of numbers. Their possibilities, their language and structure, filled me. They were as beloved, alive and universal as music.

I followed the first principle of pure mathematics, the hunger for beauty;

Yet, in the world of numbers, everything felt possible: numbers had no substance and were made entirely of thought.

On politics

Chairman Mao says, ‘If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality. If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution.’”

The Party said that desire, like intellect and skill, was a tool for struggle. But love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself.

Surely we would better serve the People if we were part of the greater world.

Every day we woke up and cursed our leaders, the Revolution and history, and we worshipped life, learning and the future.

She had not heard Debussy for months, not since the composer had been targeted in Wen Hui Bao and the Beijing papers, his music labelled decadent, and the long-dead Frenchman a composer whose “elaborate impressionist cookery” was an insult to the hardships of the poor.

You could not play revolutionary music, truly revolutionary music, if you were a coward in your heart. You could not play if your hands, your wrists, your arms were not free. Every note would be abject, weak, a lie. Every note would reveal you.

How many self-criticisms had she written? A thousand pages, two thousand? Yes, she was selfish and plagued by immoderate desires and yes, her love for music was a weakness.

Chairman Mao said, “To be aware of one’s own mistakes and yet make no attempt to correct them means taking a liberal attitude to oneself. These people talk Marxism but practise liberalism. Yes, this is how the minds of certain people work and they are extremely harmful to the revolutionary collective.”

When I first read his self-criticisms, I glimpsed my father through the many selves he had tried to be; selves abandoned and reinvented, selves that wanted to vanish but couldn’t.

“No more saviours of any kind. We want to be masters of our own country. Democracy, freedom and happiness are the only goals of modernization. Without this fifth modernization, the other four are nothing more than a new-fangled lie.”

“A society that speaks with only one voice is not a stable society.”

“Your father has always been a good man but kindness can be a downfall. It can make you lose perspective. It can make you foolish.”







The European revolutions of 1848 and Europe now

The year 1848 saw a “transcontinental cascade” of revolutions and counter-revolutions in Europe. The revolutions were failures in that they were suppressed, but they led to considerable change, including the births of Germany and Italy and ultimately the two world wars. We went last night to hear a virtuoso lecture on 1848 by Christopher Clark, Regius Professor of History in Cambridge; at one point he broke into song in German, showing a fine voice.

This was my second lecture on European history in a week, and the lectures have made me realise how embarrassingly little I know about European history despite 21 years of full time education and 55 years of reading. I know something about the Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance and Reformation (more through art than history), the French and Russian revolutions, and the two world wars, but my knowledge is full of holes. I lack the narrative that is more important than the detail.

Simon Jenkin writes in his book A Short History of Europe: “Depth should follow breadth, for without it history is meaningless. Without awareness of the timeline of human activity, individuals become dissociated figures on a bare stage. Those who cannot speak history to each other have nothing meaningful to say. Context – which means a sense of proportion – is everything.” It is perhaps to go too far to write that “Those who cannot speak history to each other have nothing meaningful to say,” but I do think that a knowledge of history, while not teaching clear, direct lessons, is essential for any understanding of the world.

It’s not coincidence that these lectures on European history come now. We are in the midst of a mad rethinking of our relationship to Europe. And ignorant as I am of European history, I fear that most of those who voted in the Brexit referendum are more ignorant than me–knowing little about the European Union or about any European history apart from the two world wars, where we see ourselves as goodies and Germans as the baddies.

The revolutions of 1848 were brought about by gross inequalities, unemployment, even working people having trouble feeding their families, and a torrent of new ideas colliding with each other. It’s the world of Les Miserables.  There were, as now, many who felt “left behind.” Fear was everywhere. But nobody has a convincing answer as to why these revolutions happened simultaneously.

But the revolutions were in many ways the exact reverse of now in that they led to “an age of administration,” where technocrats ran countries. Now there is a reaction against technocrats, against the elite–particularly in the form of the European Union. Clark talked almost nostalgically of a time when a European leader from one country could write with nuance and deep knowledge of the politics of another country: he used the example the Italian Cavour writing a ten-page essay on Ireland. Somebody in the audience said how he knew Italian civil servants who could do that, causing Clark to speak admiringly and very unfashionably of how many of the technocrats in the European Union are some of the best educated people ever. It’s the politicians not the civil servants who lack education.

Before 1848 many people thought of themselves primarily as Europeans, perhaps as many people in Africa now think of themselves primarily as Africans. Many people in Europe before 1848 could speak several languages. But after 1848 people identified primarily with nation states, which under the tutelage of Bismarck became steadily stronger. It is, said Clark, “hard to relearn to be a European.”

In 1848 Britain had the turmoil of the Chartists but not revolution. It used to be thought, said Clark, that Britain had already had its revolution, the shift of power from monarch to parliament. But it was more, said Clark, that Britain exported the unrest–by moves like raising taxes in Ceylon and keeping down the cost of basics like coffee and sugar “at the cost of the planters in Jamaica.”

The modern event that comes closest to the revolutions of 1848 is the Arab Spring, when unrest spread through Arab countries. As in 1848 the revolutions were not successful; ruling elites reasserted themselves, with huge bloodshed in Syria.

Clark showed many paintings in his talk, but the one that hit me the hardest– Arbeiter vor dem Stadtrat (Workers in front of the city council) by Johann Peter Hasenclever–was a favourite of Marx’s. The workers have had their jobs removed by the council, which includs the sweating fat capitalist to whom our eye is drawn. Outside the window an orator is stirring up the crowd.

In a few days I will go on my third march calling for a people’s vote over Brexit. 2019 is not 1848, but perhaps 2020 will be. Who knows? We need to know history to make any sense of the world, but it cannot tell us what the future holds–except that whatever happens may be unexpected.

Hasenclever, Arbeiter vor Stadtrat - -

John Ruskin: how paintings mapped and changed his life

Few people had the global intellectual influence that John Ruskin, art critic and political visionary, had in the 19th century (and continues to have), and nobody has such influence now. Last Friday (8 February) was the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birthday, and Chicken and I went to an inspired and deeply informed lecture on Ruskin by Robert Hewison, who was introduced as the world’s leading expert on Ruskin but describes himself as a Ruskin bore. His theme was that Ruskin, a man who placed seeing above all other ways of understanding the world, had his life changed several times by particular pictures. So his lecture was a sort of biography through pictures.


Hewison began his lecture with Ruskin in his rooms in Venice in Casa Contarini in 1876. (I’ve walked past the site many times.) He had a year’s leave from Oxford, where he was battling with the university authorities. Rose Latouche, the girl he had loved since she was a child and who refused to marry him, had died. He had nearly lost his reason. He was half way, said Hewison, on his journey from young radical to old sage. His masterpiece, The Stones of Venice, had been published in 1853, but he was disappointed by what had happened to Venice stations since he first visited: it was now a city of “railway stations and dustheaps.”

Rose Latouche

It was dawn on 4 March, and the moon was still visible. Ruskin could look from the Zattere across to the Giudecca. He was surrounded by proofs, letters, sketchbooks, copies of Casanova’s memoirs and Plato’s Laws, a cockle shell, a watercolour of the Dream of St Ursula, and his mother’s 14th century illuminated Bible. All these objects were important to Ruskin. He had just visited factory workers in Sheffield and was developing laws for an ideal society. He wrote monthly letters–“a kind of blog”–to the working class of England and was developing plans for social reform. As he sat there he saw a ship pass bearing the cross of St George, and he was working that day on his plans for the Guild of St George. He suddenly thought that in order to do his work on social reform he needed to explain his own beliefs, and so he started on a short memoir, the only autobiographical material he ever produced.

Casa Contarini

Ruskin first came to prominence when he defended Turner’s painting of Juliet and Her Nurse, which when exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 had given “violent offence.” Ruskin, who was only 15 at the time, called it “accurate and sublime.” He became famous for his promotion of Turner, not least through the five volumes of Modern Painters, the first of which was published in 1843. Ruskin believed that the teaching of art was the teaching of all things. An intensely religious man, the source of his faith was nature. Importantly, in this time before Origins of the Species, he saw no conflict between science and religion. He was interested in geology, biology, ornithology, botany, and astronomy, and his drawings of nature were scientific. He commissioned Turner to paint the Pass of St Gotthard.

1836 Juliet And Her Nurse


It was not until 1845 that Ruskin travelled first to France and Italy, a journey that had a huge impact on him. He thought Fra Angelico the finest of the Italian masters and Ruskin experienced religious ecstasy before his Reliquary. Ruskin promoted the Pre-Raphaelites, and like them looked to the 14th century painters. He thought that the Renaissance buildings ruined Venice; he preferred the Gothic, and his essay on the Gothic is one of the masterpieces of writing on art.

Fra Angelico

But in Venice Ruskin saw the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto and was greatly stimulated, almost erotically, by their sensuousness. His evangelical protestant conscious was greatly troubled. A defining moment was when he saw Tintoretto’s huge Crucifixion in the Scuola San Rocco. This, he thought, was the greatest painting, and he felt “utterly crushed to the earth.” (I’ve stood several times before the painting and felt something similar.)


The Tintoretto painting reminded him of his own humanity and caused him to see how art, man, and society were linked. He began to study the history of Venice and think about the laws of society. He saw a direct connection between art and the health of the nation.


Ruskin reached a crisis point in Turin in 1858 in front of Veronese’s The Queen of Sheba. He sloughed off his evangelical religion and became more interested in the religion of humanity, in human problems. The pictures of Doge Andrea Gritti, which was thought at the time to be by Titian, and of the Madonna Enthroned by Botticelli further added to his conviction that he must concentrate on the problems of man.


In Assisi he saw Giotto’s Marriage of Poverty and St Francis and thought it stronger and greater than the works of Titian. It was religion by head and heart.


These paintings led to his great work Unto This Last, which inspired Gandhi and socialists and condemned the industrialisation sweeping through Britain. It made Ruskin unpopular.

Accademia - Sogno di sant'Orsola - Vittore Carpaccio

A last painting to have a great impact on Ruskin was Carpaccio’s Dream of St Ursula. Ruskin was becoming interested in spiritualism and more mystical, and he saw many connections between the painting and his own life. Perhaps he is the person in the bed and the angel is the dead Rose Latouche appearing to him.

After this Ruskin descended into silence for 10 years before dying in 1900.

PS. Ruskin lived as a child in Camberwell, which was then a village. My mother grew up in Camberwell. I was born in Camberwell, in King’s College Hospital. As a child I played in Ruskin Park.