Of all the cities of antiquity, Pompeii is quite possibly the best known. “It was lost, and is now found; it was destroyed, and is now preserved.” Frozen in time, it provides a unique window on Roman cultural and intellectual life, and holds a mirror up to so many of our own attitudes, features, gestures and obsessions.
My fascination with the city and its catastrophic destruction goes back to childhood: I recall in my Latin textbook Ecce Romani pictures of a dog mosaic and a weird skeleton: ‘canis ferocissimus est.’ And frescos of Caecilius and his family: ‘Caecilius iterum clamavit.’ I was an avid collector of postcards, guidebooks and magazines on the topic. I had read Pliny’s harrowing account and Lord Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii by the age of 13: ‘Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere.’ Supping with Glaucus and gambling with Clodius are what all schoolchildren should be doing, instead of sexting their friends and surfing the internet in a cyber-life of meaningless meandering.
I eventually got to visit Pompeii and Herculaneum leading a GCSE Classics group there a few years ago, and was finally able to see and touch that famous Cave canem mosaic, walk through the exotic bathhouses, and buy my very own bronze statue of a dancing faun. I also visited the Naples Museum to satisfy my curiosity of all those naughty erotic pieces of statuary so carefully screened from innocent eyes (though Year 10 weren’t remotely fazed by any of it).
By Mark Wallace
Follow Mark on Twitter.
Conservatism is a complex thing. It is either not an ideology at all, or a meld of ideas containing numerous internal contradictions, depending on your preference. What other movement can have absorbed both the driving entrepreneurialism of the industrial revoluion and the romantic opposition to it - simultaneously embracing the progress brought by "dark satanic mills" and the romantic view of the English rural village?
Anne McElvoy's Radio 4 series this week, "British Conservatism: The Grand Tour", seeks to explore the evolution (emphatically not the construction) of a creed that celebrates and tries to reconcile such potentially conflicting ideas.
It's fitting that such contrasts within one tradition of political thought should also have a geographically conflicting heritage. The North-South divide has always been with us (William the Conqueror was sowing the North with salt almost a millennium ago, while merrily introducing French courtly customs to the South) - what is interesting in the case of Conservatism is the way that divide has affected our political geography.
While nowadays Conservatives agonise about how to appeal in the North of England, McElvoy points out that many of the ideas and approaches traditionally associated with small-c conservatism evolved in Northern settings. The broad brush stereotype that the home counties are Thatcherite and everywhere north of Watford is socialist would have horrified 19th century aristocrats who disliked free trade as much as it would have annoyed the skilled, Conservative workers of many a Midlands industrial town.
Britain isn't the only country to have seen such changes in its political geography, of course. The Democrats, now painting tracts of the northern USA blue, once dominated the South, while Lincoln led a Republican North against the states which are now solid supporters of his party.
McElvoy has pointed out in the previews of her series that, while continental elites feared the power of the masses in the 19th Century, and invited revolution by trying to suppress democracy, British Conservatives extended the franchise and worked out ways to take their message to the new middle classes and the urban industrial workers.
Perhaps this was informed by the experience of the English Civil War, creating a willingness to work with the grain rather than against it in order to avoid a violent eruption. Far better to harness the new to strengthen the nation, than to have every element of the old swept away.
Wherever the instinct came from, it has proved to help ensure political survival. When Marx sat in London, writing intellectual works about how the people would sweep away the old order, Conservatives were exploring ideas to reduce the cost of living, improve working conditions and develop community ties in the industrial cities.
This period was crucial to the development of a Northern Conservatism. Yes, there were sectarian divides which allied working class Protestants opposed to Irish Home Rule to the Conservative Party, but the campaign went far beyond that. Church, monarchy, industry, nation, family, hard work and the concept of what we now call property-owning democracy all combined into a heady mix which ensured that Marx's revolution never came to pass and the Conservatives would dominate electorally for much of the next 150 years.
The concepts of class driving these political changes were quite confused at the time. We now look back on the middle of the 19th Century as the era which gave birth to the middle class - comfortably off, hardworkers who aspire to own their homes.
For Disraeli, the middle class were greedy profiteers, a slim but powerful layer almost as wealthy as the nobility but lacking the noblesse oblige he longed to see restored. He saw the new form of the world as an unjust, binary monstrosity, writing in his novel Sybil of the dream of there one day being "some resting place between luxury and misery".
He was nostalgic for what he believed was the place of ordinary workers in a feudal village that had in the agrarian Middle Ages, something he feared was being destroyed by industrialisation. We may know today that most feudal peasants experienced short, unpleasant lives, but he believed they had lived in relative comfort, with a true place and part to play in their community. What he described was today's middle class - what he thought he was describing was something altogether different.
Few things could better typify the internal contradictions of conservatism than a Prime Minister who worked to create a ladder into the new middle class while believing he was simply restoring a mythical state of feudal yemoanry. He may not have been an enthusiast for suburban terraces funded by factory smokestacks (it was left to his Liberal rival Gladstone to praise booming Middlesbrough as England's "infant Hercules"), but he bolstered a middle class that was inherently tied to both, regardless of his intentions.
Anne McElovy's excellent series still has two six episodes to go, at 1.45 on weekdays on Radio 4. Hopefully she will use them to explore how the Tory appeal to skilled, aspirant workers developed in the late 19th and early 20th century, but even if not, this is an insightful BBC series without the sneering often seen in Auntie's coverage of Conservatives.
While her series is a history, like all good history it reflects on the present.
It is undeniable that the 21st century Conservatives have a brand problem in large parts of the North of England, but electoral failure masks a small-c conservative culture.
Consider the following broadly conservative values: work should pay more than benefits; straight talking is better than political correctness; immigration might be nice for the well-off but it can negatively affect poorer workers; an economy based on manufacturing is preferable to an economy based on the offerings of lifestyle consultants; experts and elites often pursue trendy hobby horses which cost ordinary people a fortune; taxes are a rip-off.
Now consider them geographically. Many of these ideas would go down badly at an Islington dinner party. Plenty of them are inextricably linked to Northern cultures - the no-nonsense Yorkshireman, the great manufacturing towns of the Midlands and so on. There is an audience for such ideas - that can be seen in the fact that Mrs Thatcher still has positive approval ratings in every region outside of Scotland, and in UKIP's performance in a series of northern by-elections.
The future of the Conservative Party will be dictated in large part by whether it can broaden its appeal beyond its current heartlands. Its past shows not only that it is possible, but contains some hints as to how it might be done.
By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
Get up on your feet and pour yourself a highball: Preston Sturges was born 115 years ago today. It’s a weird, cockamamie sort of anniversary, I grant you – made weirder by the fact that he died from a heart attack in 1959 – but let’s celebrate it anyway. It seems like the sort of thing the characters in his movies would do. Any excuse to have something strong and fizzy in your hand. Any excuse for a bit of sparkling repartee.
But which of Sturges’ films should we discuss? Which of that glorious run of seven films in four years, from 1940 to 1944, that were all written and directed by him? There’s the sinuous, sexual knockabout of The Lady Eve (1941). There’s that wonderful essay about luck, Christmas in July (1940). But, no, that’s it: let’s talk about The Great McGinty (1940). This is a political website, after all, and McGinty is Sturges’ clearest political satire. It also has the distinction of being the first film he directed himself.
Kate Maltby is on the board of the Bright Blue think tank and edits the Bright Blue magazine. She is researching a PhD on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I, at University College London. Follow Kate on Twitter.
It’s not that I don’t find Herman Melville’s tale of a whale a gripping read. As I tell people when I need to prove I’ve read it, it’s a much lighter, funnier book than is often recognised. I love to quote the moment when our nineteenth century narrator, Ishmael, first explores the paradoxes of Providence and gently mocks the self-importance of the life story (despite devoting over two hundred thousand words to his own – that’s two PhD theses):
“doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”
It’s a wonderful moment, and not just because it reminds us, a century later, that the world’s headlines rarely change. It’s a moment of honesty about that deeply human fear: the fear that our life stories, so essential to us, fade into insignificance against the global picture, even, perhaps, in the mind of God. And it’s also a wry reminder to twenty-first century readers, even those who lack my taste for Elizabethan ‘pattern poems’, that the so-called postmodernists of recent years were hardly the first people to play games with the visual appearance of text.
In recent years we’ve been somewhat spoilt for political comedy – from The Thick of It to new Yes, Prime Minister, while the likes of Rory Bremner and John Culshaw have continued to deploy their skills post-Coalition.
Another trend has been the rise of the political theatre, with Steve Richards of The Independent’s Rock and Roll Politics and Matt Forde's The Political Party both taking to London’s stages.
I finally had an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about when I caught the latter’s evening with Jack Straw, who, by happy coincidence, had just published a new paperback edition of his book.
Mixing politics and comedy is not an easy task, I will be the first to admit. It takes a man far braver than I to get up on stage and try to make people laugh with jokes about ten-minute rule bills and some Labour frontbencher most of the country would struggle to pick out in a lineup.
"And there’s for twitting me with perjury,” cries George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, as he lunges toward the customary bloody stab-fest at the end of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III.
As an unapologetic Bardophile, I take the view that nothing escapes the attention of the world’s greatest poet and playwright – democracy, witchcraft, suicide, psychosis, England, Iceland, football and tennis: it’s all there. But ‘twitting’ during the Wars of the Roses was not a prescient reference to the emergence of Twitter: it is part of a tirade of insults among fractious brothers each vying for the Crown of England. Richard taunts Prince Edward, who declares himself better than all three traitorous and usurping brothers. King Edward IV, Richard and George in turn stab the young Prince Edward to death. Queen Margaret faints, and Richard skulks off to the Tower.
In this little twitting spat, insults are liberally hurled, offence undoubtedly caused and blood flows in rivers. It’s all a bit too much for Margaret to bear, but there’s no ‘Report Abuse’ button for her to press, no tabloid editor to harass and no intervention by the Chairman of an influential Commons committee.
Mike Weatherley MP is MP for Hove
Everyone loves music. And often people tend to like most music. But heavy metal? Usually not - reasons include "terrible screeching vocals" to "you can't dance to it". This is an exchange I often experience:
Me: ‘What sort of music do you like?’‘All music really.’
Me: 'Ah, so you don’t like my music then.’
No really – I like all music.’
Me: ‘Even heavy Metal?’
‘Oh no – of course not heavy metal!’
Heavy Rock/Metal has never been socially acceptable (unless one adds in the likes of Bon Jovi and Guns & Roses into the definition) and, for many, this musical sub-culture is something to be avoided.
When I was in my early teens, I always preferred my music guitar-based – any single that had a guitar riff in it got my vote. Others liked something you can dance to, but I liked guitars. It wasn’t until Deep Purple brought out ‘In Rock’ when I was 13, closely followed by my introduction to Black Sabbath albums, that I found a genre I could call my own. And once found, it becomes tribal and almost an obsession. Actually, scrub ‘almost’ – it is an obsession. Blues is good, thumping bass and screaming guitars even better. Disco, to quote a 70's slogan, sucks.
Most people have hobbies – something they become passionate about. Something that moves them. It could be hitting a golf ball sweetly in Portugal, following a football team and checking the results every Saturday, or going to Tolkien conventions. For me, it’s always been about music. From hours spent sifting through the racks at the local record store, to reading the specialist magazines or whatever. Given the time spent on this hobby, I suspect that if I had been this passionate about chemistry I would have invented a cure for something by now!
“If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly,” wrote Eric Griffith-Jones. This was not an idle thought – Griffith-Jones was the attorney general of Kenya as torture was sanctioned as part of the British response to the Mau Mau insurgency.
Ian Cobain’s book Cruel Britannia is perhaps the most comprehensive investigation into the British Government’s methods in dealing with protest, insurrection and, in some cases, its allies ever published in a single text. A frank and compelling read, it shines a light in the darkest corners of Britain’s actions in the last century, combining first-hand testimony with documents only begrudgingly released by the Ministry of Defence as the book was being written.
The 2013 Proms season begins in just a fortnight. Every year since I was 14 and thoroughly captivated by counterpoint, I’ve eagerly awaited publication of the BBC’s lavish Proms brochure. Some years, of course, it’s more lavish than others. I used to open it up and quickly highlight all the Beethoven gigs, which usually determined the magnitude of my spiritual rapture and sublime ecstasy. Now I’m a bit more eclectic in my tastes, and embrace just about anything except Bartók.
There are some undoubted highlights this season, which marks the 200th anniversary of the births of Wagner and Verdi (1813 was a vintage year). 2013 is also the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the 50th anniversary of the creation of Dr Who (sorry to mention that in the same paragraph, but this column is very broadly about ‘culture’ and there’s bound to be a few ConHomies who prefer Time Lords and Daleks to latent Risorgimento and synthesised Gesamtkunstwerk).
So, we get Daniel Barenboim – arguably the world’s greatest living musician – conducting the first ever complete performance of the Ring cycle in a single Proms festival. This will be epic, colossal, gargantuan and every other adjective expressive of vast hugeness. It is a tale of gods and curses; heroes and death; myth and damnation, spanning about 15 hours (over unequal nights: Götterdämmerung usually last about five hours, so get a bottle of Pinot Noir; not just a glass).
It’s unfortunate that these two births clashed, because somebody important made the decision to dedicate seven whole nights to Wagnerian opera and just two to random snippets of Verdi, who doesn’t even get a performance of his whole Requiem. Instead we get an edited highlight – the Libera Me – in ‘Viva Verdi’ on 20th July; and an ominous opera ‘pop’ mash-up on 5th September. This is a shame, but obviously time is finite and something had to give: I just wish it could have been about 10 of the trendy new commissions (of which there are 14 this season; and what’s an ‘Urban Classic Prom’?).
The First Night on 12th July will be a particular treat, featuring the brilliance of the sinewy Stephen Hough. He blogged on this a few days ago: “I’m preparing these days to play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini at the First Night of the Proms and realized that it will be the third time I’ve played this piece at the Proms over the years, and I’ve played it on countless other occasions. Will I ever open the score and discover that I’m no longer excited by this masterpiece? How do we keep pieces fresh when we’ve played them hundreds of times?”
This is charming paranoia: when Stephen Hough sits at a Steinway, the stardust reaches up to heaven. The second half of this evening consists of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, in which Hough is joined by soprano Sally Matthews, baritone Roderick Williams and the 300-voice Proms Youth Choir. With Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes, the First Night will provide an impressive surge of renewable wave-energy.
Tchaikovsky gets more of a look-in that Verdi for some reason (celebrating the 120th anniversary of his death?). We get all six of his numbered symphonies plus his fiendishly difficult violin concerto, along with Eugene Onegin, Fantasy-Overture Romeo and Juliet and Manfred. And on 11th August there’s the first ever free main-evening Prom with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a work commissioned in 1822 by the Philharmonic Society of London (which also celebrates its bicentennial year). I was fortunate to be present in the Royal Albert Hall last year to experience Barenboim’s rendition of the ‘Choral’, in which he seemed to channel the spirit of the Master himself. No Proms season is complete without this sublime invocation of freedom.
I’m also looking forward to Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage (16th August), Britten’s Billy Budd (27th August) by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, both conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. And, for the fifth consecutive year, John Wilson returns (26th August) to present another evening of glitz and showbiz glamour, paying tribute to the unsung Hollywood composers from the 1930s onwards. Honestly, if you’ve never heard the John Wilson Orchestra, you’re missing the most fabulous re-creation and stunning revival of the world’s greatest musical archive.
Speaking of revival, Mahler’s soaring Symphony No. 2 ‘Resurrection’ (9th August) is always good for a dose of transcendence, and at 10.00pm on that same evening we have Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting Bach’s ‘Easter’ and ‘Ascension’ oratorios in all their trumpeting glory. This will be auricular heaven with a Lutheran glimpse of the afterlife.
And I’m genuinely intrigued by some very obscure piano concerti (Arnold’s Concerto for two pianos; Glazunov’s Piano Concerto No. 2; and Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and wind instruments). That’s what I love about the Proms: they expand musical horizons. And we have the Tallis Scholars (celebrating their 40th anniversary) on 14th August with an evening dedicated to the agonies and ecstasies of Taverner (not Tavener) and Gesualdo. These nuggets can easily be overlooked or completely lost beneath the Dr Who marketing mania.
Nigel Kennedy makes a welcome return to the Proms, appearing for the first time at the Last Night (7th September) as well featuring in a Late Night performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (8th August). In this age of equality (to which the BBC is ever sensitive), Marin Alsop makes Proms history as the first woman to conduct the Last Night.
I know some will prefer to focus on the extravagant cost of all this in a time of austerity, or obsess in the comment thread about abolishing the BBC licence fee and subjecting art to market forces. We are told in the brochure: “The Proms is entirely run and funded by the BBC through the licence fee. The total cost of the Proms season, including hire of the Royal Albert Hall, artistic costs, management and extra events, not including Proms in the Park, is around £9 million with an expected £4 million generated through box-office income.”
But it’s worth bearing in mind that Promming tickets in 2013 are £5 each for the 8th year running. For the second time, seats are half-price for under-18s for all concerts (except the Last Night, which is something of a lottery - literally). And the concerts will be broadcast on more BBC platforms than ever, with more television broadcasts than ever. All this is true to the democratic spirit of the visionary Henry Wood: to liberate classical music from the elite and bring it to the people.
Kate Maltby is on the board of the Bright Blue think tank and edits the Bright Blue magazine. She is researching a PhD on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I, at University College London. Follow Kate on Twitter.
It’s been a long day in the office for London’s most-hated politician. The French ambassador’s in a fury: it’s just come out that Her Majesty’s Secret Service used a key diplomatic summit the previous year to intercept all communications between his team, blowing the French negotiating position on what was, fundamentally, a trade agreement between allies. The country is in the grip of a fevered paranoia, fuelled by new claims in the noisome London press that the largest state espionage apparatus anyone’s ever known is reading absolutely everyone’s mail.
In attempt to cheer himself up, the politician opens up the file in which he keeps the nuttiest petitions he’s ever received from constituents.
By Peter Hoskin. Follow Peter on Twitter.
During my time at The Spectator, where I edited the Coffee House blog, there were few things I enjoyed more than a trip to the basement. There, spread across two rooms and collected in doorstop leather books, was every single back issue of the magazine. 185 years-worth of fine thought, and even finer prose, to dip into when the blogging became less urgent.
But now, as befits the openness of the Internet Age, this is a privilege available to all. The Spectator has just made its entire archive available online, and for free. There are still some gaps and technical snags – which is why it’s presented as a ‘Beta’ – but it’s already wonderful overall. As my former colleague Sebastian Payne puts it in his blog post introducing the whole endeavour, “The archive is a treasure trove”.
So, to mark the release of The Spectator’s archive, a change of pace for this week’s Culture Column. Here are some of the pieces I discovered during my forays to the print archives, and which overlap politics and culture, and which can now be read online. The excerpts below are just that: excerpts. You can click on the links for the full version.
Imagine the headline: Dave, 30, from Leeds caught in £800 drugs deal. Does it make the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post? Almost definitely not. In the man bites dog versus dog bites man story test, this is most definitely a dog bites man story. Drug deals of this kind take place every day, in every city across the country. That is not to make it any more acceptable, but to ask for a degree of perspective.
Yet add a fairly low-grade celebrity to the mix and you have national front-page news, paparazzi scrums and rolling news headlines.
And so I find myself in the bizarre position of sympathising with someone from N-Dubz – and not just for the fact they were in N-Dubz. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve had the misfortune of seeing said “group” live more times than I wish on any reader of this site. I’ve even seen the solo projects, and I assure you it doesn’t get any better. A musical tour de force they are not.
Rock music and heavy metal. It’s not the first thing you’d associate with the Conservative party, I suppose. But music knows no agenda – great music, that is; I guess I think that Joni Mitchell types might well have voted Labour.
Tonight I’m presenting a documentary on Brian Johnson of AC/DC, one of my all-time heroes and Newcastle’s finest. It’s called Rock Icon and it’s on Sky Arts at 8pm. We had brilliant fun filming it in Florida, when I could stop laughing long enough to get the lines out for the camera. Brian is more of a petrol-head than Jeremy Clarkson – whose parents live in East Northamptonshire, by the way, and are proud local Tories.
But perhaps that’s why hard rock appeals to a certain breed of Conservative. It’s not into navel-gazing; it’s rebellious, anti-authoritarian, full of strength in both the beats and the lyrics. I know the Prime Minister is more of a Smiths fan, but he did once tell me that he actually saw AC/DC during the Back In Black tour when they played Manchester. Lucky him; it was one of the biggest albums of all time, selling over 50 million copies, and Brian Johnson sings on it. Hard rock and heavy metal are strong and celebratory. Not that I would dare to knock the Smiths (OK, OK, I would dare to knock the Smiths, even I am not THAT much of a Cameroon. I mean, ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’? Isn’t that the most Lib Dem title of all time?)
Clouds swell against the Welsh hills, projecting rain on to the trees, tents and bookshops below. But the thunderstorms – the really furious, electric thunderstorms – they’re not so much breaking over this year’s Hay Festival as around it. You’ve probably seen the stories already. David Goodhart, previously angry at not being invited to discuss his book on immigration, The British Dream, has accused the festival’s director of denying Charles Moore a chance to speak about his Thatcher biography. In response, Peter Florence has sighed, “It’s getting a little tedious wasting time on David’s PR campaign”. There’s a full-blown literary spat a-brewing.
For those of us stuck under the dour skies of Westminster, it’s all too familiar – and not just because this row involves members of our extended family. Spats are something that set the political media drooling with ink and excitement. And so, too, are questions about platforms and whom they should be extended too. Were Newsnight and Channel 4 News right to spread Anjem Choudary across the airwaves last week? Were there too many trade unionists on teevee after Margaret Thatcher’s death? Allegations of bias, and of editorial impropriety, hover around every corner.
Reform, renegotiate, Brexit. A great question of our time that goes to the heart of our place on the world stage.
I’m talking of course about the Eurovision song contest.
Fraser Nelson fired the first salvo last week:
“For the past 10 years, the Eurovision Song Contest has provided a musical metaphor for Britain’s relationship with the European Union. We submit an appalling entry, chosen because we assume the continentals like trash. They don’t, and tend to give us nul points. We then assume we are victims of discrimination, that Eurovision is an exercise in continental intrigues that we wouldn’t want to win anyway.”
Since 1959, the UK has entered Eurovision every year. More than half a century later, we have just five victories to show for our efforts. Since 1999, we have managed only two top ten finishes. Our last two entries had a combined age of 137.