Ways of seeing

At the National Gallery. 

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St Stephen’s Chapel was the seat of the House of Commons from 1550 until it was destroyed by fire in 1834. Parliament’s authority was enhanced by this spectacular setting, and from it the English developed the habit of housing important secular institutions in buildings of medieval Gothic design. But the temple of democracy was surrounded by a den of thieves. Ben Jonson commented on how disreputable the little city of Westminster was. The palace was surrounded by shops and taverns; it did not help the area’s reputation that the three best-known taverns were called Hell, Heaven and Purgatory.  Hell had several exits, to allow MPs to make a quick getaway.

Diane Purkiss, “The English Civil War: A People’s History”.

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Is Europe really committing suicide? The reasonable arguments in  Douglas Murray’s polemic about Islamism and immigration are undermined by ultra-Powellite rhetoric. My review in The Times:

douglas murray bookAnyone who has seen Murray — a gay, Old Etonian associate editor of The Spectator — in one of his many television appearances will know that he is a formidable debater. It also takes a great deal of courage to take those ideas on to the airwaves when you know there are people who are capable of responding with more than angry words. Unfortunately, his arguments are encased in a diatribe about mass immigration and our continent’s alleged death wish, which is so lurid it often reads like an overheated Breitbart editorial. Murray is usually thought of as a neoconservative; the language he slips into here is much closer to that of a Pat Buchanan-style nativist. Sometimes it borders on worse than that. When he approvingly quotes Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban’s statement, expressed during last year’s crisis, that mass migration is “masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory”, you can’t help wondering what audience he is trying to court.

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As with my psoriasis, the affliction is not entirely unfortunate. It makes me think twice about going on stage and appearing in classrooms and at conferences – all the socially approved yet spiritually corrupting public talking that writers of even modest note are asked to do. Being obliging by nature and anxious for social approval, I would never say no if I weren’t afraid of stuttering. Also, as I judge from my own reactions, people who talk too easily and comfortably, with too much happy rolling of the vowels and satisfied curling of the lips around the grammatical rhythms, rouse distrust in some atavistic, pre-speech part of ourselves. We turn off… I am afraid of the audiences I discomfit and embarrass, to my own embarrassment and discomfiture. I am afraid of New York audiences, especially; they are too smart and left-wing for me.

John Updike, “Self-Consciousness: Memoirs”.

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The Thames near Cookham.

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I shouldn’t normally show what I’d written to anyone: what would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, “I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson.” Tennyson replied, “If it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.” That’s about all that can happen.

Philip Larkin, interviewed by The Paris Review.

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Article 50

Twitter is a Brexit battleground today. I thought I’d feel more passionate one way or the other about the milestone we’ve just passed. Instead I’m just impatient for the whole process to start. I’ve already explained how I voted Remain and then instantly regretted it. All I’ll add is that if pro-EU campaigners had displayed as much emotion in the weeks before the referendum as they have in the last nine months they would probably have won. Instead they expected to get a victory by default, and now they’re understandably bitter and frustrated. Larry Siedentop saw the warning signs in “Democracy in Europe” nearly twenty years ago:

In recent decades the language of economics has largely driven out the language of politics and, in particular, the language of constitutionalism in Europe… [T]he pursuit of economic integration has resulted in a curious outcome. A European Union inspired by liberal democratic principles has increasingly acted on quasi-Marxist assumptions, assuming that when economic progress has been achieved, other institutional improvements will follow “inevitably” or as a matter of course. But that is a vulgar form of economic determinism which has been discredited both intellectually and practically. The state, whatever its form, is not the mere scaffolding of a market economy.

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Face to face


At the Royal Academy for America After the Fall. It was much more crowded inside the gallery. The Russian revolutionaries downstairs have way more space.

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Desperate to regain royal favour, Lenthall had sent £3,000 as a gift to the new King. The money was banked, but resulted in no encouraging signs from the Crown. Lenthall now offered himself as a witness against Scott, claiming to have heard his treasonous words, even though he had been forced to concede that from the Speaker’s chair he had not been able to see who spoke them. As a reward for his useful testimony Lenthall was granted an audience with Charles II. But, to the delight of the many who held the former Speaker in contempt, on being presented to the King, Lenthall misjudged his courtly bow, lost his balance, and toppled over onto his back.

Lenthall retired from public life after this, retreating to his two Oxfordshire estates: Besselsleigh Manor and Burford Priory. There, with plenty of time to look back on his life, he became racked with guilt over his shortcomings, especially his words that had damned Scott. Lenthall died in November 1662, insisting that he was such a miserable, flawed human being that there should be no great memorial to him, such as might have been expected of one who had achieved great political office. Instead, he ordered that a simple slab would serve, and he had two Latin words carved on it: Vermis sum – “I am a worm”.

Charles Spencer, “Killers of the King”. 

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