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The wise words of Sir Kenneth Clark

24 Feb

If you don’t have 11-odd hours to spare, I have posted up the best clips of Civilisation.

1.) At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.

The finale to the series. Sir Kenneth Clark sums up his views on humanity and where our civilisation is heading after the intellectual collapse of Marxism.  Watch and admire.

2.) Grandeur and Obedience.

Watch from 5:25. This episode on Baroque-era Italy is worth watching in full, particularly if you are paying a visit to Rome.  You can watch it in full here.  I happen to know this is Stephen Fry’s favourite scene.

Or you could watch the whole thing.

It strikes me that ours is the first age where works of art, poetry, symphonies and our greatest sitcoms can be viewed or heard at the touch of a button.  This is an academic utopia.  For all modern civilisation’s flaws and pessimism, it is not too radical to say that ours is the most intelligent age.  Most of our youngsters pursue higher education; never before has high-brow culture been so popular; fact-checking and intellectual curiosity have been made ridiculously easy.  Before Wikipedia, YouTube, free newspapers and iPhones, are we to believe blokes at the pub resolved light-hearted disputes by saying, “Here mate. You wait an hour; I’ll just nip to the library to prove you wrong.”  No.

I know our economic crisis has depressed much of the commentariat.  But Western Civilisation has not been lost; in fact, it is more healthy and dynamic than ever.  These are Sir Kenneth’s words in 1969:

These inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough, and not at all like the melancholy late Romans or the pathetic Gauls…  In fact I should doubt if so many young people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious and as critical as the young are today.

The series can be watched in full here.


Civilisation, the Sistine Chapel of BBC documentaries

23 Feb

1969 was the year British media changed forever. It was the year Rupert Murdoch bought The News of the World. More than any other press baron, he is responsible for the culture that still pervades the newspaper industry to this day. But 1969 should be remembered for a more important reason. It was the year Sir Kenneth Clark produced Civilisation, the greatest documentary ever aired. It was as if high culture had let out its final gasp, and what a heavenly gasp it was.

David Attenborough, controller of BBC Two at the time, commissioned the series. It was to be an overwhelming 13 episodes long, 50 minutes each. It set the blueprint for future programmes such as Alistair Cooke’s America (1972), Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973) and Sir David’s own Life on Earth (1979). It was David Attenborough’s bold move and the series’s subsequent popularity that made these three stirring oeuvres possible. If there has to be a hero of anti-elitism, it should not be Rupert Murdoch for his tawdry rags that insult the intelligence of the great British public; it should be Sir David Attenborough, the man who believed high culture should be made accessible to everyone, not just toffs.

What makes it so enjoyable to watch is the thought that it couldn’t be made today. If you pitched the idea of a series on the history of Western civilisation that was in toto nearly half a day in length, the BBC commissioner would sling you out before you could say Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And the style is completely different. Watch a clip: the camera stays focused without cutting away for far longer than any TV clip today. Television today – be it Come Dancing, reality TV, documentaries, dramas – is cut to such an extent it’s like watching a 24-hour Adam Curtis doc. The camera cannot stay still. Anyone would think humans had the attention span of an adolescent carp.

That’s what I love about it: it’s slow. I reckon half the film consists of Sir Kenneth Clark pausing, strolling, then pausing; the other half consists of the camera panning along some work of wonder as trumpets parp or choirs wail.

Sir Kenneth makes the film. Just so you know, Sir Kenneth is not the Tory rotundity in government today; he is the art historian and father of dirty diarist Alan Clark MP. He has plummy vowels, wears tweed in every clime and is unsure about next to everything. He starts most sentences with “I suppose”. He pronounces iron as “ahr-rn”. He is the private school tutor of every chap’s dreams.

He has quirks of genius. Which other BBC presenter would say, “Please allow me two minutes’ digression on the subject of tulips”? Who else could say with such de-haut-en-bas conviction, “Opera… is one of the oddest inventions of Western man”? He adds, “Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word?” He calls the upper classes of previous generations “ignorant as swans”. How many times have I wanted to say in a debate, “At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.”

Wisdom seeps from his skin. I shall post up my favourite clips tomorrow. But for now, these words should be quoted to every economist, historian, commentator and ideologist. Perhaps they could be in the foreword to Mr Ferguson’s similarly-titled book:

We have no idea where we are going and sweeping, confident articles on the future seem to me the most disreputable form of public utterance.  Scientists who are really qualified to speak keep their mouths shut.

His thoughts on economics are most intriguing. He says, “I don’t say much about economics in this programme, chiefly because I don’t understand them.” But he does have an opinion. He pronounces capitalism as one might pronounce capitulation. And that is broadly his view.

He visits the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the edifice now overshadowed by Canary Wharf. “Every civilisation has its nemesis,” he says, looking over the empty space where the cathedrals of capitalism now lie. By chance Sir Christopher Wren founded the white wonders of Greenwich the same year the Bank of England was established.

And the light of experience narrowed its beam so that the grand design of Greenwich became simply a waste of money.

We come to a final question, one which niggles even the oldest of viewers: can we, in the 21st century, properly speak of “civilisation”? It seems to be one of those out-of-date words used primarily by British colonists to justify the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power. It marks the boundary between those the elite considered barbarous (Indians, Africans, Aborigines) and those considered civilised (mostly white, mostly educated, mostly tea-drinking sorts). Lefties would say the boundary between civilisation and barbarity, order and chaos, good and evil, lies not between nations but in our own hearts.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this position. But are we really to conclude from this, like Mrs T in her oft-quoted line, there is no such thing as civilisation? Surely not. I can think of many real and imagined bodies of men which are barbarous: a society which represses all forms of intellectual and personal freedom – that is barbarism; a nation which whips itself into bloodthirsty frenzies for war and conquest – that is barbarism; a people whose only goals in life are short-term gratification – that is barbarism. And if barbarity exists, so must its opposite: civilisation.

Let us not forget what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Gandhi is not denying civilisation exists. His point is that it does exist: and the West isn’t one of them. How then do we define it? Sir Kenneth Clark defines civilisation in terms of “creative power” and “enlargement of human faculties”. That sounds like a good definition to me.

Thatcher film and other things to watch…

14 Nov

The Iron Lady. No, it’s not part of the Robert Downey Jr movie franchise, with Meryl Streep concealed in a red, metallic suit and random things exploding in the background. It’s a biopic of Margaret Thatcher. It stars Jim Broadbent as Denis Thatcher, Anthony Head PM as Geoffrey Howe, Spiceworld’s Richard E Grant as Michael Heseltine, and Sophie off Peep Show as Carol Thatcher. Oh and it’s got that Tory off The Thick Of It in it. All they need is Steve Coogan as Douglas Hurd, and we’ve got the dream team.

To get us in the mood, I suggest some Thatcher documentaries, all three brilliant.

1.) For those of you who can only identify her as the evil one off Billy Elliot:

A short history of the Thatcher years. The rest of them can be found here. I know it is unfashionable to like Andrew Marr, but I do. No hack says it more concisely, more clearly, with more verve than him. And these films are classics: great music, tempo and drama. Every child in the nation should be forced to watch them.

2.) For those who want a great doc to watch tonight:

This is the story of how she got to power. (The rest are here.) It is a strange story that strips away a lot of the mythology that still surrounds her. People forget that her revolution began very tentatively; she was at first averse to mass privatisation and her union reforms were not as radical as they would later be. She was not possessed by ideological fervour and was always cautious of the political implications of her policies.

It also talks to a strange group of radical Right-wingers that backed her, called the Freedom Association. One member is “convinced” that the IRA was simply a terrorist arm of the Soviet Union. The bit in the film about the Grunwick strike is particularly bizarre. Watch the lengths the group goes to, simply in order to prevent some random poorly-paid workers getting a pay rise. The mind boggles.

3.) Strictly for politics wonks:

This is the tale of how she was ousted and the grip she continued to have on the Tory party, from Major to Cameron. It is told by the people who were there at the time, presented by Michael Portillo. Brilliant, just brilliant. (The rest are here.)

Thatcher’s Last Stand

2 Nov

I put this up because it was a particularly dull PMQs today, and I wanted to show the power of Parliament. A while back, I was going to post up my favourite PMQs, but saw the Telegraph, the New Statesman, the BBC and the Guardian all post pretty much the same – fairly dull – “favourite PMQs” list.

So, to illustrate a bravura Parliamentary performance, I post this. It is Thatcher’s Last Stand as PM. She had announced her resignation at 9.30am earlier that day.

If you have the time, I urge you to watch the whole speech, which can be found here. It gives you a truer sense of the theatre. Point by hectoring point, she lists her achievements during her eleven-year reign. As she hammers on, you will notice the mood changes; the same Tory MPs who had voted her out start cheering her on. At one point, one Tory leaps out of his seat and shouts, “Cancel your resignation! Cancel it! You can wipe the floor clean with these people!” It is a heartening moment.

You will notice a twenty-years-younger Simon Hughes, who looks like a Rob Brydon character in a silly wig. As he gets up to interject, she shouts at him, “If the hon. Gentleman will just listen, he might hear something that he did not know!” and then carries on.

Her classic line – “I’m enjoying this!” – leaves the House howling. She was enjoying it: you can see that clearly. I hope you enjoy it too.

Baroness Manningham-Buller: one of my great heroines

4 Oct

This is to be a series of recommendations of sublime things you really must watch or listen to.

The first you really must listen to is Eliza Manningham-Buller’s talks (the link is here).  Eliza Manningham-Buller was head of MI5 from 2002 to 2007.  Though she is a sexagenarian, there is a certain sartorial elegance which, combined with her perceived “licence to kill”, cannot help but quicken the pulse somewhat.  As such, she adds to her role, it cannot be denied, a soupçon of sexual frisson, particularly for any Bond fans out there.  Furthermore, she is irrepressibly posh.  She is one of a bygone generation that pronounce “really” as “rarely” – which must be confusing if, say, she remarks, “I rarely want that man shot.”  She also refers to Islamist philosopher Sayyid Qutb as “QueueTube”, as if she were alluding to a video-sharing website pioneered in Britain.

So there is a sort of le-Carré-esque romance to this girl.  That’s not the main reason why she is a heroine of mine.  The main reason is her fearlessness, in standing up for liberty in the midst of terror, and in her cool assessment of security threats.  She says in the talks that 9/11 was a “crime, not an act of war”.  She thinks torture to be “wrong and never justified”.  And she believes talking with terrorists should always be considered, citing Northern Ireland as an example.

Most pertinently, she believes that the War in Iraq made us less safe, not more.  At the time, she warned the government that the security threat to the UK from Iraq was “very limited and containable”.  This runs counter to what Tony Blair believed – and more worryingly, what he still believes.  In his autobiography, he dedicates three whole chapters to defending the war.  In what is supposed to be the clincher to his argument, he describes being at a pre-Christmas drinks party and going to a room of the house for quiet reflection:

I sat and thought.  What did I truly believe?  That Saddam was about to attack Britain or the US?  No.  That he was a bigger WMD threat than Iran or North Korea or Libya?  Not really, though he was the only leader to have used them.  […] That he would leach WMD material or provide help to terrorists?  Yes, I could see him doing that.  Was it better for his people to be rid of him?  For sure.

When Eliza Manningham-Buller was asked at the Iraq Inquiry what she thought of this indirect threat – in the questioner’s words, “the theory that at some point in the future, [Saddam] would probably have brought together international terrorism and WMDs in a threat to Western interests” – she answered:

It is a hypothetical theory.  It certainly wasn’t of concern in either the short term or in the medium term to my colleagues or myself.

When asked whether toppling Saddam eliminated the threat of terrorism from his regime, she answered:

It eliminated the threat of terrorism from his direct regime.  It didn’t eliminate the threat of terrorism using unconventional methods of chemical, bacteriological or indeed radioactive.  […] In that respect, I don’t think toppling Saddam is germane to the long-term ambitions of some terrorist groups to use them.

What a damning rebuttal to Blair’s greatest argument for war.  His argument’s last port of call – an acceptance that Saddam would not use WMDs against this country, but a fear that he could provide WMDs for terrorists – is dismissed by the MI5 chief as merely “hypothetical” and “of no concern” to the Security Services.  Eliminating him was inconsequential to the external threat of terrorism to this country.  If there is a good enough argument to suggest Blair’s fears were a fantasy, it is this.

The fascinating thing is this: it was Eliza’s father, Reginald Manningham-Buller, that warned against modern Britain’s other military catastrophe, Suez.  As Attorney General in the 1950s, he wrote a letter of protest to the government, informing them of the illegality under international law of the intervention.  In a passage, which is worthy of reading today, a time when legal advisers cow under the pressure of authority and fear, he says he felt

compelled to write this letter because as the Law Officers are constitutionally the legal advisers of the Government… it will be generally assumed that we have been approached for advice as to the legality of what has been done.  […] I feel it is essential that I should make my views clear.  I had no opportunity of doing so before the ultimatum was delivered.

So here’s to the Manningham-Bullers: confrontational, principled, fearless!