Front Loading

The Sir Titus Salt, former Wetherspoon pub in Bradford, credit Wikipedia

Front Loading,
by Bill Hartley

It’s not hard to find a Wetherspoon pub in our larger towns and cities. There are more than 800 of them in Britain and Ireland. Last year the company reported its largest ever volume of sales over the Easter weekend. The low price, large scale business model works well and the collapse of so many city centre enterprises has provided lots of premises for the company to choose from, when creating a new branch.

Wetherspoon is noted for breathing new life into buildings by adapting them for the licensed trade. In Liverpool, for example, there are three, the largest of which stands at the front of Lime Street Station and occupies the ground floor of the old North Western Hotel. This vast building was erected by a railway company back in the days of transatlantic steamer travel. Having stood empty for years, the upper stories became student accommodation, with a Wetherspoon below. People joke that it’s possible to complete a degree course without ever leaving the building: transport into the city, food, drink, accommodation, even employment, all being available in the same place.

What the company does is to seamlessly insert a branch into a town giving the impression that it’s always been there. In doing so it creates some significant contrasts. The product may be the same but the delivery points vary enormously. The North East provides some interesting examples.

Richmond in North Yorkshire has the Ralph Fitz Randal, named after an obscure medieval monk. The premises were formerly the post office building, which has since migrated to a big shed on a nearby trading estate. This Wetherspoon is a genteel establishment which caters for the over sixties market. Richmond is a popular destination amongst this age group. They move around the town window shopping, couples wearing the ubiquitous small rucksacks which seem indispensable to this age group. Come refreshment time they head for the Ralph Fitz Randal, which amidst the steep gradients lies conveniently on a flat bit of town. By mid morning the place takes on the air of a rest home where everything moves at a sedate pace. It is of course supposed to be a pub but there’s no scramble for attention. Instead, customers patiently form queues at the bar to order food or acquire coffee cups. The staff are attentive and kindly with a slightly patronising air, which suggests they may need to repeat themselves before being fully understood. Moving around the tables, they present more like care workers than waiters. Unfortunately the building lies close to the local Methodist church and the undertaker’s. Consequently the best dressed people in the place tend to be mourner’s looking for a pre funeral bracer, or the undertaker’s staff having just finished a job. A collection of black clad customers rather spoils the mood.

A few miles north of Richmond there are two branches in Darlington. The Tanner’s Hall is conveniently close to various bookmakers and is a gloomy no frills establishment, catering for what might politely be described as dedicated drinkers. These are people often of indeterminate age who can be found there throughout the day. Wetherspoon opens its premises early in the morning and this seems to be an arrangement particularly welcomed by the Tanner’s Hall clientele. Employment doesn’t appear to make any demands of this group and some are thoughtful enough to leave their mobility scooters at the door. Comments on the Tripadvisor website give as much an indication of what it must be like to work there, as about the standard of service. Here the staff have to deal with collapsing customers and some of the town’s stranger people. One reviewer complained that they were slow in rendering first aid to a customer; another suggested that a member of staff was drunk. There is the sense that a few hours into a shift the staff are rather less cheerful and accommodating than they were at the outset. Dissatisfied customers are prepared to use an online review to seek revenge, by identifying the individual whom they claim caused offence: ‘blonde, hair in a bun’.

If The Tanner’s Hall is a hardship posting for Wetherspoon staff, then a few minutes’ walk away is the William Thomas Stead where the customer base is much different. Named after a former editor of the Northern Echo [Editorial note, and the author of ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’], Mr Stead was unfortunate enough to have gone down with the Titanic. This is a family friendly establishment where the daytime drinking enthusiasts would definitely not fit in. Shoppers and those with young children can seek refreshment here, without sharing space with the ‘strange’ people in the sister establishment across town.

If the Tanner’s Hall has its own particular challenges then for sheer hard work the Milecastle may be the ultimate. Situated in Newcastle city centre, this vast building, which operates over three stories, has the look of a former insurance company premises. The name reflects the cities’ Roman heritage. Hadrian’s Wall is supposed to have run close by; at least until Mr Stephenson drove his railway through the district.

The enormous interior space is augmented by exterior facilities for those rare days in Newcastle when it is warm enough to sit outdoors. The unacclimatised visitor may be reluctant to use these facilities but for the locals a few rays of sunshine seem enough for them to don beach wear and enjoy al fresco drinking in the city centre.

Being on three floors the trade is stratified. The ground floor is the province of pensioners and shoppers. Above this level it is easy to discover why the staff can be worked very hard indeed. Newcastle is very much a party town and at any point in an afternoon the Milecastle may have to cope with a sudden surge. Downstairs life continues at a steady pace, up above there always seems to be a gathering in operation, gradually increasing in size as the afternoon wears on. It reflects a phenomenon known as ‘front loading’ and the staff have to learn how to cope with this. Obviously there are smarter places for the younger element to drink but these tend to be much more expensive. The Research Society on Alcoholism admits that the phenomenon is ‘not well studied’. Anyone from the society wishing to do some fieldwork would find the Milecastle a useful location. The idea is to fill up on cheaper Wetherspoon booze before moving on elsewhere in the early evening. An American study has found that this is a mostly female practise and the Milecastle would seem to bear this out.

With the staff being required to operate the bar and act as waiters it can be quite a challenge to manage both, particularly as the numbers swell and the demand for over the counter drinks increases. Staff have to cope with this, serve meals and move up and down three flights of stairs. It is quite a contrast with the homely atmosphere of the Richmond establishment, or serving the sometimes difficult but largely somnolent types in the Tanner’s Hall.

Wetherspoon is very adaptable and the positives go beyond just the reasonable prices. The company employs over 40,000 people and has brought back to life many large redundant buildings in town centres, which might otherwise have struggled to find a tenant.

William Hartley is a Social Historian

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Tosca Redux

Castel SantAngelo, credit Wikipedia

Tosca Redux

Tosca, Opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Glacosa, first revival of the 2008 production, directed by Stephen Barlow, City of London Sinfonia conducted by Matthew Kofi Waldren, Opera Holland Park, June 1st 2024, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Mario Cavaradossi, depicted in this production as a scruffy, left-leaning street artist, and Floria Tosca, an opera diva dressed to kill, make a somewhat unlikely couple. Sixteen years on, Amanda Echalaz, as Tosca once again, now “brings to the character the added patina of a watchful, maturing woman capable of jealousy” (Claudia Pritchard, Culture Whisper, 20th May 2024). Perhaps it is her age that makes her uncertain of her lover’s loyalty. For as Alexandra Wilson observes, Tosca is “jealous and neurotic, capricious and demanding”, a far cry from Mimi in La Bohème (‘Toxic Machismo and Pungent Irony’, Official Programme). And jealousy is a weakness that Scarpia, chief of the state police and an astute psychologist, is only too eager to manipulate. Iago, as he observes, had a handkerchief with which he befuddled Othello. “I have a fan”, he triumphantly proclaims, to wit, that of the Marchesa Attavanti, the sister of the political fugitive Cesare Angelotti, who Cavaradossi is protecting.

Stephen Barlow, the director of Tosca, notes that given the length of time since this production last appeared, this is “a re-visit rather than a simple revival”. There have been certain changes, accordingly. The performance is set in 1968 during elections and “authoritarian crackdowns”. Populists such as Vitellio Scarpia, “a would-be rapist and ruthless manipulator of a cowed and gullible people”, are “stocking fears while offering easy solutions” (Gary Naylor, Broadway World). Scarpia (Morgan Pearse) is “the champion of cleanliness, order and morality”, “a most commanding creep” (see Boyd Tonkin, ‘Passion and Populism’, the artsdesk.com 29/05/2024). “Thank heavens”, Naylor pointedly remarks, “nobody of so flawed a character could ever run for election in a democracy in 2024”.

In a review of Tosca at Royal Opera in 2014, tenor Roberto Alagna’s underwhelming performance of Mario Cavaradossi was referred to (Quarterly Review, ‘Tosca by Numbers’, May 21 2014). We were reminded of Richard Burton’s comments on acting in his Diaries, edited by Chris Williams. “I am easily bored”, Burton confided, “I am excited by the idea of something but its execution bores me”. On one occasion, Burton relieved the tedium by playing Hamlet as a homosexual. On another, he recited “To be or not to be”, in German. Roberto Alagna is “a prodigiously gifted singer”, but sometimes he seems to only be going through the motions. José de Eça, in contrast, received a warm reception for his rendition of ‘Recondita armonia’ (albeit not the five minute ovation that Franco Corelli once famously enjoyed). A similar comparison could be made between Amanda Echalaz’s spirited performance of the role of Tosca at Opera Holland Park and that of Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, admittedly a technically very accomplished artist, in the afore mentioned production at Covent Garden.

Tosca was one of the first operas that your reviewer attended, at Opera Holland Park, many years ago. In 2024, Puccini’s timeless masterpiece delivers once again.

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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Endnotes, June 2024

Endnotes, June 2024

In this edition: a farewell to Sir Andrew Davis; rare English works on the EM Records label; Nielsen from Bergen

Sir Andrew Davis, British international conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and Toronto, Melbourne, Chicago and Royal Stockholm orchestras, 1944-2024.

Portrait photo of Sir Andrew Davis, credit Wikipedia

For Proms devotees of the 1980s and ‘90s, the conductor Sir Andrew Davis was one of those charismatic presences which shaped that famous summer Festival. Born in Hertfordshire in 1944, Andrew Frank Davis was destined for a prominent career in music. An organ scholar at Cambridge. Sir Andrew later recalled how his tutors told him ‘to specialise’ — a particular form of discipline that he actually wanted to avoid. Hopeful of conducting engagements and of making a name as an exponent of the atonal Second Viennese School, he also remembered how surprised he was to be drafted in, not for Anton Webern, but for a Classics for Pleasure recording of RuleBritannia! — a work that was destined to travel with him throughout his life, as he went in to conduct the Last Night of the Proms on more than ten occasions.

Music by British composers, especially Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Tippett, drew some of the finest performances from Sir Andrew, yet he turned his hand to Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, Nielsen, Mahler, Schoenberg with equal dedication and feeling. At the 1990 Proms, in tribute to his late predecessor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Pritchard, he conducted Mahler’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’; and, like Sir John, delighted in the huge, resonant late-romantic works which could fill the Royal Albert Hall, both in sound and in audience numbers.

Sir Andrew Davis carved out a glittering international career with the Toronto, Chicago and Melbourne Symphony orchestras; and productions, including Gilbert and Sullivan, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Famously, he once sang the Last Night of the Proms conductor’s speech to a G & S tune and appeared at the 1988 Last Night festivities with a life-size cardboard cut-out of Australian composer, Percy Grainger. (Percy Grainger’s very own piano roll was used in a performance of the Grieg concerto!)

Renowned for his good humour and wit, Sir Andrew was once likened, by a past member of the LPO choir, to a ‘jolly geography teacher’; a description which showed how much this conductor was liked by the musicians who worked with him. The Royal Albert Hall will be an emptier place without him.

Having said goodbye to one of our great conductors, how heartening to see so many talented British conductors now making great strides on the international and national stage. Edward Gardner, for example ~ just like Sir Andrew Davis ~ has earned a fine reputation for his BBC Symphony concerts, and for a cycle of Nielsen symphonies on the Chandos label. Most recently, Gardner has completed a production with one of Norway’s leading ensembles, the Bergen Philharmonic, of Nielsen’s Third Symphony (1910-11), coupled with the ‘Pastoral Scene for Orchestra’ Pan and Syrinx, and the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra ~ with Adam Walker as the (brilliant) soloist. Anyone who remembers this musician’s playing of the flute part in Walton’s Symphony No1, third movementat the Proms a year ago, will understand the use of the word brilliant.

Dankvart Dreyer (1816-1852), view of Funen, 1843

Nielsen’s Symphony No3, subtitled Sinfonia Espansiva, contains one of the most mysterious and enchanting movements of the early-20th century period: a long, languid meditation ~ filled with summer breezes ~ with a hypnotic vocalise at its height, performed here by Lina Johnson (soprano) and Yngve Soberg (baritone). As ever with Chandos records, the sound-engineering is immaculate, capturing the Bergen orchestra’s rich timbres; yet the ushering in of the two voices at that magical point in the movement is a little jolting ~ not quite as subtle or seamless as it is on another Chandos disc devoted to the same piece from a couple of decades ago, conducted by Rozhdestvensky. Nevertheless, a notable recording of a symphony that is not aired enough.

John Andrews, a regular with the English Music Festival, is another fine British talent who wields the baton on an EM Records disc of rare repertoire: Quilter, Delius, Havergal Brian, Alexander Mackenzie, Cyril Scott, Norman O’Neill’s La BelleDame sans Merci and another ‘scena’, the Norse saga of 1898-1900 by Holst, Ornulf’sDrapa ~ sung by that resonant baritone voice, Roderick Williams. In an essay by music writer, Stephen Banfield (written in 1990 for Deutsche Grammophon), he states that O’Neill, Cyril Scott et al belonged to a ‘doomed milieu’ of ‘lop-sided’, monstrously sized orchestrations, enveloped in theosophy, esoterica and mysticism. Only Holst, argued Banfield, with his suite, The Planets, emerged from this lost world. Yet as we can see and hear from the new disc, it is now clear (thanks to the English Music Festival) that many works, even by Holst ~ thought lost or just beyond salvation ~ can now be given a completely fresh evaluation and appreciation.

The BBC Concert Orchestra plays with strong conviction, especially in Mackenzie’s stirring, romantic Colomba of 1898; and as sensitive accompanists to violinist Rupert Marshall-Luck, whose orchestration of Havergal Brian’s Legend adds further period feel to an important collection.

CD details:
Nielsen, Symphony No. 3, Flute Concerto, Chandos CHSA 5312.
Quilter, Delius, O’Neill et al, EM Records, EMR CD085.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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In Deep

Orgreave Colliery, credit Wikipedia

 In Deep,
by William Hartley

Prior to the industrial revolution investors in mining schemes were known as Adventurers. Given that the dividing line between success and failure could be a narrow one, it was certainly an adventurous way of trying to make money. Whilst mining has come a long way since then, there are still elements of the unknown in any attempt to obtain mineral wealth from underground and the risk of failure remains constant.

The demise of coal mining in Britain probably gave the impression that there is no mining industry left. Certainly when it comes to media coverage anything involving mining rarely gets beyond the financial pages, unless of course the environmental lobby decides to object. Yet mining has never gone away and there are a number of ventures, large and small, currently in operation. What unites them is the high risk and high cost of these ventures.

As recently as 2021 there were sixteen companies seeking to explore for metals or develop mines in the UK. These comprise four main groups; base metal projects focussed in the south west and north Wales; battery metals such as lithium in Cornwall, precious metals in Northern Ireland and Scotland; and agri minerals in North Yorkshire.

Whilst mining has always had an impact on the immediate environment, dealing with a site is much more sophisticated than it used to be, when the end of a mining operation could leave a wasteland of industrial dereliction. These days, rehabilitation and conservation management can be undertaken even before production begins. Unfortunately the memory of what the industry used to be like means the strategic element to domestic mining isn’t always appreciated. Yet domestic mining can create jobs and reduce or eliminate dependence on overseas sources.

Important metals such as tin, copper and iron ore are predicted to rise in price in the coming years and demand will continue to increase. Often such metals are to be found in countries whose governments are capable of using such assets to their political advantage. The war in Ukraine gives an indication of what may happen if the supply of vital natural resources is affected. For example, the Donbas region is rich in strategic minerals, suggesting that Russia is looking for more than territorial gains. In this country, likewise, a combination of the rising price of metals on the commodities markets and the need to exercise strategic control, is making domestic mining more attractive.

Some of the sites currently being examined have a long history of exploitation. In the 18th century Parys Mountain copper mine on Anglesey was the richest in Europe. Archaeological finds suggest that the site has a history dating back to the Bronze Age and may even be the location where metal mining in the British Isles originated. For many years the site was a polluted, long abandoned wasteland. Then in 2021 Anglesey Mining began developmental work and now has a 300 metre production shaft on the site. Early tests suggest marketable concentrates of copper, lead and zinc and even some traces of silver and gold.

In West Cornwall, the tin mining industry staggered to an end in the closing years of the last century, defeated by low prices and high energy costs. The last mine to go was South Crofty near Pool, which closed in 1998 having been in operation for 400 years.  As a consequence there is now no mining for tin anywhere in Europe or North America. Supplies come mainly from China, Indonesia and Myanmar. In 2021 a company called Cornish Metals began work on the site. Reopening a mine isn’t easy and Cornish tin mines were always wet places in which to work. A major challenge at the South Crofty mine is to pump water out of a 360 metre deep shaft. Work began in October of last year using submersible pumps and it is expected to take eighteen months to complete. Although the test drillings look promising, the cost of getting even this far is £40m. Once the company is able to access the mine, then this is the stage at which investment decisions will have to be made before mining can begin. It illustrates the massive costs involved in just determining whether or not an actual mining operation is feasible. If it works out, then South Crofty carries the possibility of bringing jobs to a part of Cornwall which are not dependant upon seasonal tourism. The company is hoping to restart mining in 2026; should it succeed then South Crofty promises to be a significant strategic asset for this country.

The knife edge between failure and success is illustrated by the experience of Wolf Minerals, a company which sought to develop the Hemerden Mine near Plymouth. Despite an experienced management team, the company failed to achieve its objectives and went into receivership in 2018. The site now has a new operator called Tungsten West who, supported by £200m in investment, announced this year that they are set to become the largest producer of the metal in the western world. Currently the major supplier of the metal is China.

An even more ambitious project is located in Yorkshire beneath the North York Moors. It is currently Britain’s largest infrastructure project and  like South Crofty is a leap into the unknown but on a much larger scale. Anglo-American, the company behind the project, has seen it share price decline significantly due to investor nerves and the massive cost of the project. The company has sunk a 340 metre deep shaft to reach a product which, unlike say tin, is something no-one is at present sure has a market. They are intending to mine polyhalite, a fertilizer believed to have benefits far in excess of traditional products, although there are those who disagree. The company bases its plans on future population growth and the need to get more out of existing farmland. This massive project is leaving a small surface footprint since they are constructing a 23 mile tunnel from to link the Woodsmith mine with Teesport, from where the mineral can be exported.

What the Woodsmith and South Crofty projects illustrate is the high risk involved. Some things in mining don’t change. But if they are successful, then they have the potential to bring jobs to parts of the country which have been hard hit by the decline in traditional industries.

Bill Hartley is a Social Historian

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A Conspiracy to Silence and Control

Statue of Coatlicue, credit Wikipedia

A Conspiracy to Silence and Control

By Dr A. R. Kneen

Questioning the official narrative on a topic is often met with sneers such as: ‘you sound like a conspiracy theorist’; ‘I don’t listen to conspiracy theories’, and the like. The tone is somewhat superior and the inflection such as to demean the critic. The effect is to close the discussion. Not only is the debate closed, but it appears as though evocation of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ can also close down the thinking processes of those that invoke it. In this sense, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is a ‘blocker-term’: these are terms that block debate – and that also possibly block cognition. This parallels the effects of other terms, such as ‘racism’ – which has the effect of closing debate upon certain race-related topics[1].

Sometimes what was dismissed as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is subsequently shown to be true. For example, it used to be denied that mass immigration could result in white indigenous British people becoming the minority in any British city. People who predicted this as a possible outcome were demeaned as ‘conspiracy theorists’. However, in many areas of Britain, White Brits are now a minority. According to the 2021 census, White British people constituted 36.8% of the population of London. This example illustrates one of the key features of the term ‘conspiracy theory’[2]: that by describing a statement as a ‘conspiracy theory’, it is thus implied that the statement is untrue[3] (it is ‘false/fake news’, ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’, etc.). Apropos ‘conspiracy theory’ as a blocker-term, Social Representation Theory[4] examines the actual meaning of terms in their social context – what terms represent socially to people.

If one looks up the term ‘conspiracy theory’ in a dictionary, one finds definitions such as:

‘a belief or statement that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by a small and powerful group of people’.

Clearly this definition does not always even fit the context in which the term is used. For example, during 2020, the official narrative was that the hospitals were ‘over-flowing’. Many people knew this to be untrue[5] – and also knew that the Nightingale hospitals were unused[6]. In 2020, the author went to a local hospital to check and saw that it was extraordinarily quiet; but stating this fact was met with the ‘conspiracy theorist’ accusation. How would stating that the hospital was quiet necessarily pertain to a secret plan by a small group of powerful people? It is merely a true and observed fact – albeit a fact that contradicts the official narrative. Likewise with the example above of indigenous Brits becoming a minority in a British city: this statement at no point refers to any small group of powerful people planning anything. Of course, any event could be planned by such a group, but there could be many other possible explanations for any of these events. And whether such events are or are not so-planned, this was not stated by the speaker nor is it a necessary conclusion from the fact stated. Moreover, if any such events were planned by a small secret group, then this should not mean that the debate necessarily should be over – surely that would, if anything, make it more important to continue the discussion. And, really, many important events are planned by small groups of people – why would that even be an issue? So not only is such a matter a non sequitur and irrelevant to the veracity of the statement, it is also unclear why this non sequitur would then block debate (and possibly also block cognition).

Although the usage of the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ frequently does not fit its dictionary definition, the social representation meaning of the term presents various constituent elements of what this term means to those using it. One such element is that the statement is untrue (see above). Another element is that the ‘conspiracy theorist’ is ‘inferior’ – this is demonstrated by the pseudo-superior tone frequently used by the accusers and the sneering and demeaning of the accused. ‘Conspiracy theorists’ are also, perhaps ironically, considered as having lower mental abilities, as being less educated and/or less well-informed. The central visual image of the term appears to be that of a weird, unintelligent, uneducated, mentally ill, undesirable, social-outcast ‘in his mother’s basement’ – possibly wearing a ‘tin foil hat’. The ‘conspiracy theories’ he/she states are false and crazy – not worthy of considering and to be blocked without further thought. Such stereotypes are discussed by Moscovici, e.g.:

Psychological processes, either cognitive or affective, that can establish as immediate connection between the stimulus and the response, must result in the production of a stereotype[7]. This is not only because individuals immediately behave as they are required to, but also because the situation is so designed as to offer only two possible solutions. (Moscovici, 2008)[8]

The two solutions that appear to be offered are to either: block the statement made by the ‘conspiracy theorist’ and hence stay comfortably with the official narrative and feeling smug, superior and safe; or to consider what was stated and then be viewed as a weird, crazy ‘conspiracy theorist’ – as well as the identity issues this presents, this can also present various potential risks (see later). By drawing upon Social Representation Theory, one can ascertain how such images have substituted logical concepts in thinking, in what has been described as ‘ritual-authoritarian language’.

This style is of overwhelming concreteness. The ‘thing identified with its function’ is more real than the thing distinguished from its function […] This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness, it impedes conceptual thinking; thus it impedes thinking (Marcuse, 1964 [9])

Hence, Social Representation Theory helps us understand how this blocker-term has the effect that it does: most people will not want to align themselves with such an image – it is perceived as undesirable and risky. It also goes some way to explaining why this blocker-term does not affect everyone in the same manner. As Moscovici wrote:

One often wonders why people are so cavalier about validating their judgements, so forgetful of statistical rules, and so unconcerned about correcting their mistakes. It would seem less peculiar if one looked at people not only as biological organisms but also as social organisms. The question arises in what sort of universe dilemmas are formulated and what is the position in this universe of the people who must resolve them. (Moscovici, 1988)

People who use the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ appear to believe the official narrative on the relevant topic. Many beliefs held by people are what are referred to as ‘motivated-beliefs’: these beliefs are not accidental but people are motivated to believe them. But as Moscovici maintains, we are all in different positions. Incentives for people to believe can be financial. For example, some doctors and nurses have made large amounts of money from the corona virus situation. NHS staff have also benefited financially from the ‘NHS discounts’ given by retailers[10]. Indeed, NHS staff are still going into retailers and requesting such a discount [11] – the author has a friend who runs a coffee shop and NHS staff still come in asking for a ‘NHS discount’[12].

There are reports of some NHS staff receiving huge amounts of money during the ‘pandemic period’: four GPs are reported to have been paid over a million pounds a year[13]; some nurses in America were reported to have been paid $10,000.00 a week while they were put up in hotels ‘waiting to be deployed for covid’;  a number of GPs in England made small fortunes injecting people[14] as bonus payments were made in the UK per injection given (even though these were conducted during normal hours for which the medics were already being paid); hospitals in America were paid thousands of dollars for each patient they diagnosed with alleged ‘covid’; etc. Such financial benefits would provide an incentive for many not to query the official narrative [15]. Of course, there will be those who will doubt the official narrative, or actually totally disbelieve it, yet keep quiet and take the money. This would represent examples of corrupt, ‘bribed silence’ rather than incentivised-belief[16]. For others, they may genuinely believe every word of the official narrative, but this belief is motivated, albeit likely to be unconsciously so, by the money.

Examining the reverse can illuminate this process further. For example, the owners of a hypothetical small family business that was ordered to close down for lockdown, and hence got into serious financial difficulties, might be inclined to query the narrative and to thence investigate and research the alleged facts behind it. They then might discover that there is no isolate of the alleged sars cov 2 virus. Such research could cause the researchers to doubt the official narrative. This would be an example of ‘motivated-disbelief’. In other words, a person’s circumstances might motivate them to believe unthinkingly – or alternatively, to doubt, to apply critical thinking – and perhaps to research.

Motivations for belief are not merely financial. People’s character and social circumstances, inter alia, are also relevant in this regard. Drawing on the past four years, as an example, there was ample opportunity to mistreat and control[17] others. There are examples of ‘covid authoritarians’ who behaved in a terrible manner towards those not following the official narrative and/or who were not complying with the rules. Aside from the police, others also engaged in controlling, authoritarian, and often abusive behaviour – we witnessed people screaming at others in the street for not wearing face masks, there were calls on social media and television for draconian measures for those not complying with orders, etc. The desire to mistreat and otherwise control others is present in some people, and following the official narrative gave them an excuse not only to inflict pain on others, but to feel superior about so doing. As Aldous Huxley memorably said:

The surest way to work up a crusade in favour of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour ‘righteous indignation’ – this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats.

Another factor that can affect the level to which a person is motivated to believe the official narrative is the degree to which a person feels the need to align with the people and organisations (and their related images) presenting that narrative. For example, there are those who seem to feel the need to try to enhance their apparent status (or ‘pseudo-status’) by so doing. The very fact of sneering suggests that there is something other than the facts of the matter relevant to the sneerer[18] – in some ways, the act of sneering can be viewed as an attempt to gain status (or faux status). Another relevant factor is the extent to which an individual has already committed themselves to such organisations and behaviours. Again, with all these factors, the extent to which they are conscious or not varies[19].

The official narrative is presented as not only correct, but also as being held by the majority. Various means are used to convince people that this view is held by most people, (e.g. presentation of survey results, lack of contradictory views presented to people, etc.) – and once people are convinced that a certain narrative is the general consensus, then this can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. People display different levels of conformity to what appears the majority view. In Asch’s[20] famous experiments, a group were shown a single line and also shown a set of 3 lines and asked, in turn, which line of the set of 3 was the same length as the sole line. Of the group, unbeknown to the actual subject, all were confederates of the experimenter. It was found that many people agreed with the responses previously given by others (confederates) – even though the answers were clearly incorrect. Of course, in any such experiments one could never be sure that the subject’s actual judgement had been affected or whether he just agreed, knowing the answer was incorrect, for other reasons, (e.g. just to be polite and not contradict others, etc.).

Asch also found that if one confederate dissented from the majority view prior to the subject being asked, exposure to this dissent reduced ‘conformity’ rates (hence a reason to censor dissent). He noted that conformity was higher if the confederates were perceived as higher status (see ‘plebism’) – and that some subjects never conformed and always merely gave the correct answer. There are many other such experiments that show that people will conform to what they believe to be the majority view[21]. In 2020, during lockdown, the author was discussing the lockdown situation with someone who accepted the official narrative. At one point, the individual in question said: ‘but all the countries in the world, the whole world, the whole world and all those governments, they can’t all be wrong, it has to all be true’[22]. This phenomenon is labelled ‘the weight-of-numbers’ effect[23]. However, the latter does not influence everyone. Some people have independence of mind – perhaps related to strength, lack of faith in the abilities of others, personal confidence and grounding[24], lack of deference (see ‘plebism’ qv), etc.

The concept of authority is relevant in this context. There are two main groups of definitions of this term: those referring to ‘authority’ as being the moral or legal right to control others; and those referring to the idea of being an expert on a particular subject. In regard to legal rights to control others, laws vary across time and location. For example: substances such as alcohol and/or cannabis might or might not be legal depending where one lives today; sometimes it has been legal to own slaves, and still is in some places today.

It can be argued that there is a moral obligation to disobey and to challenge immoral laws. This point could also be extended to laws that are grounded on falsehoods or irrelevance. Regarding a moral right to control others – it is not clear what moral right anyone has to control others. Of course, there are exceptions to this, e.g.: if one were to see a toddler about to walk off a cliff, it would be imperative to pull them away; if a man were trying to rape a woman, it would be proper for her to stop him, etc. All such examples would involve the immediate controlling of other people in some fashion. And there are other types of examples such as when  two free people have agreed upon a contract between them – it would be right to enforce this contract (and to seek recompense were it breached, etc.). Some argue that it is moral to obey the government due to some imaginary ‘social contract’. However, there is a strong counterargument: that the very notion of government itself is actually immoral – as is obeying government[25]. Thus, it is clear that one should not necessarily obey the ‘authority’ – and that in some circumstances one should challenge and refuse to comply. The issue, if one wants to live ethically, is whether the orders are moral or not. Orders based on false-hoods (fraud, etc.) and that would cause more harm than good, etc. should not be followed – and any ‘authority’ giving such orders lacks credibility.

As to the idea of ‘experts’, some people are doubtless experts in their field. Nonetheless, in recent years we have witnessed many so-called experts giving incorrect advice. Maybe these ‘experts’ were corrupt, maybe they were mistaken, maybe they were incompetent. Certain fields of expertise are founded on falsehoods. It is possible that some ‘experts’ are unaware of this fact – high levels of compartmentalisation mean that many people might be working earnestly and honestly and not realise that what they are doing is incorrect. For example, within the field of virology, there are those who do not realise that the process they are using to ‘isolate’ a virus does not actually do so at all[26]. Or that the alleged genetic codes thus produced are not empirically-derived: these are merely in silico – produced by a computer. This error then has a knock-on effect; these codes are then passed on and used in testing. Those conducting and producing the resultant PCR tests might be unaware that the codes they were given to use are not derived from any isolated virus [27]. It is evidently not always advisable to listen to someone merely because he is deemed an expert.

However, despite the issues with authority, many people will comply with orders from authority figures merely because those figures are perceived as authority figures[28]. There is much research on this area[29], including the classic Milgram experiments[30] in which a majority of people were found to be prepared to administer what they believed to be dangerously high levels of electric shocks to another person (unbeknown to them, actually a confederate of the experimenter) when they believed this was part of an experiment conducted at a prestigious university. Interestingly, watching another person dissent reduced the levels of obedience. Repeating this experiment in a more run-down location instead of a prestigious university setting also decreased obedience. Demographic differences were found, such as educated subjects being less obedient and military subjects more obedient. Much could be said regarding the interpretation of the results of such experiments, and clearly obedience to authority is not the only relevant issue. However, the phenomenon of people obeying orders because they perceive the order-giver as having authority and/or prestige does happen.

What is interesting, inter alia, is why people would perceive the obligation to comply – and why they would perceive some people as having prestige. The results of some of the ‘obedience experiments’, and other matters, suggest various possible explanations. One of salient factors is ‘plebism’: the phenomenon whereby a person believes themselves to be inferior in some manner(s) to someone else and hence exhibits deference towards them. This is associated with a tendency to obey based on the belief in their own inferiority to the other person. This phenomenon was demonstrated during the past 4 years when people complied with the most ridiculous matters such as standing on yellow dots in shops, wearing masks (since declared as useless to protect against illness), etc. Some people appeared almost in awe of the people paraded on the televisions as experts and authority figures. Even when such figures are totally discredited, it seems to make little difference[31] – clearly those engaging in plebism are not considering their credibility.

The deference of plebism is found in all strata of society – this is not confined to those who are very poor and/or very uneducated, etc. In fact, there are middle-class people who exhibit plebism. When speaking with such people, it is often difficult to disentangle the extent to which their behaviour is plebism as opposed to a form of snobbery. The official narrative is usually presented as being socially superior – and constructed via various means that establish this. If a snob is defined as: ‘a person with an exaggerated respect for high social position and/or wealth who seeks to associate with social superiors and looks down on those regarded as socially inferior’, then it is possible that plebism is an explanation for the existence of snobbery. In fact, the very belief in the concept of authority could thus be, at least in part, explained thereby.

Plebism is also relevant in relation to the idea of following the ‘experts’ – or as we have been told recently, to ‘follow the science’. Using terms that are not understood by people mystifies and obscures. Of course, every field has its own jargon, and any such jargon could be learnt by most people if they took the time to do so. However, given the prestige of ‘science’, people often will unhesitatingly defer to these alleged experts.

An example of a related issue is that of cowardice: it is safer to adhere to the official narrative. The official narrative is that presented by the government, and the government has all the force at hand (police, army, prisons, etc.). Instinctively perhaps, and also perhaps unconsciously, some will want to align with this rather than against it, out of fear of disagreeing. This fear can also be caused by more open and direct threats by those in power. For example, there were those who lost their jobs in recent years for challenging the official narrative. That can also present direct risks in other ways: various laws and policies are in place that aim to prevent speech that challenges the official narrative. Sometimes these are wrapped up as being ‘nice’, e.g. various ‘hate speech laws’, etc. presenting the ‘smiley-tyranny’ with which we are all becoming familiar. Again, the new definition of ‘extremism’[32] implies links between dissent and terrorism – and provides means by which the government can inhibit dissent. Governments have repeatedly and directly told the public not to listen to ‘misinformation’ and ‘fake news’, etc. of the ‘conspiracy theorists’. As New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a person with a big smile, said: ‘dismiss anything else, we will continue to be your single source of truth’[33].

In fact, police have even appealed for the public to report ‘conspiracy theorists’ to them. This is not a new phenomenon[34], for example in 1674 King Charles II made a proclamation[35]To Refrain the Spreading of False News and Licentious Talking of Matters’ [36] and ‘penalties are to be inflicted upon all such as shall be found to be the spreaders of false news’ with ‘strict and exemplary punishments’. The King was concerned that people were talking about the possibility of him dissolving Parliament; which he then did (in 1681) – an early example of a ‘conspiracy theory’ not being false. King Charles II also commanded that people are to report on people who challenge the official narrative or they also would be punished. In another such proclamation he actually specified that hearers of such ‘bold and irreverent speech’ must report the speaker within 24 hours[37] or face punishment themselves[38]. Of course, tyrannical governments always inculcate a culture of snitching. As the Australian police said in a press conference in 2022[39]:

If anyone out there that knows of someone that might be showing concerning behaviour around conspiracy theories, anti-government, anti-police, conspiracy theories around covid-19 vaccinations as we’re seeing [inaudible 2 words], we want to know about that

Thus, there is, and has been in the past, the threat from those in power to those who dissent – and in modern times the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ often is used to refer to such dissenters.

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ with its social representation has not appeared in a vacuum: this has been constructed so as to present people with the bipolar choices discussed above. The two poles appear to be constructive of one another. Such dichotomous division was discussed by Moscovici e.g.

A further feature of all dichotomous divisions explains the mechanism that binds the themes together: anything that does not belong within one field must belong to the other. No theme can be shared by both because, if it were, the dichotomous division would disappear […] its dichotomous nature explains the concrete aspects of propaganda (Moscovici, 2008)

The image of the ‘conspiracy theorist’ has been ably constructed by the media. Conspiracy theorists are portrayed in films and stories and discussed on television. In many debates (on social media and television), someone will accuse another of being a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and frequently the so-accused will deny this and recoil from the term – parallel to accusations of ‘racism’. By this process, people are trained to avoid this accusation. In fact, parallel to any dissent to the official narrative about the undoubted benefits of diversity (yes, any diversity, to any extent, etc.) being prefixed with the denial of ‘racism’ (‘I am not ‘racist but…’), those challenging the official narrative on many topics prefix their own speech with ‘I am not a conspiracy theorist, but…’. The implied assumption to all such speech is that nobody wants to be labelled as a ‘conspiracy theorist’[40]. All these instances construct and bolster the image. Conversely, the official narrative is constructed by the ‘theatre’ of the titles, costumes, ‘status’, presentation and setting (e.g. podiums, etc.) and suchlike[41]. Motivational factors other than the image and perceived status are also constructed in the socio-cultural environment by matters such as the relevant laws instilling fear in people. However, despite this image, some still refuse to be silenced and controlled.

Those in power invariably discourage dissent. The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ is but one tool that is currently employed to this end. It is effective because it controls how people think. The application of this term, more often than not, is inversionist, i.e. the truth is actually the opposite of what is being claimed or portrayed.

ENDNOTES
[1] Although only to some ends, not others
[2] Not only does this provide an example of a so-called ‘conspiracy theory’ not being, as implied by the term, untrue, it also presents an example of various other phenomena that are relevant to many ‘conspiracy theories’ – including the phenomenon of ‘falsehood-erasure’. This term refers to the phenomenon whereby a person who previously dismissed a claim as merely a conspiracy theory appears to later forget what they had previously said, and they seem to act as though they had never said it. The sneerer’s previous falsehood is erased, e.g. ‘well that was always going to happen, and I celebrate the diversity’.
[3] Of course, not everything that challenges the official narrative on any topic is true, but the point being made here is that by deeming something as a conspiracy theory, it is implied it is thus false – whereas in fact many statements so-labelled are not false
[4] See Moscovici and Duveen. For example: DUVEEN, G. and LLOYD, B. (1990) Social Representations and the Development of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (2000) Social Representations: Explorations in Social Psychology.  Translated by G. Duveen. Polity Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (1985) The Age of The Crowd: A Historical Treaty on Mass Psychology. Cambridge University Press. MOSCOVICI, S. (1988) Notes Towards a Description of Social Representations. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 211-259.
[5] Around the world people were going in to their local hospitals and filming them – evidencing that they were quiet and not ‘over-flowing’. Many such videos were posted on Twitter #filmyourhospital (and also on other social media platforms)
[6]NEC confirms reopening as NHS Nightingale decommissioned | TheBusinessDesk.com

£66.7 Million Birmingham Nightingale Hospital Has Admitted No Patients in Eight Months – Byline Times

Nightingale hospitals stand empty despite surging Covid cases as medics warn of staff shortages (telegraph.co.uk)

[7] See also Driencourt, DRIENCOURT, J. (1950) La Propagande, Nouvelle Force Politique. Armand Colin: Paris.
[8] See also Kris and Leites, 1947 KRIS, E. and LEITES, N. (1965) Trends in Twentieth Century Propaganda (pages 489-500). In The Process and Effects of Mass CommunicationW. Schramm (editor). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. First published 1947.
[9] MARCUSE, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man. Beacon Press: Boston.
[10] E.g. 20% off at MacDonalds, 10% off at many supermarkets, 60% and more off many retailers, etc.
[11] Many NHS discounts are still running 4 years later, although many have now ceased.
Top 30 NHS Discounts deals at NHS Staff Benefits – NHS Staff Benefits
[12] Which he refuses to give
[13] Four GPs paid £1m a year during Covid, NHS figures reveal (msn.com)
[14] Extra payments were given for each injection administered varying from £12.58 to £30. A bonus on top of that of £10 per shot was available if it was a child jabbed. This added a substantial income to many, already generous, salaries. e.g. some surgeries reported injecting over 80 people an hour. If they were receiving £15 per shot, then this would mean an extra income of £1.200.00 per hour (i.e. 80 x £15 = £1,200.00)

Covid booster jabs: GPs to be paid between £15 to £30 per vaccine administered as roll-out ramps up (inews.co.uk)

My GP practice vaccinated 900 patients in a day – but it’s only the start | Zara Aziz | The Guardian 900 a day at £15 each would have meant an extra £13,500.00 a day.

[15] This defence including silencing those who might challenge the official narrative in any way
[16] And of course, the fact that querying might cost someone their job (and did on many occasions) is another finance-related motivation not to be ignored.
[17] Controlling others without due cause is considered as a form of mistreatment
[18] For example, if someone merely disagreed on the plain facts, there would  be no need to sneer – sneering implies that the sneerer is trying to belittle others and perhaps hence increase his perceived prestige in some manner and/or is unable to refute or consider the point being made, etc. The very act of sneering shows something distasteful about the person who sneers.
[19] There are so many other characteristics of the individual that are relevant here and those presented in this article do not constitute a complete list. Other factors include: the level of intelligence; the level of naiveté; the extent to which a person engages in critical thought; a person’s level of knowledge on any relevant topic; how discerning a person is; a person’s level of independent thought; etc.
[20] ASCH, S. E. (1951) Effects of Group Pressure Upon Modification and Distortions of Judgements. In H. Guetzkow, Groups, Leadership and Men. Carnigie Press: Pittsburg.
ASCH, S. E. (1956) Studies on Independence and Conformity: a Minority of One Against an Unanimous Majority, Psychological Monographs, 70, 1-70.
[21] For further reading see for example:
Crutchfield, R. S. (1955) Conformity and Character, American Psychologist, 10 191-8
Sherif (1936) The Psychology of Social Norms. New York: Harper and Row
Stoner, J. A. F. (1968) A Comparison of Individual and Group Decisions Involving Risk. MIT thesis
[22] This discussion was very long, only a snippet is presented here. However, it really did appear that the weight-of-numbers was a major factor in this man’s mind.
[23] This also can be seen with the ‘climate change/boiling/emergency’ official narrative. For example, often people are shown a large hall full of people all nodding, clapping, etc. as speakers on the stage at the front make various declarations about the climate. The sheer weight of numbers makes it hard for many to believe that all these people could be wrong. The theatre is also set by the perceived status of the speakers, etc. qv
Then the weight-of-numbers is increased further by many news items showing more people confirming the official narrative – and also phenomenon such as ‘bolstering-by-stacking’ whereby the official narrative is bolstered by the process of stacking other issues on top of it – other issues that imply the correctness of the official narrative by accepting it as true by implication. For example, bolstering-by-stacking is seen when people debate how is the best means to reduce carbon dioxide – this implying that reducing carbon dioxide is required.
[24] The below the surface hysteria of many ungrounded people renders them susceptible to manipulation by fear and security, etc. Such ‘hysterics’ frequently have a very narrow focus of thought – perhaps due to their hysterical nature – and this can be used to control them by those in power
[25] For example, see: Rose, L. (2012) The Most Dangerous Superstition, Larken Rose; 2nd edition (16 Jan. 2012)
[26] This will be expanded upon in a forthcoming article in The Quarterly Review
[27] This point is also relevant to the variation of the sneering: sometimes the sneerers state matters such as ‘are you claiming that millions of people are involved in a conspiracy?’. For there to be ‘millions’ of people doing the wrong thing does not mean that millions of people are involved in a conspiracy
[28] Factors such as level of courage, etc. are relevant. It is likely that the fear of power affects people differentially – and thus matters such as those described as Stockholm Syndrome, appeasement, etc. have effects in this regard too
[29] Of course, the interpretations of the results are a matter for debate
[30] E.g. see: Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row, Milgram, S. (1963) Behavioural Study of Obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-8
Also see: Hofling, K. C. et al (1966) An Experimental Study in the Nurse-Physician Relationship Journal of Mental and Nervous Disorders, 43, 171-8
[31] For example, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson was caught having late night parties as he told the nation to ‘lockdown’ due to an alleged threat to their lives from a virus. Apparently he and his protection teams did not believe what he was saying (i.e. the official narrative). In fact, many of the figureheads for the lockdowns, etc. have been exposed as acting in a manner that demonstrates they did not believe the official narrative
[32] Can of Worms – The Quarterly ReviewThe Quarterly Review (quarterly-review.org)
[33] Is the State Your Single Source of Truth? | AIER
[34] Also see: Fake news has a long history. Beware the state being keeper of ‘the truth’ | Kenan Malik | The Guardian
[35] And much earlier similar proclamations can also be found e.g. from the 1275 Statute of Westminster ‘slanderous news’ from which ‘discord may arise’ is forbidden.
[36] A proclamation to restrain the spreading of false news, … 1674 : CHARLES 11. : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
[37] Relatedly, see: Germany approves plans to fine social media firms up to €50m | Technology | The Guardian
[38] He also shut-down (‘locked-down’) coffee shops to prevent people talking
[39] If You See Anyone Posting “Anti-Govt, Anti-Police, COVID Conspiracy Rhetoric” … Call Crime Stoppers (bitchute.com)
[40] As with ‘racist’, the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ largely goes undefined – defining such blocking-terms would render their usage less useful for those attempting to close down debate
[41] The ‘theatre’ includes the image-construction as caring, wise, correct, etc. And many fall for this image, e.g. people will say things like ‘the government wouldn’t do that’ if it is suggested that the government might be involved in some wrong-doing

AR Kneen was awarded a Bye-Fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge. She is the author of Multiculturalism – What Does it Mean?

 

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Mourning Sickness Again

Katie Mitchell, credit Wikipedia

Mourning Sickness Again

Lucia Di Lammermoor, Drama Tragico in three acts, Music by Gaetano Donizetti, Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, Royal Opera 30 April 2024, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Giacomo Sagripanti, Director Katie Mitchell, Revival Director Robin Tebbutt, reviewed by Leslie Jones

QR reviewed the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s searing production of Lucia di Lammermoor (see Leslie Jones, ‘Mourning Sickness’, November 3rd 2017). Seven years on, how does it fare? Certain impressions persist. The device of a split stage still works. It facilitates a “series of pointed comparisons and contrasts” between the public and private domains, and, as in Act 111, scene 2, between “the suits in their patriarchal spaces, such as the billiard room” and Lucia and her companion Alisa “in the privacy of her bedroom, closet and bathroom”. On second viewing, however, the almost omnipresent ghosts of  Lucia’s mother and of the Lammermoor girl, murdered by one of Edgardo’s ancestors (and dressed like a doll), who move across the stage like automata, increasingly grate.

Like Romeo and Juliet, Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor tells a tale of ill-fated love that ultimately fails to withstand the vindictive hatred and machinations of two warring families; in the latter case, the Ashtons, headed by Enrico, and the Ravenswood tribe, led by Edgardo. Enrico Ashton’s family fortunes are in dire case. Calvinist chaplain Raimondo Bidebent (played on this occasion by South Korean bass Insung Sim) is enlisted to pressure Lucia into marrying Arturo Bucklaw, a wealthy local gentleman. Bidebent reminds Lucia of her obligation to her dead mother and claims that Heaven will reward her sacrifice. Materialistic family values are compounded here by religious hypocrisy. And there are echoes of La Traviata, when the courtesan Violetta Valéry is persuaded to sacrifice her hopes of happiness with Alfredo by his father Giorgio Germont, determined to protect his daughter’s marriage prospects.

The role of Lucia is one of the most challenging soprano roles in the operatic repertoire. Rachael Lloyd rose to the challenge with aplomb. Pyrotechnics aside, we found her performance in the denouement deeply moving.

Katie Mitchell’s take on Donizetti’s masterpiece manifestly has it all; cross dressing, bondage, murder, mental derangement, suicides, a bloody miscarriage, morning sickness. We are born, as St Augustine reminds us, between urine and faeces. In an ambivalent but perceptive review, Mike Hardy acknowledges that Mitchell’s production is “beautifully sung”. But he considers that “its staging and direction are frequently and gratuitously barbarous and brutish” (see Mike Hardy, Opera Wire, April 25, 2024). Succinctly said – we concur.

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

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The Elusive Earl of Chesterfield

Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, portrait by Allan Ramsay, 1765, credit Wikipedia

The Elusive Earl of Chesterfield

 By Richard Wendorf

Described by one of his contemporaries as “an eel too slippery to be held,” Lord Chesterfield has enjoyed the dubious distinction of serving as a lightning-rod for criticism twice over, first in the late Georgian period and more recently in our own century. In the mid-eighteenth century, on the other hand, many people were in fact distinctly afraid of Philip Dormer Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773). Government ministers in the Commons, fellow politicians in the House of Lords, writers whose work was about to be assessed in polite circles, women who were aware of his reputation as a man of numerous “gallantries”: all had reason to fear the high standards, incisive wit, and personal displeasure of the Oscar Wilde or Sydney Smith of Georgian England. “Call it vanity, if you please, and possibly it was so,” he wrote to his son in one of the letters that gave him such posthumous fame, but his great object was always “to make every man I met with like me, and every woman love me.”  But it didn’t turn out that way. Chesterfield’s wit, political views, and aura of genteel superiority made him an easy target for envy and jealousy – and occasionally downright hatred.

If one were to be judged by the quality and prominence of one’s enemies as well as one’s friends, then Chesterfield kept very good company indeed. He was despised by the King (George II, who was also his brother-in-law), the Queen (Caroline), the prime minister (Sir Robert Walpole), and the Queen’s closest friend (Lord Hervey). Walpole’s son Horace, who could be even more dismissive than Chesterfield, found him to be in turn amusing, deplorable, admirable as a prose stylist, and a failure as a father. For students of English literature, moreover, Chesterfield will always be known as the recipient of the most famous letter in the English language, written by an indignant Samuel Johnson, who felt that the Earl was behaving as if he had been the patron and long-time champion of his great Dictionary. “I hope it is no very cynical asperity,” Johnson wrote, “not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.”

Remember, however, that it was Johnson who called upon Chesterfield in the mid-1740s in order to receive his approval for his heroic undertaking, for at the time the Earl was widely considered to be the arbiter of polite English usage. And what held true in the literary world was felt twice over within the circles of polite society, where Chesterfield was almost invariably described as the most elegant and well-mannered figure of his generation. In his periodical essays he defined the beau monde, described the importance of decorum, distinguished between civility and good-breeding, and ridiculed fellow aristocrats who focused so much of their energies on determining who was “of birth” or “of no birth.”  In some ways Chesterfield could be unusually egalitarian, repeatedly sympathizing with the poor – laborers, servants, beggars – but then (as we might say) he could well afford to do so. As the Poet Laureate, Colley Cibber, astutely noted, “the only advantage he makes of his superiority is that by always waiving it himself, his inferior finds he is under the greater obligation not to forget it.”

But this sense of superiority – of intelligence, taste, genteel behavior, and even his noble birth – did not always come easily to him. His father thought that he was a useless fop and paid little attention to him. His mother more or less disappeared during his childhood, when he was raised by his grandmother, the widow of the Marquess of Halifax, the great “trimmer” of Restoration politics. And even though he was pampered by tutors, happily submerged in Latin and classical Greek, he felt himself to be socially awkward when he finally made his way in the polite world. And yet this same hesitant, stammering young man would become the epitome of the well-mannered Englishman, literally (if unwittingly) writing his generation’s book on the correct forms of etiquette – and on the norms of civility – during the Georgian period. In spite of his hesitancy and “embarrassment” when young, he would eventually know every monarch, senior politician, and prominent writer in England, often on an intimate basis. He would marry the daughter of George I, become a savvy politician and orator, and refuse the offer of a dukedom when resigning the seals as Secretary of State. And yet it was, as he told his son, an uphill battle.

For Chesterfield suffered from a serious disability – his increasingly profound deafness – and from what he perceived as a significant physical liability, which was articulated most famously by George II. The Earl was, the King told Lord Hervey, “a little tea-table scoundrel, that tells little womanish lies to make quarrels in families, and tries to make women lose their reputations, and make their husbands beat them, without any object but to give himself airs; as if anybody could believe a woman could like a dwarf-baboon.”  Hervey was no less critical: “With a person as disagreeable as it was possible for a human figure to be without being deformed, he affected following many women of the first beauty and the most in fashion, and, if you would have taken his word for it, not without success.” He was, Hervey continued, “very short, disproportioned, thick, and clumsily made; had a broad, rough-featured, ugly face, with black teeth, and a head big enough for a Polyphemus.” People at court called him a stunted giant. William Pulteney, later the Earl of Bath, referred to him as “the little chattering cur.” His voice was harsh and croaking; Lady Cowper described it as “a shrill scream.”

Chesterfield was painfully aware of his short stature. He mentioned it in letter after letter, sometimes complaining that the Stanhopes were “a tribe little above pigmies.” Perhaps the most telling moment in Chesterfield’s running commentary on his height was when he wrote to his son, also Philip Stanhope, in 1752 about his early desire “to make every man I met with like me, and every woman love me.” Here is the crucial rest of the quotation: “I often succeeded; but why?  By taking great pains; for otherwise I never should; my figure by no means intitled me to it, and I had certainly an up-hill game.” This is an exhortation, of course, for Philip to work harder, to replicate his father’s years of self-improvement and self-fashioning: “Dress, address, and air, would become your best countenance, and make your little figure pass very well.”  But what is intriguing here is both Chesterfield’s silence about his own entitlement as the inheritor of an earldom, and his insistence, instead, that his own diminutive figure did not entitle him to success in politics or in the beau monde. Such success would only come with education, application, and attention to the niceties of life. Saddled with certain physical limitations, the Earl would have to compensate for his perceived liability by becoming more able than his contemporaries: in his mastery of European languages and history, his conversational wit, his manners, and his external polish. As he told his godson, he began life with “an insatiable thirst” for popularity, applause, and admiration.  But these rewards would not come to him as a matter of course, based either on his birth and rank or on his figure and countenance.

Chesterfield augmented his standing within the beau monde by making use of his family connections, marrying the King’s daughter, and building the largest private house in London. These manoeuvres held him in good stead within the rough-and-tumble world of Hanoverian politics as well. His four-year term as Ambassador to The Hague was a considerable success, cementing the Second Treaty of Vienna and arranging for the marriage of Anne, the Princess Royal, with the Prince of Orange. When he returned to London in 1732, with a pregnant mistress (Elizabeth du Bouchet) in tow, he could have expected that he was well on his way into the Cabinet. But in the following year he broke decisively with Robert Walpole’s ministry over the infamous Excise Bill and found himself in vociferous opposition for the next twelve years. He fought Walpole tooth and nail over the Licensing Act, which he saw as a form of political repression as well as an attack on freedom of the press; and he gained a considerable following in the Lords as he became a gifted speaker (he was so successful there that Walpole and the King elevated Hervey to the upper house so that he could duel with him).

Finally, in 1745, he entered the Cabinet as the King’s Viceroy in Ireland, a relatively undemanding post that Chesterfield undertook with great seriousness, endearing himself to the Irish while simultaneously quelling revolutionary spirit during the dangerous Jacobite rebellion. He returned to London in great favour the following year and became one of the two Secretaries of State, a position that he had long coveted and whose powers, he soon discovered, had irritatingly strict limits. Depressed, physically exhausted, and fed up with the fastidious meddling of his fellow Secretary, his kinsman the Duke of Newcastle, he resigned the seals in 1748 and focused his sights on retirement and his architectural projects. He had, however, one final political goal in mind, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which belatedly aligned Britain with most of the countries in Europe. Chesterfield initiated the legislation, campaigned for it in Parliament, and saw it adopted in 1751 and implemented in September 1752. The Earl was characteristically casual, if not flippant, in describing his accomplishment to his son, but few legislative acts during the Hanoverian period had as many far-reaching consequences as his did. Britain now saw itself as “New Style” rather than “Old.” Chesterfield had therefore placed himself in a highly unusual position, with one foot in the beau monde and the other in Whitehall and the Lords. Looking back from the nineteenth century, Macaulay understood just how extraordinary this situation was: Chesterfield embodied “what no person in our time has been or can be, a great political leader and at the same time the acknowledged chief of the fashionable world; at the head of the House of Lords and at the head of the ton; Mr. Canning and the Duke of Devonshire in one.”

If Chesterfield had died in the 1750s, he would have been celebrated as a politician and as a wit. If his letters to his son had not been published a year after he died, he would probably have been remembered less as a statesman and more as an essayist and exemplar of aristocratic taste. He would have enjoyed a diminished reputation, but he would certainly not have been forgotten. But his letters were published in 1774 – and all hell broke loose. The collection of well over 400 letters went through multiple printings; they were carefully annotated by Horace Walpole; they were anthologized as guides to polite conduct; they were parodied and satirized; they generated paper wars and tea-table debates; they became, in short, the publishing sensation of the final quarter of the century. Those who had feared Chesterfield now had their revenge, and it was served cold by bluestockings and evangelicals alike.

Chesterfield’s modern critics have paid little attention to late eighteenth-century charges of irreligiosity, nor have they concerned themselves with issues of libertinism or immorality. But echoes of the original shrieks of horror and disdain still remain: not to the point of canceling or de-platforming the Earl from critical discourse, but by making him a lightning rod within discussions of civility in the eighteenth century. Some of these critical voices are almost gratuitous in their remarks, as when Adam Nicolson casually dismisses “the superbly obnoxious Lord Chesterfield . . . the great eighteenth-century apostle of deceit” in his study of the English gentry, or when the historian Wilfred Prest refers to the “elegant cynicism” of the “snobbish earl of Chesterfield.” More troubling are the remarks by modern commentators on matters of etiquette and social decorum. Michael Curtin argues that the “elaborate care Chesterfield devoted to manners seemed to be entirely selfish and without concern for the good of the community,” whereas Chesterfield makes precisely this connection in his essays and letters. Good manners, he wrote, “are, to particular societies, what good morals are to society in general; their cement and their security.”  Even Keith Thomas, in his recent study of civility, falls into the common trap of arguing that “Chesterfield was more concerned with external appearances than with internal sentiment.”   But when the Earl famously pronounced that “manner is all,” he did so within a specific context, advising his son that intelligence, learning, and even virtue itself would come to nothing if they were not conveyed in a suitably agreeable and gracious manner. This was Chesterfield’s understanding of the social contract: in order to be successful in one’s profession, or to flourish within polite society, one needed to accede to the social codes that were firmly in place. If Chesterfield reiterated this point ad nauseum in his letters, it was because he was afraid that his son would never fully embrace “the graces.” Chesterfield was keenly aware of the relationship between external appearance and what lies within, and one of his most important observations occurs in a letter to his son of 1749: “The world is taken by the outside of things, and we must take the world as it is; you nor I cannot set it right.”

If Chesterfield has not quite yet reached the realm of noli tangere in recent critical discourse, he has certainly been approached with caution and suspicion – and for good reason. Some of his views remain problematical and some are clearly repugnant. It is commonly said, for instance, that Chesterfield did not think much of women. It would be more precise to say that his written comments about women are often condescending, dismissive, or flagrantly misogynistic. It would also be accurate to say that he thought a good deal about women, that he enjoyed writing about them, writing to them, hearing from them, and socializing with them. One of the complications in trying to understand Chesterfield is that he could be brutal in what he said about women in general and yet be kind, attentive, and respectful when he wrote to individual women or interacted with them.  His generalizations about women are legion, and often derisory, as in his notorious description of them as “but children of a larger growth.” They “have an entertaining tattle, and sometimes wit; but for solid, reasoning good sense, I never in my life knew one that had it, or who reasoned or acted consequently for four-and-twenty hours together.” A man only trifles with them, “plays with them, humours and flatters them, as he does with a sprightly, forward child.”

Chesterfield’s misogyny – but surely only in part – was based on his fairly low estimation of humankind in general, which had been confirmed during his many years of service at the Court of George II, as an ambassador on the Continent, and as one of the three senior members of government. He was not a misanthrope, however; he was ready to accept and admire the talents and good graces of his contemporaries; but he saw himself as a realist, a pragmatist, someone who had a keen sense of how the world worked. He wrote to his son that “I have been behind the scenes, both of pleasure and business. I have seen all the coarse pulleys and dirty ropes, which exhibit and move all the gaudy machines; and I have seen and smelt the tallow-candles which illuminate the whole decoration, to the astonishment and admiration of the ignorant audience.” He also understood the fragility and artificiality of the conventions that underpinned polite civil discourse and polite behaviour, including dissimulation as a mild form of hypocrisy. Polite society was predicated on the art of pleasing, of speaking and acting – and bowing, walking, and dancing – in a certain manner, a manner based on complaisance and accommodation rather than on blunt honesty, let alone direct confrontation.

What held true for social interaction was also essential for making one’s way in the professions, especially for a son whose illegitimacy closed off so many natural avenues for advancement. Young Philip must learn to master the “inoffensive arts,” including various forms of flattery, and he must learn to be the absolute master of his countenance and passions. “Volto sciolto con pensieri stretti” is the motto that Chesterfield embedded in letter after letter to his son: maintain an open face but keep your thoughts hidden. Discover, moreover, what lies behind the mask of those with whom you would socialize or work. “Penetrate” their hidden recesses; find out what their ruling passions are, for by knowing your colleagues’ strengths and weaknesses you will be able to further your country’s business as well as your own career.

Chesterfield was known to his contemporaries as a master of irony – in his essays, his speeches in the Lords, his elegant put-downs – and yet he could not have anticipated the ironies that would characterize his own life. His letters are filled with a roll-call of the complaints from which he suffered throughout his lifetime, particularly from deafness during his final two decades, and yet he lived to be 81, a very ripe old age at the time. Having told his son and his friends that he expected to die at any moment, beginning in the 1750s, he outlived almost all of his illustrious contemporaries. Although he enjoyed certain claims to fame during his lifetime, he could not have imagined the posthumous fame and notoriety his name would evoke once the letters to his son had been published. And although his ambition was to become one of the leading politicians of his era, he has instead gone down in history as one of the most important cultural figures of his age.

What then remains of the Earl’s legacy?  Chesterfield House was razed to the ground in the 1930s to make way for an undistinguished pile of expensive flats. His country retreat in Blackheath became a tea house at the nadir of its existence and is now kept on life-support as the Ranger’s House by English Heritage. Chesterfield’s accomplishments and speeches as a politician were soon eclipsed by the those of Burke and Fox, Pitt and Peel. The hundreds of French and Italian words he introduced into the English language – including etiquette, dilettante, gauche, picnic, brochure, rouge, sang-froid, coterie, hors de combat – have long been fully absorbed within the King’s English. His maxims and bon mots, which used to be heavily anthologized, are now only rarely invoked, and the one most frequently cited, under the heading of “sex” – “the pleasure is momentary, the position ridiculous, the expense damnable” – is almost certainly not of his coinage, although he probably would not have denied it.

What does remain is his literary œuvre – the letters, essays, and character sketches – and a reputation for refined taste that has never entirely disappeared. Even if you live in America, you can reside in Chesterfield County, Virginia, paddle on Lake Chesterfield in Missouri, wear a Chesterfield topcoat with its velvet collar, sit on a Chesterfield sofa, sport Chesterfield cufflinks and tie pin, lather yourself using a Chesterfield shaving brush, drink a Chesterfield lager, use a Chesterfield lighter to smoke a Chesterfield cigarette, and follow the actress Jennifer Anniston on social media. “Jen” has named her latest dog Lord Chesterfield and, needless to say, he is a celebrity, too. The Chesterfield name has, in fact, been adopted by more American brands than that of any other aristocratic British family. These may seem garish forms of tribute but, after so much of his potential legacy has disappeared, they continue to reflect the Earl’s reputation for elegant taste centuries after his death.

Professor Richard Wendorf is the author of Chesterfield: the Perils of Politeness (forthcoming) and Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society, which won the biography prize from the American society for Eighteenth-Century Studies

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Endnotes, May 2024

Abbildung des Bruckner, Anton [1824-1896], Künstlerpostkartea, credit Wikipedia

Endnotes, May 2024

In this edition: Bruckner, restored; Welsh composers honoured in Cardiff; reviewed by Stuart Millson

Siva Oke, Director of the SOMM record label, turns her attention once again to the world of vintage recordings. Like an art gallery restorer, she and her handpicked team of audio specialists have ‘cleaned up’ a number of Old Masters, casting a dazzling new light on recordings of years gone by. With Elgar performances of the past under their belt, SOMM ~ in this, the 200th anniversary year of the birth of Anton Bruckner ~ now turn their attention to that great Austrian symphonist (and organist), whose works have been described as ‘cathedrals in sound’. Spanning a thirty-year period (1944 to 1974) the first volume of ‘Bruckner from the Archives’ (a two-CD set) brings to the attention of Brucknerians and audiophiles, performances by the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz, under Kurt Voss (in the occasionally Schumann-like Symphony in F Minor from 1863); and the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by the American, Dean Dixon, to name but two of the partnerships. The latter artists appear in a superb, utterly clear-sounding heavyweight 1959 recording of Bruckner’s too-infrequently-played Overture in G Minor ~ a piece which bears a resemblance to Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas, yet with all the intensity and Gothic tension that are Bruckner’s hallmarks.

The audio restoration and remastering of these fine interpretations is the work of the American academic, teacher, technician, and musician (he is an oboist of considerable standing) Lani Spahr, who has steered a course toward the overlooked and unknown parts of the composer’s output. Bruckner’s March in D Minor and his Three Pieces for Orchestra are revelations, and proof that the composer could produce works of succinct proportions, and not just the epic symphonies which fill the second-half programmes of Europe’s major orchestras, or, in the case of the Eighth Symphony, the whole evening. The 1940s’ sound ~ taken from original records ~ gives the Three Pieces a curious spine-tingling intimacy. And at the end of the F Minor Symphony taped in 1974, it was affecting to hear the warm applause of an audience.

Disc Two of the set brings us another rare gem, Bruckner’s String Quartet, and a 1950s’ performance from the airwaves, this time capturing Eugen Jochum and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony No1. Jochum went on in later years to record a Bruckner cycle with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon, even coming to London toward the closing years of his career to record Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the LSO ~ so followers and admirers of this conductor will relish SOMM’s discovery of this particular Bruckner broadcast.

We look forward to the next editions in the series; to further uplifting recordings and to new light, shed on a composer we thought we knew.

 *        *        *

Standing in, on 11th April, for its indisposed Conductor-Laureate, the Japanese maestro and British music enthusiast Tadaaki Otaka, conductor Jac Van Steen led the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall in an absorbing programme of 20th-century Welsh orchestral music, but culminating in a rendition of Elgar’s (1899) Enigma Variations. The strings of the BBC Welsh orchestra responded to the silvery tides flowing through Grace Williams’s Sea Sketches, a work inspired by the South Wales Gower coast and the confluence of the Bristol Channel and Atlantic. The composer (a pupil of Vaughan Williams) came close to capturing the great drama ~ and occasional flat calm ~ of the sea’s moods, as might be heard in Britten’s sea interludes from Peter Grimes. The Cambrian coast and country also provided the background for William Mathias, in his Harp Concerto ~ a work for smaller orchestral forces. Catrin Finch was the soloist in the concerto, which has often been seen as an airy, brooding, celestial work, but which, in many ways, actually creates a percussive effect ~ ‘packing a punch’ (Miss Finch’s words) and conjuring a sense of the blood red sunsets and ‘wild sky’ evoked by Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas ~ another of Mathias’s inspirations.

Scampering, darting woodwind at the opening of the piece create a feeling of fresh air ~ sea-air, birds on the wing, light falling on waves, or clouds suddenly blocking out, then opening the sky to gleaming sunshine. At one point a trumpet plays in the background, a straightforward motif (later taken up on strings) that hints, in its cadence, at a sense of distance and mystery. A celeste also shimmers: a complement to the harp, with a yearning pastoral oboe theme then rising from the embracing warmth of the understated orchestral sound. But a moving climax is reached in the first movement, with timpani and cymbals helping to build the excitement and power of this unusually constructed and orchestrated work. The timpani then return in the more austere orchestral landscape that is the second movement; a more disturbing night-music sequence ~ a sense for the listener of being lost in wild woodland, or in a distorted reality ~ or unreality. The finale danced to a happy, optimistic conclusion, through what seemed like Welsh village lanes ~ the sun on our backs; Mathias affirming life and Nature, the harp and Celeste hinting at that subliminal world of Celtic imagination.

For Elgar’s variations, dedicated by the composer ‘to my friends pictured within’, a much larger ensemble was, of course, required, and it might have been tempting for the orchestra to play this ‘war-horse’ as if on autopilot. Yet in their journey through Elgar’s social circle in late-Victorian Great Malvern, a real sense of occasion ~ of the shaping of real characters, of the composer’s life and times, was achieved. The Winifred Norbury variation (just before the famous Nimrod) evoked a touching watercolour of a quiet gentlewoman and her elegant home, a Britain that may have gone, but which at least lives on in music. And at the finale, Elgar’s self-portrait, we grasped again the real splendour of the composer’s style: confident, with an impetuous letting loose of emotion ~ the composer from the border lands between England and Wales deservedly climbing onto a plinth beside Brahms and Strauss.

CD details: Bruckner from the Archives, Vol. 1. SOMM Ariadne, 5025.

Just before we went to press, the sad death was announced of conductor Sir Andrew Davis. A great exponent of British music, Sir Andrew had a long and fruitful partnership with both the Proms and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We hope to bring you a full tribute in the next edition.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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The Last Caravaggio

Caravaggio, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, credit wikipedia

The Last Caravaggio

Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, National Gallery Global, London, 2024, the catalogue of the exhibition The Last Caravaggio at the National Gallery, 18th April-21 July 2024, reviewed by Leslie Jones

According to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, one of Caravaggio’s three seventeenth century biographers, some of his younger, fellow artists considered him “the unique imitator of nature”. Yet more conservative commentators, including Bellori himself, disdained paintings of figures that were “so drastically unidealized”, as compared with the works of Raphael and Michelangelo.[i] Indeed, it was Caravaggio’s “extreme fidelity to the world around him” that was considered by some as “mechanical, uninformed and even unworthy”.[ii] John Ruskin, that Victorian arbiter of taste, made some scathing comments about the artist. Following a visit to the Louvre, on 8th September 1849, Ruskin wrote the following entry in his diary,

Kingliness and Holiness and Manliness and Thoughtfulness were never by words so hymned or so embodied or so enshrined as they have been by Titian and Angelico and Veronese – so never were Blasphemy and Cruelty and Horror and degradation and decrepitude of intellect – and all that has sunk or will sink Humanity to Hell – so written in words as they are stamped upon the canvases of Salvator and Jordaens and Caravaggio and modern France.

What was Ruskin’s beef? His ideal of art, as the diary entry suggests, was ultimately religious and moralistic, somewhat akin to JH Newman’s conception of education at its best. Ruskin described the beautiful in art as “a gift of God”.

In Dr Whitlum-Cooper’s expert opinion, the “discomfort” caused by Caravaggio’s influence on art “goes a long way to explaining why Caravaggio was largely forgotten in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”.[iii] Ruskin, for one, was doubtless offended by Caravaggio’s “sensual portrayals of young men, in conjunction with a lack of erotic female characters in his work” (see Caravaggio, in The Art Story). Likewise, by the “penetration of the Hun’s arrow”, in The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and the blood gushing from the wound, which had what the author calls “an unavoidably sexual connotation”. [iv] Effie Gray stated that the reason why Ruskin “did not make me his Wife” (i.e. why he failed to consummate the marriage) was “because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April (1848)”. Menstruation, or body odour, or pubic hair may have caused Ruskin’s disgust. Apropos Ruskin’s alleged paedophilia, perhaps what he “most valued in pre-pubescent girls was…the fact that they were not (yet) fully sexually developed” (see Caravaggio, The Art Story).

According to one school of thought, a bad person cannot be a good painter. And as Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones reminds us, Caravaggio was bibulous, irascible and prone to violence. He was regarded as “a streetfighter, a killer…but not an intellectual” (‘The Last Caravaggio review – a gripping and murderously dark finale’, 16 April). Jones emphasises the (projected?) fury of the rebuffed Hunnish king in The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Here, he concludes, is “a dumbfounding drama of rage, violence, death…”. Violence and death are recurrent themes in the artist’s late work, as in The Beheading of John the Baptist and Resurrection of Lazarus (see Jonathan Jones, ‘Who killed Caravaggio and why’, Guardian, 12 April). More evidence, for his detractors, of what Bellori called his lack of “invention, decorum, disegno”.

In 1876, the Academia in Venice allowed Ruskin to place Vittore Carpaccio’s Dream of St Ursula (1876) in a private room so that he could make a copy. In Carpaccio’s painting, an angel appears in a dream to tell the saint of her impending martyrdom but to assure her that she will be welcomed in heaven. It seems that Ruskin, now losing touch with reality, identified Saint Ursula with his former pupil Rose La Touche. Ruskin was convinced that Rose, who had died in 1875, was sending coded messages of consolation through the painting.[v]

We commend Dr Whitlum-Cooper’s splendid introduction to Carvaggio’s life and work.

Endnotes

[i] Francesca Whitlum-Cooper, The Last Caravaggio, p 13
[ii] Ibid., p 13
[iii] Ibid., p14
[iv] Ibid., p 27
[v]  See Leslie Jones, ‘Chiaroscuro – Ruskin in darkness and in light’, Quarterly Review, Spring 2012

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

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“We must Educate our Masters”

‘Socrates Address’, Louis Joseph Lebrun, 1867, credit Wikipedia

“We must Educate our Masters”

By Duke Maskell

Whenever the word “standards” crops up in connection with education, it’s time to lose heart (or to emulate Goering). Only two things are going to be said: that standards ought to be raised and that such-and-such is the way to do it, by launching this initiative or putting in place that policy, and by some arrangement of block-and-tackle.

The trouble is that the standard of public discussion is now so abysmally low that standards have become widely unintelligible except in the form of those protected by the British Standards Institute and for which a certificate can be awarded. The word has become assimilated to quality control and audits. Standards—as now understood—are things to be specified “objectively”, measured and raised (or lowered) by choice. All governments have to do is will the end and provide the means—without it mattering what the character is either of the government that offers to perform the miracle or the people who are to benefit from it. And yet the best educated government can’t achieve more than the general level of culture permits and the worst can’t escape the limitations of its own character.

The way the word “standards” is commonly used in political discussion is itself a sign of those limitations and of their power to frustrate good intentions. The absurdity of governments undertaking to raise standards in religion or love or virtue is (let’s hope) self-evident. A politician who promised to deliver a higher standard of faith, hope or charity, would be announcing only that he didn’t know what faith, hope or charity were. It’s a sign of how deeply uneducated public discussion in this country has become that the same promise made in the case of education isn’t found absurd at all.

Only someone genuinely religious could ever affect the religious nature of anyone else. And only a government of men and women themselves educated could ever make any difference to the state of education in this or any other country. And no one who was genuinely educated could ever talk as glibly about levering up standards, delivering quality and all the rest of it, as our present politicians of all parties do.

Attempts by the uneducated to raise educational standards betray just how cripplingly low our standards are—not amongst those whose standards are lowest but amongst those whose are supposedly highest; and the same attempts make our standards lower still. What has the massive expansion of university education done but make us worse educated than we were 60 years ago?

Who could dream up the various bodies, which, over the years–from awareness that Higher Education has fallen below scratch–have been given the job of improving it. There was the Research Assessment Exercise (1986-2008)—which supposedly judged (on a scale of 1 to 5) and rewarded (with money) the quality of research in university departments but which actually did nothing much beyond counting, and rewarding, the number of pages produced … until it got replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (2008-) which does the same job but awards stars instead of numbers (none to four). Then there was (or, perhaps, still is) the Quality Assurance Agency (1997-), inspired by the Dearing Report, written by dunces for dunces.[1] The QAA used to bestow marks (out of 24) indifferently on, for instance, both university departments that try to educate their students in foreign languages and those from which students graduate without any idea of what makes the languages they have studied worth knowing. Its work may have been taken over by the Office for Students (2018-). Or, to go further back in time, only an uneducated people would have failed not to considered themselves  swindled by Ofsted’s 1993 report on “Standards and Quality” in A-level examinations. It doubtless cost a fortune to produce but said absolutely nothing.[2] No country whose standards were capable of being raised would ever have commissioned the Charter for Higher Education of 1993 or the Dearing Report of 1997. Or, if they had, would have burned them once they saw the results.

The most important qualification for any educational reformer is pessimism. What we most need is an educated understanding of education; and we will never get that from the DfE, REF, QAA or Ofsted. But there is no need to look back to Socrates or J. H. Newman, or Jane Austen.[3] Or to Dickens and D. H. Lawrence. But imagine trying to convince any Minister for Education or the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of that. It would be a task more like religious conversion than educational reform.

How to have high standards in a mass university

Only in a country where egalitarianism is rampant could anybody wonder whether expanding the university population seventeen-fold—from 3% in 1960 to about 50% now—must mean lowering standards. In any art (or sport or science), everyone wants to work with other people who are at least as good as (but perhaps not too much better than) himself. Everyone recognises that that’s the way to do his best and learn to do better. What’s the use of a boxer sparring with someone he can hit at will and who can’t hit him? If you’re a would-be actor with no sense of timing what’s the use of your rehearsing with the RSC. What’s the use of arguing with someone who needs furnishing with not just an argument but an understanding? In arts of every kind, the best calls to the best as strongly as, in procreation, youth calls to youth; and it’s the best that shows us what an art, of any kind, can amount to and what there might be to value in it.

The need for a sort of natural selection is felt just as strongly at the lowest level as at the highest. Boys playing football in school playgrounds form a pecking order and exclude the least able quite pitilessly. And the excluded, however disappointed, accept their fate without protest, as just and necessary. (Who, after all, wants to spoil the game?) The arts that people actually care about—that they show they care about in practice—are all frankly and unforgivingly elitist.

Which is how it is in any university worthy of the name. The defining activity in universities isn’t lecturing and being lectured at; it’s discussion and argument, a disciplined refinement of ordinary conversation. Students of, say, philosophy aren’t learning about philosophy, they’re learning to think philosophically, to do it; and they don’t learn that from a source, as information or a methodically coached skill. They learn in the company of others, in the to-and-fro of talk, by trial and error, and subject to the criticism, correction, confirmation of others, just as anyone acquires any other art. “Its art is the art of social life,” as Newman said. But let half the population into the room and what art is anyone going to acquire?

But not in the eyes of our political masters and the liberal establishment they are drawn from. For, uniquely, in the case of the academic arts, the laws of social life (and the school playground) are suspended. A seventeen-fold expansion of the university population needn’t mean lower standards, not when, as the Good Lord Dearing said, we can accompany it with a commitment to high ones. You just put in place, firstly, your national policy objective—to combine participation for all with high standards from top to bottom—and then your mechanisms for achieving it—a participation strategy, a progress monitoring mechanism and an achievement review provision, plus a Quality Assurance Agency with expert teams, benchmark information, a framework of qualifications and threshold standards.

But this is what should be done. Put the policy of the last 60 years into reverse. Close three quarters of the universities, get rid of all the fake subjects like ‘Business Studies’,’ Hospitality Science’ and ‘Aromatherapy’ (instead of the real ones like Philosophy and Music), reduce the number of students to one in 10 (or 20), reinstate grants—and save £bns every year. And save a bit more  by getting rid of all the standard-policing agencies like the REF and QAA, which are only thought necessary because the universities are no longer universities.

Who assures the quality of the Quality Assurance Agency?

Universities, naturally, dislike being inspected; and, if they do badly in an inspection, as, inevitably, some do, they, naturally, dislike even more having the fact broadcast. And 20 years or so ago, they must have said so. For in 2001 the government decided to cut the proportion of departments it inspects from 100% to 10%. And John Randall, the then Chief Executive of the QAA, resigned in protest.

What were we supposed to think? That without the QAA’s scrutiny, the quality and standards of university courses would still be safe in the universities’ own hands or that they would no longer be, as Mr Randall put it, “sufficiently robust to safeguard the interests and information needs of students, professional bodies and employers”?

Two things Mr Randall was surely right about: that academic standards are not a private matter for universities and that the less independent, public scrutiny they receive the lower they are likely to be. But, it ought to be noted, he had a peculiar idea of what makes scrutiny independent and public. I don’t think he would count as “public” the haphazard and unofficial network of judgements that make up the reputation of, say, a writer or a journal and which used to make up the reputation of university departments too, before we needed a government agency for “assuring quality”.

For such a network is made up of individual judgements that are—in contrast to his “public”—private. They are occasional, provisional and always subject to contradiction: my English master, for instance, telling me, 60-odd years ago, that if I couldn’t get into Cambridge I should try for University College London or Bristol but not Oxford. Or advising someone they would be wasting their time studying anything with “Media” or “Leisure” in the title. Such criticism is certainly necessary but it has no public status as Mr Randall or any of his successors understand the term. It’s just “personal opinion”. By “independent” or “public” scrutiny, Chief Executives, with a remit, like Mr Randall, never mean any sum of fallible personal opinions and observations, however public and publicly debated. In their view of things, Shakespeare himself couldn’t be known to be a great playwright and poet without having first been pronounced so by a government agency with a remit to pronounce so.

They always and only ever mean the unimpeachable verdicts delivered by an organ of state set up to deliver unimpeachable verdicts: judgements made systematically—through “arrangements for assuring quality”—and turned into “information” (that is, put beyond contradiction). By “public” they mean “official”. Their “public” is the public of Clause 4 and state monopolies, of the soviets. It is the “public” of the capitalist apparatchik—of a CEO with a government remit.

That Mr Randall resigned when the Agency he headed was emasculated showed that he was a conscientious public servant and an honourable man but it didn’t mean that his resignation was necessarily a significant loss to education. The absurdly named Quality Assurance Agency is supposed to “assure” the standards of university teaching but it never occurs to anyone responsible for it that its own standards might need “assuring” too—that that’s what criticism is like, always inviting a rejoinder, never information, without a bottom line,

A QAA verdict on one of Manchester University’s departments, for instance, was that its final-year work “lacked sufficient academic rigour in terms of theoretical underpinning, critical analysis, and familiarity with current academic research”—which might look like a judgement worth having—but only if you didn’t know that the subject in question was ‘Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism’, sure to be made fraudulent by the least touch of anything resembling “theory”, “analysis” or “research”. The Quality Assurance Agency was merely reproducing and reinforcing the fraudulence it ought to have been exposing. Which is to say that it is a fraud too. And then, of course, there were the newspapers—themselves no better—reporting the QAA’s verdict as if it were akin to a Which? Guide.

The QAA and the Ofs, with or without conscientious public servants at their heads, can be nothing but hopelessly unfitted for the task of scrutinizing university standards because they lack the very quality Mr Randall unthinkingly thought characterised the QAA of his time, independence. The test for the government-funded QAA of what is and is not proper university work is the same as that of the government-funded universities themselves: is the government willing to fund the study of this ‘subject’? What other test could there be? If the government pays for half the population to go to university, what half the population does when it gets there must be proper university work, whatever it is. If the government pays for university departments of ‘Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism’, then ‘Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism’ must be a real academic subject. If university students may read (shall we say “read”?) ‘Philosophy and Waste Management’ at Northampton University College, ‘Theology and Water Resources’ or ‘Aromatherapy and Politics’, at Oxford Brookes, ‘Healing Arts and Popular Music’ at Derby, ‘Therapeutic Bodywork’ at Westminster, ‘Watersports Studies’ at Southampton Institute, all these courses, and the hundreds like them, must be, as John Clare, Education Editor of the Daily Telegraph, said (August 15, 2001), “intellectually challenging and academically rigorous”.

Mr Randall went to the QAA, he said, “from outside the academic world”—as if that qualified him to judge it. But what “from outside the academic world” meant for him and the essentially uneducated political class that established the QAA and appointed him its Chief Executive was not ‘from the world, the world at large’, of general, unspecialised intelligence and common judgment, the really public world, in which, for example, newspapers exist; it meant only that he came from one department of officialdom, that of trade unions and professional bodies, and went to another, that of government agencies, where he inspected the workings of a third, that of the government-funded university system. Understandably, one of the things he carried from his old employment to his new was a perfect confidence that what is official is real. How could he not?

QAAs and Ofss are, perhaps, able to say whether the departments they inspect are good of their kind; what they can’t say is whether the kinds they are good of are any good or not and whether the work done in them is worth doing. Such questions, the most important of all, aren’t—for them—askable. They belong to that category of things of which, being unable to speak, we must forever remain silent. The inspectors inspect the quality of the teaching not of what is taught. Let what is said in the lecture or seminar be never so dull or trivial or confused, if it is taught effectively, that is, can be reproduced by those it is taught to, it is taught well. And let what is said be never so profound or important, if the lecture’s outcomes don’t match its aims and objectives, it has been taught badly. The inadequacies of a Wittgenstein or a Leavis wouldn’t succeed in this regime.

The universities are full of fake subjects taught by fake teachers, studied by fake students and inspected by fake inspectors; and the more fake education we provide and pay for, the less we are able to distinguish it from the genuine. But the QAA can’t say so because it is just as much the creature of its master the government as the universities that put on the courses it inspects. And it is the government, of course, that wants such courses. How else can it fulfil its boast of putting one-in-two of us through so-called universities? How else, except by destroying the universities as universities, can we prosper in the competitive world of the twenty-first century?

Duke Maskell writes Reactionary Essays at dukemaskell.substack.com
He is the joint author of The New Idea of a University, Imprint Academic, 2002

ENDNOTES

[1]The New Idea of a University, pp. 63-71, Duke Maskell and Ian Robinson, Imprint Academic, 2002
[2] Ibid, pp. 122-144
[3] Ibid, pp. 36-56

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