A Decade of Austerity has Changed Nothing

This October, it will be ten years since global bank Lehman Brothers went under and the last financial crash took hold. Because of this, people all over the world are living under “austerity measures” (these actually vary on where one lives, but they tend to fall under this heading) which have been promised to end “soon”. What’s never clear is when “soon” is and it doesn’t look like being in the near future.

Looking at it from the distance of ten years, I can’t honestly see what has changed, apart from the haves having more and the have nots having less. Admittedly, there weren’t as many food banks, pound shops, charity shops, people sleeping on the streets, people having to choose between heating and eating, people on benefits being allowed to burn to death because Local Authorities took the cheapest option when it came to refurbishments…

A little while ago I read Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, and it made me angry as anything. I’m starting to wonder if I should just do a re-read of all her books as they are still as relevant today as they were when they were published. This tells me that despite those promises to the contrary, a decade of austerity has changed nothing at all.

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A Quick Catch Up

I’ve been reading quite a lot lately, but I’ve been having some trouble converting what I’ve read into potential blog posts. This is not because the books have been particularly tedious or overtly political (although a couple have) but the reverse – quite often, there was so much I wanted to say that I didn’t know where to start.

For example, one of the books I read recently was East West Street by Philippe Sands. Now, on the surface, this is a book about Nuremburg and the development of international criminal law, in particular relating to genocide and crimes against humanity. I say “on the surface” because it very quickly becomes apparent that the book is about so much more; a brief history of Poland from 1900-1945, biographies of the two men at the heart of the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity, and also the Nazi governor of Poland who was tried at Nuremburg; a story of how all of this has impacted on Sands’ own family history as a child of Polish Jews who fled as soon as they could. It’s very reminiscent of The Hare With The Amber Eyes, but instead of a collection of netsuke featuring international criminal law.

I’ve also read Collecting the World, which is a biography of Hans Sloane, the man whose incessant collecting formed the basis of not only the British and Natural History Museums, but also Chelsea Physic Garden. He also gave his name to Sloane Square and Hans Place in London and, like many men of his time, made his money through slavery and sugar production.

One of the books that made me incredibly angry was This Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes, which is the only book I’ve found so far that deals with Australia as a penal colony. I was shocked by a lot of what I read, by the treatment not only of the convicts and free settlers but also the Aboriginal tribes they came into contact with. I can quite understand why many Australians insist that they are not convict born; whilst it’s easy to decry that as snobbery, I think I’d be pretty ashamed to admit it as well.

Lastly, I’ve also read Hidden Figures, the story of four African American women mathematicians who helped put a man on the moon. If I’m going to be honest, as a description that tells you nothing, because it starts with the creation of the US Air Force, the development of fighter aircraft, the breaking of the sound barrier and only in the second half of the book does it start to deal with the space race. By this time, we have also dealt with the realities of segregation in Virginia in the 1950s, met more than four gifted African American women and got a taste for some of the work that they were responsible for. I don’t know where I’d start if I wanted to write a blog post about this, because there is so much in it.

I will try to do better in future, but as I’ve just discovered that Naomi Klein has a new book out – which I will read, and I don’t doubt will make me very angry indeed – I may have to write about other things for a while.

Thomas Hardy Sort of Does Gothic

After about four goes, I’ve finally found a novel by Thomas Hardy I actually like – and it’s not one of his well-known ones, although it was mentioned on University Challenge once. Called A Laodicean, it explores the links between old and new money, culture, architecture and the status of women. It has a fantastic villain too – he really is a scheming piece of work, only lacking a moustache to twiddle to achieve perfection. I honestly can’t work out why it’s not more popular than it is.

It also appears to me to contain many Gothic notes, although there is very little about this book that actually puts it in the category of literary Gothic. The most obvious one is the clash between medievalism and modern progress, exemplified by the relationship between Paula Power (the owner of the castle, who inherited her wealth from her railway magnate father) and Charlotte de Stancy, whose ancestors had owned the castle since it was built in the Middle Ages and whose father sold it to pay off gambling debts). Charlotte cares little for her ancestry, preferring to look forward, whereas Paula wishes at one point in the novel that she had such history, telling Somerset that she wished she was a De Stancey.

Throughout the novel, Paula oscillates between medieval romanticism – perhaps best represented by the work of William Morris, which may have been contemporary with Hardy’s writing – and the realities of late Victorian life, represented by the telegraph, the railway – and, perhaps, even her name. This conflict is a key aspect of Gothic literature and Hardy makes no attempt to disguise his use of it to move the plot along. And yet – the novel doesn’t feel like a Gothic; the earlier chapters are set in Wessex in the late summer, and have that golden/russet quality which I always associate with Hardy. I find myself back at the point where I wonder what makes a book Gothic other than critics calling it a Gothic, and I think the canon is a little narrow on this point.

Anyway, I’m just happy – and still slightly surprised – that I’ve actually managed to read a Thomas Hardy novel without wanting to jump off a cliff at the end.

CHARLES I ON HORSEBACK WITH HIS EQUERRY – VAN DYCK

I’ve recently finished a book about the sale of Charles I’s quite substantial art collection, and Charles II’s attempts to reconstitute it to form what is now the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, the book was written some years before the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy although the revised afterword did allude to the prospect of some of the paintings coming together for the first time since the mid-1600s. However, the book opens with a discussion of this painting, which apparently (according to Art UK) is in Cornwall (although there are other versions in Apsley House and the Manchester Art Gallery); but I have a rather different thesis than the author.

I’m fairly convinced that this image is partly responsible for the English Civil War. A bold statement, and I know full well that there were many other causes of the war, but I think this painting was instrumental. Here’s why.

Charles Stuart was never meant to be king. He had an older brother, Henry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 15. Henry was, like his Tudor namesake, very much a sportsman and soldier, fit and able and keen on a variety of gentlemanly pursuits. He was also a keen art collector, and after his death his art collection was divided between his parents (James I and Anne of Denmark) and his younger brother, who had been considered by the family weak, feeble and not expected to survive for long. Indeed, it took James I five years after Henry’s death to have Charles proclaimed Prince of Wales, because nobody thought he would live long enough to succeed his father.

So already this painting feeds a lie; Van Dyck wishes to give the impression that Charles was militarily capable, authoritative and a bringer of peace throughout his kingdom. Contemporary evidence demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth. Charles, reliant on advisors who wanted nothing more than to advance their own causes, was indecisive, frequently deceitful and genuinely believed that, as King, he could do no wrong. He was above human law in all respects, right down to paying his debts. He never talked about money, as it was vulgar, and when chased for payment of his growing art collection, was affronted that these artworks were not gifts to His Majesty.

In creating this image of his monarch, I do feel that Van Dyck was pandering to Charles’ vanity and in so doing, promoted the image of Charles that he very quickly came to believe. It was unfortunate, then, that it proved so costly; in treating Parliament as a vassal and in believing he was above the law of man Charles lost everything. This begs the question of whether a more realistic portrait would have changed anything; I believe that it would have deprived Western Art of a master of baroque portraiture, but it might have given the King a much-needed reality check. We shall never know.