The archaeologists

April 18 2015

Some archaeologists from Winckelmann onwards: those who entered the popular imagination, or were known to non-specialists, in the UK.

No earlier antiquarians, no current names: these are from the great age of the profession, when the big discoveries were made, with some perhaps marginal inclusions. Equally or more important discoveries were made by less famous people. We remember the excavator of Knossos, but not the excavators of Hattusa or Anyang.

Thomas Ashby

Gertrude Bell

Frank Calvert

Howard Carter

Vere Gordon Childe (last post)

Jacques Cousteau

Glyn Daniel (last post)

Wilhelm Dörpfeld

Arthur Evans

Jacquetta Hawkes

TE Lawrence

Austen Henry Layard

Louis and Mary Leakey

John Lubbock

Max Mallowan

Prosper Mérimée

Theodor Mommsen

Stewart Perowne

William Matthew Flinders Petrie

Stuart Piggott

Augustus Pitt Rivers

Michael Rostovtzeff

Heinrich Schliemann

Lady Hester Stanhope

Marc Aurel Stein

Mortimer Wheeler (last post)

Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Leonard Woolley

Yigael Yadin

Archaeology, it is often pointed out, reflected colonialism and its attitudes, not least because it sometimes operated as organised looting (Wikipedia on repatriation demands: it doesn’t refer to Schliemann’s exports), but it was not automatically true that the white archaeologist organised “native” diggers: it was only under Sir John Hubert Marshall, Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1902 to ’28, that Indians were first allowed to participate in excavations. The Survey had been launched in 1861; the first Indian Director-General was Daya Ram Sahni, from 1931 to ’35. The last white Director-General was Mortimer Wheeler, from 1944 to ’48.

It was, nevertheless, usually Europeans who started the work outside Europe, or professionalised the methods. China had Johan Gunnar Andersson.

The French invasion of Egypt in 1798 led to the birth of modern Egyptology.

Ruins can serve modern regimes: Yigael Yadin made archaeology support Zionism, Shah Reza glorified his rule at the ruins of Persepolis, Saddam Hussein his at the ruins of Babylon, ISIS tried to bolster its legitimacy by destroying Nimrud and Hatra.

In a way, the rise of the modern archaeologist paralleled the rise of the orchestral conductor. Both were conjurers and became stars in consequence. Their gestures from the podium and in the field were not so dissimilar.

Romancing Schliemann (old post).

Sir Mortimer on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?

April 17 2015

BBC television, May 3 1956.

The programme ran from 1952 to ’59. The “chairman” (of many or most episodes) was Glyn Daniel. The producer (of much or all of the series) was David Attenborough. In each episode a different museum would challenge the studio panel with its objects.

Panel here: Professors V Gordon Childe and Seán Ó Ríordáin and the vain Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

Challenger: National Museum of Prague, in the silent person of Dr Jiří Neústupný. Mary Adams of the BBC went to Prague to meet him and bring him to London. For many episodes, it was Attenborough who made the visits. This, incidentally, was broadcast before the Hungarian Revolution.

Attenborough is already arranging ambitious travel for the sake of a television arts programme. He would bring this to a new level when he commissioned Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation a little over a decade later.

This was the year in which, as a result of appearances on this programme, Mortimer Wheeler, who was not a pop singer, became Television Personality of the Year.

Ó Ríordáin died of cancer in the following year. Was he related to the poet? An appreciation by Glyn Daniel is here (JSTOR).

Childe was the author of a Pelican that was in the bedrooms or beside the fireplace of every educated household in England in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s: What Happened in History. Less than eighteen months after this, he jumped to his death off Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

Le printemps

April 16 2015

Millet, Le printemps

Millet, Le printemps, 1868-73, Musée d’Orsay

Clausen, The Apple Tree

Clausen, The Apple Tree, 1940, private collection


April 15 2015

If frisking lambs have ever been described in music, it’s from 3:24 to 3:39 here:

This is Milhaud’s Concertino de printemps for violin and chamber orchestra, opus 135, 1934. A year of poor health. It isn’t Groupe des Six superficiality, but a little masterpiece of French pastoralism. The violin “is […] like a butterfly among flowers that finally disappears in a ray of sunlight” (Paul Collaer).

Milhaud recorded it three times as conductor. The first time with Yvonne Astruc, the dedicatee, and an unnamed orchestra in 1935, the second time with Louis Kaufman and the Orchestre national de la Radiodiffusion française in 1949, the third time with Szymon Goldberg and the Ensemble des Solistes des Concerts Lamoureux in 1958. This is the Kaufman. You can hear the Astruc here and the Goldberg here.

Milhaud wrote many pieces with spring in the title. Aside from the concertino:

Le printemps, violin and piano, opus 18, 1914. I linked to an old recording of this here. It found its way, in orchestral garb, into his incidental music for chorus and orchestra for Claudel’s Protée, opus 17, 1913-19, or at least into the symphonic suite made from it (opus 57, 1919, which in a way is his Sacre du printemps).

Printemps, piano, Book I, opus 25, 1915-19. The first of two cahiers of short pieces. They are rarely performed or recorded. The best recording is with Christian Ivaldi on the fine old EMI record of music by Milhaud for one, two and four pianos.

The third string quartet, opus 32, 1916 is subtitled En souvenir du printemps 1914 (post here). It was written in memory of his friend from his youth in Provence Léo Latil, who died on the front in 1915. “We never wearied of walking along between the fields of wheat, blue-green in spring, bordered with almond trees in bloom, dwarf oaks, and pines, through exquisite landscapes, some of which, like the Château de l’Horloge, evoked historical memories: according to Chateaubriand, it was in this solid, roomy farmhouse that Napoleon spent the night on his return from Elba. Sometimes we went as far as Malvalat, the Latils’ estate near Granettes, a village that took its name from the painter Granet, who lived there […].” (Notes sans musique)

Symphonie de chambre no 1, Le printemps, opus 43, 1917. This is the first of six very short, radically un-teutonic, chamber symphonies which Milhaud composed between 1917 and 1923.

Printemps, piano, Book II, opus 66, 1919-20

Jeux de printemps, orchestra, opus 243, 1944; also a ballet. This has never, as far as I know, been recorded.

Printemps lointain, voice and piano, words by Francis Jammes (post here), opus 253, 1945. I don’t know this either.

There’s a Chanson du printemps in Chansons de Madame Bovary, opus 128d, 1933. There may be more individual songs. There are many spring-like movements in his symphonic and chamber works.

In the early ’50s, he gave way to the temptation to compose three more concertini to create a Quatre saisons:

Concertino d’automne for two pianos and eight instruments, opus 309, 1951

Concertino dété for viola and chamber orchestra, opus 311, 1951

Concertino dhiver for trombone and string orchestra, opus 327, 1953.

If they had been as good as the first, this Four Seasons would be as popular as Vivaldi’s. The Concertino de printemps shows what a marvellous composer Milhaud could be. The others have their moments, but show him on more workaday form. Trombonists like the last one.

Milhaud, Kaufman

I remember buying this LP in FNAC in Paris circa 1983.

Underwater dreams

April 14 2015


“Call me Captain Sirius. [Melville.] My creator’s name is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, better known as the author of the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels, which offer a strictly scientific account of criminology. But almost as a sideline he attempted to warn his insular England of a danger in the offing when, eight years after our first seaworthy submarine was launched, he published a brief book which he called Danger! and Other Stories [text here], which came out in German translation during the war, in 1916, under the title The Submarine War, or How Captain Sirius Did England In, and was reprinted here seventeen times before the war was over, but now unfortunately seems to have fallen into oblivion.

“Thanks to this prophetic little book I, in the person of Captain Sirius, succeeded in convincing the King of Norland, the Reich’s ally, of the daring yet perfectly rational possibility of using a mere eight submarines – which was all we had – to cut England off from her supplies and literally starve her to death. Our [the Norlanders’] submarines were called the Alpha, the Beta, the Gamma, the Theta, the Delta, the Epsilon, the Iota, and the Kappa. Unfortunately, the last was lost in the Irish Sea during our otherwise successful mission. I was the captain of the Iota and commanded the entire flotilla. We scored our first successes at the mouth of the Thames near Sheerness: aiming my torpedoes amidships, I sank in quick succession the Adela, laden with mutton from New Zealand, the Oriental Company’s Moldavia, and the Cusco, the latter two laden with grain. After further successes along the Channel coast and all the way to the Irish Sea, involving the whole flotilla either in squadrons or one by one, prices – first in London, then throughout the island – began to rise: a fivepenny loaf of bread soon cost a shilling and a half. By systematically blocking all major ports of entry we drove already exorbitant prices higher and unleashed a countrywide famine. The starving populace protested against the government with acts of violence. It stormed the Empire’s sanctuary, the Stock Exchange. Anyone belonging to the upper classes and able to afford it fled to Ireland, where there were still at least potatoes to be had. In the end proud Albion was forced to conclude a humiliating peace with Norland.

“The second part of the book consists of statements by naval officers and other experts, all of whom confirmed Sir Arthur’s warning of the submarine menace. One of them, a retired vice admiral, advised England to build storehouses for grain, like Joseph in Egypt, and to protect homegrown agricultural products by means of tariffs. There were urgent pleas to abandon England’s dogmatic insular mentality and finally get down to building the tunnel to France. Another vice admiral suggested that trading vessels be allowed to ply the seas only in convoys and that swiftly moving dirigibles be specially equipped to hunt out submarines. Intelligent proposals all, their worth alas, having been corroborated during the course of the war. I could wax particularly eloquent on the subject of the depth- or water-bombs.

“My creator, Sir Arthur, unfortunately forgot to report that while a young lieutenant in Kiel I was present as the crane lowered the first seaworthy submarine into the water – all hush-hush, top secret – at the Germania Shipworks on 4 August 1906. Before that I had been second officer on a torpedo ship, but I volunteered to test our new underwater weapon in its early stages. As a member of the crew I was in the U-1 when it was lowered thirty meters under water and made it to the open sea on its own steam. I should point out, however, that Krupp, using the design of a Spanish engineer, had even earlier built a thirteen-meter craft that went five-and-a-half knots under water. This Forelle aroused even the Kaiser’s interest. Prince Heinrich himself went down in it once. Regrettably, the Reich’s Naval Office obstructed the Forelle’s expeditious development. There were, moreover, difficulties with the gasoline engine. But when the U-1 was put into commission in Eckernförde a year behind schedule, nothing could stop it, even though the Forelle and our thirty-nine-meter ship, the Kambala, which came equipped with three torpedoes, were later sold to Russia. [Is a submarine a ship?] I was unfortunately detailed to attend the ceremony at which they were handed over. Orthodox priests, dispatched specially from Petersburg, anointed the vessels with holy water fore and aft. Following a lengthy overland journey they were launched in Vladivostok – too late to use them against Japan.

“Still, my dream came true. Much as he shows an instinct for sleuthing in his books, Sir Arthur could never have suspected how many German youths – like me – had dreamed of the speedy descent, the wandering eye of the periscope, the bobbing tanker just waiting to be torpedoed, the command of ‘Fire!,’ the many and much acclaimed hits, the intimate camaraderie, and the pennants waving on the triumphant return home. And not even I, who have been involved from the start and have entered literature along the way, not even I could have suspected that tens of thousands of our lads would never emerge from their underwater dream.

“Thanks to Sir Arthur’s warning, our repeated attempts to bring England to her knees unfortunately came to naught. All those deaths. But only Captain Sirius was condemned to survive every descent.”


The 1906 chapter (which doesn’t have that name) of Günter Grass’s My Century (Mein Jahrhundert) (1999). A German identifies himself with an enemy of England imagined by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Extract deemed fair use as shorter than an Amazon preview and from near the front of the book: please inform me if it infringes copyright and I will remove it.

The translation by Michael Henry Heim is idiomatically uncertain and not up to the many voices Grass adopts in the hundred vignettes which make up this quasi-novel. I think this is part of the reason many felt this late Grassian tour-de-force did not work. Perhaps it doesn’t work in German. I enjoyed it. I posted the 1900 chapter here.

I’m not sure how Danger! and Other Stories could have been published in Germany in 1916 if it only appeared in England, published by John Murray, in 1918. The title story was written, according to Doyle, about eighteen months before the outbreak of the war and, according to Wikipedia, was published in the Strand Magazine in July 1914. It might have appeared in Germany in 1916 on its own or in another collection.

The Royal Navy had launched its first submarine in 1901. The experience of the crews must have been terrible, but “tens of thousands” of German casualties seems wrong. Here is a list of all the German U-boats. Allegedly 329 served. If the average crew was as high as fifty and two-thirds were killed, that does not get us close.

Before Germany had launched its U-boat, Britain, in the same year, had launched HMS Dreadnought. German and English artists, scholars and scientists, instigated by Count Harry Kessler, and including my great-grandfather, wrote to The Times to express their concern about the deteriorating relationship between the two countries. Their letter was published on January 12.


After suffering damage from a collision while on a training exercise in 1919, U-1 was sold to the Germaniawerft foundation at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, where it was restored and can be still seen. 

Invasion literature (Wikipedia).

Aspects of Grass

April 13 2015

Grass and Danzig (in German):

Film by Andrzej Klamt commissioned by the Deutsches Polen-Institut for with the support of the Sanddorf Stiftung Regensburg.

Grass and Israel:

Deutsche Welle.

Grass on Europe’s policy towards refugees (in German):

Interview by Pointer-Redaktionsleiterin Heike Kevenhörster am 26.11.2014.

Facebook is shit (with subtitles):

Interview by Marc-Christoph Wagner for Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2013.

The full Louisiana Channel interview (with subtitles):


No gallery mentioned.

Tchaikovsky and klezmer

April 13 2015

Can’t one hear it in the fast tutti passages of the Russian Dance in Swan Lake? Boston Symphony, Seiji Ozawa. Joseph Silverstein, solo.

The age of the pogrom

April 13 2015

Syrians and Armenians have been emigrating for the last quarter of a century, [but] during the same period the Jews, whose birthright in Western Asia is as ancient as theirs, have been returning to their native land – not because Ottoman dominion bore less hardly upon them than upon other gifted races, but because nothing could well be worse than the conditions they left behind. For these Jewish immigrants came almost entirely from the Russian Pale, the hearth and hell of modern Jewry. The movement really began after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, which threw back reform in Russia for thirty-six years. The Jews were the scapegoats of the reaction. New laws deprived them of their last civil rights, pogroms of life itself; they came to Palestine as refugees, and between 1881 and 1914 their numbers there increased from 25,000 to 120,000 souls.

Written between the two Russian revolutions and before the Balfour Declaration. Progroms continued during the Civil War of 1917-22.

Turkey, A Past and a Future, Hodder & Stoughton, 1917

The altar

April 12 2015

Machiavelli consulting his Livy and Rousseau his Plutarch and De Gobineau his Sturlason and Hitler his Wagner were each led, by his respective literary or musical oracle, to the altar-steps of the same Abomination of Desolation: the Totalitarian Parochial State.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

More crews

April 12 2015

Last post.

Oxford 1933 (from 1:30):

Oxford 1934:

Cambridge 1934:

Cambridge 1935:

Oxford 1936:

Cambridge 1936:

Oxford 1937:

Cambridge 1937:

Oxford 1938:

Cambridge 1938:

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, 1829-

April 11 2015

The 161st race was today. It has been annual since 1856, except for 1915-19 and 1940-45. All except the first have been rowed in London. Oxford have won 79, Cambridge 81, 1877 was a dead heat. HistoryList of results.

The first report in The Times was on April 4 1839 after the third race; the Cambridge win, by 35 lengths, was the strongest in the entire series; Melbourne (Trinity, Cambridge) was prime minister:

Times, 1839 04 04

“Off the penitentiary” refers to Millbank Prison.

“Searle laid down the winning boat; King, of Oxford, that in which the vanquished pulled.” Laid down means designed or built. Searle was a London boathouse. It is mentioned earlier in the piece.

April 16 1840: “It is not a little refreshing to the real lovers of old English sports and manly exercise to find these sorts of amusements beginning to supersede the swindling, dangerous and absurd practice of steeple chasing – things merely got up by publicans and horsedealers to pillage the unwary and enrich themselves.”

Many races are on Pathé, including some of the unofficial wartime ones in the ’40s, which were held outside London and aren’t in the record. Here are the 1939 crews:

Toynbee Prize

April 10 2015

I have made some corrections to the last post.

Toynbee Prize Foundation

April 10 2015

For all Toynbee’s importance as a historian, one expects a society inspired by him to be run by sociologists rather than by those of his own profession. Like Othmar Anderle’s International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilisations, founded in Salzburg in 1961 and extant in the US. Toynbee distanced himself from it (McNeill, page 251); its website and newsletters are not those of a front-ranking academic entity. Or by enthusiasts, like the Toynbee Society founded in Japan in 1968 (McNeill, page 269).

He gave his blessing to Japan, but in the previous year had vetoed a proposal for a Toynbee Society in England (McNeill, page 333).

“The use of my name would be bound to revive controversies about my work. I dislike controversy; and I do not want to be diverted by it again from more constructive uses of my time and energy.”

I referred in an old post to Toynbee’s “unusual appeal to the partly-educated outside the West”. Serious scholars, wherever they were, tended to ignore Toynbee because the theoretical basis of his work was judged to be weak. The valuable elements in it were then overlooked.

But the Toynbee Prize Foundation seems respectable and it is heartening to find it. I should have flagged it before. Nor does it appear to be one of those US foundations which hijack old-world ideas to make them serve narrow new-world agendas. Like (to refer to another historian) the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids.

“Named after Arnold J. Toynbee, the Toynbee Prize Foundation was chartered in 1987 ‘to contribute to the development of the social sciences, as defined from a broad historical view of human society and of human and social problems.’ The Foundation seeks to promote scholarly engagement with global history through several activities.

“Foremost among these is the Toynbee Prize, an award granted every other year to recognize outstanding work in global history. As an affiliated society of the American Historical Association, the Foundation sponsors one session at the Association’s annual meeting. In the years in which the Prize is awarded, the recipient presents a lecture. In alternate years, the Foundation sponsors a session on global history.

“More than this, however, the Foundation sponsors engagement with global history through several online activities. It publishes the leading online journal of global history, New Global Studies. It organizes the Global History Forum, an online space that promotes new outstanding work in global history through interviews, conference reports, and thought pieces by both Foundation editors and solicited authors. It supports the publication of content related to diplomatic history on the Network for New Diplomatic History. Finally, it curates content from around the Web for publication on the Global History Blog. These activities reflect the diverse range of ways in which the Foundation contributes to the field of global history – indeed the development of the social sciences writ large.

“The Foundation, based in Massachusetts, is tax exempt under Section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code.”

Address: 255 State St, Boston, MA 02109-2167. My question about how it was funded got this answer from Raymond Grew:

“The Toynbee Prize Foundation is funded by a small endowment to which individuals contribute and by grants from other foundations for specific projects.” We are not told where the money first came from in 1987.

Officers and trustees


Map of global history institutions (which does not include the ISCSC).

William McNeillop cit, was the winner in 2008.

Chakrabarty Dipesh

Dipesh Chakrabarty, the newest recipient

Calcutta’s zenith

April 9 2015

Calcutta was the capital of the whole subcontinent of India for more than half a century (1849-1912) after the completion of the political unification of the subcontinent under British rule.

1849 saw the annexation of the Punjab in the Second Anglo-Sikh War.

Calcutta inherited this privilege from her previous role of having served, for nearly a century before that, as the capital of the British Raj’s principal nucleus and growing-point, which had been Bengal. [Trade in rice, muslin, jute.] Calcutta was an unsuitable capital for all India. Bengal lies in a corner of the subcontinent, and it is isolated by a barrier of hills from the great plain of Hindustan, which contains a number of eligible sites for capitals – for instance Patna, Allahabad, Agra, Delhi, and Lahore. Calcutta was not even well-placed for serving as the principal Indian terminus of the maritime line of communications that linked the British Government of India with Britain, the country which was the ultimate base and source of the British Raj’s power. Calcutta is on the far side of India from Britain. The island of Bombay, off-shore from the west coast of India, is considerably nearer to Britain via both the Cape of Good Hope and the Suez Canal, and Bombay is also easily accessible from the sea, whereas sea-going ships have to be piloted to Calcutta up the Hoogly branch of the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta. Calcutta’s feat of holding its position in these adverse circumstances is remarkable.

Bengal Presidency (Wikipedia).

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970

When did I learn the music of Traviata?

April 8 2015

I’ve seen it perhaps twice in my life and never consciously listened to it except to discover that I know every note. Others, I believe, have had the same experience.

Callas, Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City, 1952, with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mugnai conducting:

Callas, La Scala, Milan, 1955 or ’56, with Giuseppe Di Stefano, Giulini conducting:

Callas, Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, 1958, with Alfredo Kraus, Ghione conducting (the best according to some):

There are others.

Callas’s voice declined very early. Her best days were over long before she was forty.

In 1853 the symphony was dead, chamber music in a post-Schumann, pre-Brahms twilight, and religious music at a low ebb. Opera carried the torch. Excuse the mixed metaphors.

Penang and Singapore in 1929

April 7 2015

As we sighted the north-western tip of Sumatra, steaming eastwards from Colombo towards Penang, we ran into a flotilla of drift-wood moving, to all appearance, as steadily and as purposefully as our ship, but towards some western goal. As I leaned over the rail, looking at the fleecy clouds banked up against the Sumatran mountains and watching these logs sail by, I thought of the famous drift-wood which assured Columbus that he was approaching a new world. That evening we berthed at Penang in the dark, and I found my new world when I went on shore in the daylight next morning [October 4 1929]. My new world was China – a world on the move in every sense of the words.

The traveller heading for China runs into China coming out to meet him long before he finds himself on what is officially Chinese soil. If he is travelling from North America, I suppose he encounters the vanguard of the Chinese hosts at San Francisco or Vancouver. If he is travelling from Russia, I suppose he encounters them as soon as he has rounded the southern end of Lake Baikal. Travelling from Europe or from India in a P. and O. boat, he runs into China at Penang.

This is on the outbound section of a journey to Japan and back (taking in China, whence the title of the book) between July 23 1929 and January 29 1930. Toynbee had never before been east of Anatolia.

As you land at Penang, your eye is caught by the Chinese characters on the notice-boards. The British Colonial Government, scrupulously endeavouring to hold the scales even, posts up its notices in four scripts and languages, corresponding to the four peoples of Malaya: the Chinese script for the Chinese, an Indian script for the Tamils, the Latin alphabet for the British, and the Arabic for the Malays. To the traveller coming from the West, the Latin and Arabic letters give a touch of familiarity to these polyglot inscriptions (though there is already something strange about those Arabic letters with their mysterious modifications – presumably invented by Malays in order to convey sounds unknown in Arabic, Persian or Turkish). But even on these four-fold notices the flamboyant Chinese characters – sure in touch and confident in gesture – put all the rest into the shade. Later, on the trams, you come across bilingual notices in Chinese and English only (the Malay language seems to be the first to drop out in its native land). Finally, you come to streets of little shops in which nothing but Chinese inscriptions are to be seen. So it is, not only in the British Settlements at Penang and Singapore, but in the capital of the Malay State of Johore. I wonder if it is the same all through Malaya.

Certainly, in the two small corners of Malaya which I visited, I received the impression that the Chinese – by their industry and their energy – are legitimately making the country their own. The shops, the factories, the timber businesses, the rubber plantations, the trading establishments – almost all appear to be in Chinese hands. And it is a country worth acquiring; for, apart from the United States, Malaya is the most prosperous and well-appointed part of the world that I have come across on any journey that I have made since the War. This prosperity, I imagine, is the product of three factors: Chinese industry, British administration, and the bounty of Nature. The Chinese workers have to thank the British empire-builders for giving them this opportunity of which they have taken advantage with such signal success; and, as far as I can learn, the Straits Chinese are duly grateful. They are reported to make loyal and law-abiding and public-spirited citizens of this new Malayan community that is rapidly growing in wealth and numbers under the British flag. And well they may; for they have only to continue steadily on this course in order to become the leading partners in the Malayan firm.

Of the four peoples which are at present co-operating in the development of Malaya, there are only two which can conceivably play the leading part: the Chinese and the British. And while the present and the past belong to the British, I fancy that the Chinese hold the future of Malaya in their hands. It is noteworthy that both these peoples are strangers in Malaya. The native Malays seem to be allowing themselves to be effaced; and the immigrant Tamils, though they share with the Malays the advantage of being at home in a tropical climate, seem destined in Malaya to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water. The race for primacy in Malaya will be run between the British and the Chinese; and the prize will fall to whichever of these two peoples succeeds the better in adapting itself to the tropical environment. I have little doubt that in this peaceful contest the Chinese will be the victors.

As our ship cautiously sidled up to the quay at Singapore [October 5], I studied the faces of the British who had come down to the docks to meet their friends and relations on board. They were melancholy countenances; and, if I read them right, their owners were feeling very little elation at seeing their friends again. They were feeling, I fancy, that it was sad for anybody to be coming back to the Tropics from England. They were feeling that it would be much better if, instead of being there to receive their friends on land, they were going on board themselves in order to sail away home – husbands and wives and children – and never come near the Tropics again in their lives. When at last the gangway was ready, they filed on board; but how slow their movements were, how lifeless their greetings! You would have thought that you were looking on at a parting and not at a reunion. It was all in a minor key.

Then I went ashore myself and prowled for half a day about the city and saw the Chinese; and their cheerful, lively countenances seemed to tell me that for them life in Singapore was full of zest and enjoyment. Cynics will observe that even an Englishman might think Singapore quite a nice place to live in if the only alternative known to him were life in Canton or Amoy in times of revolution. And probably it is true that, whereas the Englishman thinks of home as a paradise compared with Malaya, the Chinese thinks of Malaya as a paradise compared with home. It should also be observed that these better conditions which the Chinese enjoys in Malaya are a gift from the British Empire, which there provides him with a security for his person and his property such as he could never hope to receive at home from the present rulers of his native province. In Kwangtung or Fukien or Chekiang, the laborious Chinese gathers honey in order to be squeezed [squeeze meant extortion] by some tupan or tuchün. In Malaya, under the British ægis, he reaps where he has sown. Is there not a “Protector of Chinese” among the high officials of the British administration? When the gangway went down at Singapore, a uniformed Chinese member of the Protector’s staff was one of the first persons to come on board.

All the same, I do not think that the difference which I saw in the countenances of the British and the Chinese at Singapore is to be explained wholly, or even principally, by the difference between the social environments out of which they have respectively come. For the Chinese in Singapore do not look simply glad to be out of China. They look positively happy to be living in Malaya. The children look happy in the streets, the shopkeepers look happy in their shops. The rich Chinese looks happy as he bowls along in his big new car; and the poor Chinese look happy as they rattle along, crowded together, in their second-hand “tin Lizzie.” And the Chinese houses, whether they are millionaires’ palaces or workmen’s dwellings, look like permanent homes in which the owners look forward to living out their lives and bringing up their children. I believe the Chinese will make themselves at home in Malaya, while the British will never be more than pilgrims and sojourners in the land. In fact, the chief monument of the British Empire there may be the creation of a nineteenth Chinese province – and a very creditable monument it would be.

.               .               .               .               .               .

On the fourth morning [October 10] after we sailed from Singapore I woke up with a most unexpected feeling of exhilaration. For a fortnight I had been enduring the sunless, clammy heat of the Tropics; and though I had managed to resist it by taking the offensive (in the form of repeated singles of deck tennis), I knew very well that if I were condemned to live and work in that climate perpetually, I should gradually come to look and feel like my poor compatriots on the quay at Singapore. In this rainy season in the Tropics, there is all the gloom of a wet grey day in England, with the damp heat added. In fact, one feels very much as though one were sweating in a hothouse under an English sky, only with the hothouse fantastically enlarged until its glass canopy has receded to the firmament. But on this blessed morning I felt as if I had been miraculously translated into the place where I always long to be; and, sure enough, when I ran up on deck, I found myself in – the Mediterranean.

The sun was shining above my head (I had not fairly seen his face since he had set in his glory on the evening when I took the train from Ahmedabad to Bombay). From the sun to the horizon, on every side, there was a cloudless blue sky. A fresh, dry, north-easterly breeze was blowing in my face; and on either hand were jagged islands rising from the sea with the lineaments of the Isles of Greece. We were approaching the south coast of China; and for the third time on my journey from London (the first time had been on the southern descent from the Shipka Pass [link to here], and the second time in the vale of the Orontes) I felt that I was in the Classical World. That feeling has remained with me since: when I was watching the sun set over the same islands, on the evening of the same day, from the peak of Hong-Kong; when I wandered, next morning, among the pines and macchia on the hills behind Kowloon; and when I watched the sun set again to-night over the tangled approaches to Bias Bay. Yes, this southern coast of China is fashioned in the Classical style, yet with a certain fantastic touch which is all its own. On that first bright morning, as we steamed through the islets towards Hong-Kong, ribbons of terra-cotta-coloured fish-spawn trailed across the dark blue sea, transfiguring its Mediterranean surface into the likeness of the interior of a Turkish mosque when it is faced with Kiutahiya tiles. White waterfalls spouted from the grey-green flanks of the islands. And the outlines of the stunted pine-trees against the sky reminded one of Chinese drawings on silk still more than of the figures on Attic lecythi.

So this was the world from which the Straits Chinese had come – a world every bit as different from Singapore as England itself. And yet they are making themselves at home in the Tropics; and other millions of Chinese are making themselves at home in Manchuria, which has the climate of Canada. As I pick up a Shanghai newspaper, already several days old, I read that, in Manchuria, a severe frost has set in. A wonderful nation. They have been expanding – North and South and East and West – for three thousand years. How far will they go?

The archive of a Czech zoologist Jiří Baum and his wife has photographs of Penang and Singapore in 1929. Copyright: used here with permission.

Singapore, the third picture showing Japan Street:







A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

Before that, probably, The Nation and Athenaeum


March 31 2015

Back April 7.


March 31 2015

For the ‘Osmanlis 1453 was symbolic of the virtual completion of their conquest and political reunification of the main body of Eastern Orthodox Christendom, though the decisive step in a process that took about one hundred and fifty years, from first to last, had been the Ottoman occupation of Macedonia eighty years earlier, in 1372-1373. By “the main body” of Eastern Orthodox Christendom I mean the region, astride the Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which embraces the habitats, at that time, of the Greeks, Georgians, Bulgars, Serbs, and Romans – in fact, all the Eastern Orthodox Christian peoples except the Russians. This region comprises two peninsulas, Anatolia and the Balkan Peninsula. Macedonia, not Constantinople, is the strategic key to the rest of the Balkan Peninsula and indeed to the whole of Southeast Europe. And the center of gravity of Eastern Orthodox Christendom had shifted from Anatolia to the Balkan Peninsula in the eleventh century. In seeking their fortunes on the European side of the Straits, and pushing forward to the Danube before moving towards the Euphrates, the ‘Osmanlis had given striking evidence of their political sagacity.

For the Greeks 1453 was symbolic of the end of the East Roman Empire, though the decisive event in its breakup had been the conquest of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204, a quarter of a millennium before the conquest of the former imperial city by the ‘Osmanlis. The fall of Constantinople in 1204 had been a truly historic event. It had shattered the East Roman Empire irretrievably; and, between that date and the establishment of the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century, the main body of Eastern Orthodox Christendom had been in a state of anarchy. The East Roman Empire, which the Franks destroyed in 1204, was an eighth-century renaissance of the Roman Empire (which, in its central and eastern provinces, had gone to pieces at the beginning of the seventh century, after having held together here for two hundred years longer than in its outlying and backward western provinces). […]

The date 1453 was also symbolic for the Russians and for the Franks. For the Russians it signified that the original Rome’s title to world-dominion had passed from “the Second Rome,” Constantinople, to a “Third Rome,” which was Moscow. As the Russians saw it, the fall of Constantinople to the ‘Osmanlis in 1453 was the retribution meted out by God to the Greeks for their betrayal of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in A.D. 1439, when, at the ecclesiastical Council of Florence, their official representatives had acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman See over the Eastern Orthodox churches in the vain hope of purchasing effective Frankish military help at the price of this act of religious apostasy. For the Franks 1453 signified that Western Christendom had now become the trustee of the Ancient Greek culture, which, at this date, the Franks equated with “Culture” with a capital “C.” By this time, the Franks had learned to treasure every fragment of Ancient Greek statuary and every scrap of Mediaeval Greek manuscript of any text of Ancient Greek literature, though, unfortunately, the fifteenth-century Frankish humanists’ barbarous thirteenth-century ancestors had felt no interest in any Ancient Greek writer except Aristotle and had found no better use for Ancient Greek bronze statues than to chop them up and mint the pieces into petty cash.

The Ottoman Empire in World History, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol 99, No 3, June 15 1955; delivered Philadelphia, November 11 1954

Singapore’s second founder

March 30 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, the legend goes, made a country against the odds. He never lost a sense of the fragility of Singapore. Having been there 25 times, but not for over decade, I think I have become 5% Singaporean. I can feel the improbability of his achievement. When I see the rain trees by the roads, my heart strings are pulled.

Time to examine this! I have written some short Lee posts already, and a longer one placing him in the context of nation-builders. I gave a skeletal history of British Malaya, 1786-1963 here, which was useful enough to have been used in a postgraduate class in Malaysia or India. I mentioned some moments of confrontation in Singapore’s post-war history here. For references to architecture, search under shophouse.

I am not bored by democracy. Nor am I a Parag Khanna. Indians who stood up in conferences and said: “Please, Mr Lee, come and fix India for us” wanted, understandably, to run away from the dirty Indian road to the gated community of a Singapore. Lee, too, wanted to leave the past behind (so did Mao and Pol Pot), but, when you look at his life, you see that Lee’s dedication to Singapore was in the last analysis an act of love.

The classic account of Singapore as a humourless, over-clean place without soul or grit and full of compulsorily happy people is by William Gibson in the September/October 1993 issue of Wired, Disneyland with the Death Penalty. People who had never been to Singapore wrote articles influenced by it and had their opinions formed by it. This was Wired’s first year.

They fixed their attention on the chewing gum ban which came in in 1992 (under Goh Chock Tong, not LKY, who stepped back at the end of 1990), on the caning of Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994, the litter fines, the use of the death penalty for tiny drug offences. The ban on long hair had come earlier: it operated in various ways from the ’60s to the ’90s.

Singapore has a soul. It had a powerful atmosphere. Perhaps it helped to be British: we were tuned to the post-colonial vibe in a way Gibson was not. Gibson arrived knowing what he was going to write. He satirised the Singaporean propaganda of the time.

Singapore isn’t even litter-free: I could see that last time I was there, over ten years ago. The offenders may be immigrants from countries with no environmental standards or they may be local, but an army of immigrant labour will clean up. I support the laws. If you aren’t looking at your street, you certainly aren’t thinking about the ocean or the tropical forest in which Singapore was a clearing.

“The word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it’s all infrastructure.” I know that feeling. One gets it in airports late at night. “What is the point of any of this?”

Wired, technocratic, hyper-regulated Singapore seemed like a vision, when the web barely existed, of all our futures, a new oriental peril now that Japan was no longer going to rule the world and while we were still waiting for China to get into its stride.

Since then, it has become more normal. Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Disneyland with the Death Penalty, Revisited, Wired, April 2012:

“In fact we have gone backwards to our early stage of development and an industrial strategy based on labor-intensive manufacturing and tourism. Even in mainstream activities Singapore now feels very different from the high-tech, high-wage utopia envisaged by the planners.”

It feels, perhaps, more like just another Asian city and not necessarily the most innovative. It did not feel like just another city to Lee.

In the 1990s nightlife began. Singaporean nightlife was described as like a teenage party in one’s parents’ house, but I think it has improved. At the tawdry end, the government even opened two casinos (or rather “integrated resorts”) in 2010. That would have been unimaginable twenty years earlier.

As an antidote to Gibson, I recommend Singapore Noir, a 2014 collection of stories by living writers, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, in the immensely long Noir series published by Akashic Books (Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World). Each of the stories is associated with a different part of the city.

I mentioned the series in a post called Delhi Noir. The strange thing is that India is supposed to be the place with literary talent, and southeast Asia an entirely unliterary place. There wasn’t even one good bookshop in Singapore before Borders opened in 1997. There was hardly any local literature. Yet the five stories I have read in Singapore Noir are better than the Indian stories. What I do not know, because I haven’t checked, is how many of the writers are true Singaporeans and how many live elsewhere.

Smile Singapore by Colin Cheong, Tattoo by Lawrence Osborne (a Brit), Current Escape by Johann S Lee, Bedok Reservoir by Dave Chua and Murder on Orchard Road by Nury Vittachi are mainly good, but the Lee is too gruesome. They deal with Chinese superstition, prostitution, foreign domestic workers and their bosses, and other matters. It was an inspired decision to end with Vittachi’s farce (it is on, not in, Orchard Road). Wodehouse would have admired it, but it has its own darkness.

There used to be ordinary villages on the island. The last kampong is Kampong Buangkok (I believe it is just about still there). When it is torn down or disneyfied it will be like the closing of a frontier.


Lee was an authentic figure of the British Empire in its dissolution. Almost the last. Mugabe and Kaunda are alive. Mahathir didn’t enter national politics until after Malaya had become independent.

He sang four national anthems: God Save the King, Kimigayo, God Save the King/QueenNegaraku, Majulah Singapura and had to live with the British, Japanese, British again and Malays.

Lee, like others in the Co-prosperity Sphere who had lived under European colonial rule, collaborated with the Japanese, but he and the British chose to forget this. Lee called them cruel people.

“Surely we must be in charge of our own lives. That is the beginning of politics.” Tay. Lee was in tears in 1965, but perhaps part of him felt liberated even at that press conference.

To use Toynbeean language of withdrawal-and-return, his life’s work had not even begun at that moment of parting.

Survival has been the PAP mantra since 1959. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, it had, the legend goes, nothing to fall back on. It was rawly exposed. What were the alleged threats?

Racial strife. Singapore needed to be unified. The Malays had been unable to live with the Chinese in Malaysia. There were serious race riots in Singapore in 1964. So Lee created a different kind of multiracial society after 1965. It took a few years. There were more riots in 1969.

There was no reason, in his mind, other than his policies, for Singapore not to have become a Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese, after all, are 74% of Sri Lanka. The Chinese are 74% of Singapore. Recent numbers.

Was it even possible for Singapore to survive on its own? It had no hinterland. Singapore island is much larger than Hong Kong island, which really would have been unsustainable once the New Territories had reverted to China. But it is considerably smaller than the whole of Hong Kong.

It had no natural resources, other than a harbour. In 1968 the British announced their intention of closing their military bases in Malaysia and Singapore by 1971 (the bases which had been expensively rebuilt in 1939 and had failed to defend Singapore in 1942). Singapore was further thrown back on itself and had to build a defence force.

Singapore might have become a third-world cesspool of corruption. There was no reason beyond determination for much of it to cease to be a slum.

Then communism. Did Lee exaggerate the threat in order to bolster his own legend? The total failure of the BBC to assess Lee’s career (beyond what I referred to in the earlier post, there was nothing, except a short slot on Newsnight in which Kissinger said something in reply to a couple of superficial questions) means that one cannot say that they underestimated this or that. But in general, the least well-understood part of his story is his fight with the communists. Lee founded the PAP in 1954 in an expedient alliance with pro-communist trade unions. He continued to fear them after 1959 and might easily have been killed by them, as by the Japanese.

His nickname for Fong Chong Pik, the head of the Singapore section of the Communist Party of Malaya, was “the Plen”. The Plen wanted a united front with the PAP against the British. But he also wanted a communist Singapore, and resisted union with Malaysia, where the communists had already been beaten. Lee, conversely, joined the Federation to dilute the threat. By the time he left it, the threat had been lifted.

There were still militant communists in Indochina to the north and, until 1966, in Indonesia to the south. Malaysia expelled Singapore, Indonesia could have swallowed it up. Singapore was a tense place in 1965.

Looking to the BBC for news may be rather old-fashioned, but I thought its failure showed its decline. They will have pointed cameras at the funeral. That may be easy, but it isn’t journalism. It’s a way of filling airtime.

Lee on NBC’s Meet the Press, October 22 1967, steering a rather careful line between his anti-communism and mere approval of US foreign policy:

What about water? Self-sufficiency in water was a Lee obsession. He achieved it.

A newer threat to survival is an ageing population. Lee wanted immigrants, because an ageing population would mean the end of Singapore. So bring people in, but integrate them. House them next to people who have been in Singapore for a long time.

But the greatest threat was oblivion. The youngest generation had never known poverty or struggle. Communicating his sense of the fragility of Singapore was his intention in meeting young Singaporeans for dialogues.

And what would happen if and when the PAP ceased to govern honestly and wisely and lost its mandate? Energy-dissipating politics? Chaotic democracy? I suppose that is the oldest Chinese dilemma of all.

The Lee-PAP style may not be acceptable for much longer. Case of the rather immature Amos Yee.


The PAP’s governing principles have been pragmatism, meritocracy, multiracialism, and so-called Asian values or communitarianism.

Pragmatism. There was an unideological tone in domestic and foreign policy. If a policy contributed to a stable, prosperous, orderly society, it was adopted. Lee did not waste energy on post-colonial rhetoric (Mahathir did). Religion was kept out of public life, at the cost of mild oppression of Muslims in matters of dress. Environmentalism was a practical matter, about planting trees and self-sufficiency in water. Immigration was treated as a practical necessity. Gays were OK because homosexuality was genetic, according to Lee; legal reform will presumably come.

Meritocracy. An enlightened ruling party co-opted talent, in theory, where it found it. Ministers were paid enough to remove the temptation of the private sector and also to remove the temptation to be corrupt. A potential minister was nurtured, observed and tested in lesser roles, and, when appointed, expected to stay in the job. The average duration of a minister’s tenure in the UK is under a year.

Multiracialism. Lee could have used his expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 as an excuse to create a Chinese hegemony. The easiest thing would have been to appeal to Chinese voters alone. After all, the expulsion had been based on the Malay majority’s resentment of the Singaporean Chinese. Instead, he took what Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy (below) called the nobler course and founded a multiracial society. His message to all ethnic groups was “don’t even start”. This was the policy from which the rest could follow. Singaporeans would pull together and not dissipate energy in racial fighting. Separate ancestral cultures, common identity as Singaporeans. We’ll keep our languages and all talk English.

The British experiment in multiculturalism, on the other hand, is preparing an unhappy future.

Lee believed, in a rather 1930s way, that a successful multiracial society had to be based on a facing up to profound, primeval, differences between races. In most societies, that recognition or perception has the opposite purpose: it underpins racism. Malays were less good at science and maths than the Chinese. Unless you recognise that, you are just going to have a lot of discontented Malays wondering why the Chinese are getting preferred in the areas that require maths and science.

So you would often see a headline on the front page of the Straits Times that would say something like “Chinese grades up again in maths”, sub-headline “Malays catching up”.

Lee aimed at zero-tolerance of racial discrimination by a type of racial categorisation. Was this a legacy of the British who, like the Chinese, regarded the Malays as gentle (unless running amok), but economically incompetent? If so, the Malays have taken this on board and are self-oppressors. Malaysia is the only country I can think of where the majority sometimes seems to regard itself as a problem.

Asian values. I am suspicious when I hear this phrase, or the equivalent British values or African values. It ignores Asian cultural diversity and demotes universal values: the worst of both worlds. Add a word in the middle, and Asian “family” values in Britain can also mean Asian nepotism, Asian village bigotry and Asian cruelty.


But there are paradoxes throughout the LKY or PAP system. There is no official racism, but for many practical purposes, Singapore is mono-ethnic. Most businesses are run by Chinese. The Chinese are three quarters of the population. There are many subtle ways in which a Chinese hegemony is supported and many ways in which Malays feel oppressed. Of the eighteen members of the current cabinet, thirteen are Chinese, four are Tamil and one is Malay (the Minister for Communications and Information, who is also Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs). All are male. The ratios in the population are 74%, 9% and 13%.

There is no corruption, but government-linked corporations which are partly or fully owned by a state-owned investment company, Temasek, include Singapore Airlines, SingTel, ST Engineering, MediaCorp and many others. They play a big role in the economy and their boards are filled with members of the Lee family, ex-cabinet ministers, and government officials. As of November 2011, the top six Singapore-listed GLCs accounted for 17% of the total capitalisation of the Singapore Exchange.

Singapore takes education seriously. I don’t know how much it spends on it or what indicators are significant (percentage of GDP does not sound very helpful), but it is central to the PAP’s plan for maintaining Singapore’s “competitiveness”. And yet, many people who know Singapore well, including Hong Kong entrepreneurs, say that Singaporeans have not been taught how to think. A Singaporean, Kishore Mahbubani, an intellectual cheerleader for the PAP, wrote a book called Can Asians Think?

Whatever the shortcomings of the system, Singapore at least tried to develop its own people. It did what most of the Muslim world failed to do. On the other hand, by not drilling their populations into being docile consumers, poorer Muslim societies have left a space in the human psyche for spiritual energies that may, one day, turn creative.


There is very little political or press freedom in Singapore. For an example of the treatment of foreign media, see experiences of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

The Internal Security Act 1960 allows imprisonment without trial (“preventive detention”) and has been used against communists, islamists, agitators and dissidents: all who wish or may wish to block project Singapore. Free political speech had no constructive role to play in the building of the nation, only a destructive and inhibiting one. Perhaps it is time for this Act to be amended.

Dr Chee Soon Juan at “Unbeknownst to many, Chia Thye Poh of Singapore was the longest-serving political prisoner of the 20th century. A teacher and a socialist member of parliament, he was detained in 1966 under the Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities, and imprisoned for 32 years – 14 years longer than Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island.”

Are restrictions on freedom in Singapore at least well-defined? Are infringements of liberty in free countries more insidious?

If Asian values is an objectionable phrase, would “Asian system” better describe Singaporean politics? But they aren’t “Asian” at all. Many in Hong Kong found Singapore as creepy as William Gibson did. The other three tigers are, or try to be, real democracies.

Mahathir himself, not exactly a tolerator of dissent, would criticise Lee’s restriction of political free speech (reported here, here). Lee in return, and with some reason, criticised Malaysia’s race-based politics.

You have to look to China to find a parallel to Singapore. Japan and the Asian tigers were laboratories for trying out what China would eventually do, but if China is trying to follow a model, it is that of the island nation. Governance before freedom.

Even as Gibson was writing, Singapore was planning clones of itself in China, a country with which it had only opened diplomatic relations in 1990: Lee’s last act as prime minister.

Do you move to democracy eventually or not at all? Is a model of a) bottom-up removal of people in front-line executive roles with b) an upper level whose members are not elected but co-opted sustainable?

Nowhere on earth has linked urban planning with social engineering and long-term economic policy like Singapore. It’s easier in a small country. Lee stopped short of compulsory eugenics, but only just. Singapore is the opposite of the shambolic, poll-following improvisation that is the UK. No wonder Thatcher admired him.


“Singapore was made in the image of Lee.” If so, what was Lee like? A strict Victorian father.

He was on the right side or open-minded on the things that make people go mad: sex, race and religion. He was not a climate-change denier. He was a pragmatist who did not tolerate corruption. His detestation of personality cults was genuine. He wanted his house pulled down after he died and not turned into a shrine. He refused to be called a statesman. He did not care whether the PAP or another entity ran Singapore in the future so long as it was run by his definition wisely. Patriotic occasions were celebrations of Singapore, not of the PAP. It is as well that he died before the fiftieth anniversary of independence or he would have started to look like a relic.

All accounts of Lee mention personal kindness. A stern man with a tender heart. A self-educator. Almost the last thing he did before becoming ill on February 4 was to take his lesson in Mandarin. Like all parents of a certain age, he’d ring his children for IT advice. He didn’t have literary interests. His wife did.


The PAP wants to encourage thinking and creativity. Perhaps it is past the “we must all be more spontaneous” phase. I’m not worried about culture. Singaporeans will do what they want to do and “culture” will not be the mere luxury commodity that it is in the Gulf. When people talk about culture in these contexts, they do mean culture of a Western dye. Western cultures, high and low, still tend to marginalise non-Western cultures, which become crafts or folklore or are locked into ritual. Or is that just how “we” see them?

An English friend who makes films told me that he once had to stay with a family in Kuala Lumpur. He was so appalled by the plastic consumerism and shopping-mall-centred lives that he found there that he thought “I’d better get home as fast as possible and keep what culture we have going”. Is he sure he would not have had a similar over-educated reaction staying with a family in King’s Lynn?

The only world-class Western classical musician ever produced by southeast Asia is a Singaporean, Melvyn Tan, who was punished for not having done his National Service when he returned for a visit at the age of nearly fifty, although he had left for England at the age of twelve. His fame meant that the punishment was light: only a fine.

The urban transformation which began after 1965 had, at the time, few precedents in history. The People’s Park Complex was a seminal project for east Asia in 1967. The transformation went too far for my taste. We have so little confidence in ourselves in Europe that we preserve everything. But Singapore hasn’t lost its garden city feel. Lee Hsien Loong called LKY Singapore’s “chief gardener” in his eulogy and meant it literally. And one day, even in Singapore, we may begin to see the effect of time on buildings.


A friend sent me a link to a piece by Chris Blattman, who wrote:

“No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.”

Blattman may be a serious economist, but I found that mildly silly. As if freedom appears ready-made at the birth of a state merely in the absence of a dictator: the Condoleeza Rice view of the world. He also can’t spell Lee Kuan Yew. But he goes on:

“Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

‘The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

‘Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.


‘Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

[…] ’”


Noel Barber’s The Singapore Story is a period piece, published in 1978. Nobody would read it now, but it was my introduction to Lee. It’s a Janus book, by an author who remembers Singapore as a colony, a place of old-fashioned sensuous appeal, a magical island in the sun, and who also knows where it is heading. It ends with a portrait of Lee approaching twenty years in the job. I think Barber wrote partly on the basis of meetings with him. He over-emphasises his Englishness. He also published Sinister Twilight: The Fall and Rise Again of Singapore (1968) and The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas, 1948-60 (1971) and two novels about Singapore.

The best book of historical images of Singapore is Gretchen Liu’s Singapore: A Pictorial History, 1819-2000, Singapore, National Heritage Board/Ed. Didier Millet, 1999. There is a documentary urgency, and considerable charm, in the photographs. This is neither arty nor nostalgic. Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004 by Wendy Khadijah Moore, Singapore, Didier Millet, 2007 is a companion.

The last book one would expect to find at all interesting is a huge coffee table production by Melanie Chew called Leaders of Singapore, Singapore, Resource Press, 1996, but I found it riveting. Only two copies on Amazon, both at the scam price of over $800. It has interviews with all the figures of Lee’s generation and just before whom we never hear about, several of whom Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his moving eulogy.

I have a dozen other books on Singapore, but those three come to mind in this context.

Hsien Loong, NUS University Cultural Centre, March 29:

All this is based on observation of Lee and general reading. I have not read any obituaries. I haven’t been to Singapore for over ten years. My reactions to it might be different now.

Strangely enough, the phrase that is the title of this post didn’t exist on the web.

London palaces

March 29 2015

Official or main royal residences

Palace of Westminster – 1049-1530

Whitehall Palace – 1530-1698, when all except Inigo Jones’s 1622 Banqueting House was destroyed by fire

Kensington Palace – 1698-1760

St James’s Palace – 1698-1837

Buckingham Palace – 1837-

Boulez’s Water Music

March 28 2015

The three suites, Hague Philharmonic, recorded in 1963, Nonesuch LP. He made another recording with the New York Philharmonic, I suppose while music director there from ’71 to ’77.

Handel composed the Water Music for George I, for performances on the Thames in 1715 (first suite or part of it) and 1717 (complete work).

George and companions boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace at 8 pm on Saturday 17 7 1717 for an excursion up the Thames towards Chelsea. The rising tide propelled it without rowing. Another barge, provided by the City of London, contained fifty musicians. Other Londoners took to the river to hear the concert. The king left his barge at Chelsea and returned to it at 11 pm for the return trip, when the music was repeated.

Handel had been employed by George in Germany while the future king was only Elector of Hanover. He wrote the Music for the Royal Fireworks for George II more than thirty years later.

Boulez at 90 continued

March 28 2015

The clips (here, here, here, here) that were shown before the works performed by the Cleveland Orchestra (now, for better or worse, under Franz Welser-Möst) at their concert for Boulez on January 15 show somebody very different from an arrogant iconoclast. The programme was his own Twelve Notations (for piano); Berg, Three Excerpts from Wozzeck; Debussy, Jeux; Boulez, Notations I, VII, IV, III, II (orchestral version).

An equivalent at the Barbican on April 23 with the LSO under Peter Eötvös will have Boulez’s Livre pour cordes and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna and, between them, the seminal (but otherwise overrated?) The Rite of Spring.

Bob Shingleton on Rituel, and Boulez’s relationship with the BBC SO, whose chief conductor he was from 1971 to ’75. Their celebration at the Barbican, on March 21 under Thierry Fischer, had Pli selon pli and Notations.

Boulez’s lack of interest in Brahms, a composer, presumably, with plenty of “structure” and “necessity” (even if he came from the conservative side of the nineteenth century), is puzzling.

One would like to know Boulez’s views on some non-musical matters, or does he exist solely in music?

George Benjamin has a fine tribute in the Guardian.

Rituel, performers not stated:

Dérive I

March 27 2015

Sylvain Blassel and Atelier XXème du Chapelle du conservatoire de Rennes, concert donné aux Champs Libres à Rennes le 7 décembre 2011. You can also hear Boulez doing this with the Ensemble Intercontemporain. This is for six players. It is a short work from 1984, about six minutes: the rest here is a concert lecture. It is Boulez at his most accessible. Dérive II, for eleven instruments, 1988, 2002, 2006, really is this length: it began short, but is now longer.

Boulez at 90

March 26 2015

BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters, which aired last Saturday, on Pierre Boulez, who is ninety today, is here and here for another twenty-odd days at least. It’s hosted by Petroc Trelawney, despised as a broadcaster by a giant of musical blogging, Bob Shingleton, but not, perhaps, quite as bad as all that all the time. With him are Paul Driver, music critic of the Sunday Times, and Morag Grant, a Fellow of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg in Bonn, who are another matter.

This is discussion, and a mining of the warm and inscrutable Boulez’s words on the BBC over five decades. Why is the z pronounced in Boulez? Doesn’t it suggest something Spanish?

I wish Paul Driver wrote more outside Murdoch-land. He has only published one book, an unclassifiable assemblage of his own meditations on Manchester called Manchester Pieces. He’s a Mancunian, like the late Michael Kennedy.

Boulez’s list, aired in early 2000 on a New York radio station, of the ten most important pieces of music in the twentieth century is engaging.

I used to assume that his works were all short, like Webern’s. They aren’t. Then I thought that they were merely intellectual. They are, of course, not.

Boulez does walk into concert halls. He does dress formally. He does bow. He does conduct. He does accept applause.

Le marteau sans maître, words by René Char, directed by Bruno Maderna in 1961:

Pierre Boulez


I was taken in by the hoax in 2006 about Boulez’s recording of Vaughan Williams 4 and 6 on DG. For days, before I realised, the word “wow” was floating around in my head. There was even a review, which made it sound rather like Karajan’s recordings of English music. I can’t remember where the joke started. Driver, at least, can be as engaged with the Britten whom Boulez so much despises as with Boulez.

Boulez, VW

The rise of Mandarin

March 25 2015

The campaign to encourage Mandarin in Singapore was, of course, directed at the Chinese: it was not intended that it should replace English as a lingua franca. I have corrected a phrase in a recent post that suggested otherwise. Even so, has it placed the Chinese above other ethnic groups in a way that the humbler Hokkien and other vernaculars did not?

According to Singapore census figures quoted at Wikipedia, the battle is being won. During the 1990s the language most frequently spoken at home among the Chinese resident population ceased to be a vernacular and became Mandarin.

Singapore and UAE

March 25 2015

This is not about the UAE, but is Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in 2009 talking about forgetting what it is like to be poor; it merely suggests interesting comparisons:

Lee and English

March 24 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s first language was English. He spoke it with a Singaporean accent. His vowels sounded roundly imperial.

He came from a family of merchants and businessmen, a Hakka family which had emigrated from Guangdong province in the 1860s. In Singapore they adopted English. They were comfortably off, but not rich. Lee was educated at Raffles Institution in English.

Was Hokkien, the dominant language of the local overseas Chinese, regarded as a coolie language?

The Telegraph obituary says that he spoke Malay and Cantonese as a child. Some Chinese, in that case, had stayed in the family.

Lee arrived in Cambridge (he married his wife secretly in England: his tutors would not have approved) before we had surrendered even India and ten years before we had to give away anything else.

He started learning Mandarin at the age of thirty-two and Hokkien at thirty-eight. Did he learn to read and write them or only speak? Did he learn Tamil?

He encouraged Chinese Singaporeans to learn Mandarin and launched a Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979.

He believed in keeping ancestral languages, but also in having English as a lingua franca. Has the use of Mandarin placed the Chinese above other ethnic groups in a way that the humbler Hokkien did not?


Singapore English

British and Malaysian English differences.

Singaporean shirtsleeves

March 24 2015

I visited Singapore first in 1984. Much more of the old town was standing then. It was still colonial. New towers loomed over old shophouses. I remember meeting Tony Tan, the Minister of Finance, who is now president. My colleague and I visited one office and found ourselves face to face with LKY’s stockbroker brother Freddy, in Singaporean shirtsleeves in an old building with real windows over a real street.

Singaporeans are informal and, unlike people in Hong Kong, not great dressers.

I have described meeting Lee Kuan Yew in Davos circa 1998 (not worth linking to). I haven’t checked how often he was there. I am not sure whether one would call him a stalwart.

I saw him in a small auditorium at a WEF meeting in Singapore in the early 2000s, where he talked and answered questions in his usual way: about the rise of China, the fragility of Singapore, the strengths and weaknesses of the West. I remember that he walked down the steps to the stage arm held up in greeting, palm forward. The gesture made an impression on me. This is how to enter a room where you are expected, but not known personally. It establishes authority, but is informal.

A civilised society

March 24 2015

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Straits Times.

Lee Kuan Yew soundbites and historical film arranged by Daniel Tay: here, here, here. Interesting throughout.
“The first time I came out of the Tube station at Trafalgar Square [probably 1946], I was very impressed. There was a bundle of newspapers for sale and a box. Nobody there. And you can take the newspaper and put your coins in or [take your] change. I said: ‘This is really a civilised society’.”

This was the way evening papers were sold in London until the early ’70s or later. I can remember it. I remember an Austrian remarking on it.

1965: Singapore rejected

March 23 2015

The BBC and Lee Kuan Yew

March 23 2015

On the first main bulletin after Lee’s death, the 10 pm Radio 4 news yesterday: item number 3.

Twelve hours later, 10 am R4 headlines: Lee not mentioned AT ALL.

Here’s the punchline. On the “flagship” R4 lunchtime news programme on Monday, and a 45-minute affair supposedly of some prestige, The “World” at One: Lee not mentioned AT ALL again, even in the headlines. We once ruled the world. We should at least understand it.

This was the day, in Asia time, of Lee’s death, a man of historical importance, the first half of whose life was closely bound up with Britain. There was a lot on extremism, UKIP and sexual abuse and, when the editors had run out of that and didn’t have a welfare story, a long closing section about, not hawking this time, but what makes a gardener.

Lee and the Facebook generation

March 23 2015

These discussions are riveting. Lee Kuan Yew met young journalists from the Straits Times at the Istana over the course of a year to answer their questions, in 2009 and 2010.

How to preserve Singapore:

A second, shorter clip is here, but won’t embed. On sexuality, his grandchildren and more.

A third, in which he speaks movingly about his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, who died on October 2 2010, soon after this was filmed:

A book and DVD, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, came out in 2011, published by the Straits Times Press. Amazon blurb:

“Why is Lee so hard on his political opponents? Could the PAP ever lose its grip on power? Are the younger leaders up to the mark? Will growing religiosity change Singapore for the better of worse? How will rising giants China and India affect Singapore’s fortunes? Why is rich Singapore so parsimonious when spending on the poor and disadvantaged? Why the drive to attract immigrants despite Singaporeans’ discomfiture? Lee, fielding these and many other questions in the book and on DVD, is combative, thought-provoking and controversial. Lee has stayed in the public eye for 60 years – as the revolutionary leader who steered Singapore to independence, as the Prime Minister who transformed the Republic into a First World country, and as Minister Mentor, the elder statesman. Based on 32 hours of interviews, this book and DVD pick up where his memoirs of 1999 and 2000 left off. His views are articulated forcefully, with forays into history to buttress his point. To him, Singapore is a miracle that could disappear if not for exceptional leadership and safeguards. Here is Lee at 87, an unrepentant believer in strong government, in genes, and in the view that economics trumps freedoms.

Unvarnished Lee

This book presents the politically incorrect Lee, often impatient and dismissive of those who criticise his worldview. He is not one for regrets. He does not recant. But there are moments when he looks back and thinks he could have done things differently or been more accommodating. Readers will gain insight into Lee’s mind as he ruminates, argues, thinks aloud and rebuts.”

Fanfares for Richard III

March 22 2015

The best version of Walton’s Richard III prelude on YouTube – part of his music for Laurence Olivier’s film – is Brazilian.

Richard’s remains are being moved from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral today via local villages, taking in the site of the Battle of Bosworth. The cortège was on its way at the time of posting. He will be buried in the cathedral on Thursday.

The Orquestra Filarmonia of the Theatro São Pedro in São Paulo under Paulo Maron, April 2002, isn’t the best orchestra (like Schoenberg’s music, it is perhaps better than it sounds), but it doesn’t matter, because it does the piece with such verve. The collapse into the big tune at 1:12 is just right. The way to keep Waltonian bombast at bay is to keep the music moving.

Bernard Herrmann with the National Philharmonic Orchestra is lugubrious in the extreme. Walton himself, conducting the Philharmonia, is better, but I prefer the Brazilians.

The prelude was arranged from the film score by the conductor of the soundtrack Muir Mathieson.

Mathieson also arranged a Richard III suite, but the prelude is not part of it. On YouTube with Walton conducting the Philharmonia. There is no funeral music here. There is in Walton’s Hamlet.

Christopher Palmer’s arrangement, Richard III, A Shakespeare Scenario, has music with words and lasts 45 minutes. On YouTube with Neville Marriner, Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields and John Gielgud.

Renato Rocha on why Richard III speaks to Brazilians, Guardian, April 23 2012.

Walton’s Shakespeare films:

As You Like It (1936)

Henry V (1944)

Hamlet (1948)

Richard III (1955)

Paul Czinner directed and Laurence Olivier starred in As You Like It. Olivier directed and starred in the other three.

Tony Palmer’s film about Walton At the Haunted End of the Day used the fanfare which opens the Richard prelude to accompany shots of the Ischia-dwelling Walton arriving at Heathrow for his eightieth birthday celebrations in 1982 and being driven into town in a Rolls Royce. That’s how a grand old composer should arrive.

There are two nineteenth-century orchestral pieces about Richard III, a symphonic poem (1857-58) by Smetana and an overture (1870s?) by Robert Volkmann. Both solid pieces of orchestral furniture. Smetana also wrote some fanfares for Richard (1867) for brass and timpani, presumably for a production of the play. Volkmann quotes, half way through, The Campbells are Coming, in allusion to Richard’s war with Scotland.

Smetana, Czech Philharmonic, Rafael Kubelik:

And the Smetana fanfares, Fanfary k Richardovi III, BBC Philharmonic, Gianandrea Noseda:

Volkmann, Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, Carl Schuricht, Stuttgart, September 12 1952:

Until recently there was no opera. But now we have one, by Giorgio Battistelli.

Here is the whole 1955 film:

“Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,
To set my brother Clarence and the king
In deadly hate the one against the other:
And if King Edward be as true and just
As I am subtle, false and treacherous,
This day should Clarence closely be mew’d up,
About a prophecy, which says that ‘G’
Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.
Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here
Clarence comes.”

Nought shall make us rue (recent post).

Defeat in the west

March 21 2015

The Achaemenian Rāj in South-Western Asia was no more seriously shaken by the disastrous failure of the Persian invasion of European Greece in 480-479 B.C. than the British Rāj in India was by the even more disastrous failure of the British invasion of Afghanistan in A.D. 1838-42.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Christian brigands

March 20 2015

The Treaty of Bucharest of 1913, at the end of the Balkan Wars, divided the Macedonian region between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, with Greece getting the lion’s share; a small section went to Albania. The Serbian part ended (from 1946) as a separate constituent republic of Yugoslavia and is now an independent country.

In Macedonia, where the social peripeteia accompanying a transfer of sovereignty from the Ottoman Empire to the Kingdom of Greece had taken place ninety-one years later than in Laconia [with which he has just been concerned], the writer once had the good fortune to obtain a vivid sidelight on it from a living beneficiary. Waiting for an omnibus at Sorovich on the 4th September, 1921, he fell into conversation with a bystander who turned out to be a Slovene, born in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, who had emigrated as a boy to the United States, had come to Macedonia as a chauffeur for the American Red Cross, and was now driving a tractor in the service of three Greek brothers who were joint owners of a large estate in the neighbourhood of Sorovich, besides owning a whole block of houses just across the road from the railway station. Like the property itself, the present owners’ up-to-date Western method of farming was a legacy from their father, who had died only four months since. In answer to a question about his enterprising deceased employer’s antecedents, the Slovene mechanic volunteered: “Well, he hadn’t owned this property for very long. Before ‘the war’ [meaning the Balkan Wars of A.D. 1912-13] [Toynbee’s bracket], when the Turks owned the land, he was just one of those ‘Christians’ – what is the English word for them? … O, now I remember it: ‘brigands’ – up in the mountains. But, when the Greek Army marched in, the Turks cleared out and the brigands came down from the mountains and seized the land. So that is how my employer got his property, and how I got my job.”

There was a tradition in ancient anti-Christian polemic of referring to Christ himself as a brigand.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

Lee Kuan Yew and the nation-builders

March 19 2015

Lee Kuan Yew is the last great living twentieth-century nation builder, if he is alive.

Who were the others? What defines them? They have to have created a nation where none before existed – and yet one can’t leave out Mandela.

They must have done it through a personal struggle. They must have a certain stature. Their achievement must be solid. One can’t leave out Herzl, although he died forty-four years before the birth of Israel.

At one level, Lee was a reluctant builder. He did not, at least as it appears, wish to leave the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

Norway, Finland, Iceland, the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the central Asian “stans”, Mongolia were, before the twentieth century, merged or submerged nations, but when they became independent did not have famous fathers, unless you count Piłsudski. They already, in a sense, existed, especially Poland. But, then, so did the Czech nation. (One can’t exactly call Haakon VII a nation-builder, even if he was a father-figure.)

Ukraine is a half-formed nation. Why am I implying less formed than the other Ruthenia, Belarus? At any rate, no builders.

Hungary achieved nationhood in the nineteenth century. Masaryk was a nation-builder even though the nation he founded was later divided into two.

The Philippines’ founders did their work before, not after, American colonisation. Aung San died before Burmese independence, and his legacy is unclear. So are Ho Chi Minh’s and Sihanouk’s. Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia had once contained powerful states. Burma is the most ethnically fragmented. Thailand was never colonised, so the question of nation-building does not arise.

The Republic of China was declared in 1912, but Taiwan became its last stronghold long after Sun’s death. Sun was the father of a nation that, as a geographical entity, doesn’t even recognise itself, and as a wider entity is China – not a new nation.

So I include him uneasily – or do we believe in the permanence of Taiwan? I can’t leave out Sukarno even if I want to.

Not everyone who led a colony into independence qualifies. In fact, not a single leader from the main years of decolonisation is in my list. I can’t bring myself to include Bourguiba, for example. Or, in a short list, Nkrumah or Kenyatta or Nyerere or Kaunda. Is that because black African countries are, or were, not nations, but tribal or ethnic hegemonies and coalitions? But so are others. So is Burma. So was nineteenth-century Hungary.

Mahathir is a smaller figure than Lee. He did not become prime minister until 1981.

In theory Singapore is a coalition of three ethnic groups, like its one-time role-model Switzerland.

Here is my list, in chronological order of the nation’s birth or the builder’s accession to power if later:

Sun Yat-sen 1912

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk 1918

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 1923

Ibn Saud 1932

Sukarno 1945

Mahatma Gandhi 1947

Muhammad Ali Jinnah 1947

Theodor Herzl 1948

Lee Kuan Yew 1965

Nelson Mandela 1994

Lee’s funeral or public memorial will be as big as Mandela’s and deservedly. [Postscript: I was wrong on that.] You don’t need to have loved someone to feel grief.

The Blairs will be there, collecting cards.


1946, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Picture source: Lee Kuan Yew, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going via


March 18 2015


George Clausen

Mirabeau’s warning

March 18 2015

In A.D. 1790 the French National Assembly was warned by the prophetic voice of Mirabeau that a representative parliamentary body was likely to prove more bellicose than a monarch.

[Footnote: “Je vous demande à vous-mêmes: sera-t-on mieux assuré de n’avoir que des guerres justes, équitables, si l’on délègue exclusivement à une assemblée de 700 personnes l’exercice du droit de faire la guerre? Avez-vous prévu jusqu’où les mouvemens [sic] passionnés, jusqu’où l’exaltation du courage et d’une fausse dignité pourroient porter et justifier l’imprudence …? Pendant qu’un des membres proposera de délibérer, on demandera la guerre à grands cris; vous verrez autour de vous une armée de citoyens. Vous ne serez pas trompés par des ministres; ne le serez-vous jamais par vous-mêmes? … Voyez les peuples libres, c’est par des guerres plus ambitieuses, plus barbares qu’ils se sont toujours distingués. Voyez les assemblées politiques; c’est toujours sous le charme de la passion qu’elles ont décrété la guerre” (Mirabeau in the French National Assembly on the 20th May, 1790).

In this matter the statesman Mirabeau showed a clearer vision than the philosopher Volney, whose eighteenth-century complacency on the subject of War was apparently still unshaken in 1791 [he woke up later], to judge by the following passage of Les Ruines, which was published in that year:

“Si les guerres sont devenues plus vastes dans leurs masses, elles ont été moins meurtrières dans leurs details; si les peuples y ont porté moins de personnalité, moins d’énergie, leur lutte a été moins sanguinaire, moins acharnée. Ils ont été moins libres, mais moins turbulents, plus amollis, mais plus pacifiques.” […]]

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Pallid parliament

March 17 2015

Julia Langdon on how the blood has been sucked out of the House of Commons since 1970, when – it is hardly credible now – thirty-five MPs were former miners. With Betty Boothroyd and others. BBC Radio 4.

The straw hat and the dressing-gown

March 16 2015

Self-portrait in a straw-hat

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Self-portrait in a straw hat, 1782, normally in the National Gallery, now in the Rubens exhibition at the Royal Academy (which is only 25% Rubens); she died in Paris in 1842; here are her memoirs

Dr Pozzi at Home

John Singer Sargent, Dr Pozzi at home, 1881, normally at the Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, now in the Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery; Dr Pozzi was considered the father of French gynaecology; he was shot dead in Paris by a male patient in 1918; see


March 15 2015

The end of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète. Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, Yevgeny Mravinsky.

Abandoning Cairo

March 14 2015

I heard a rumour that the capital was moving when I was in Cairo in January. Now it’s announced.

My reaction then, and when I read the story yesterday, was one of anger. It’s easy to build a totally unEgyptian sub-clone of Dubai on a greenfield site, instead of taking responsibility for a city and dealing with the problems which are staring you in the face. Instead of planting trees and parks, recycling rubbish, building a subway system and schools, and restoring some charm to the banks of the Nile.

Solidere treatment has not even been given to the early twentieth-century Downtown. Perhaps we should be glad of that, but this is a city with many human needs which have not been met.

Tahrir Square has been a building site for decades because a corrupt state-owned contractor has not paid a corrupt official or vice versa. The traffic was worse in early 2015 than I have ever known it before.

If you ask the Egyptian middle class what it would like for a city, most will, I am afraid, say Dubai. That is how little imagination is in play here. They are embarrassed by Cairo. Let us not draw attention to it by improving it. Let us walk away from the messy place where people died in 2011.

The lower-class inhabitants of Cairo know that the city is not what it was. The narrative here is one which one is heard in other parts of the middle east and is often delivered in spiritual rather than planning terms. “This city was a paradise. People lived with each other. Christians and Jews and Muslims. They helped each other. You don’t understand what it was like. Now people are only interested in money.” A Dubai clone will intensify the holocaust of the human soul.

Sisi likes easy-to-understand announcements. The widening of the Suez canal is at least in an Egyptian tradition of grands projets (pyramids, Aswan dam). And this will be the first new Egyptian capital since the Shiite Fatimids built Cairo in the tenth century.

What will it be called? It will be near Cairo, but there is already a New Cairo. There are, in fact, many new Cairos with a small n, depending on your starting date: Zamalek, Downtown, Maadi, Garden CityHeliopolis, DokkiMohandessinNasr City6th of October City. New Cairo with a big n, east of the city, is adjacent to, or contains, a new business area called the 5th Settlement or 5th District, which takes over an hour to reach. It not so much sub-Dubai as like Delhi’s Gurgaon. And full of fourth-rate regional headquarters with tinted glass.

The city will be in this area. Perhaps it will be no more than an extension of the 5th Settlement and not really a new capital at all, with the rest hype. It will, of course, be “sustainable” (although two hours’ drive from the Smart Village, which is on the Alexandria Desert Road).

How will Cairenes react to the plan? With a feeling of bewilderment, of having been abandoned? Or will a popular élan which collapsed in 1967 return? Why would it? What will this new city have to do with ordinary people?

Then I started to reconsider. Perhaps old Cairo really is beyond repair. Perhaps it is too late, and nobody would invest there. This and the Suez project will at least generate employment. Perhaps having the capital adjacent to Cairo will allow some of its synthetic prosperity to trickle into the old city. What is wrong with turning over a new leaf, which Egypt urgently needs to do anyway? Perhaps this is less inhuman than abandoning Cairo altogether.

I write about Cairo because I have been there recently. I write less about east Asian cities because I no longer visit them often.