Wednesday 4 February 2009

From the sensible via the questionable to the insane

Just musing on some of the random incidents that have happened in life over the last couple of days, taking in trains, driving, Titian and the Pope.

I drove from home to Milton Keynes on Monday. Yes, that was the day everything stopped. I had to be in MK for meetings on Tuesday so I was determined to get there one way or another. I drove first from Ringmer to Lewes. Main roads clear, no problem. I went to Lewes train station (internet information not reliable enough at this point, despite #uktrains on Twitter). They hadn't even tried to put a train through - the tracks were still covered in virgin, undisturbed snow. No chance here then. So I thought I'd try the motorways - with various get out points I knew I could either get to MK or back home.

Halfway up the M23 I'm listening to Radio 5 traffic news screaming "CHAOS ON THE M25!!!! Motorists stuck for hours!!!!!" Then "2 lanes closed junctions 5 to 8 clockwise; 2 lanes closed junction x anticlockwise, 1 lane close junction 16-17 past Heathrow". That was it. Come on Radio 5, that's a normal day on the M25. So I drove on to it, drove slowly round the first 20 miles along with a lot of truckers, then drove at normal speeds the rest of the way. A normal drive, in fact. It can be quicker but I always prepare for an average speed of ten miles an hour around it. And all that while it was not apparently possible to put a train on a track.

This was also while London was closed. Who's in charge of Transport for London now? Oh, yes - Boris. Ho hum. What impressed me most about my journey was the behaviour of all the drivers whose company I had. That was not one lunatic in sight. All the cars, all the lorries, and even all the 4 by 4 were driving slowly, safely and sensibly. We can do it when we try.

That was the sensible part. Now on to the slightly questionable. While all that was happening, we were spending about £30 million of public money to save Titian's Daphne and Actaeon for the nation. This always causes me trouble, I'm afraid.* I cannot think of any rational argument why an Italian painting has to be saved for the UK. Or even for Scotland. That was my taxes. (At least I think it was; I'm willing to be corrected on the precise provenance of the money given by the various funds that contributed.) I can see some merit in spending public money to retain works that have a distinctive connection to our history, our identity or our culture. But Titian? If people want to keep Titian, then fine let them save up to it, hold raffles, get people to donate. But to me it's as much use to the world sitting in a gallery in San Francisco, or Moscow, or Tokyo as it is in Scotland, or London. (Apparently, it's going to yo yo between the two every 5 years. I hope they have really good packers and a lot of bubble wrap.) If it should be saved "for" any nation, then it would be better saved for Italy, where the artist was born, or possibly Spain, where the work was commissioned. But its only connection with our country is the connection of ownership. It was bought, like any commodity, on the open market. It should have been sold on the open market. That would apparently have pleased the Duke of Sutherland, who thinks he could have got £300 million for it. Yes, the art market goes in for silly prices. There's no reason why our governments should follow suit.

*Quite apart from the issue of what this "saving" is about. It sounds as if those ungentlemanly foreigners will have their wicked way with her maidenhood if we let her anywhere near their ghastly clutches. But a quick sweep on the internet reveals that the "saved for the nation" discourse seems to be common to all our major media. With, of course, the hidden assumption that if works go on to the market, they will inevitably be removed from the country. Apparently there are no art loving British billionaires.

And now to insanity. I'm calling it that out of charity, because the alternative is "fascist" and more. I'm referring to Pope Benedict's view of bishop Richard Williamson. What astonishes me about this story is that the bishop's Holocaust denial was never an issue as far as the Pope was concerned. He was in the Catholic church and his views were known and accepted before he was excommunicated. He was not excommunicated because of them but because of belonging to some even scarier antimodernist movement, and he was re-communicated, or whatever the reverse of excommunicating is, without a hint of the possibility that still being a Holocaust denier might be a teeny tiny bit of a problem. I have no problem with Catholic people, but the hierarchy of the Catholic church regularly makes me squirm.

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