Self-Portraits from the Uffizi

The full title of this exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery is Artists’ Self-Portraits from the Uffizi. But I don’t think it’s overly pedantic to point out that self-portraits are pretty much always by and of artists. The Uffizi has a collection of 1600 self-portraits, apparently; 50 of them are currently in Dulwich, arranged in roughly chronological order from Filippino Lippi in 1485 to Mimmo Paladino in 2003.

The Uffizi isn’t apparently in any hurry to embrace the internet age, so I can’t illustrate this post with any pictures from the exhibition. Instead, here’s one by Gwen John which is in the Tate:

Self Portrait by Gwen John

I wandered into the exhibition whimsically wondering if I was going to be able to see some kind of common trait in the portraits; some kind of physiognomical identifier of artiness. Well, if this exhibition is to be believed, artists are much more likely to be men, but apart from that they didn’t have much in common physically.

There was a certain kind of expression, though: whether the artists were presenting themselves as glamorous men of substance or bohemians or just unadorned faces, they all tended to share an expression of quizzical detachment.

It would be tempting to see this as indicating a painterly scepticism about portraits; the expression of someone who has seen behind the curtain and knows that a painting is deceptive: contingent, unreliable, manufactured.

In fact, though, it’s probably just the expression of someone examining his own face in the mirror.


‘amongst other things’

Today’s entry from Darwin’s Beagle diary:

29th May 1832
Rio de Janeiro
Cloudy greyish day, something like an Autumnal one in England; without however its soothing quietness. I wanted to send a note this morning into the city & had the greatest difficulty in procuring anybody to take it. All white men are above it, & every black about here is a slave. This, amongst other things, is one great inconvenience of a slave country.

Darwin was in fact strongly anti-slavery. As a grandson of Josiah Wedgwood he was probably brought up that way, but his experiences visiting Brazil reinforced it and stayed with him for the rest of his life. Still, it’s not the most felicitous bit of phrasing.


Two Lives by Vikram Seth

Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle and aunt. They met in the 30s in Berlin when Shanti Seth was studying dentistry and took lodgings with the (Jewish) Caro family. Henny Caro was one of the daughters of the house and at the time was engaged to someone else; but after the war they eventually got married and lived together in London.

In one way of another their lives and those of their friends touch on many of the key historical moments of the C20th, but most centrally the war and the Holocaust. I’m reluctant to give too many details because I think he intentionally reveals them slowly.

Seth writes well, of course, and I found it an engaging enough book. I still slightly wonder whether it would have been published if it wasn’t written by a famous novelist, though. Not because it’s badly written or not worth reading, but because it seems to lack focus somewhat. He started writing it after the death of Henny, intending really to write a book just about his uncle but found a stash of letters, mainly between Henny and her German friends after the war. So Shanti’s story is based on direct interviews as an old man, while hers is pieced together from old letters, and they don’t quite mesh, somehow. In fact, considering they were married for several decades, there’s an odd feeling that their lives as told in this book don’t overlap that much.

I don’t know. I’m not sure that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Mind you, those parts are are often very good: interesting, moving, well written.

(this post also appears in my ‘What I’ve been reading‘ section)


  • ‘Defiant gardens are gardens created during times of extreme crisis, built behind the trenches of WWI; in Jewish ghettos and Nazi concentration camps… POW and civilian internment camps… garrisons, depots and battalion headquarters.. refugee camps…’

FSotW: Inverkip Power Station

Flickr set of the week is Inverkip Power Station by Dazzababes.

Inverkip Power Station is an oil fired power station built in the 1970’s which, by the time of completion, was already uneconomical to run owing to the rising cost of oil.
It only reached peak capacity during the miners strike of 1984 and has lain disused since it was mothballed as a strategic reserve in 1988.

Plans are underway for the dismantling of the plant, although no decision has been reached as to a subsequent use for the site.

Inverkip Power Station – Control Room, originally uploaded by Dazzababes.

Inverkip Power Station, originally uploaded by Dazzababes.

Inverkip Power Station, originally uploaded by Dazzababes.



The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith

I’ve just finished The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Sir Rupert Smith. Rather admirably, he doesn’t actually use those titles on the cover of the book, but his military background is obviously relevant. He joined the military in 1962, and in the last decade of his service he commanded the British Armoured Division in the Gulf War in 1991, was Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff from 92-94, commanded UNPROFOR in Bosnia in 1995, the troops in Northern Ireland from 1996-8, and was NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 1998-2001. So when he says there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way the military works, his opinion is certainly worth taking seriously.

scannet bilde(59)_std, originally uploaded by Torbein.

Years ago, there was a British Army Major on a birding holiday I was on, and at the time I thought how interesting it was to hear him talk about his work, because although the armed forces aren’t exactly secretive, they tend to operate in a kind of parallel world separate from civilian life. Especially since we weren’t involved in any particularly high-profile wars at that point—it must have been just about when Yugoslavia was starting to kick off but before it had pulled in the UN and NATO. Even now, with the Iraq War the biggest political issue of the time, the military aren’t all over the media in quite the way the politicians and pundits are. We tend to get a view of them filtered through all kinds of emotive rhetoric and propaganda, both positive and negative. So the book is interesting just from that point of view, the chance to read a professional soldier’s cool-headed and analytical perspective on the business of using military force.

But the book has a rather more serious purpose than that; it isn’t a memoir, after all. He has a thesis to put forward; basically, that the military—not just the British military, but everyone else’s as well—is set up for doing one kind of job but is called on to do something distinctly different. And that no-one, whether the armed forces, politicians, media or public, has really come to terms with the change yet. So not only is the organisation, training and equipment of the military badly suited to their work, but that everyone around them is having their decisions and judgments distorted by what they think war ought to be like.

The book starts with a historical survey of the development of conventional warfare from Napoleon to the second world war, it terms of changes in tactics, organisation and weaponry, the impact of the railways and so on. War in the form it reached in the two world wars, with the entire industrial capacity of the combatant nations devoted to the war effort, and the military aim of destroying your opponent’s capacity to wage war before he can do the same to you, he refers to as ‘industrial war’.

He also traces the parallel development of guerilla warfare, revolutionary war, terrorism and other kinds of informal warfare over the same period; from Spain in the Napoleonic War, where the word guerilla originated, through the Boer War, the Chinese revolution, WWII resistance movements, Vietnam and so on. He calls these kinds of warfare ‘war amongst the people’.

His contention is that our armed forces are designed to fight an industrial war—against the Soviet Union—and in fact all the conflicts they are involved in are examples of war amongst the people. And not just since the end of the Cold War; for the past 60 years nearly all military engagements have been civil wars, (post) colonial wars, peace-keeping operations and so on; as he points out

the last real tank battle known to the world, one in which the armoured formations of two armies manoeuvred against each other supported by artillery and air forces, one in which the tanks in formation were the deciding force, took place in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai Desert.

Which hasn’t stopped armies buying tanks or even using them; but for the past 35 years, these bits of kit that are supposed to be the technological and military pinnacle of the army’s equipment have not been used to do what they were designed to do. A tank is a fine weapon against another tank, but not very appropriate against a man with an AK-47. The same applies to a modern fighter/bomber; for most contemporary wars it is at the very least hugely over-specified for the job at hand.

IMG_1825-01, originally uploaded by shish0r.

And it’s not just the equipment, but the whole balance of the army. He suggests that we have too many fighting troops as a proportion of our forces, and not enough men trained to gather information. In a situation like Iraq, with non-uniformed enemies fighting in urban conditions among civilians, there’s a limit to how much force you can usefully apply, but you can never have too much information about how best to apply it. Similarly, in an industrial war, liaising and coordinating with the civilian population and civilian organisations is a secondary task and the branches of the armed forces devoted to it are therefore small and unprestigious; in a war among the people it becomes much more complicated and vital to the success of your operations.

If it was just a book about suggested organisational reforms to the army it would still be interesting but it would have less far-reaching implications. Throughout the book the emphasis is less on the business of fighting than the use of force to achieve a goal; the relationship between the military and politics. For me, the take-home message is that war among the people is by its nature political war. I mean obviously all war is political, but in an industrial war, once it starts, the primary objective is a military one and the politics has to serve that aim. If the military is serving a political aim all sorts of things change. For example, ‘winning hearts and minds’ isn’t just a secondary focus that is important because it makes the job of the military easier; it’s the objective that everything else should be working towards. You can’t destroy a guerilla or terrorist ‘army’ by force; you have to create a (political!) climate where they can no longer operate. That means persuading the civilian population that they are better off with you than with the insurgents.

Similarly, both the military and the politicians need to recognise that the military can only achieve military objectives, not political ones. And so because the aims are political, it follows that these wars cannot be ‘won’ by force. Military and politicians need to get out of the mindset of believing that there is the possibility of a military victory that will solve their problem. That doesn’t mean the military has no role, but they have to be subservient to a political aim; they have to be used to help create the conditions for a political solution to be reached. Military victory cannot be an aim in itself.

Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough and I haven’t even touched on all sorts of interesting observations about, for example, dealing with the media, or working within a multinational coalition. I’m not really in a position to assess all his arguments, although they seem persuasive to me, but I found it an immensely interesting book. If anything I’d just say that the historical stuff about Napoleon and Clausewitz and so on in the first half of the book is relatively dry; don’t let it put you off.

n.b. A duplicate of this post appears in my ‘recently read books’ section; I’ve decided that for longer reviews like this it seems silly not to post them on the front page as well. So from now on that’s what I’m going to do.



Anglo-Saxon names

Teju has a couple of great posts about names and what they mean (1, 2), specifically relating to Yoruba. Which set me thinking about Anglo-Saxon naming.

bit of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle

I have no idea exactly what relationship the Saxons had with their names, and I don’t know what academic work has been done on it—I’m just going on the impression I get from the names themselves—but the names are often easily parseable into combinations of words. Rather than take them from a literary source like Beowulf, here’s a list of names found in a poem which was about fairly contemporary events, The Battle of Maldon. The spellings are adapted somewhat to be closer to modern English pronunciation; i.e. ‘Æscferð’ becomes ‘Ashferth’, ‘Æþeric’ becomes ‘Atherich’.

Offa, Eadrich, Byrhtnoth, Athelred, Wulfstan, Ceola, Maccus, Alfere, Byrhtelm, Wulfmar, Alfnoth, Godrich, Godwin, Godwig, Alfwin, Alfrich, Ealhelm, Leofsunu, Dunnere, Edglaf, Ashferth, Atherich, Sibirht, Gad, Wistan, Thurstan, Wigelm, Oswold, Eadwold, Athelgar.

Now if I say that athel* means ‘noble’ and gar means ‘spear’, it looks an awful lot like ‘Athelgar’ means ‘noble spear’. Here are some other bits of A-S vocab so you can pay along at home:

ash – ash (the type of tree)
byrht – bright
ead – rich, blessed, happy
edg – edge, sword
ferth – soul, spirit, mind
god – good, God
helm – helmet
leof – desirable, pleasant, loved, a friend, a loved one
laf – what is left, remnant
noth – boldness
rich – power or powerful
sunu – son
stan – stone
wulf – wolf

So what happened to all these meaning-full names? Well, the Norman Conquest, basically. Skip forward a couple of centuries and despite English remaining in continuous use, very few of the old English names hung around. A few, mainly associated with saints and kings, are used to this day: Alfred, Edward, Edmund, Harold and Oswald must be the most common, but you occasionally meet a Godwin, Cuthbert or Dunstan.

By the 16th century, about 30% of men were called John, with another 40% called Thomas, William, Richard or Robert. And I believe they were generally named after their godparent, so there wasn’t much room for creativity there. And of the top 50 mens’ names from the 1560s and 1570s on this page, only two, Edward and Edmund, are of English origin rather than French or biblical.

Actually, it’s quite interesting that the Anglo-Saxons didn’t use Bible names; they’d been Christian for several hundred years by the time of the Battle of Maldon.

I doubt if we’re going to have a revival of these names any time soon; most of them sound distinctly harsh to the modern ear. I rather like Ælfric (i.e. Alfrich); apart from the sound of it, there was a man called Ælfric who was a grammarian, translator and hagiographer. According to Bosworth and Toller, ælf is ‘elf, genius, incubus’, so ‘Aelfric’ must be something like ‘elf-power’. Powered by elves? With the power of an elf?

And since ræd means ‘advice, counsel’, Alfred means ‘elf-advised’. That’s the joke in the name Ethelred the Unready, of course. He was Æthelræd Unræd— his name, Æthelræd, means ‘advised by princes’ or ‘noble advice’ and unræd means ‘ill-advised’. So called because it was on his watch that the Danes took over half of England.

*again, strictly speaking that would be æðel. I’m not going to footnote my spelling every time, but similar tweaks apply throughout.

Mark Lawrenson: just SHUT UP already

It’s not that I want the football commentators to try and sell every game as a classic even when it clearly isn’t. I appreciate their willingness to be honest about their product. But having bloody Lawro gloomily commenting about how bad the game is every 30 seconds for the whole bloody match really doesn’t add to its value as a piece of entertainment. It’s like watching football with Eeyore sitting on your shoulder.


Cognitive dissonance at the cricket

The first international cricket match of the season started on Thursday; the F.A. Cup final is tomorrow. Which must make it the official start of summer.

Dunst and a wicketkeeper

I was watching the cricket on TV today and of all people, there was Kirsten Dunst, at Lord’s, drinking a cup of tea and watching England’s middle order knocking the West Indies bowling attack all round the park.

Presumably she was there in her capacity as girlfriend of Johnny Razorlight, but you have to wonder what she made of it all. I mean I like cricket and have been watching it for years, and I still find it somewhat slow. Perhaps Johnny filled some time by explaining LBW to her.

The cheerful-looking bloke I’ve edited into the picture above is Dan Lockyer, wicketkeeper for Glasgow University Staff Cricket Club. All I know about him is that Google found him for me when I was looking for wicketkeeper pictures.



WordPress 2.2 upgrade hitches

Apologies for the slight messiness: I’ve just upgraded to WordPress 2.2—don’t know why, really, it’s not like there are any compelling new features—and at least one of my normal plugins is broken. I should have a work-around up soon.

EDIT: OK, I think everything’s just about working now. If anything seems broken, give me a shout.

Further comment: One of the claims for WP2.2 is that “We now protect you from activating a plugin or editing a file that will break your blog.” Who knows, perhaps this is brilliant, sometimes. But it didn’t work for me today.

And another comment: One of the changes is that instead of having a built-in preview in the posting window that has to be reloaded every time you save a change, it pops up a preview in a new window when you ask it to. Which is probably a good decision, since it should make writing faster, but it’s a pity it makes a new window each time instead of reloading the previous preview window with the new version. if I don’t carefully close each popped-up preview after looking at it, I end up with a whole row of tabs, each a preview of the post.

The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli

The subtitle of this book is “A journey to the heart of two footballing cultures”, and Gianluca Vialli, having grown up and played most of his career in Italy before ending it playing and then managing in England, is well placed to make the comparison (as indeed is his co-writer Gabriele Marcotti, the UK correspondent for Corriere dello Sport). He also interviewed many of the major figures in both countries, including managers, referees and former players.

The comparison is interesting and I suspect most of his diagnoses are right: for example, that the English are not so much tactically inept as completely uninterested, that we don’t treat it as a serious profession, that the specifically working class identity of football in Britain is a key part of why it has developed differently here, and that an unjustified sense of the superiority of English football has kept us from learning useful lessons from all those countries that win World Cups more often than we do.

If that makes it sound like he portrays the English as the village idiots of European football, well, it does feel like that at times. He finds enough negative things to say about Italian football culture, but it’s pretty clear which country he thinks produces better footballers. It’s not just the football itself, though; he has interesting things to say about the differences in the media, the fans, and the attitude to managers.

There is a perhaps inevitable tendency to lapse into presenting national stereotypes as though they were explanations; not just from Vialli, either, but from many of his interviewees. I think Vialli is generally careful to go beyond stereotypes to find more specific explanations, but there’s still a certain amount of ‘Latins are like x and northern Europeans are like y’ being bandied around. Here’s an example of the kind of thing I found questionable:

These are the kind of mental acrobatics many of us go through in Italy – quite the opposite of England. But then the English are off to war, blindly trusting their leader, while the Italians aren’t quite so sure…

‘Look, it’s in the blood of the English. It’s the almost military attitude with which they approach everything,’ says Wenger. ‘They do as they’re told, they follow orders, they do not question authority and they never give up, not even when they are three goals down and there are two minutes to go. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Every time there is a war, the English almost always win. The Italians on the other hand…

There was no need for Wenger to finish the sentence. I knew where he was going with it. And, admittedly, he has a point. As a nation, we are far less warlike than the English – not to mention the Germans – so our record in war is not quite as good as our record in football. The football-as-war analogy is popular in some coaching circles but in my opinion it is flawed. Football is a collaborative effort, it’s the synthesis of the individual and the collective: it’s not about blindly following orders.

I’m not going to argue with Wenger and Vialli’s practial experience of what it’s like to manage an English football team, but as it happens I’ve recently been reading The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith, which makes it clear that the British Army believes strongly in a devolved command structure, where soldiers lower down the command structure are given an objective but then have the responsibility of making their own decisions about the details of putting it into practice, and the flexibility to respond to events. Which means their training has to give them the kind of tactical and contextual knowledge that allows them to make those decisions. If you ever hear the Army talk about themselves, the key word they like to use is ‘professional’. In other words, the British Army’s approach to war is more like the Italian approach to football.

Which doesn’t tell us much about the chances of England winning the World Cup in my lifetime but might say something about the helpfulness of national stereotypes.

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