The sublime Gothic landscape

IMG_1280While I tend to find a bit of Gothic in everything, sometimes it stares you in the face, and onIMG_1288 a recent visit to the landscape gardens at Stowe I felt as though I was walking back into the eighteenth century. The grounds are run by the National Trust, while Stowe School occupies the house and surrounding buildings. From the 1730s Stowe was renowned for its gardens, with visitors coming from all over the world to see them, but in the 1740s ‘Capability’ Brown, at the beginning of his career, was appointed to redesign the grounds, and though some of the original features (such as the temple) were kept, the more formal aspects of the garden vanished, with the idea of ‘landscape’ taking over.

Viscount Cobham, the man responsible for taking on the young Brown to reshape his gardens, was part of the beginning of a revolution in taste, of which Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House was a part. Instead of the formal gardens with neat flowerbeds and rows of strictly planted trees, the fashion was for something more exotic, thrilling and sublime. TheIMG_1285 sublime is key here: though Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1857) wasn’t published until a decade later, the thinking behind it was forming. Burke wrote that ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.’ In a socially acceptable way, this is what such gardens did. Stowe is designed so that with every corner turned, another surprise awaits the walker; temples, grottos, statues, lakes – all is laid before us so that entertainment and amazement accompany every step. Some of the surprises come with a frisson of Gothic terror, too: imagine the grotto, for example, with its waterfall and cavernous space, in the twilight, and it is the perfect setting for Mrs IMG_1287Radcliffe’s novels.

In 1748, William Gilpin wrote an imaginary dialogue between two (classically-named!) visitors to Stowe, which emphasises just these points:

‘Polypth. Yes, indeed, I think the Ruin a great Addition to the Beauty of the Lake. There is something so vastly picturesque, and pleasing to the Imagination in such Objects, that they are a great Addition to every Landskip. And yet perhaps it would be hard to assign a reason, why we are more taken with Prospects of this ruinous kind, than with Views of Plenty and Prosperity in their greatest Perfection: Benevolence and Good-nature, methinks, are more concerned in the latter kind.

Calloph. Yes: but cannot you make a distinction between natural and moral Beauties? Our social Affections undoubtedly find their Enjoyment the most compleat when they contemplate, a Country smiling in the midst of Plenty, where Houses are well-built, Plantations regular, and every thing the most commodious and useful. But such Regularity and Exactness excites no manner of Pleasure in the Imagination, unless they are made use of to contrast with something of an opposite kind. The Fancy is struck by Nature alone; and if Art does any thing more than improve her, we think she grows IMG_1284impertinent, and wish she had left off a little sooner. Thus a regular Building perhaps gives very little pleasure; and yet a fine Rock, beautifully set off in Ciaro-obscuro, and garnished with flourishing Bushes, Ivy, and dead Branches, may afford us a great deal; and a ragged Ruin, with venerable old Oaks, and Pines nodding over it, may perhaps please the Fancy yet more than either of the other two Objects. – Yon old Hermitage, situated in the midst of this delightful Wilderness, has an exceeding good Effect: it is of the romantick Kind; and Beauties of this sort, where a probable Nature is not exceeded, are generally pleasing.’

IMG_1310The sublime is an intrinsic part of the Gothic because it provokes both pain and pleasure, as Burke wrote, and because it encourages the mind to wander in the direction of the soul, and to expand our thinking. Kant wrote that  ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’. The gardens are arranged so that it feels as though one could walk forever: every turn offers a new prospect, and the thoughts do indeed wander along different paths as you go. The Gothic revival features at Stowe in buildings including a Gothic temple, which I understand one can stay in, alongside classical temples, statues, columns and the marvellous Palladian Bridge.

So this garden, like a few others of the period, features the Gothic – a carefully cultivated wildness which appealed to the emotions – and the classical, a more ordered and symmetrical style, reminiscent of distant places and cultures. The potential clash of cultures adds to the appeal of the place, I thinIMG_1313k. Timothy Mowl points out in Gentlemen Gardeners that Brown’s work at Stowe in fact offers ‘a three-in-hand of the classical, the Gothic and the Chinese.’ There is another element, however, which really interested me: the seven statues of Anglo-Saxon deities, sculpted by Rysbrack. In a clearing, where one might usually expect to see statues of classical origin, such as Athena or Neptune, we see now-obscure English deities (from whom the days of the week are derived) who seem to assert Englishness over the classical and Gothic elements of the gardens. It’s been suggested that this was a strong Whig assertion of British nationalism at a time when this was on the rise – perhaps not only politically motivated but also part of a rise in romantic nationalism, as a nostalgia for England’s history grew – something which IMG_1281the Gothic novel often played upon. In fact the political aspects of the garden are fascinating; Viscount Cobham used the grounds as a vehicle for expressing his contempt for his political rivals.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty and the planning of the gardens: whether a visitor takes a short or a long walk, it is all laid out for convenience and enjoyment. The map alone gives an idea of the delights in store: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, The Sleeping Wood, Circle of the Dancing Faun, Congreve’s Monument, Season’s Fountain, and Captain Grenville’s Column, to mention just a few. It’s easy to see why Viscount Cobham’s gardens were so popular with his many visitors (apparently Catherine of Russia enjoyed them so much that she copied them in the grounds of Catherine’s Palace near St Petersburg).

There is a fascinating poem by Gilbert West, written in 1832, which celebrates Stowe and many of the aspects which were not disturbed by Brown. A great deal more information on Stowe can be found here, and the National Trust page for Stowe is here.


King Charles III: Future History

When (if) you tKing Charles IIIhink about the accession to the throne of the Prince of Wales, what do you imagine? A very different monarchy to that of his mother, I expect,  and one about which public opinion will differ, but unlike playwright Mike Bartlett, it’s unlikely you’d picture Charles challenging the constitutional roles of state and monarch before he’d even been crowned. It’s a somewhat implausible idea, but that really doesn’t matter; King Charles III uses a semi-Shakespearean plot to explore the role of monarchy and Parliament in the UK, as well as politics, the press, and our attitudes towards our current royal family. There’s also a good helping of identity crisis, and all this is done through the medium of a history play which is definitely ‘after Shakespeare’.

The play opens with a beautiful requiem for Elizabeth II, followed by the appearance of the heir, Charles (Tim Piggott-Smith), and his wife Camilla. It quickly becomes apparent that Charles has mixed feelings about inheriting the throne at this late stage in his life, and his principled uncertainty is contrasted with the likeable, media-friendly William and Kate, and the scampish Harry. In fact, all the royal family are portrayed as relatable, sympathetic characters placed in often untenable situations where they want to do their best for their country but are bound by law, public opinion, the press, and their own backgrounds.

Charles is quickly introduced to the world of politics when he is asked by the Labour Prime Minister to sign a new law restricting the freedom ofimages the press. Though he accepts that the press will rarely justify any faith placed in them, he sees it as a matter of principle that the government should not be able to decide what is and is not acceptable for publication, and refuses to sign. What ensues is a battle of wills, and law, between Charles and the politicians. These latter (from the two main political parties) are shown as weasel-like, with flexible principles and full of double-speak, while Charles himself becomes a King Lear figure, confused, miserable, attempting to do the best he can but beset with doubts and surrounded by enemies.

In fact, the play is suffused with echoes of Shakespeare; it’s written in blank verse, which makes it sound Shakespearean (whilst retaining a modern sense of language with contemporary references etc), and often it seems to stop just short of using Shakespearean phrases. I was almost expecting to hear ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child’ at one point, and Kate does say ‘Nothing will come of nothing’ at one point (or something like it). There is certainly a feeling of ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, and some of the humorous moments of the play king_charles_iii148.jpgcome from Diana’s ghost stalking the ramparts. There are even moments when Kate – a feminist princess who requires equal recognition with William – seems to be leaning towards the character of Lady Macbeth. In fact, Kate is a realist, who understands the media, the public and the modern requirements of the monarchy better than Charles or William; she also slyly alludes to Hilary Mantel’s comments by referring to herself as a ‘plastic doll’, and she plays the part of queen long before she gets there.

Harry, meanwhile, is a tragi-comic figure not unlike the Fool in Lear: sometimes he speaks the truth unwittingly, and injects moments of slightly uncomfortable humour, but he is also concerned with his own purpose and identity. He meets Jess, a republican art student from St Martin’s, and goes on a spree of learning not unlike Pulp’s Common Peoplelearning about supermarkets and takeaways. The plot relies on this to a certain extent, since the press publishes some unsavoury pictures of Jess, Harry’s girlfriend, which under the new laws might have been suppressed, so the refusal of Charles to sign becomes doubly potent within his family.

The play asks some big questions, about the (un)constitutional relationship between crown and state, about what we want or expect from a monarchy, and about the freedom of the press. It also emphasises the psychological and philosophical difficulties of those brought up to inherit a throne. There aren’t answers, and the ending is uncomfortable and thought-provoking – making audiences wonder if what the public wants is always the right thing. However, don’t think this is a humourless play; it’s full of knowing quips, contemporary allusions, puns, jokes and moments of laughter. The actors are so convincing that they don’t even need to resemble their real-life counterparts; avoiding caricature, they play them with conviction. I don’t often get to the theatre these days, so when I do I want to see something I really enjoy. King Charles III  definitely qualified as something I enjoyed. It’s thought-provoking, well-written and performed, so I’d definitely recommend it. I was encouraged to see it by some really interesting reviews (such as this one).

A church in the best possible taste

photo 5Croome Court is a National Trust property not far from Worcester, and one I particularly enjoy visiting because of the variety of things to see there, including the Neo-Palladian house, designed by Capability Brown and visited by several monarchs (and once occupied by Hare Krishnas, surprisingly). The grounds are beautiful and extensive (also designed by Brown) and including follies and a grotto (I do like a nice grotto, though this one lacks a hermit, sadly). The site was used as a secret airbase (RAF Defford) during the Second World War, and the buildings that remain from this period in its history are now the visitors’ centre and canteen.

What particularly caught my attention last time I visited, though, was the Church of St Mary Magdalene, no longer in use, but in a good state of repair (due to the Churches Conservation Trust, who have restored it ‘in the spirit of’ Adam’s original design) and remarkable in many ways. An earlier building on the site was knocked down to make way for this building, designed by Capability Brown and with an interior by Robert Adam. What appphoto 2eals to me is that it is a fantastic example of Gothic Revival architecture. Completed in 1763, this church represents the first wave of Gothic architecture in England, around the same time that Walpole was doing up his ‘little cottage’ at Strawberry Hill as a Gothic castle, inspired by the soaring ecclesiastical buildings of early Europe. The decor, the shapes of the windows and the church furniture, the elaborate monuments and the muted colour scheme all reek of a Gothic aesthetic. Nikolaus Pevsner, a font of all architectural knowledge fondly referred to by my father as ‘Uncle Nick’,  in Buildings of Worcestershire, says:

‘The church, as originally planned by Brown, 1758, was to be classical, with tetrastyle portico. As built it is medievalizing: one of the most serious of the early Gothic Revival outside, one of the most beautiful within. With its W[est] tower and large E[ast] window, it must have looked perfectly convincing from the house as well as the road.’

He goephoto 3s on to say that ‘Adam’s interior is pure Georgian Gothic’, though one does wonder how much he approves given that he talks about the ‘monuments choking it within’ as well as the unusually long chancel. There are, indeed, many monuments; in fact, they are the reason the chancel is long, because the family monuments from the previous, demolished church are there alongside other, more recent ones, and the effect is of a mausoleum in the best possible (if slightly cramped) taste. The monuments tend towards the sculptural, reminding visitors of the money and pomp which underpinned the building of this elegant church. It is impressive, and of its time in a historically and culturally fascinating way, but one suspects it had less to do with glorifying God than with elevating the Earls of Coventry, the residents of Croome Court, for whom, as Pevsner suggests, it was mainly an ‘eye-catcher’ for their landscape.

photo 1


RubyOn holiday this year I visited the lovely Penlee House Gallery, hoping to see one of their (relatively) recent acquisitions: Ruby, by Thomas Cooper Gotch. Sadly it wasn’t on display, but I did buy a lovely postcard of it, and hope to see it next time I’m there. The gallery bought it with help from the Art Fund back in 2012. They already (I believe) have Gotch’s Girl in a Cornish Garden, a painting which cements his Newlyn School credentials as an artist, but Gotch changed his ideas and style of painting after some travelling: though he was instrumental in the founding of the Newlyn Gallery and very much a ‘plein air’ painter in the Newlyn style, he later became influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and began to paint in the rich colours and crisp lines of the PRB.

Ruby (c. 1909) is unusual in many ways. Gotch’s paintings tend to include a lot of children (such as the celestial Alleluia, in Tate Britain) and he paints them in jewel-like colours which make give the viewer the uncanny feeling that a child is standing in front of them. But Ruby (based on a local Cornish girl) is more than that: she is red-haired, like other Pre-Raphaelite women, and she is also scarlet-cheeked and clad in a crimson cloak – the painting, against a dull grey background, flames out like a beacon. As a redhead myself, I knowThomas_Cooper_Gotch_-_Alleluia_1896 there are assumptions that redheads shouldn’t wear red, but this little girl is deliberately defying it: she looks as though she has just been running through fields, with her tangled curls and bright face. In fact, Gotch painted Ruby Bone (who was about two) in response to a bet that he couldn’t – or wouldn’t – paint a red-head in red clothes (the Art Fund give more information on this here).

Although Gotch is not a particularly prominent painter, his work is easily recognisable. From the glorious, celestial, if somewhat uncanny children (most famously, The Child Enthroned) to his more Gothic imaginings (such as Death the Bride), his work demonstrates how different schools of art may collide and produce something entirely unexpected and often quite thrilling.



Elgar at the Lunatic Asylum

Edward_ElgarOne of my research interests is in Victorian lunatic asylums and the treatment their patients received (and I’m editing a bookInsanity and the Lunatic Asylum in the Nineteenth Century which will be published in December 2014). I’ve also been researching the origins of Barnsley Hall Asylum, in Bromsgrove, which was knocked down in 1996, so I was excited to discover that this year’s Elgar Society Lecture was on Edward Elgar and the Powick Lunatic Asylum in Worcester.

In 1879 the young Elgar took up a post as bandmaster at the asylum, where he worked for 5 years. He was only 21 when he began, and among other work he composed a series of pieces for the asylum orchestra to perform. The Ken Russell film about Elgar (1962) is available in its entirety on Youtube, and haelgar-powick-asylum-barry-collett-1393934391-old-article-0s a sequence on Elgar’s time at Powick, including a performance of one of the asylum compositions. When Powick closed in 1988, the music was performed there one last time, as well as being recorded. In 2008 the score was published, and last year a new professional recording with members of the CBSO was produced; this was well-reviewed and reached number 8 in the classical charts (I own a copy and have very much enjoyed it).

The lecture was given by Barry Collett, a conductor whose research led him to find Elgar’s Powick Asylum music, neglected in a corner in books labelled ‘Property of the Powick Hospital’, and to conduct its first performances in over a century; and Andew Lyle, who researched and eventually published the scores. Though both were clear that these aren’t ‘lost masterpieces’, the music is cheerful, ‘charming’, appropriate for the setting – but most of all, it demonstrates the composer at work, learning his craft – how to write, how to manage an orchestra, how to allow the instruments to perform to the highest level, and how to write music which was appropriate to a particular setting yet with a wider appeal. The lecture Powick asylumhelpfully illuminated aspects of the music which appear in later, better known works by Elgar and demonstrate how valuable early compositions may be, just as the ‘juvenilia’ of writers is often a mine of gems which point to their later work.

The asylum band was composed of staff, not inmates, and the range of instruments played by the staff is impressive. The Medical Superintendent of Powick, James Sherlock, was sympathetic to music as a form of therapy – very advanced for the time – so one wonders if he deliberately appointed musical staff! He bought instruments for the staff, whose skill was considerable judging by Elgar’s music written for them, and arranged musical instruction on two nights a week. His view was that ‘No other recreation has such a curative effect’. Elgar rehearsed the orchestra and conducted 220px-Collett' for Friday afternoon dances for the patients to attend, as well as writing popular dances for them, such as the polka and the quadrille. Concerts were also held, again conducted by Elgar, and staff who contributed to the amusement of patients in these ways received a financial reward. No matter what the condition of the patients, the ability to enjoy and benefit from listening to music remained, an idea that is perhaps much more common today. Later in life, though, Elgar (who liked to shock people by referring to ‘when I was at the lunatic asylum’), said ‘I fear my music did little to alleviate the condition of the inmates’ – but when listening to the Powick Asylum music, I can’t help but think it must at least have provide a little cheer for them.

The Lunatics Ball

The Lunatics Ball

The Return of History

IMG_2535My third and final blog from Port Eliot looks at two very different ways in which the past is important and why it matters. Both books – one fiction and one non-fiction – also suggest ways in which history is significant for the present day.

One was a talk by Paul Kingsnorth whose book, The Wake, was published by Unbound using crowd funding, and it has become the first book of that kind to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Kingsnorth is a compelling speaker and began by talking about how we tend to forget the myths of the founding of Britain, and indeed that British roots are easily forgotten or ignored. He discussed how myths and stories developed to help the population understand and explain what happened in turbulent times when England was invaded, poor and often struggling with the influx of conquerors with new languages and ideas. The point in history he takes as a beginning for his work was 1066, a time we assume we know about, but Kingsnorth’s point is that there is so much we ignore, or don’t think about. He emphasised that the first law that William (the Conqueror) passed took all landwake cover_illustration into the possession of the crown; and that all English barons in power were replaced with Normans over the following decade or two. Insurgency is little discussed now, but, as the elite of England had mostly been killed in the battles or by William’s orders, opposition had to come from other sources, notably the Sylvatica, or wild men, such as Hereward the Wake. The Harrying of the North, in which resistance to Norman rule was put down ruthlessly, with villages and farmland burned and population slaughtered, is perhaps a sadly familiar tale, but with that history often seems to stop. This is the start for The Wake: how did ordinary people live through these violent times, coming to terms with a loss of identity as well as land and family? The main character, Buccmaster, is a Fens farmer, rooted in ‘the old ways’ and fearful for the future. As Kingsnorth asks, ‘Does an oak tree bend or break when hit by lightning?’ What does this period of history do to identity, and to England?

Of course such big questions have big, often ambiguous answers, but they also have resonance for the modern world, not just here in Britain but much more widely. The novel provokes questions about how the future will judge us; and also about what national identity is, and why it is (or isn’t) important. What role does history play in this? It’s a story both specific and universal, then, of a colonised and paul_kingsnorthoppressed people with many modern and historic parallels.

I’m also interested in the language used. Kingsnorth began writing in modern English, but felt this grated (and certainly the language used in historical novels is a bugbear of mine). Then he thought about Old English, but this would be unreadable to all but academics. Eventually he settled on what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a language somewhere between Old English and modern English. The reader is thus dropped into an alien world ‘without a lifebelt’, but from what I’ve read so far the language is striking and evocative, and makes appealing and sometimes beautiful prose. There is a glossary (though I studied Old English at university and remembered the vocab quite quickly), and it’s fascinating to read a book with no Gallicisms, and no modern words – nothing sounds out of place. When I was about 8 my father showed me a book written in Old English, which I didn’t understand, and then read some to me, and I quickly realised how the sounds have changed less than the words and it suddenly made sense, and this feeling of a spoken language which can quickly become more familiar than we expect is present in The Wake, too. I was so inspired by the talk that I rushed off to buy the last copy and got it signed. I’ll report back when I’ve read it!

Finally, I went to a panel lecture on Pevsner’s Cornwall, chaired by Sir Richard Carew-Pole. He introduced the subject, pointing out Nikolaus Pevsner- The Life by Susie Harriesthat Cornwall was the first in the original Buildings of England series, published in 1951, revised 1971, and with a new edition out this year, by Peter Beacham. The panel spoke about the history of Pevsner’s series, with some lovely reminiscences about the man. One of the speakers was Susie Harries, the author of the Pevsner biography (which I’m now keen to read); she told us how what is now seen as a quintessentially English series was begun by a young German academic with an interest in modernist art. As a young academic, Pevsner was sent to England by his university to learn about English architecture for a course he was teaching. Not long after his return, he lost his job because he was from a Russian-Jewish family, and ended up in England as an ‘art odd-job man’, who eventually ended up writing for the Architectural Review, becoming editor during the war. When Penguin approached him to ask what he thought they should be doing, he suggested what he had wanted on his first visit to England: a county by county guide to architecture. What he ended up producing was not a history or a travel guide, but just about architectural styles, though he struggled sometimes with how much historic detail to include, a struggle which Peter Beacham has also had. Yet ultimately Pevsner was sad to have become essentially a ‘compiler’, doing no original research because of the success of the Buildings of England series. Yet Joe Mordaunt-Crook spoke of the range of Pevsner’s work; apparently he spoke of himself as a general practitioner of architectural history, specialising in nothing but with a remarkable knowledge, which many people have benefitted from. He used to claim that the secret for a contented life was to ‘find out what you’re good at and keep doing it’, which is exactly what he did.

Nikolaus-Pevsner-007Peter Beacham is a keen defender of the original series, but without unnecessary reverence; there were limitations (partly due to petrol rationing) and mistakes, so the new edition offers much more whilst remaining a part of the original (and correcting a mistake about Withiel church which no one had pointed out in 65 years!) The architecture of Cornwall is unique in many ways, especially as a centre for Gothic revival architecture; neglected by the established church for centuries, Henry Philpotts, a Victorian bishop of Exeter tried to inject traditional ecclesiastical architecture into the county, including repairs of many churches in the Tractarian tradition. The biggest challenge for Beacham was to retain a sense of place iCornwalln his work; while Pevsner felt he had neither talent nor space for this, Beacham felt that, especially in such an atmospheric county as Cornwall, this was important and has tried to include this. There were a few places where Pevsner ‘let himself go’ and did discuss historical context; Tintagel was one.

Finally, Giles Clotworthy, who spent time on the road with Pevsner, gave some amusing and enlightening anecdotes about his time travelling with the man himself, after having been taught by him at the Courtauld Institute of Art. His five weeks as Pevsner’s driver were perhaps the most gruelling of his life, and, having also travelled with Peter Beacham, confirms that the latter enabled him to spend more time in pubs and take things a bit easier! With Pevsner, ‘Private’ signs on land meant little, and when staff with pitchforks emerged to drive the intruders away, Pevsner instructed Giles to put his foot down to get them out of there. Then, they would eat fudge.

My notes are so extensive I can only give a flavour of the discussion, but (having grown up with the Buildings of England series all around me, I was filled with enthusiasm for the man who devoted his life to them, and the enduring power both of the architecture and the books about it.

How Coffee, Art and Politics can change the world

coffee1668_2171668bMy second blog from my Port Eliot notes focuses on some things which have changed – or could change – the world. The first is Matthew Green’s research on coffee houses, and how they inspired brilliant ideas and (at least potentially) changed the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dr Green is a historian, who focuses on popular history, bringing his work to a wide range of audiences through talks like this one at the Idler Academy and also through tours and audio (see here for more detail). When the first coffee house opened in London in the seventeenth century, the coffee was ‘black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love’, and tasted disgusting. Yet coffee houses became somewhere to meet, to discuss the latest news, politics and poetry, as well as to get the gossip. The sociable atmosphere is a far cry from your local coffee chain where probably everyone is huddled over a laptop, but Green attributes the startling social changes effected by the coffee house to…caffeine. Not only is it a stimulant, but in the days when drinking water was unsafe, it stopped people drinking small beer or ale all day, so for the first time many people became sober and enjoyed a fresh clarity of thought. Pepys was delighted by the diversity of company and discourse, and they flourished across London and changed aspects of society for good.

Women, however, hated them; only prostitutes would go into them, and it took men away from their homes to a new centre of interest, turning men into ‘babbling layabouts’. Yet the coffee house continued – Hogarth’s father opened a Latin coffee house where all conversation was in Latin (it lasted 8 months). There was a brothel coffee house, a coffee house on ice, a floating coffee house on the Thames, and so on – all had their own flavour and interests, and it was possible to find somewhere to meet like-minded people.

This contrasts strongly with what Green calls the ‘empty hell’ of modern coffee houses, where interaction is often at a minimum. Politeness, and the polishing of urbane social manners grew out of the coffee house culture in which interaction with others enabled one to perfect wit, style and manners. Social structures were upheld or demolished according to the talk of the coffee houses. Their demise was caused by gambling, tea and new technology (such as the telegraph, to spread news), but we saw something similar in the rise of the espresso bars in the 1950s when again drinking coffee in a social public place became a marker of urban sophistication. The 50s bars saw the birth of rock and roll and an emphasis on the individuality of the coffee bars – a far cry from coffee chains. However, this idea seems to be returning.

From coffee to art: another speaker we heard was Young British Artist Gavin Turk, in conversation with Rachel Newsome about the gavin-turk-abook This is Not a Book about Gavin Turk. The book, written about rather than by Turk, explores some of the ideas of his work, and the discussion commenced with the idea of the artist as outsider, and Turk’s use of personas in his art. He is interested in ‘getting to the edge of where something is not art’, he says, defining the centre by being on the edge. He added that it is only the frame that separates the art from the wall – we decide where the limits are, so those boundaries are flexible. The conversation went on to cover the idea of modern cultural identity and how the artist might appropriate it, and how concepts of branding are tied up with a sense of self. I was interested in the idea of art in the marketplace (is it still art if no one sees it – or buys it?) Again this is about framing and how we position things.

Turk suggests that in order to create Gavin Turk the Artist he had to kill himself – his old identity – and rebrand himself, to the extent that he sometimes wonders who he is. It’s clear that he has positioned himself as an intellectual artist, but he does rather come across as a student who has just discovered theory and wants to use all the words at once to show how clever he is. Although there were some interesting ideas, none of them were new.

And for something completely different: Shami Chakrabati, the Director of Liberty, the human rights organisation which is 80 this year, in discussion with Rosie Boycott. Though Chakrabati’s work may be controversial, it seems impossible not to like her – she comes across as disarmingly frank, passionate and even fun. She talked about the complacency that Britain has been able to feel for so Shami-Chakrabartilong when it comes to human rights issues, but suggested that perhaps  after a period of abuses of power including the Iraq war, the banking crisis, loss of faith in the police, the behaviour of some journalists etc, we are becoming less so, and the public thus needs the tools to hold those in power to account. Currently, the concerns about privacy and the use of our data are a hot topic, and Chakrabati spoke convincingly about the issues with this. As she says, we are social creatures and so privacy is not an absolute right, but it is also necessary for intimacy and for political freedom, among other things.

For Liberty’s 80th year she is writing a book, looking at how rights and freedoms have been eroded and telling the story of her time at Liberty through true stories. At the end, someone asked her how she feels about having to ‘defend the indefensible’, and she replied that ‘Abu Qatada stalks me like an ugly ex-boyfriend’ and that, while the public must be protected and wrongdoers deserve to face justice, who can choovagenda_zero21se who deserves a fair trial and who doesn’t?

More women on top are Hollie and Rhiannon of the Vagenda blog (sub-title: ‘Like King Lear, but for Girls’). They were there to talk about their book, which I bought as their main issue is the representation of gender in the media, something that my students are often interested in. I didn’t get to hear all of their talk, but they discussed the controversial, contradictory and guilt-inducing ways of women’s magazines, which ostensibly promote independence whilst encouraging women to maintain impossible standards of beauty, criticise celebrities for their appearances and generally undermine the concept of sisterhood. The impetus behind their blog was to encourage women to be more supportive of each other, and to establish a new, modern feminism which doesn’t require particular feminist credentials or divide women up as ‘radical feminists’, ‘black feminists’ or even ‘not a proper feminist’ – Vagenda is holding out against the ‘feminist checklist’. I’ve noticed the tendency for feminist women to criticise other feminist women (and other women generally) and it’s disappointing, as well as rather antithetical to the original spirit of women’s liberation, so this is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.