Saturday, 5 September 2015

Norvège Nul Points : Corruption the Nobel Way

Corruption the Nobel Way, Dirty Fuels and the Sunshine Revolution by Harald N. Røstvik

Norway regularly comes top or near the top of every index that tries to measure the quality of life across developed countries. According to Harald Røstvik, a Norwegian Professor of Architecture, educated at Manchester University, with a passion for sustainability, we have all got it wrong. Far from being a peace loving country, Norway, perhaps the richest country on the planet, is steeped in corruption and its whole economy based on the export of fossil fuels and armaments.

How asked Harald Røstvik can a nation "so beautiful and rich, seemingly based on consensus, breed famous dark fiction writers like Jo Nesboø as well as breeding a person able to be staging a death and defiance massacre at Utøya?" The author seeks to explain by unearthing Norway's "many dirty little secrets" here are the main points of the indictment:

1. A climate damaging nation - with very high and unsustainable emissions of Carbon dioxide
2. An imperialistic colonial power - through its oil companies it has ties in the most corrupt regimes in the world, and Norwegian companies have regularly engaged in corrupt practices to gain advantage in those countries; Norway has spent billions lobbying the US Government, and a Norwegian Company for some time held the contract to maintain the notorious Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba, used to hold terror suspects; Norway also owns land on Antarctica: Queen Maud's land is apparently 7 times larger than mainland Norway;
3. A considerable exporter of arms, ammunition and napalm; Norway has 120 weapons and manufacturing companies,is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, and it doubled its exports between 2005 and 2012.
4. Norways prisons are full to the brim, and the Government is looking to rent space in Sweden, whose prison cells are half empty;
5. A Class society, with Norwegian households owing more than the Italians; the high cost of living has led to increases in poverty, with 75,000 children living below the poverty line; the most unequal of the Nordic nations;
6. High divorce rates; big mental health problems;
7. A dependence on oil wealth which has stifled development in other areas, particularly alternative energy. Even its large hydro electric power industry could produce far more energy than it does.
8. Monopoly in the food industry, with consequent higher prices than in neighbouring countries, despite the high subsidies to farmers

Perhaps the most alarming point Røstvik raises is the Norwegian intolerance of whistle blowing and any criticism of the country. As a result Norway is the least transparent of the Nordic nations. The author describes what he calls a "loyalty culture" in which many top jobs routinely go to people with political affiliations, mostly to the Norwegian Labour Party, and"nepotism is practised in a big way."

"Norwegian wood is very good but according to the author many of its wood burning stoves are damaging to the nation's health
Undoubtedly the author speaks from personal experience as a critic of Norway, and an advocate of sustainable models when he describes Norway as a difficult place to live and operate:
The alternative truths are difficult to present to a broad audience. Inconvenient truths are not popular, especially not if they question the beauty of our oil, natural gas, hydropower and arms exporting industries that feed us. We have turned into a shrewd nation where climate change discussions are marginalised .. Instead of fierce debate people go home into their cosy homes and read about - everyday tiny nothingness .. In 2013 another Norwegian bestseller was a book on firewood .. NRK the state broadcaster sent a 12-hour TV 'national firewood evening, night and morning on prime time became a hit .. The New York Times had a full-page coverage. .. It was hard to figure out whether the world was laughing at us .. or praising our down to earth attitude. The NYT article started as follows:'The program consisted mostly of people in parkas chatting and chopping in the woods and then eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace."

The author presents an interesting follow up to this. Certain older wood burning stoves are apparently polluting the air and the author argued that they should be banned. He claims that the state TV channel argued against him in a 12 hour TV programme without calling him to put his case!

It is impossible for me to evaluate this book, but the author certainly presents a great deal of information that was unknown to me, a frequent visitor to the country over 25 years. I was particularly surprised to read about the Norwegian Armaments industry, and the tangled web of intrigues that Norwegian Companies have been involved in, especially in Iraq soon after the American invasion in 2003. One Norwegian I know who like the author has strong Mancunian connections, is very pleased with the book: it corroborates many of the points that he has made to this rather sceptical listener over the past 10 years or so, particularly about the unwelcomeness of criticism in Norway, and the somewhat nauseating attempts to suck up tho the United States, which culminated in the ridiculous award of the Nobel peace Prize to President Obama only a few months after he had become President..

I doubt though whether Corruption the Nobel Way will get the attention it deserves in Norway. Even Amazon does not stock it, except in Kindle form, and I bought my copy from the Architectural Association Bookshop in London. It is though a good read for anyone interested in Norway or the inter-connectedness of the modern world. "No Country is an island", as John Donne might have said.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The House of Windsor and Appeasement

Neville Chamberlain and his wife pictured with the King and Queen after signing the Munich Agreement in 1938; both appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen

The publication by the Sun of pictures of the young Princess Elizabeth and more significantly perhaps her mother, then the Duchess of York, performing a Nazi salute in 1933-1934 in the company of Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, has apparently caused some consternation in the Royal Family.

Andrew Roberts pointed out some time ago that the House of Windsor has an enduring sense of insecurity. (1) Created in the first World War when its designation was changed from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, its founder, George V was soon to witness the dethronement of his cousins the Tsar of Russia and the German Kaiser. If there was one thing that united the House of Windsor for the next two decades it was opposition to another war against Germany which it not unreasonably feared might be fatal both to the British Empire and to the Monarchy itself.

For those who take a Manichean view of history, particularly beloved by Americans, the baddies in the 1930's were Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, and Neville Chamberlain. The hero of the decade, with whom the Royal family, or particularly George VI and his wife, have to a large extent become associated in public memory, was Winston Churchill. The film The King's Speech helped to prolong this myth, for such it was.

Churchill, a supporter of Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, was very unpopular with the Royal Family throughout the decade. The King and Queen, contrary to conventions of political neutrality, were firm supporters of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement, and very sorry to see Winston Churchill succeed him. When Chamberlain arrived to resign in May 1940 the King said that he thought he had been treated most unfairly, and suggested that Lord Halifax should be his successor. He was most disappointed when Chamberlain disagreed. Apparently the Queen was particularly opposed to Churchill. She wrote a note to Chamberlain expressing her regret at his resignation.

I can never tell you in words how much we owe you. During these last desperate and unhappy years .. we felt safe with the knowledge that your wisdom and high purpose were there at our hand. I do want you to know how grateful we are, and I know that these feelings are shared by a great part of our people. Your broadcast was superb. My eldest daughter told me that she and Margaret Rose had listened to it with real emotion. In fact she said 'I cried Mummy'. (20)

Another happier moment on the Balcony at Buckingham Palace: with Churchill on VE day

The current storm has renewed calls for the Royal Family to open its archives to allow researchers to investigate its links with the Royal Family's German relatives in the 1930's. Clearly there is little chance of this happening for many years.

As Max Sebald so aptly put it, ".. forgetting is what keeps us going." History and memory are not synonyms. History aims to help us reconstruct and understand the past and arrive at some kind of truth, albeit provisional. Memory is bound up with our identity, both individually and collectively. In response to the Sun, Buckingham Palace significantly tried to reinforce our memory of the Royal Family's "dedication to the welfare of this nation during the war ", and the Queen's 63 year record of service.
1. "The House of Windsor and the Politics of Appeasement", pp 5-53, Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (London 1994).
2. ibid p 40.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Anthony Burgess: made in Manchester

International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, complete with Christmas tree

Anthony Burgess or John Anthony Burgess Wilson as he was known in his youth, has a reasonable claim to be the greatest man (or woman), and certainly the greatest writer, that Manchester has yet produced. But I suspect that whilst most Mancunians may have heard of or even have seen the film A Clockwork Orange , few know who wrote the book on which it was based, and fewer realise that he was born in Manchester. Fewer still I suspect know of the existence of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

The typewriters on which Burgess hammered out his numerous books and articles

Sited in an old industrial building, off the beaten track, but close to the large student population at Manchester's two Universities, the Foundation has a small performance space, a book lined cafeteria, and houses much of the extensive collection accumulated by Anthony Burgess: books, typewriters, music, archives. Its windows display improving quotations, somehow appropriate for a city associated with nineteenth century liberalism and a belief in the perfectibility of man.

I AM PROUD to be a Mancunian Burgess wrote in his autobiography, and even claimed to have imported the word into the Italian language:

Italians do not realise that the British are honorary Romans, and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a citadino mancuneinse, cioè romano.

Burgess's associations with Manchester after 1940, when he received a cordial notice of induction into His Majesty's Army, were tenuous to say the least. His mother had died during the flu pandemic shortly after his birth and, somewhat detached from his father's second family, he never returned to live in the city. After the war he taught in Birmingham and Banbury and from the 1950's spent much of his life overseas, in Malaya, Malta, Italy, the United States, the Alps and elsewhere.

At the time of my birth, Manchester was the great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian .. Manchester's Free Trade Hall housed the Hallé Orchestra, one of the finest in Europe .. Manchester was encircled by fine colliery brass bands and beefy choirs, and its musical acumen, of which Ernest Newman and later Neville Cardus were the critical voices, far surpassed that of London. Its cosmpolitan musical taste was kept sharp by the Italian and German Jewish colonies. It was, under Miss Horniman, the focus of a theatrical renascence that learned from Ibsen but expressed, in plays like Hobson's Choice and Hindle Wakes, the Lancashire soul. (1)

Despite his international success, Burgess never lost his northern prejudice against the south and the Oxbridge dominated establishment: the Manchester Guardian debased itself when it moved to London and was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism and the BBC stole the Hallé's best players. (2)

.. the difficulty of removing the observer from the observed.

One might have imagined that he would at last have found a heroine in Margaret Thatcher: from a similar social background, she presumably stood for the "right kind" of radicalism, and despite a Methodist rather than Catholic upbringing, perhaps shared his strong sense of original sin. She and Burgess certainly shared an aversion to high taxes, which he avoided by living abroad, but alas her credo was too philistine for his tastes:

Some things cannot be considered in terms of a market economy, and the chief of these things is education … The ruling philosophy is utilitarian. Education is of little value unless, directly or indirectly, it leads to the expansion of the Gross National Product. Of what use is the study of history, philosophy, archaeology? … Mrs. Thatcher presumably sees no use in the teaching of moral values. There is little evidence in contemporary British life that it is considered better to help the sick and suffering than to kick them in the face.(3)

Shakespeare exhibition at the Burgess Foundation
A polymath and a man of eclectic tastes, Burgess had an obsession with language and music, and a profound knowledge and appreciation of Shakespeare, Beethoven and James Joyce. Arguably he spread himself far too thinly, insisting on regarding himself as a composer despite all the evidence to the contrary, and producing too much and too varied a range of fiction, not to mention the numerous critical and non-fictional studies.

His was though a major talent, very much a product of pre-war Manchester, an industrial city in decline, proud of its liberal heritage, with a cosmopolitan intelligentsia centred around the Victoria University, which provided an environment unmatched in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It is easy to understand Burgess's affection for Manchester, and also why he felt it had little to offer him after his graduation. He deserves to be remembered as one of Manchester's famous sons.
1. Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God(Vintage edition 2002) p.15
2. ibid
3. See the Burgess Foundation blog

Monday, 19 January 2015

Two Exhibitions: Turner and Schiele

A rather hurried 24 hours in London to look at two very different but highly recommended art exhibitions nearing their end. Firstly, with Timothy Spall's portrayal of the artist in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner still fresh in my mind, a visit to the Tate to see the Late Turner exhibition.

William Parrott,"Turner on Varnishing Day" c. 1840

There were six rooms to negotiate amongst the inevitable crowds, a stunning reminder of just how much Turner produced in his later years, and rather too much to absorb in a single viewing.

I spent quite a lot of time looking at two paintings displayed side by side, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino and Ancient Rome; Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. These paintings were both exhibited in 1839, but have rarely been seen together since, one now residing in California and the other at the Tate.

AcientRome, Aggripina Landing with the Ashes of Germanicus. 1839

Turner's painstaking, detailed attempt to recreate the architecture of Imperial Rome was not fully appreciated by contemporaries, but I found it an absorbing piece of work. No reproduction that I have seen really does it justice.

Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino 1839

Once the property of British Prime Minister Lord Rosebery, Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino was acquired in 2010 for a mere £29.7 million by the J. Paul Getty Museum, and is in remarkable condition. For me these two paintings alone made the exhibition worthwhile.

For the second exhibition we were transported from utilitarian Imperial Britain whose inevitable decline and decay was perhaps Turner's subtext, to late Imperial Vienna, to the intellectually vibrant and sexually charged world of Freud, Klimt and Mahler, whose decline had long been anticipated and was now imminent.

The Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld was smaller than the Turner exhibition, but was also very crowded, and here as at the Tate the viewers seemed predominantly female, something I have not noticed before.

Unlike Turner, Schiele's life was very short, at 28 a victim, like fellow Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and millions of others, of the influenza that struck the world at the end of the First World War, so one cannot really even hazard a guess what a "late Schiele" exhibition would have looked like.

Crouching Woman with Green Kerchief 1914

Some of Schiele's portrayals of the female figure are challenging even today, and must have been even more so at a time when few women even bared an ankle. At one point in his short life Schiele was imprisoned and the police seized a hundred or so drawings held to be pornographic. He was found guilty of displaying erotic drawings in a place accessible to children, and spent a total of 24 days in prison.

Two Girls Embracing (Friends) 1915

The exhibition also displayed a number of striking self-portraits which are a little less well known than his images of women. For me the most memorable picture, perhaps because I have no recollection of having seen it before, was the Male Lower Torso, produced in 2010, the same year as a number of rather tortured self portraits.

Male Lower Torso 1910
Schiele's pregnant wife died on 28th October 1818, as three days later did Schiele himself, on the same day the Austro Hungarian Empire, so long in the dying, was finally dissolved.