Three Paintings In the Frick Mansion. (Because Wolf Hall is on the telly)

For images see this brilliant virtual tour of the Frick Mansion: (click directly on paintings for close-ups)

Three Paintings In the Frick Mansion.

Behind magnolias the house sits on 5th Avenue, 70th and 71st
Of Henry Clay Frick, steel and coke magnate,
His palace to make Carnegie’s house look like a miner’s shack

In the Living Hall, three portraits frame a Reformation
Over the mantle shimmers transcendent St Jerome of El Greco
In a cardinal’s scarlet, hands intent on the gospel
In his imperious Latin of the True church in his old world

On his right hand below sits Holbein’s Sir Thomas More
In Tudor rose chain of state, a noose of letters ‘S’
Nestling luxuriously in softest furs, over crimson silk sleeves
And leaving visible to history his merciless knotted hair shirt

So not only God will know of his penitential suffering
Which spurs his gaze to heaven, Man as a picture of faith
Inspired to his divine works on earth as in heaven
Ready to torture and die for the spirit of Jerome

On whose left hand below, he is faced down by Holbein’s
Other great Thomas, Chancellor to that absolute king
Whose love and rage ruled him more than wisdom
Cromwell broods a shrewd master of the Book and the Word

Not Jerome’s olivewood testament he committed to memory
But the knotty English oak prose of Wycliffe and Tyndale
The practical text for man like God himself to make
His own firmament – an England of works not wonders

Where new man forges the world of his own miracles
Where profits and debts are the new-made heaven and hell
And mercy is by man’s law alone and the king’s grace granted
As two beheaded men confront each other and us

Across the gulf of Reformation, their gaze today a single span bridge
From St Jerome to the robber baron of the Frick Mansion
In the New York City world that Cromwell made.

Greece and Eurozone Crisis – What The Germans Don’t Tell Us.

Seems right to reblog this old thing…from April 2013.

Planet Pedro!

Stelios works as a waiter in small resort on the south coast of Crete. At the end of the season he has plenty of time to use his excellent English with tourists – like ourselves. We explain that we have visited many parts of Greece, having spent holidays there every year since 1983, and witnessed its rise from a Balkan peasant economy to a deceptively prosperous European state and its subsequent decline to a Eurozone basket case.

Stelios listens carefully as we relate how it good it has been to witness, for example, the provision of local health centres by past PASOK governments, but then breaks in: “yes, this was good of course, but listen: our village has 600 people, but a health centre built for a population of 2000. It is full of the most modern equipment, mostly unused, all made by Siemens. In Germany.”

This brief snapshot picks…

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Ewan MacColl – Songs Of Solidarity. A Secret Folkie Speaks…

It was the finale of ‘Blood And Roses’ the Ewan MacColl Centenary Tribute Concert.

The whole cast of stars was on stage: two MacColl/Seeger sons (and their offspring), Martin Carthy (the man who taught Paul Simon ‘Scarborough Fair’ and from whom Bob Dylan nicked the opening of ‘Girl from the North Country’), with the no-less-eminent Norma Watterson and their stellar daughter Eliza. Plus all-round good guy Jarvis Cocker (sometime guest bassist with Spinal Tap on the seminal ‘Big Bottom’ at Glastonbury.) All joined by Scottish folk legends Karine Polwart and Dick Gaughan.

It took this listener, at least, back to folk concerts, festivals and clubs in the early 1970s. As a teenager in an average-sized and rather dull town in the south of England, live music was scarce indeed, and usually entailed a train journey to a nearby city – to watch prog-rock bands like Family (yay!) or Emerson, Lake and Palmer (I know, I know).

But there was a school folk club, run by earnest English teachers, which offered the chance to listen to records and for aspiring musicians to show off. Every term there was also a folk concert, where pupils would make attempts of varying success and seriousness to showcase their dubious talents. These sometimes even featured girls from the girls’ grammar school, who mainly pissed everyone off by singing early Leonard Cohen badly. (But one of them certainly brightened up at least one teenage boy’s life by introducing him to the salacious blues double entendre ‘Mr Lacey’. Yes indeed…)

So the logical progression was to bigger clubs, with bigger acts from further afield: Richard and Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention (of course), Lindisfarne spin-off Jack the Lad. And of course the visiting Scottish bands: Five Hand Reel, JSD Band, Boys of the Lough. And then at the UEA, Norwich and Norfolk Folk Club and Festival, with real rural folk singers and occasional great acts like Michael Chapman dropping by. And folk night lock-ins at the Ironmongers Arms.

So what was so interesting, while other teenagers were interested in Marc Bolan and Slade? Obviously there was an element of snobbery and the lure of knowing some of the people personally (and the chance to meet girls, even if they did sing miserable songs they could not possibly understand at age 16). But the real lure was that folk music offered sincerity and authenticity in an age of glam-rock, especially in a world of popular culture not yet redeemed by the artistic genius and intellectual cool of David Bowie and Roxy Music, or later punk rock and its cooler sibling, New Wave.

And those qualities of sincerity and authenticity had a range of expressions: these included celtic fringe verve of the Scottish bands, the sea shanties of old guys from Norfolk villages, and – for me – the workers’ songs: ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers,’ ‘The Hot Asphalt,’ ‘Wet Pay,’ and old stalwarts like ‘Joe Hill’ and ‘The Man Who Waters The Workers Beer.’ These were songs that resonated as true and important: not in my own life in a skilled industrial worker’s family, but that which I heard of from my grandparents and which I saw around me, for example, in holiday jobs building the M27.

A lot of it seems old hat now, but the songs of Ewan MacColl at his tribute concert reminded us all of a time when there was a living set of songs which portrayed the tribulations and joys of working life. What is more, they referred to working people all over the UK: one of the most beautiful and touching is ‘The Shoals of Herring’ ( – referring specifically to “From the Dover Strait to the Faroe Islands”.

Conversely, one of the few jarring notes struck during the concert was an introduction from Dick Gaughan, who attempted to narrow Ewan MacColl’s persona down to that of “the greatest Scottish songwriter born in Lancashire.” We can leave aside the details of MacColl’s life (available on Wiki here: because it is actually more important and interesting to look at his work.

Like the ‘Shoals of Herring’ and explicitly protest songs such as ‘The Ballad of Timothy Evans’ (performed by the marvellous Chaim Tennenbaum in blistering fashion), MacColl’s lyrics and tunes are beyond the tawdry definition or ownership by place or country. They speak to all who have a heart or an ear; and above all they speak for the workers, the disadvantaged and the powerless.

They are songs of solidarity: which brings us back to the concert finale. For ‘Dirty Old Town’, Norma Watterson reminded us that it was not written about Dublin (a common fallacy stemming from the Pogues’ rather good version) but Salford: Jarvis added that it might be Glasgow. Likewise the club singalong of ‘I’m A Rambler’ specifically has a Manchester narrator and of course and most crucially references the Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District.

But we recognise the situation and we love the songs as examples of real life and of struggles past and present, and of an indomitable spirit. They are not English songs either. As I say, they are songs of solidarity.

The cultural politics of post-referendum Scotland are summed up in a poignant blog from Effie Deans:

My point in this blog is to reflect what else we have lost in the referendum: we moved away from a politics of solidarity to a politics of identity. The jigs and reels, if you like, have won out over the work songs.

So the Ewan MacColl Centenary concert was certainly a throwback: to the songs and spirit of an age when we believed in a single working class and a politics which reflected mutual support and unity. Some may say that such a view is nostalgic and sentimental, and does not reflect a new political reality where (they say) Scots and English workers are so different that we need a border erected between us.

It is impossible to tell, but I am not sure that Ewan MacColl would have agreed. And I am certain that those who followed him, for example, Norman Buchan, who hated nationalism but did more for Scottish folksong than anyone else, would have been on my side. It is the side of solidarity and the universal struggle for the rights of the workers, the unemployed and the under-privileged.

It is possible, even likely, that the political views of the left in Scotland who reject independence will end up like old ILPers or CPGB stalwarts. We will be seen as those who have been overtaken by time and the spirit of the age: comrades with strong and principled but (they will say) outmoded views. You can count me amongst them: I rather like the company.

Elizabeth David Poem (For Kathleen O’Rourke.)

Kathleen, who has recently died, was a fellow member of the poetry class which I attend. A retired teacher, she was already an accomplished poet, whose  Scots poem ‘Hibernation’ was one of the winners of the Commonwealth poetry competition on the theme of Slavery last year (it is published in the anthology ‘Yonder Awa’.)

The last conversation which I had with Kathleen was at the class, when she was kind enough to appreciate this poem. So it is for her.

med food

Mrs Elizabeth David

Spared the meagre gloom of wartime diets and rationed men
Miss E. Gwynne was nourished by the sun and pleasures of the Middle Sea
Seduced by the splendour of Ottoman luxury of gilded filigree

As a backdrop, the Western Desert, war and the barrages of El-Alamein
Elizabeth was enchanted by picnics on minefield beaches
And found love in mirrored bedrooms of Alexandrian mansions

Liza feasted on dinners from curtained corners with spirit stoves
With fresh market goods from across the Delta and down the verdant Nile
Leaves glistening emeralds, a salad fresh from Eden, followed by soft apricots

As fresh as new lovers in the morning, laden with amber juice in perfect velvet skins.
On return, the fruit’s girlish flesh is toughened, but its stone regains a dormant grip
And flavour’s remembrance has no choice but to force itself from her pitted heart.

The desert batterie de cuisine again roars; the blazing book jacket
Has no choice but to savour her words: “A Book of Mediterranean Food.”
Mrs David’s lobster-shells, lemon and wine bottle cocktails upturn the table-torpors

Which come to kitchens emptied, orchards unpruned, vegetable patches overgrown
When cook makes munitions, and allotment-keeper falls to conflict’s ill-favour
Her food cannot return war-lost lives and loves
But gives passionate truth of life’s pagan savour.

Herald letter – Yes and No, social democrats and Scottish Labour (no £wall)

It is an outcome of the referendum campaign that leads Iain Macwhirter to pose the question “when is a Unionist not a Unionist?” when discussing Jim Murphy.

In fact, a social democrat does not define politics in binary terms of nationalist/Unionist, but in terms of what are the best solutions to address the divisions in society caused by inequality of income and class. The constitutional arrangements are the means to the end of social justice.

As Johann Lamont put it, if she had been convinced that independence would make Scotland a better and fairer place, she would have supported a Yes vote. The same goes for many more of us. What counts is what works, and the Yes case invited the risk of economic disaster which would have harmed the least well-off most. So independence failed that test by a long chalk.

This has become part of a larger and very unwelcome development in Scottish politics: we need to avoid the situation where the question “which school did you go to?” is replaced by “which way did you vote in the referendum?” The danger is of a lesser version of the divide to be seen in Irish politics between “Free-Staters” and “republicans” which is even now reflected by allegiances to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

Clearly the SNP can only accommodate those who voted Yes, those who were blind or indifferent to the economic weakness of the case for independence and those who do not respect the self-determination of the Scottish people as expressed through the ballot box on September 18.

Scottish Labour, on the other hand, offers a choice in the forthcoming elections to all of those who want to see a fairer and more equal Scotland and UK. By being inclusive to No and Yes voters alike, it also offers a route away from the risk of a new sectarianism which the binary nature of Iain MacWhirter’s question reflects.

Peter A. Russell

Herald letter – Local Income Tax (No £wall)

THOSE advocating a Local Income Tax (LIT) (Letters, January 5, 6, 12 & 13) should also take into account that areas of high need generally have low incomes and vice versa.

 Therefore Glasgow would have a high LIT level on lower incomes and East Dunbartonshire a lower level on higher incomes. This would be fine for the people of Bearsden and Lenzie but not so good for the people of Drumchapel and Springburn.

This having been said, it also shows how a regional LIT arrangement could also act as a redistributive mechanism of the kind which has been missing since the reckless abolition of regional councils. This could be based on a Greater Glasgow with the same status as Holyrood (like a German Hansestadt) supported by statutory local burgh councils. The latter might be funded by a small and therefore acceptable property tax.

Peter A Russell,