Not long ago, I astounded the men sitting next to me at a dinner party (yes, dinner parties still take place here and there) by saying that I thought Gordon Brown was handsome, and indeed had sex appeal. The men exclaimed that I had gone off my rocker. But the women within earshot immediately chipped in to support me. They agreed that the Prime Minister was an attractive man: he exuded an aura of manliness, of reticence, of depth of feeling, all qualities which are very attractive to women. There then followed one of those enjoyable conversations about who among our leading politicians did, and who did not, have sex appeal. As it turned out, no one round the table could think of a single man on the front benches who had ‘it’ — not David Cameron, not George Osborne, neither David Miliband nor Ed, not of course Ed Balls, not Alistair Darling, no, not Alan Johnson, not Nick Clegg or even Vince Cable. Not Tony Blair. There was only Gordon Brown. However, in the last few days, whenever I’ve seen the Prime Minister on television, he’s looked increasingly puffy and pasty. This is hardly surprising given the painful publicity he’s received over his letter of condolence, but it occurred to me that he’d better call an election soon before he loses his last remaining asset and with it, perhaps, a large number of women voters.
As we all know, health and safety officials endlessly meddle in our lives — sports days are cancelled because of wet grass, music teachers are obliged to wear earmuffs, and so on — but there is one area in which the bureaucrats have not interfered nearly enough: improving the lights on bicycles. It’s a near miracle if, while driving a car in heavy traffic during the hours of darkness, one doesn’t knock a cyclist off his bike. True, bicycles are required to have lamps attached at front and back. But these are usually so weak as to be barely visible — especially the tiny red ones which twinkle intermittently at the back. Some cyclists dart at great speed from lane to lane with no lights at all — and with apparent impunity. So why have our risk-averse regulators not insisted on stronger lights? Could it be that their disapproval of cars and motorists is so intense that, consciously or unconsciously, they would rather endanger the health and safety of a cyclist than help a despised driver to avoid calamity and criminal conviction?
What kind of school is this? Pupils are strictly divided into sets, they are not allowed to talk to each other in the corridors, they wear neat uniforms and the boys’ striped ties have to be worn so that exactly six stripes are shown below the knot. Before every single lesson, the pupils have to stand behind their chairs and repeat these words: ‘Throughout this lesson I aspire to maintain an enquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive ear so that in this class and in all classes I may reach my full potential.’ No, it’s not a disciplinary institution in the high Victorian era. It is, I was amazed and impressed to discover, the ‘new’ educational regime practised at one of our state schools, the ultramodern Mossbourne Community Academy built by the architect Richard Rogers in one of the most deprived areas of London’s East End and opened in 2005 by Tony Blair. Since then it has produced brilliant academic results and been singled out for praise by Michael Gove. Moreover, according to the parents I talked to, the children are happy and motivated, and the teachers, it hardly needs saying, are in no danger of being assaulted. Progressive education, it seems, has taken a leap into the past — not a moment too soon.
I went to the National Gallery’s The Sacred Made Real — Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 exhibition fully expecting to be deeply moved and impressed. The show has been enormously praised on all sides. At the press viewing, according to one report, people were weeping or falling into awed silence. As it turned out, I was left completely cold — by the sculptures, that is. It is these painted wooden figures — which have never before been removed from their religious surroundings — depicting sacred images in ultra-realistic and often grisly detail, which form the focal point of the exhibition. The aim is to establish that they are masterpieces of Spanish art, on a par with the pictures by Zurbarán and Velázquez, painted in the same period, which are displayed alongside them. The two genres clearly influenced each other, though, crucially, the paintings are much less gory. But these graphic three-dimensional representations — of the crucified and scourged body of Christ with blood still oozing from His wounds, of the head of John the Baptist complete with severed windpipe and ivory teeth visible in his half-open mouth, of the Virgin of Sorrows, tears of glass rolling down from between eyelashes made of real hair — seem to me of no more aesthetic value than the brilliantly realistic dolls you can buy in Hamleys. This may be because I’m not a Catholic and indeed I find the preoccupation with death and physical suffering in so much Catholic imagery truly morbid. But I think Van Gogh got it right when, in one of his marvellous letters, he differentiated between the purely realistic depiction of nature in his studies and sketches, where no creative process takes place, and his paintings. For him reality was ‘food for one’s imagination’. If the great painters on display at this show were influenced by the kitschy hyper-realism of these sculptures, I would rather not know about it.