edinburgh: minus one day

Yesterday was the day before travelling to Edinburgh.

It’s always a strange day; fortunately I had most of my packing and sorting already done because of being homeless and having spent the last two weeks on canals and in Northampton and in Wales and all that, so I spent yesterday back in London, going around art exhibitions with my Mum.

Somehow we managed four exhibitions altogether: at the Royal Academy we went to ‘Sargent and The Sea’ (a bit dull – and why did they not have any of his Venice paintings?) and the Summer Exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is remarkable – it’s an open-entry exhibition where any artist, established or unheard-of, can submit work, and if it’s good enough they’ll display it. It’s like the art world’s version of the Edinburgh Fringe – alongside the Hockneys and a new Emin there are things by people nobody has ever heard of and they are smashing.

My favourite thing, of course, was David Mach’s ‘Silver Streak’. This is it:

I don’t know if you can quite tell, but it’s made out of coathangers. Wire coathangers. The fuzziness you can see is all the hooks sticking out. I don’t know exactly what it’s trying to say, but it’s a remarkable piece of sculpture.

We carried on with the sculpture thing by going to the Henry Moore exhibition at the Tate. I quite like Moore’s early stuff, the stuff where you can tell what the things are. Like…

…in this Mother and Child, which he did in 1932, you can see exactly what’s going on – you can see the protective look in the mother’s body as she projects a huge, hard shoulder to the world, looking out for any danger to her child. It’s lovely. It’s not like a generic Madonna because in Madonnas the mother gazes adoringly at the kid; they have a comparatively banal religious purpose and perhaps because of this they show nothing about the feelings of paranoia or protectiveness that come with motherhood (I assume). But…

…this one, which he did in 1983, is a Madonna. And it’s pretty dull in comparison, not only because of its purpose but because in later life Moore’s sculpture got so abstract that you can’t really tell much about what’s going on. You can just see that there’s a big figure hunched over a small figure. There’s nothing really for the observer to do, nothing to participate in except to try and recognise what’s what in the shapes.

My favourite work in the exhibition, though, wasn’t even a sculpture at all but a drawing. It was called ‘People Looking at a Tied-up Object. This is it:

What’s in the wrapping? Why is it so much more interesting that the other strange objects lying around? See, it gives you something to think about…

And then we went to the exhibition of British Comic Art. Which was good, but was really more a history of visual satire from Hogarth onwards than it was an art exhibition. And it wasn’t really all that funny either – no matter how much the exhibition had to pretend that there is still some great visceral value in pictures of Fox getting overfriendly with negroes, it’s just not that great to look at anymore, because topical comedy isn’t funny if it’s not topical. And if it’s not funny, then it’s not comedy. So it was an exhibition of non-topical non-comedy.

Anyway. I’ll be seeing plenty of actual funny art – which hopefully gives me things to think about – in the next few weeks. Lots of comics are there already, like I was this time last year. I’m just not quite there yet…

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Derek Draper’s Comedy Masterclass

I suppose – as always – that Armando Iannucci got there long before I did.

His Friday Night Armistice was never a huge ratings hit but I watched it semi-religiously for most of 1997. I was 17, was just beginning to understand the British political landscape properly, and the Thatcher/Major government was playing out its last few sordid months. It made for great TV: there was Mellor and his sexual deviance; Neil Hamilton, quickly gathering a comedy reputation (in brown paper bags, mostly) at the heart of the Tories’ sleaze-riddled spectacle; poor Major cutting a tragic-comic figure in his failure to handle a fractured party. Iannucci and co were never short of material because the government were such a bunch of incompetent, sniping, grasping buffoons. I was inspired.

And then there was the Labour Party. Blair was young and dynamic and promised to be ‘whiter than white’; Brown was intelligent, principled, sensible; Robin Cook had ripped the Tories to bits in the chamber over Arms to Iraq and looked about to be a genuinely decent Foreign Secretary…

And on the night of May 1st 2007, while Dimbleby and co. were on BBC1 analysing Labour’s landslide in their straight, dry election night way, BBC2 was given over to Armando Iannucci to present The Election Night Armistice. I don’t remember that much about most of the show. I remember it was brilliant. The bit that stuck in my memory, though, was a section where they got ‘spin doctors’ from the major parties and asked them to try and put a positive spin on ridiculously bad quotes. And one of those was a young-ish guy called Derek Draper.

Draper was remarkably impressive; in fact I think he won the little ‘spin’ competition that the Armistice team held. He was charming and witty, and although he seemed like a little bit of a tool, he was a tool with his heart in the right place: he was the representative of the new government that were coming to save us from the sniping and sleaze of the old politics. I liked him.

This week, Draper – several scandals later, the editor of the LabourList blog – was revealed as the recipient of those emails that Gordon Brown’s press guy Damian McBride wrote discussing a number of possible smears of Tory shadow ministers. I’ve read his responses to the whole thing blowing up and he’s clearly the same guy I watched 11 years ago, trying to make a bad situation look better. But he’s obviously still a tool.

His overall motives, I think, are decent: he was fed up of the fact that politics in the blogosphere is dominated by right-wing gossip and rumour-mongering and wanted to change it.

But he forgot that there’s a reason why that kind of nasty politics is done by Tories, and that’s because they are supposed to be the nasty, sleazy, sniping ones. And he – and McBride, of course – are both massive tools because Labour are supposed to be, in the public’s perception, the ‘good guys’; when the Labour party stoop to the level that we expect of Tories, then it is always going to be big news.

The traditional perception of the floating voter in Britain is generally that the Tories are unpleasant and sleazy, but competent; and Labour are decent and principled but a bit rubbish at governing. The reason Labour won by a landslide in 1997 was because, in addition to being principled, they managed to appear more competent than the Tories. They don’t look competent anymore (despite Brown’s handling of the banking crisis); but the one thing they still had was some kind of shambolic decency – they were going to keep the debate about policy, not personality etc.

And now Draper and McBride have blown that. All the Tories have to do now is look suitably offended and shocked and their job is done.

What makes it all so tragic, so heartbreakingly tragic is that it was all there, all the ingredients of this, from the very beginning. And Armando Iannucci saw it long before I did; when Iannucci met Draper on election night back in 1997, he knew that he was meeting what the Labour party had really become – a party so obsessed with its image and making things look good that it was never going to be able to do a really good job of governing.

So, tomorrow, ‘In The Loop’ – Iannucci’s film about government spin and underhanded, spiteful, sniping politics – is out and it looks like it’s going to be brilliant. And perhaps Derek Draper will watch it, and recognise what a complete tool he always was.

And that’s why I would only ever be a comedian and not a politician; I knew it even during that inspirational election night in 1997, when in my youthful naïveté I felt like Blair was going to fix everything. And I certainly know it now.