The American Dream


Currently being analysed, dissected and put on display at the British Museum in their fantastic exhibition of post-war art, from pop art to minimalism to photo-realism, and from the AIDS epidemic to artists dealing with feminist and racial issues.


There were a few nods to Liechtenstein, Warhol and Wayne Thiebaud, but a lot of this art will be new to UK viewers, and that’s great too.

All photos my own.



I haven’t got into Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, but I’m really enjoying this podcast, which is quite short and high-level, but has some interesting scenarios. In the two episodes I’ve listened to so far, Gladwell has talked about moral licensing (how making a small concession is used as an excuse to withdraw from wider change), and the point that intelligence failure is inevitable as each agent listens to reports through their own lens.


These points aren’t new, but his comparison of a Vietnam project spiralling out of control in search of more data with the current war on terror ($1m in 1965, versus 1271 state agencies investigating counter-terrorism in the US today), and of an 1870s artist who nearly became the first female member of the RA with Julia Gillard are interesting.


My only suspicion is that Gladwell’s eagerness to demonstrate that the “forgotten” situations are still relevant to today skews his summaries of the past. I’d also argue that the past doesn’t need to be relevant to the future in order to legitimise it, and it’s a complex point how far we can learn from the past in any case, but that unaddressed overtone just makes the podcast more thought-provoking.


Beyond Belief is a BBC podcast and one of the best out there: a changing panel of experts debates for half an hour each week, intercut halfway through with “the view from the street”.


Thus a debate about whether you can enjoy CS Lewis without knowing the Christian and mythic subtexts to Narnia, and if he’d even get published nowadays (“I was asked to rewrite Pilgrim’s Progress without the Christianity, which I thought a bit much.”) was interspersed with a dad talking about writing a book to explain her Muslim heritage to her daughter. A panel talking about the symbolism of hair covered both young Sikh girls claiming the turban for themselves and an Afro-Carribean woman who took on dreadlocks and a whole lot of politics at once.

I’ve also listened to episodes on state-funded religion in Belgium, the effect of the Somme on religious belief and Magna Carta. Each debate is thoughtful, well-informed and intellectually provoking. In no way does it seek to convert or proselytize, but its discussion provides an intensely human experience, reminding us of the importance of having opinions and values, understanding where they came from and accepting others’ paths.

Blog of the week

I’ve followed Kristabel at I Want You To Know on and off for about three years now, and she’s the reason I’ve given Boden’s clothes a go again, after thinking of them as Country-Sloane-central all my life. She’s also a girl after my own heart with her love of travel.


However, apart from her style, energy and love of colour (yes! SUCH a relief to find a style blogger who’s not always mooching round in shades of beige, looking smug/sulky), what makes Kristabel hit it out the park is her blogging with a conscience.


Unlike other writers, whose “what I’ve learnt” posts breathe of carefully-constructed interview-style answers and humble-bragging, Kristabel is honest about the learning curve she’s out herself on and the challenges of being self-employed. Even greater to see are these deeply authentic posts about black, female entrepreneurs, ethical gift guides (with gifts that you actually want), and interviews with other business-women about being the different one in the room. For my vote, the entrepreneurs posts could be a series on a par with A Cup of Jo’s Motherhood Around the World: direct, honest and enlightening.


I particularly liked the point that whilst the fashion sector claims to champion difference, the money-trail is far more cautious. And I’d suggest that there’s an element of questioning to be done about if marketing commissioning editors and their teams actually know where to go and look for the new voices. Diagnostic algorithms on your own social media feed are hardly going to help…


Much to chew on, and always worth a read. Plus, what a great gallery wall!

(All images via Kristabel’s blog)

Arabia unbound

The British Museum has always had a strong art collection.

The Turner bequest, with his sketching notebooks, was here before they moved to the Tate and Laurence Binyon, whose famous poem For the Fallen (“they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old…”) is recited every November, was a curator in the prints and watercolour department, where he was responsible for introducing his artist contemporaries to Chinese and Japanese prints.

All this provides good materials for furnishing small temporary, free exhibitions, like the one last spring of modern Arabic art and book illustrations:

BM art

When I saw this poster image, it reminded me of Robert Motherwell’s “Black for Mozart”, which I passed in a Mayfair gallery this summer. It’s much bigger and more textured than it looks here.


and it also brought home to me how the calligraphic tradition of Islamic art allows the creators to focus on structure and composition, as much as decoration.


The Gresham lectures are one of many free institutions in London, usually covering politics or economics, either in the abstract sense as a lecture series on theories of a particular school or surveying the history of a region, or applied to topics of current debate.

Simon Thurley, known for his role as conservationist and head of English Heritage, recently spoke at Gresham College on the architecture of London. Now those lectures are available for free as a downloadable recording, and I think this one on restoration and imitation sounds like it’ll be especially interesting.

Personally I think the most sympathetic buildings can be those in a new vernacular which somehow speak to their surroundings, either imitating their proportions (but not their style), or enlarging a detail in the older building and making that the focus of the new, or updating the ideas to a modern equivalent. Whilst I hate the mix of blandness and aggression in many of the new office blocks of Canary Wharf or the riverside, I do like the Shard, and also the diversity of London. The city needs to keep moving.

Danger, Deadlines and Frontlines

Is a story ever worth your life? What if you don’t have a choice? What if your life (or death) become the story?

Who do you trust and what danger does your trust place that person in? Would you pay a people smuggler to repay a debt? What happens when you leave and your source doesn’t?

Do you take your family with you to war, or invite a terrorist’s link man to you child’s school because it’s the only time they’re free for an interview? Do you have a family at all? What happens when you recognise a look on your interviewee’s face, because the same expression is on your own?

How graphic an image can you show? Should you show? Must you always tell both sides of the story, or does doing so legitimise propaganda? How can traditional media respond to fake news?

Is war more brutal than ever, and are journalists reporting on it still safe? What caused that last event?

Five incredible journalists tackled all this and more at an evening put on by the charity Just A Drop. There was laughter, there were certainly tears, and there was admiration for those who take on not just the challenge of reporting, but even more for those who struggle to live their lives through war zones. As each speaker said, you can live without electricity quite easily; you can’t cope without water. I can’t bring back the tales this night, but I can tell you what Fiona Jeffrey, founder of Just A Drop said:

When Just A Drop started 19 years ago, a child was dying every 20 seconds because of dirty water. It’s better now. It’s every 90 seconds.