'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Please refrain from analysing in the Cathedral

I recently visited St Paul's and attended the Epiphany Procession. The Cathedral is generally regarded as one of the high points of European Baroque. Yet unlike many buildings of its scale, there is no grand approach; it emerges all at once out of a cluster of tightly packed city houses. Despite its mighty and looming exterior, the inner architectural harmony of the Cathedral serves to relax the pilgrim. The design, by Wren, was heavily influenced by the light forms of continental architecture; at the time the dome was considered slightly too Papish.

What, for me, was initially an excursion for an enquiring mind, turned into something more spiritual. I am not, mind, in any way religious. Yet the music and architecture piety can produce do serve to lighten the soul and give a feeling of renewal and calm. I could, of course, try to analyse these thoughts and probably come to some sort of pseudo-scientific conclusion: harmonious music and space; the effects of singing; the general mood of the congregation. Yet this would be to sully the sense that 'church' made me feel better. 

St Paul's Cathedral by Cannaletto painted in 1754.
Indeed, after far to much learning about eighteenth-century philosophy, I am increasingly seeing the merits in reacting against analysis, numbers and pure reason. Our society is surely reaching a saturation point, culturally and spiritually, with its obsession with figures, graphs and numerical proof. There are scientific formulas for Happiness, Weight Loss and a Good Christmas; Powerpoint presentations, plans and diagrams on 'How to be Good' or 'How to feel Better'. We have somehow managed to pinpoint the Worst Day of the year. Advertising companies use statistics to convince us that our eyelashes can have '4 times more Impact'.

Obviously these should not all taken with the same seriousness as, say, the mathematics behind a medical vaccine. But what about political numbers used to prove an argument? What about the omnipotent question of the Budget Deficit? The danger is that analysis goes beyond being a mere prop for decision making, and becomes in itself the irrefutable answer to a problem. Understandable then, was the reaction of Thomas Carlyle to many of the high ideals of analysis and reason in the eighteenth century. One of the greatest intellectual feats of the century, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was for Carlyle the beginning of 'the dismal science' of economics. 

Yet the view of the time of Boswell as one of 'Reason' is slightly misguided, and has, like 'Enlightenment', been applied after the fact. It might as well, as many historians have pointed out, been called an age of 'Passion'. Certainly in Boswell we find an impassioned lover, moody writer and angry young man. He is prone to fluctuating emotions, and his 'whims' stand in marked contrast with a rigorous accounting process for his expenditure. 'The pleasure of gratifying a whim is very great. It is known only by those who are whimsical.' Indeed, in an interesting city with no immediate regulated pattern of work, the point is well made; going 'walk about' in London (without a map or direction) is always an interesting experience. 

Furthermore, Boswell's love for women and socialising is the stuff of legend. Even at church, 'In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women...I have a warm heart and a vivacious fancy. I am therefore given to love, and also to piety and gratitude to God, and to the most brilliant and showy method of public worship.' On another occasion, his piety is clouded out: ‘I was on honour much disposed to be a Christian. Yet I was rather cold in my devotion. The Duchess of Grafton attracted my eyes rather too much.’ 

Alas, no such talent at this week's service.  

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Coal, Money and Empire, Redux

The 21st century, at least in Britain, is trying hard to be less about the stuff that made it great over the preceding 200 years. Coal, high finance and expansion have lost their place to wind farms, marketing companies and sustainability. In our heart of hearts it seems a sensible move, but often fails to ignite the imagination. 

But what's this? A last huzzah for the old order has emerged from the tale of one Nathaniel Rothschild, a book of contacts and a few Indonesian coal mines. Indeed, the planned flotation of Bumi Plc on the FTSE 100, has captured the imagination of the financial press, who regulalrly mention Rothschild in the same excited gasp as Napoleon. When it is finally listed, it is likely to attract interest from well beyond the financial community. Indeed, the Bloomberg social media channels have come alive with interest in the venture. It is a story that mixes an interesting blend of history, media and high finance, recalling the former glory days of Empire and commodity rushes.

The reasons for this are varied. Part of the answer lies in continued interest from investors in commodities. Yet one of the main factors is the emergence of the normally reclusive Nathaniel Rothschild. Keen to engage with the press, he has conducted interviews with the Financial Times and Bloomberg amongst others. 

The tale, in which Nathaniel’s financial shell, Vallar, raised £707m on its initial public offering despite no assets, has highlighted how money flows to respected names, brands and images of success. Indeed Rothschild’s acquisition of stakes in Bumi Resources and Berau, two of Indonesia’s biggest coal producers, has a hint of mercantilist daring and adventure about it. Journalists have been quick to draw links between ‘Nat’ and his swashbuckling forebears, who helped finance the downfall of France in the nineteenth-century; stood at the forefront of ‘New World expansion’ and played a key role in the birth of South-East Asian oil exploitation. His network of friends is portrayed as legendary, including the current Chancellor of the Exchequer and Lord Mandelson. 

Rothschild, the man, is presented as in these articles as eccentric, reclusive and visionary. His name in itself carries a mystique. It is an image he is actively fostering. His fund manager, for example, has a ‘metal ear stud and an Elvis-style quiff’, not the usual pin-stripe suit. Rothschild is also bullish in his rhetoric, insisting Bumi will soon be bigger than FTSE 100 miner Xstrata. He is aiming for a new ‘international coal champion’ which can make shareholders three times their investment.

This astonishing effort to publicise Bumi plc through Nathaniel has added a valuable air of excitement and daring to the plan. This will attract investors. More than simply a name, Nathaniel’s willingness to engage and espouse confidence should help the news of the initial offering penetrate into the mainstream media.   

Monday, 17 January 2011

'No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!'

Alex Salmond recently appeared on Desert Island Discs. As ever, he was a capable and interesting speaker. Yet, as a professional politician of the first order, his nationalist views were never far from the surface of his conversation. Even in his choice of music we had to endure 500 miles by The Proclaimers and Caledonia by Dougie McLean. Does any sober human actually enjoy 500 miles? It's become nothing more than the musical wet fart left at the end of otherwise enjoyable sessions on the town.

Yet, crap as 500 miles undoubtedly is, this is not quite the equivalent of Ed Milliband asking Kirsty Young to play The
 Internationale. Nor is it the equivalent of David Cameron requesting Pomp and Circumstance by Elgar. The reasons for this come from the curious nature of Scottish nationalism and identity.    

From the outset, I should say I am no ardent nationalist. Nor am I about the retrospectively turn James Boswell into one. Yet, as Alistair Campbell notes in his journal, awareness of a Scottish identity is intensified on English soil. Where better, then, to examine it?

Many of the reactions in England to the very idea of Scottish nationalism and identity are often mystifying to me. They sway between gentle ridicule, lack of understanding and shock. Such a failure to empathise with the idea of nationalism surely comes from the lack of any coherent English/British identity, post-Empire. This is the crux of Jeremy Paxman’s The English, and a point well made. ‘English’ nationalism has, unfortunately, too often been hijacked by football louts and racists. National sentiment north of Hadrian's Wall, then, is often assumed to be similar; an intellectually violent and disruptive idea, one with no place in multicultural Britain. 

Not supporting the English football team is one thing. Yet this is not to say I am not willing to live peacefully alongside you; work in your cities, integrate myself with your culture, and sleep with your women. Indeed like the Scottish personality, the nationalist ‘tint’ is rarely showy or obvious; it is often deeply introspective and engrained. It does not require flags, kilts or malt whisky. Although the former never hurts.

Mr Salmond then, is not of a radical creed. He is, in fact, one of the most entertaining and sensible political speakers in the country. Independence for Scotland - whether you agree with it or not - is not about raising saltires and singing Caledonia as Salmond points out. It is a legitimate economic argument and comes from deep cultural roots, difficult, perhaps, for an outsider to easily place their finger on. 

Boswell too, was hardly a nationalist. Indeed, he holds a status as one of the archetypal Scots who abandoned Scotia and 'took the high road to London' in the eighteenth-century. Along with Allan Ramsay the painter, the Adams brothers, and the 3rd earl of Bute, he was part of a host of influential Scots who sought their fortune in the capital. Indeed, long before the 'Scottish Raj' of 1997 - 2010 was coined by Mr Paxman, the Scots had become very influential - and resented - in government in the 1760s under George III. 

The young George III by Allan Ramsay
Boswell's contacts in London, at least initially, are mainly Scots who are acutely aware of their identity. A friend's wife then, is described as good humoured, yet 'that sort of character which is often met with in England: very lively without much wit.' Much more obvious nationalism bubbles forth from Boswell at the theatre, where he prepares to watch the comic opera Love in a Village. As two Highland officers walk in and prepare to take their seats, the English mob in the upper gallery roars out. 'No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!' Hissed at, the officers are pelted with apples. Boswell's 'Scotch blood boiled with indignation'. Jumping to the benches he cries 'Damn you, you rascals!' Then, talking to the officers, he finds out they have come from Havana. 'And this is the thanks that we get - to be hissed when we come home. If it was French, what could they do worse.' 

In this moment then, despite his search for polish, wisdom and women in London, Boswell 'hated the English'. Outwardly he is the very image of the refined gentleman, able to carouse and cavort with the most respected in London society. Yet, inwardly, he has a strong sense of identity, which on this occasion, suddenly made him wish 'from my soul that the Union was broke and that we might give them another battle of Bannockburn.'