Trouble brewing and Ginsberg howls again

Art heists, ethics, and Beyonce in Aretha’s bad books

Treasure Trail

This week a “top 10” survey of paintings to steal has been published and £84m worth of Impressionist paintings have been stolen from a museum in Zurich. The robbery took under 3 minutes and was a low-tech affair: masked armed men strode into the museum, took the paintings off the wall, and drove off in a waiting vehicle. The robbery was the biggest one in Europe, with the thieves stealing works by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Degas and Monet. In the past this sort of swift low-tech heist has seen thieves make off with iconic paintings like Edward Munch’s Scream. Curators, however, can take heart at the thought that stolen need not mean gone: this week an $8m Basquiat which had been smuggled out of Brazil was discovered in a Manhattan warehouse. And sometimes low-tech robberies can be thwarted in low-tech ways: one would-be thief in Saanich, Canada, this week was trapped in flagrante delicto because he had jammed the door while breaking in.

A rare 270-year-old Giuseppe del Gesù violin has been bought for an undisclosed amount, “well in excess” of the $3.5m world auction record, by Russian violin collector Maxim Viktorov. Mr Viktorov has said that he will allow the violin to be played in public regularly – although maybe he won’t immediately be lending it to David Garrett, the violin virtuoso who this week broke his 290-year-old Stradivarius at a concert at the Barbican. Another aural treat has been uncovered for us this week: a previously-unknown tape has been found of Allen Ginsberg performing his visionary poem Howl in a student hostel on 14th February 1956. It is the first known recording of Ginsberg and will be posted here.

Rights and Wrongs

A new Professorship has been created at Holy Cross University, USA, which aims to integrate art and ethics. Outside of academe, Steven Spielberg has resigned as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in protest of the Chinese government’s stance on Darfur and Sudan. There is speculation that more high-profile artists are also set to boycott Beijing 2008. Other brewing conflicts and controversies emerging this week are the Tolkien estate suing New Line studios over how the Lord of the Rings film trilogy profits have been shared; and Danish newspapers are set to re-print the infamous “Mohammed cartoons” from the 2005 controversy. The London Development Agency’s arts funding strategy has been called “incompetent rather than criminal” by a senior London Assembly figure, after an investigation and critical report into how its £70m of arts funding has been distributed. And legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin has expressed surprise that R&B entertainer Beyonce Knowles chose to introduce Tina Turner as the “Queen of Soul” at last weekend’s Grammy’s. While Tina Turner is often called the “Queen of Rock ‘n’Roll”, it is generally agreed that the “Queen of Soul” title is reserved for Aretha. Seems to be a lack of R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

New Developments

The Hollywood writers’ strike has ended, and hot on the heels of the launch of e-book Kindle , UK publishers have said they will be experimenting with online free books. Following Culture Secretary Andy Burnham’s comments on getting arts fans involved in arts Boards, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has announced plans to make culture an integral part of school curriculum, with at least 5 hours of cultural activities each week, and a “Find Your Talent” scheme. Perhaps this is the end of X-Factor.

Madrid has added to its rich arts scene with the opening this week of CaixaForum, a dramatic new gallery/event space and cultural centre just minutes from the Prado; the CaixaForum’s first major show will be on 21 Feb. And in Da Lat, Vietnam, an unusual private home developed by architect Dang Viet Nga has officially been recognised as a work of art due to its “extraordinary characteristics”. Viet Nga has indicated she may turn the distinctive and impressionistically-designed house into a hotel: Terence Conran, you have competition.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood