In the Doherty

In the words of new director Roger Wright this year’s proms promise to “juxtapose the familiar and the unfamiliar”. Alongside Elgar’s gushing sentiment the eclectic sounds of Stockhausen, Dr Who and Vaughan Williams will be heard. Abandoning Nicholas Kenyon’s practice of adopting a theme for each programme Roger Wright has chosen to structure the season around the anniversaries of a series of significant composers.

The centenaries of Elliot Carter, Messiaen, and the late Stockhausen’s eightieth birthday are all celebrated and the fifty years since Vaughan Williams death is marked by an unprecedented free concert of folk songs. Besides showcasing established musicians plenty of space is made for new composers. The Torino Scale by Mark Anthony Turnage and the Dr Who theme tune will feature and the BBC has commissioned eleven new compositions (the Scottish composer Anna Meredith will have her work premiered on the last night.) Writing for The New Statesman last year Tory London Assembly member Brian Coleman confessed his dislike of such ‘ghastly modern’ music. His article went on to argue that the proms are responsible for cultivating ‘cultural apartheid’ in the land of hope and glory. This idea has had significant press in the last month following Margaret Hodge’s widely criticised call for diversity. Admittedly Stockhausen’s compositions are by no means easy listening. However, with the introduction this year of contextual pre-concert events at the Royal College of Music and concerts that cost as little as £2.20 accusations of elitism look set to be undermined.

British artist David Hockney made headlines this week when he donated his monumental painting "Bigger Trees near Wharton" to the Tate. Sprawling over fifty adjoining canvases the image clocks in at twelve metres long and five metres tall. It depicts a coppice near Bridlington in Yorkshire, and was completed for the Royal Academy exhibition last summer. Hockney’s generous gesture prompted Jonathan Jones (writing for the Guardian) to describe the artist as "a national treasure". The painter, however, explained his donation in terms of gratitude, saying: “I think it is the duty of the artist, once they have become successful, to give.” The Tate was one of the first institutions to buy Hockney’s work when he was an emerging talent in the sixties. His gift (which would cost millions on the open market) comes at a good time, as the value of paintings continues to rise. Last year, the NS commented on the unfortunate growth of private art collections in the UK – hopefully Hockney’s manoeuvre will help to keep more of our treasures national.

The Tate Modern also attracted interest this week. Following on the heels of Banksy’s recent book launch street art is once again in the public eye. Next month the gallery’s external wall will display graffiti from around the world, including artwork by Barcelona’s Sixeart and the Italian artist Blu. It is hoped that the high profile venue will help graffiti shed its association with antisocial vandalism, and the event is expected to prove very popular. The Tate Modern describes street art as an “important aspect of current art practise.” However, as we reported last year street art is continually evolving and graffiti is by no means its only form. Artists such as Slink have found new ways to surprise the unsuspecting pedestrian. Slink, who sees his work as a social experiment has commented that: “Adults pay no attention to their surrounding. We walk around as if we were blind.”

Other artists in the news this week include Damien Hirst and Pete Doherty - both managed to successfully upset uniformed officials. Hirst’s infamous sculpture ‘Mother and Child, divided’ ran into trouble at the Japanese customs. The artwork, which won the Turner Prize in 1995, consists of a dead cow and calf, sliced in half and preserved in formaldehyde. Due to be exhibited at the Mori Art museum in Japan the piece was stopped by customs as a result of the Japanese ban on British Beef. After the gallery confirmed that the cow was not for eating the curators managed to guide it safely to the exhibition. Doherty’s collision with authority was less benevolent: the Babyshambles singer and ex-boyfriend of Kate Moss has been jailed for fourteen weeks after breaching a probation order. It is rumoured that he will still perform at Glastonbury this summer.

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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser