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What the strikes at the National Gallery tell us about Britain

The National Gallery is a kind of visual phrasebook articulating awkward truths about our civic life.

 

At one point in Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 film National Gallery, accountants lecture the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny, about the need to squash budgets and reach new audiences. Perhaps they could project logos on to the side of the building? Cuts are being imposed by the government, they explain, though savings have been made through changes to staffing arrangements.

In making the film, Wiseman operated according to strict rules: he asked no questions, constructed no situations and offered no verbal commentary. Yet he made some telling choices in the editing suite. Straight after the meeting scene, the film cuts to J M W Turner’s Fighting Temeraire – an image of a gunship that had supported Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, being towed towards its final berth to be broken up in 1838.

This was the year when the gallery moved to its current site in Trafalgar Square, though it was officially founded in 1824 when the government bought 38 pictures that belonged to the banker and Caribbean plantation owner John Julius Angerstein. At another point in Wiseman’s film, an earnest freelance lecturer tells children that the gallery has long been associated with exploitation. As Jonathan Conlin explains in The Nation’s Mantelpiece (2006), his history of the institution, it was founded to celebrate military victory, boost “manufactures” and establish a connoisseurial canon.

It seems unlikely that Wiseman is a James Bond fan, but Skyfall, which came out while he was filming in 2012, shows how closely entwined the painting, the gallery and empire have become. Bond sits before the Temeraire, reflecting on his bruised body and the geopolitical irrelevance of the country he continues to injure it for.

Towards the end of National Gallery, the camera lingers on the writer Robert Hewison at a Turner exhibition. Presumably he was gestating Cultural Capital, his account of the managerialisation of the arts in Britain, which warns: “Without a firm commitment to culture as a common good, the public realm will continue to be divided and fragmented by privatising interests that work on the principle of competition, not co-operation.”

The book came out in 2014, just as one of those gallery meetings approved a proposal to outsource 400 assistants to a private company in the name of “modernisation”. Fearing worsening conditions, the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) called a strike over Christmas, followed by another one this month, with a rally to be held on Thursday 26 February at 1pm. In the process, one of the union’s senior representatives, Candy Udwin, was suspended, reportedly for inquiring about the cost of an already-contracted private company.

It would be naive to pretend that this gallery was ever a bastion of equality but, as the Temeraire makes clear, it has served as a visual phrasebook for articulating how we see our national life for nearly two centuries.

National Gallery barely registers the assistants directing visitors around with the art-history equivalent of a London cabbie’s Knowledge. But in Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours (2012), a woman called Anne flies in to Vienna from the US to be at a relative’s bedside, only to find herself stranded. She keeps returning to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, partly to keep warm. A gallery attendant helps her – he is Johann, an ex-roadie. They become friends, talking first about Bruegel and then themselves. What these films share is their measurement of the peculiar time and space that exists in galleries, cutting between painted faces and living ones, each considered worthy of the same care.

Image: JMW Turner’s Fighting Temeraire (1839). Credit: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism