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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

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge