So Boris Johnson enters his next competition: where will he rate in the hierarchy of prime minister autobiographers, having just signed a deal with HarperCollins? Harold Wilson wrote the dullest memoir of modern times. Tony Blair, John Major and David Cameron all wrote books which the reviewers liked, all with flashes of genuine revelation and which I still use as source material.
But these memoirs are a strange cultural concept. In many ways, they are not written to be read, but for the huge splash of publicity the publisher gets, and the lucrative newspaper serialisation. The politicians generally intend them as a final-word vindication in tussles with their detractors. Since the detractors so often write the reviews, it rarely turns out that way. Blair made a serious attempt to explain what being prime minister was really like, which made his book different. He also, unusually, admitted frankly to some mistakes.
Boris Johnson has one great advantage over most of the rest, and one equally big disadvantage. He really can write and this, I hope, will be a memoir which is actually read rather than stuffed onto a bookcase to be observed in Zoom meetings. But, given his record, how much of it will we – ahem –believe?
The perils of new media
The ever-changing digital age means we must always be alert to the next big thing. I was late to podcasts and I am half converted. Here is a cascade of fascinating knowledge on history, politics, literature, music from people who know what they’re talking about. But sometimes, too, an irritatingly “insider” tone, and a spraying froth of mutual congratulation.
Self-indulgence is the danger and the same goes for the rush towards self-publication on Substack or similar. The missing link is called an “editor”. After more than 40 years as a hack, I have never not needed to be edited; never not been improved by a jaundiced, experienced eye. I vividly recall phoning in my stuff to the Scotsman copytakers, all tweed and pipesmoke, me all puffed up with my own wit, to be asked halfway through, in a tone of grinding hostility: “Not much more of this, I hope, is there, laddie?” Editors aren’t irritating. Well, they are, of course, but essential as well.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson coming back?]
In London’s Wigmore Hall, listening to Samson Tsoy playing Brahms and Schubert, it struck me that if you drew up a list of inventions which, even in our technologically sophisticated age, could no longer be improved, the grand piano might come top. In the 19th century, Henry Engelhard Steinway’s introduction of the cast iron plate, allowing for greater tension, was the last tweak on a fabulous piece of engineering. I don’t think the human ear could hear a richer or subtler sound.
What else falls into the same category? I assume Stradivari’s violin was never bettered. Claw hammers? Combs? And, apart from new composite materials, bicycles? Karl Ove Knausgård argues that buttons persist “because the relation between form and function is perfect, leaving no room for improvement. A button today is more or less identical to a button in the 15th century.” History is not always an account of endless incremental improvement. Sometimes, mankind got to the right place ages ago, thought “aced it”, and stopped.
Watching Tsoy play was like watching a fearless Formula One driver taking a car round chicane after chicane. He is Kazakh born, Moscow trained, and London based: there may be no profession more genuinely international and indifferent to modern political borders as music. Not that it’s apolitical; I’ve not heard a more subtle critique of Brexit than that delivered by András Schiff before he played Bach’s partitas – the dances came from all across Europe, he pointed out, and while the gigue, with Irish and British roots, was beautiful it sounded best played with the rest.
What makes a masterpiece?
Why do some artists catch the eye and the imagination in a way that others, apparently as gifted, don’t? The question is pertinent ahead of a new exhibition of Johannes Vermeer’s work at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Is his contemporary Pieter de Hooch as mesmerising? Not quite – Marcel Proust, who knew as much about painting as he did about music, thought Vermeer in a different class. We can discuss brushwork and technique but in the end, this is a magical, mysterious separation.
I was in the Rijksmuseum recently. The nearby Van Gogh Museum was sold out and its Van Gogh self-portraits were mobbed. Nearby were lovely paintings by Anton Mauve and Jozef Israëls, two contemporaries Van Gogh himself adored. No one was even looking.
[See also: Francis Bourgeois and the art of the dealer]
This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better