Thursday 30 October 2014

Another fascinating exhibition at the British Museum

If Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum, ever leaves these shores I will cry and cry.  We visited this weekend and it is buzzing, humming and still full of wonder.  (I won’t delve into the ethics or not of the Elgin Marbles going back to Athens – would the six million people who see them here each year travel there to see them.  Enough of that!)

Our main purpose was to see Germany - Memories of a Nation, a six hundred year history in objects. McGregor has form: several years ago he worked with the BBC on a project telling A History of the World in 100 objects. There were a hundred 15-minute episodes, broadcast on Radio 4 based on objects from the British Museum’s collection. It was entrancing, fascinating and if you can get the podcast, worth listening to or buying the book.

The current German exhibition has been subjected to the same treatment and is his narrative is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 – I am halfway through and it is fascinating. I learned a bit of German history at school – in South Africa the unification of Germany seemed a long way away and not terribly relevant.

I knew that Martin Luther had translated the bible into German – and there is a copy hand annotated by him – but hadn’t realized that he all but created the universal written German language – pulling together numerous regional dialects and making arbitrary decisions about which words to use, wanting the text to be as relevant as possible to ordinary people. This sits a few paces away from a Gutenberg bible – the first mass produced printed book.

Each object tells a story – about the Hanseatic League to a copy of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels;  a copy of Das Kapital; a porcelain rhinocerous modeled on Dürer s etching which is there as well; an Iron Cross and a stunning Bauhaus cradle.

Wonderful art from Dürer to the Bauhaus, from Meissen to Kathe Kollwitz and not so wonderful examples of the dark days of the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, including the gate from Buchenwald concentration camp. That simple gate with the words Jedem das Seine innocuously translated as “to each his own” but in this case vilely as “everyone gets what he deserves” and written on the gate so it could only be read from the inside.  

The exhibition starts with news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and outside there is – what else – a Volkswagen Beetle!  We collect magnets from art exhibitions to act as a daily visual reminder – this time it was the Dürer rhinocerous......

Finally – we are members of the British Museum so we didn’t pay to see this exhibition – you will have to pay a very small sum of between £8 - £10 – the rest of the museum is free.  The subject of my next blog!

Saturday 25 October 2014

My opinion is free but YOU get paid for finding it out

There were a couple of TV series a few years back called Grumpy Old Women and Grumpy Old Men.  You didn’t need to be that old to be quoted, just famous.  I have always tended to grumpiness but held myself in check – now I don’t care so much, but would draw the line at being offensive to someone.  I suppose leaving my shopping at the self-checkout at Tesco (see previous blog) is part of that – I would have felt obliged to finish paying before.

I receive a monthly email from YouGov – to quote “YouGov has been acclaimed as the country's most accurate opinion pollster.”  This email is very flatteringly entitled YouGov Opinion Formers survey. Well that is flattering – I am an opinion former! I have been receiving these for years and have filled them in most months. Now that I have more time to do this and think about it, it suddenly occurred to me – they are paid, and well paid, to do this. I am giving my services for free. Why?

I have just seen some market research commissioned by a public agency which was done entirely online – that means that they canvassed the opinion of 2,000 people who had access, ability, interest and time to deal with an online survey – and public policy will be driven by this – not taking into account the millions who are not online, have not the ability, the time or the desire to take part.

I don’t deny the value of market research although the questions asked and the way they are framed are often carelessly done. But in this case YouGov’s customers (who are commercial as well as political) will manage without this opinion former – it didn’t help that the email was addressed to “Dear Alec...”

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Blogging has been a little light recently

There are a number of reasons for this - I always have plenty to say but I don't like to write blogs when I am away and have been doing a fair amount of travelling recently. 

Secondly and more importantly, I haven't been able to decide what to write about. This sounds a bit pathetic but the news over the past few months has been relentlessly awful - from the Middle East to the Ukraine (except who hears about what is going on there now) from Ebola to politics in Africa.  It has either been too awful and/or too complex to write about and conversely everything else has been too trivial so I have been seated at my computer, stymied.

Just today the news is awash with the sentencing of Pistorius in South Africa. A beautiful young woman was killed by a well-known and complicated man - she is one of many people who have been killed in South Africa (most of whom are not beautiful, young and blonde) and while this is a horrific personal tragedy for her family - did this warrant wall to wall coverage?  Is this the modern electronic version of the rabble gathering to watch a hanging?

There are a number of reasons for this - I always have plenty to say but I don't like to write blogs when I am away and have been doing a fair amount of travelling recently. 

There is a war in the Ukraine - I haven't seen anything on the news channels recently but it rages on.  And then there is Ebola.  I heard someone from the Centre for Disease Control in the USA interviewed on the BBC World Service a couple of weeks ago - his opinion then was that screening in the USA was probably a waste of time and resources but the government was responding to "Don't just stand there, do something".  Of course, until white Western people took ill there wasn't much interest.  There still seems to be little interest from the countries of the world - some, including the UK and USA, have sent significant resources but last I heard $100 million had been pledged out of $1 billion asked for by the UN.

I mentioned Africa – in Zimbabwe the wife of President Mugabe, Grace, was recently awarded a PhD - not an honorary one but the sort you study for seven plus years for. She apparently acquired this after only four months and without publishing a thesis or being independently reviewed. Wow!  She is now heading the women's group of the ZANU(PF) party -  read The extraordinary political rise of Dr Grace Mugabe – is she going the way of Eva Peron and is this the next President?

If you are still reading this now you will have a flavour of just a few of the awfulnesses of the past few months - at the moment I can't bring myself to write about the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe and how that makes me feel.