One of my fellow guests at High Table was Sir David Butler, one of the founding fathers of British psephology and, through our co-authoring of several books, a good friend. One of the pleasures of working with David is his seemingly inexhaustible treasury of anecdotes about people and places. I got him to tell Sir Ivor the one about the Duke of York’s column. Here it is, as best I could note it down. One day in 1947, as David walked past the column, his good friend, Tony Benn, pointed to a set of rusty stains on the marble column and stated that those stains represented the history of the parliamentary question. In 1855 two drunken cavalry officers had raced their horses up the steps from the Mall to the column for a bet. Viscount Dylan, an old General and an MP had put a question in parliament to the Secretary of State for war about whether such high jinks were appropriate. The minister subsequently posted a sentry at the foot of the column. Then, in the 1870s when it was pouring with rain, somebody noticed a poor sentry standing in the wet and the first Commissioner of Works decided, following another parliamentary question, that a glass canopy should be affixed to the column. In the 1890s an economy-minded MP asked in parliament whether a sentry was necessary. The sentry was removed. And then (if I have got the story right) in 1970 Tony Benn asked, via a parliamentary question, for the canopy to be removed. This was done, crudely, with a hacksaw, but the metal stubs of the supports remained, rusted and created the two stains visible still today on the column…
Serial blogger Ronny Patz has recently published a post in which he considers ‘why there is no serious blogging scene in Brussels’ in the way that there is in national capitals. His primary answer is that ‘there are no citizens in the Brussels bubble as there are citizens in capitals like Warsaw, Budapest, Vienna or London’. He concludes that ‘maybe we’ll have to wait for the first retired generation of social media savvy EU officials until we’ll see really good EU blogging.’ I wonder. I think Ronny is right to raise the question. I have often wondered why it is that, although it attracts so many lobbyists and (until austerity kicked in) journalists, ‘Brussels’ has failed to produce real equivalents of the likes of, for example, Guido Fawkes or Iain Dale or the more workmanlike Huffington Post - it’s not as though there isn’t a similar hive of gossip, rumour and counter-rumour here. And it was the same before the internet. Brussels-based versions of Private Eye, for example, seemed doomed always to fail and I don’t know whether anything modelled on Le Canard Enchainé was ever attempted but certainly nothing similar currently exists. Languages and cultures must also be an important factor, I would have thought, together with the non-transitive nature of most national public figures’ reputations. And then there is the sheer scale of EU affairs, given the interlinkage back to domestic politics and economics in twenty-seven member states. I am not sure about relying on retired social media savvy EU officials. What we need is more of the likes of Ronny Patz and Jon Worth!
This evening I dined at High Table at University College as a guest of the Master, Sir Ivor Crewe. Many moons ago, as a callow PhD student, I visited Sir Ivor at Essex University, for long his academic stronghold. I was interested in empirical measurements of how much constituents knew their MEPs (at the time, surely very little). Sir Ivor countered by pointing out that, actually, constituents knew very little about their Westminster MPs. He had written a book on the subject. The book never got published and, in an act I have never forgotten, Sir Ivor gave me the original typescript. This was in the days before ubiquitous photocopiers. I was deeply impressed and very grateful. It was, therefore, with characteristic generosity that Sir Ivor and his wife, Jill, graciously hosted drinks and dinner this evening. I explained to Jill how the late, great Maurice Shock gave me my first big break in life by encouraging ‘Univ.’ to open up its selection procedures to students from state schools and relatively modest origins. I was a happy beneficiary of this enlightened approach. She, in return, explained how Univ., commendably, has maintained the tradition and has one of the most active outreach programmes of any of the Oxford colleges. It was, quite simply, good to be back.
OK, I admit it. What follows is shameless name dropping. We spent the day visiting the university. In the evening we ended up at my old college, University College (‘Univ.’), at the Master’s Lodgings. We were royally received by the Master, Sir Ivor Crewe, and his wife, Jill, but I hadn’t expected what ‘came next’. Every new student who comes to University College, Oxford, must ‘enroll’ in the College register. Though I had forgotten it, I did so, and Jill showed us what I had written, which was very touching. She then showed us the writings of some other, far more famous, ’old boys’; Stephen Hawkings, for example. In the picture, though, is the writing of, arguably, one of Univ’s best known old boys, Bill Clinton, who came as a Rhodes scholar. As Jill pointed out, the chap who had decided to write in gothic script just two places above Bill will be forever remarked upon with a frequency he could never have imagined!
Three posts on the new Ashmolean museum may be considered a bit much, but I think the restructuring and extension are a great success. As an undergraduate I was a frequent visitor to the museum. I could gaze at my all time favourite Paolo Uccello painting (The Hunt in the Forest) for hours, and the collection is so varied and rich that there was always something to be discovered. But I have to admit that the old Ashmolean was fusty and dark and cluttered. Now there is light and a splendid central atrium. This weekend a festival of theatre, opera, dance and drama , ‘Pots and Plays’, was being held in the museum, consisting of newly-commissioned works inspired by ancient Greek artifacts in the museum. I have tried to capture one of the performers in my picture, whilst also demonstrating the wonderful sweeping geometrical forms of the new atrium.
Here’s another exquisite and historical object on display in the Ashmolean: ‘the robe of the King of Virginia’. It was the mantle of Powhatan, King of the tribe that lived where the Jamestown settlement was established. Powhatan was the father of Princess Pocohontas. The description relates that the mantle may have had some function, such as a temple hanging, rather than being a garment. The beautiful patterns are made out of hundreds of tiny shells, sewn into the leather. The gaps are thought to be early examples of vandalism, previous generations of visitors having stolen shells as souvenirs (the mantle used to hang unprotected on a wall).
We (N° 1 sprog and yours truly) are in Oxford, staying with a dear friend, at the beginning of a tour of UK universities. Before the visit got underway, this morning we went to the new Ashmolean museum. The netsuke to the left is, in reality, tiny (I took a photograph of a poster) and is just one of a series of fascinating objects on display. Note the rat’s tail and the rat catcher’s expression of anger and frustration. Exquisite!
Today is Open Doors Day for the European institutions and, as you can see from the image, notwithstanding the fact that it is a Saturday, a large number of the Committee’s staff and its members have turned out early in the morning (the picture was taken at 09.30) in order to prepare to welcome our guests. They were already queueing when our doors opened at 10.00. There is an excellent atmosphere (as always) and I am sure today is going to be a great success. Postcsript: the day was a great success. We welcomed about 3,500 visitors to the Committee.
Many moons ago, when I was a young and not particularly bright young thing in the Commission’s Secretariat General, my French no more than rudimentary even on a good day, I found that there were two types of official. There were the friendly and welcoming officials who treated me more-or-less as an equal and there were the rest. I shall not dwell on the latter here (though some would later became good friends) but Alain van Solinge, whose untimely death I learnt about today, was undoubtedly one of the former. He was a brilliant lawyer who gave dispassionate, incisive and dependable legal advice on constitutional, inter-institutional and trade issues to three successive Commission Presidents (Delors, Prodi and Barroso); he was an academic manqué, who gave courses and lectures at the ULB, and he was, perhaps above all, a nice guy, who was always ready to discuss whatever constitutional nuances I thought I had discovered and, in fact, he had long ago considered and resolved. He was never fazed, as I surely was at the time, by such higher authorities as François Lamoureux and Claus-Dieter Elleman and I suspect this was quite simply because he was one of them – not just a lawyer and indeed a member of the Commission’s elite legal service, but such a passionate believer in the integration process that, if it ever came his way, he simply transcended criticism. It had been a while since I last saw him, but what a shock to see in this week’s Commission en direct (the Commission’s in-house journal) that he had died (on 11 April)! The photograph (to follow) – that impish smile – says a lot, I think. Michel Petit, a former Director General of the Commission’s Legal Service, paid him a fine tribute in Commission en direct: ‘What talent, Alain! And the fragility that went with it. Farewell to the artist.’
This morning the ‘serious’ work got under way. I took this picture from one side of the podium in the main meeting room. Whenever I am showing young guests around I always begin by explaining to them the importance of languages. To the uninitiated, it is easy to overlook the importance of languages in the dynamics of the EU’s policy making and legislative processes. So it was interesting to see, sitting on the podium in the opening session, how our young guests adapted to the reality of interpretation, meaning headphones, microphones, and the difficulty of exploiting the traditional tools of oratory. Great stuff.