Deep state

DEREK TURNER is editor of The Brazen Head. He is also a novelist, reviewer, travelogist, and the author of the chorography Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire (Hurst, 2022). www.derek-turner.com. Twitter: @derekturner1964. Instagram: edge.of.england

“Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England”

‘Pike’, Ted Hughes

The plumber’s van’s been standing since the small hours

At the fishing-place beside the chartered town;

Its driver has been sounding deeper waters

Since he set up as the night was going down.


He saw the sun come wheeling up from ocean,

Watched whitening sky go glowing into gold;

Heard the birds orchestrate their calling,

Stamped booted feet to counteract life’s cold.


Cynosure of today these level courses –

These muddy understated lowland drains

Whose depths hide evolution’s shining forces –

Silver knights swim pricking on these plains.


Other men stare silent at reflections,

Itching for a twitch upon their lines,

Unknowing echo ancient Izaak Walton,

Compleatest anglers, contemplating time.


Coarse fishers here can sit on thrones like Doges

Wedded to the waters of their wealth;

Serene for once among the mace and sedges,

Each man an island nation to himself.


Slow surface holds deep state of planted kingdoms,

Mirrors showing sallow, alder, oak –

Chlorophylled and kingly-symbolled leaves

The royal trees on any English road.


The tops of reeds stand proud among sheet-silver,

Their dirty roots outshone by swelling light –

Excaliburs – or the lances of dead riders

Who rode here once to set the east alight.


Waterfowl calls urgently to offspring –

Brown fuzzy balls bob cheeping at her steer.

The angler cannot stop himself from smiling,

As he casts for luck across the haunted mere.


(Awake by now at home, his fishing widow,

Sipping her first coffee of the day.

Smiling at her grandkids out the window –

Her ducklings’ ducks, so soon to swim away.)


The plants that edge the lake have grown here always;

Reseeded from some Anglo-Saxon store –

Marginalia from the seventh century,

Still richly green if now less filled with lore.


Epona tails of Rome and Celt connections

Vanished lands in floreated forms –

Lush lowland lawn, these thronging herbs of nations,

Forget-me-nots and flags, dog-rose and thorn.


Apothecaries prospected these elixirs,

Water-mint and yarrow, woad and rue –

Cut and dried for daubed dog-Latined ewers,

Cures for flux, stone, plague, and marsh-ague.


Pallid fish slide silent near the surface

Or nose among new-inundated grass,

Animals always searching for advantage,

Ghosts glimpsed in oxidising antique glass.


Carp suck and spap and rise to find him casting;

Their ancestors gaped for God-believing men;

Now endless sky, that abbey’s painted ceiling –

Great fane forlorn, foundation lost in fen.


He throws his line along the deepest margins,

His hook hangs in the decomposing ooze;

He hovers with all fish beyond all ageing –

Quick and dead commingled in long view.

Four poems by Clarence Caddell

CLARENCE CADDELL lives with his wife and three children in western Victoria, Australia, where he works as a high school English and humanities teacher, and writes in spare time he doesn’t have. His first collection of poems, The True Gods Attend You, will be published by Bonfire books in 2022. 

Note. The first two poems are situated in the universe of gnostic Christology. The first explores the notion, found in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, that Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross for Jesus, was actually crucified in his stead while the Christ spirit watched in amusement from on high. The second, inspired by The Gospel of Judas, contrasts the materialistic consciousness of the other disciples with the superior understanding shown by Judas, who is represented as Jesus’ only faithful follower and receiver of his highest teachings.

I. Vicar of Christ

Fulfilment’s plenitude, the dénouement

Of life’s afflictions—how can one not crave it?

The Easter feast that ends those weeks of Lent,

Of joy postponed in order then to have it,

And more abundantly! What we deplore

Leads on to joy, as if thus to redeem

The one who died therein. The soldiers saw

The man beneath his cross stumble, or seem

To do so; therefore, with true man replaced

Deceptive God. The spark cannot have been

Within that unknown Simon of Cyrene,

Or else it came through his ordeal ungrazed

And rose in glory to the left-hand side

Of him who laughed as Sakla’s creature died.

II. Generations

Some only care for action—mystery

   They like, but wish to see resolved before

The light comes on and all’s decoded.

   Such stories have their law,

Broken sometimes just to be reinvented.

   They’re thrilled by an exciting murder plot,

Don’t see its flaws. Perhaps they envy

   The hero what he’s got,

And wish him dead, if not picture themselves

   His love-interest (or both, as might a few!).

But when it comes to horror, surely

   They would not wish it true!

In fact, some are ambitious to be burnt

   And flayed for their opinion of the dead,

While dreaming of the Day when others

   Shall suffer in their stead!—

Vicarious atonement! Make me laugh.

   But it grows egregoric, their belief

In tales the most permanent of which are

   Often, lengthwise, most brief.

True stories they like best (as if a thing

   That’s happened in this world were true at all!)

Confused, they look to good’s exemplar

   To render evil’s fall,

But should they fail to misidentify

   The two, black knight and white in that romance

Of many versions—check their eyesight,

   Then lay the blame on chance.

Both absolutes and shades are so opaque

   To them, that all are manifest before

Their opalescent eyes as shadows

   They feel as if they could paw.

A perfect audience, willing to suspend

   All disbelief in all absurdity—

But not so ideal on a jury,

   As their God would agree!

But there are those like us who, in our hearts

   Possess the answering light to recognise

The figure understood by Judas,

    Unseen by mundane eyes.

I. Passover Feasts of the New Covenant

Note. These next two poems engage with some intriguing parallels between Josephus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and parts of the Gospels and traditions of the early Church. The first is set during the siege when the rebels are going from house to house requisitioning whatever scraps of food they can find. A woman named Mary, driven to insanity by hunger, has turned her infant son into a human Passover lamb (one of only two in the whole of literature, according to Joseph Atwill). In the second, a Jewish rebel leader named Simon plays a part that can be read as a parody of the Apostle Simon Peter’s career. After Jerusalem’s fall, having tried to escape by tunnelling beneath the ruined temple, he is caught, taken to Rome and crucified.

A pair of lambs, each of them Mary’s son;

The second, not the world-upending one

We think of first, was born in time to see,

Not understand, the truth of prophecy!

He was to be a byword till the end,

His mother said. Nothing would ever mend

For her, except, for now, the pain of hunger.

Take what you will! She cried and no doubt flung her

Compliments on their heels as they backed out,

Those demoniac rebels put to rout

Along with Moses’ Law and Abraham’s

Old Covenant by the power of these two lambs,

The younger surely side-by-side with Jesus,

Who’d warned: To Caesar render what is Caesar’s.

Then which did Mary mean, or Joseph muse

Would seal up the calamities of the Jews?

II. The Other Peter

Simon the cutthroat—you had sought to hide

In stolen robes here where no stone’s liaison

With stone remains. Were you not petrified,

Impersonating high priest and stonemason?

Obdurate as stone, in history’s next minute

Buried beneath an unknown myth’s foundation,

You’d sought to carve out on the earth, then in it,

While stones were crying out that here he comes,

This son of man, and, as they soon would spin it,

Of God, a god himself—a place where Rome’s

Dominion would end. But it was lysed,

Your empery of messianic coxcombs,

And unlike him who would be canonised

Despite denying three times his own master,

Your own post-mortem shadow would be life-sized,

Your master not denied, and Rome would cast her

Anchor, dolphin wrapped, where ebb and flow

Would not dislodge, though Goths and Vandals blast her.

Hands bound to Caesar’s chariot, in tow,

Who lived by the sword but had not sense to die

By it, dragged where you had no wish to go!

And this would take place so that prophecy

Might be fulfilled, the city’s inanition

Avenged and, as at the lake of Galilee

Where your namesake was wont to do his fishing,

Might come to rule the Holy Trinity:

Vespasian, then Titus, then Domitian.

The Salad Course, and The Hottest Ticket

P & J Poetics, LLC, published MIKE ALEXANDER’s first full-length collection, RETROgrade, in 2013. His most recent chapbook, We Internet in Different Voices (Modern Metrics), was released by EXOT books. His poems have appeared in Rattle, River Styx, Borderlands, Bateau, Abridged, Measure, Shit Creek Review, Raintown Review & other journals.

The Salad Course

Single-handed, Don Miguel clears the dinner table,

sets his papers in order. The lone inkpot covers

where his wine spilled.

            Fragments of a telling

grind in his mill, like giants in a bad novel.

Start where real people start:

                        An olla rather more beef

than mutton, a salad on most nights,

the scratching of the ink, all the missing…

There’s an aftertaste left on his tongue.

The failed Crusades.

                                    Pirates, all the king’s

enemies, the king, all sit down to the same slop,

scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays,

a pigeon or so extra on Sundays,

lunatics, all, but the heroes are the worst.

Let there be Victories, but food comes first.

Gustave, striving to put all that pretty style aside,

lingers in the shadow of a bistro, studying

how others eat, keeps inventory:

making his way across fields, drinking

milk at farms, dancing with village girls,

finding out about the harvests, carrying back

stalks of greenery in his handkerchief.

                                                Jots down:

handing a lady his handkerchief, like some

gallant in an insipid romance.

                                    While the courses

followed, poule au jus, crawfish, mushrooms,

vegetables tossed in a salad, roasted larks,

many subjects were discussed: the best system

of taxes, agricultural advances, abolition of

the death penalty –

            Let the killing begin.

The Don, having finished off his meager repas,

dons his chamber pot casquette, retrieves

his antique lance from the mantelpiece –

& at length, salutes a damsel,

                                    whose breadth,

which no doubt smelt of yesterday’s salad,

seemed to him to diffuse an aromatic fragrance.

Many scratchings later, the Captive recounts

how he had asked for some herbs to make a salad.

Then, he affected his escape.

                                    By such affectations,

we digest the meat of our daily ergot.

In his Dictionary of Received Notions, Gustave

defines an émigré as one who makes a living

giving guitar lessons or by making salad.

Emma, undressing, adds the dressing.

The Hottest Ticket

                                    i

          in the tophat

topcoat centuries   it was

the thing        to take

the ladies          to the Specola

to see

what they were made of         the body

parts   the kitchen bones    utensils   condiments

essences     the muscle mass

                       after the glass eyed

hair suits    of mammalian strata

the fish the flesh the foul        remainders

from tape worm to madonna with child

dissected twelve ways to Sunday;

                         bring the smelling salts.

                                    ii

                       if she survives

the nerve net                       offal truth

blood batter                       embrace of the body

corridors of display cases                        latinate names

                       there is one

more test                       of your lady’s heart

in the last room                       (just as she thinks

you are going                        to collect her wrap;)

                       the last room

forces her to look                       on homunculi of dead

mothers with children                        of the plague

(we are civilized                        enough to think it

                       a colossal joke,

that the anonymous                       die in such numbers)

refuse heaps blanched                        white with lime,

pockets full of poesy.                       The dead, the dying

                       litter the streets like

a plague of locust-husks,             while the angel

of waxwork swings                       his palette knife

through foetid air.                                 The artist

                       follows stories

of the outbreak spreading                       through all the cities

of Cartesian Europe                       to see first-hand, to show

the blotches, the scars,                       the tell-tale signature.

On First Concert at the Bradley Symphony Center, Milwaukee

JACOB RIYEFF (@riyeff) is a translator, teacher, and poet. His work focuses on the Western contemplative tradition and the natural world. Jacob lives in the Upper Midwestern U.S. with his wife and three growing children.

”A man’s attitude to life.” (Feb 20, 2022)

O Edward Elgar, did you see our faces
rapt in darkness, hearts attuned to your cello
As you lay upon your deathbed, traces
Of joy accompanying the low and mellow
Tones the strings invite our ears to hear
Amid glissando runs to keep the mind
And body clear? You cursed its weak premiere
But here a hundred years past you find
A willing crowd to celebrate your movements
As you lay in Worcester gasping for air‚
From lyric to rondo, fulfillment
In sonic pattern, virtuosic fare.
Could you see, in your final agony,
Our festival of superfluity?

Chapter Six. The Wedding

This is chapter Six of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Chapter One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters TwoThreeFour and Five in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, see www.liamguilar.com

The story so far. Mid Fifth Century; Hengist and his brother Horsa have sailed to Britain where they have been taken on as mercenaries by Vortigern, the newly appointed leader of the Province. Having defeated an army of Picts, Hengist has tricked Vortigern’s son into giving him land where he has built a stronghold.

Holding a feast to celebrate its completion, he intends to use the opportunity to introduce his daughter, Rowena, to Vortigern.

At which point I part company with the Medieval Story Tellers. I don’t believe a hard-headed war lord would throw away everything he’d worked for in his rush to get his hands on his servant’s daughter. While the story of the King who throws away his kingdom for ‘the wrong woman’ repeats throughout medieval versions of the Legendary History, it’s hard to find an historical ruler of Britain before the thirteenth century who did it.

The Wasshail ceremony, central to the story of Vortigern, is possibly a memory of a very old English custom. 

Set up

Hengist’s hall, the feast raucous.

New arrivals at the long benches;

long haired, eager, boastful,

beside their wary British guests.


Behind a door, a room in candle light[i].

Shadows, female laughter. The maids

circle, bob and fuss, like dull moons

orbiting a blazing star. Rowena the still

pensive centre as clothing is adjusted.

They have sprinkled gold dust in her hair.

A jewelled necklace drags attention to her breasts.

A golden belt shows off her slender waist

and amplifies the outward flare of hips.

Hengist, watching from the door, sees her

for once, as any man sees any woman.

Knows lust will strangle Vortigern

and side step all his calculations.


Swats the unwanted images

that flicker bodies rutting on the furs.

What father wouldn’t trade his daughter for a kingdom?

What daughter wouldn’t for a crown?

But when she leaves this room,

she is no longer Hengist’s daughter

but the Wife of Vortigern the King.


Time to take the jewelled cup.

Surprised by her own fear,

thrown from this busy room

alone on the anticipated shore.

The boat has gone and left her here

in darkness. In the distance

Aestrild’s ghost grows restless[ii].


Her hands betray her, spilling wine.

The maids cower, apologizing.

While they clean the cup she will not look at him.

The second time her hands don’t shake.


No words. She moves towards the door.

If you would call her back, now is the time.

Hall-noise heralds the death of Hengist Father.

Who knew this could be so painful?


That she was beautiful,

no one who saw her will deny.

That it was beauty in excess

of human expectations,

all who saw her will attest.

That she was clever,

brave and loyal,

is yet to be revealed. 


As she entered the riot of the hall,

she infected it with silence.

A ripple of turning heads,

abandoned conversations.

Every man who saw her wanted her

but as she moved towards the King,

through the swamp of their desire,

their lust was spittle on a white-hot blade.

And though she moved with the grace of a swan on still water

he was a scarecrow staring at a golden avalanche

and she was the tidal wave bearing down on a mud brick wall.


She kneels before him and lifts the cup:

‘Lauerd king wæs hæil; For þine kime ich æm uæin.’


He looks up and she is sunlight exploding in his face,

shattering thought, making everything background 

only except her face in focus, the world its dull penumbra.


Turning to Keredic, who mistranslates shock

as linguistic incompetence

and launches into cultural explanations:


‘It is a custom, in the Saxon’s land

where ever a company gathers to drink,

friend greets friend and says:

Dear friend, be well. The other says, Drinc hail.

The one that has the cup, he drinks it up.

The cup’s refilled. He gives it his companion

and when the cup is brought,

they embrace each other thrice.

This is the practice in the Saxon’s land.

and thought a noble custom throughout Germany.’[iii]


Take the cup, kiss her, drink.

Her breath brushes his cheek.

Her soft lips taste of wine and metal.


Four story tellers all agree[iv]

this is where the Devil puts in an appearance

to mess with Vortigern,

overwhelming his common sense

with lust for a pagan girl.

It’s the adjective that horrifies.


A different Vortigern, emerging from his private earthquake,

green eyes, watching him, soft lips, another drink.

Stumbling out of incoherence,

he understands the myth of the medusa;

how looking at a woman can turn a man to stone.

Negotiations

He has to ask for something he could take:

his servant’s daughter. The power inversion

obvious to both of them, so to preserve the niceties

they pretend this was an accident,

that both of them are taken by surprise.

(No laughing please, this should be serious.)


My daughter? You want to marry her?

Vortigern pretends it is desire that speaks:

how beautiful etc, how desirable etc…

(As if it mattered what she looked like.)

Who would have thought, at his age,

he would be honoured.


Hengist pretending he must ask his brethren.

Then the haggling when they both know Kent

and Thanet are her bride price.

But Vortigern rejects the script.

Her Morning Gift, lands in the west,

in the hill country to its north.

Fine cloths, jewels from the east,

horses, saddles, oils. ‘Kent

is not mine to give.

Thanet’s already yours.

But if your sons will follow me

I will give them all the land

between the turf wall and the stone.’

And that shocks Hengist.

Wedding celebrations

Master Wace wrote: ‘He desired her in the morning when they met,

and had her that same night.’ Our Priest, horrified;

‘There were no Christian rites, no priest nor bishop,

he had her in the heathen fashion

took her maidenhead, defiled himself.’


But you don’t expect twelfth century clerics

to sympathise with physical desire.

Or recognise a business proposition.


They will always blame the woman. 


There will be a celebrant and a venue

appropriate for the ritual.

After the prayers and public promises;

feasting, dancing, speeching, drinking,

obligatory fornication with or without an audience.

‘After the feast they slept together’

is how Welsh story tellers described a wedding.


Was she frightened?

Embarrassed by your greed,

or did her own lust

shade the colour of her eyes?


Did you come to trade?

Or did you come to conquer?


There was a door, there must

have been a door. A room

with fittings, shapes, colours.

There was her body, a blur of

detail, memories, green eyes.


Reduced to naked ape with thumping heart.

The gravity of need, the greed of flesh for flesh.

Then clothed, walking in the daylight world

to find the keys to the castle have been pawned.

Bank, ditch and palisade redundant

and in the inner room, behind the locked door,

watched by the sleepless guard who lets no body enter, 

there’s a stranger in the dimmest corner

and a version of yourself you do not own.


Maelgywn of Gwynedd murders every woman

who shares his bed, refusing to accept

the obligations the act implies.

(And still finds willing takers

convinced the risk is worth the prize).

Cunnedagus of the Demetae 

gives such women to his retinue.


He was petrified.

Then she stepped out of her clothes,

stepped towards him,

breaking one spell

casting another.

Aubade

Familiar words in unfamiliar accents,

soft, golden, fragrant, warm.


We are not children playing in a sandpit

ruling our private universe

with plastic armies that can be replaced,

where cities made of sand can be destroyed

and then rebuilt, forgetting that the adults

will call us in and put an end to all our games.


The world won’t wait for us.

While bodies are engaged,

the mind in search of answers

slips into the darkness

where the Latin titles drift

like burnt pages on the breeze,

past broken statues of dead men

whose names have been forgotten;

through ruined halls and shattered walls:

discarded answers that no longer satisfy.


No matter how delirious the frenzied shoving match

(soft, fragrant, warm) the mind drifts on alone,

in the high passes above the snowline,

looking down into the valleys

to the interminable journey

and fading fast the certainty

that there is an end to travelling

where the answers can be found

soft fragrant adequate and warm.

Stay with me?

He leaves the golden marvel on the furs

and searches for his clothes.

She stretches, mutters, ‘Stay with me.

Sleep here.’ He hesitates.


Locrin tightening his belt,

steps outside the earth house

into the frost of a winter’s morning,

as the whalebone doors slide shut

on his desire.


The great gates of Tintagel grinding shut

behind a man who runs

before his lover can discover who he is.[v]


Both wanting to say, take me back,

before the fog has lifted from the river

or the ice has melted on the castle gate.

Their minds are filled from dawn to dusk

with fantasies of welcome;

blinking, baffled, overjoyed,

as the great gate swings open

the whalebone door is moved aside,

as if the hind will greet the hound

that runs it down to rip its throat out.


He is not suffering from their disease.

Flesh calling to the memory of flesh,

promising oblivion and pleasure.

But there are things he has to do.


[i] This scene, where Hengist watches his daughter being decked out in her finery, although expanded here,  is Laȝamon’s addition to his sources.

[ii] Aestrild’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2020). Rowena hears it in Chapter one and  it haunts her.

[iii] From ‘It is a custom’ to ‘Germany’ is a loose translation of Laȝamon. Even in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s earlier Latin version the words of the ceremony are given in a form of English. It’s possible the custom is very old and also possible it is the origin of ‘wassailing’.

[iv] Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Laȝamon. The implication in all four is that had Rowena been baptised first, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Vortigern makes this point in the previous chapter.

[v] Locrin’s story is told in A Presentment of Englishry, Uther’s in the next part of this project. Both men endanger their kingdoms through their infatuation.

Inner pieces, inner peace

Credit: Shutterstock
PETER KING says inconsistency is not incoherency

We live in fragments. There is nothing that is so large to be all encompassing. There is nothing that is dominant, nothing that is the essence. Of course, we humans are common in our biology, psychology and our mortality, but this is not what defines us as individuals. As individuals we are wholes that are also fragments. We are complete and entire while also being part of something that is beyond us.

We do many different things that make us the whole that we are. All of these things can be ends in themselves, worthwhile without any exterior validation. We watch and play sport, and we do so for no other reason than the enjoyment we gain from the activity itself. Some of us may feel that our sporting allegiances define us, but this is never all that we are. We might describe ourselves by our job, our profession or perhaps our employer. But we come home at night and are someone else – a wife or husband, partner or parent, brother, sister, friend or even enemy. We have political views and we may only wish to associate with those who we agree with or have some affinity to. We may ‘never kiss a Tory’, but we probably work with them, sit next to them on the bus or train, wait behind them in a queue and are taught or treated by them when we are pupil, student or patient. We have tastes in art, and we have tastes in music which might be very different from our taste in art. We can have diverse tastes, admiring El Greco and Rubens as well as Rothko and Twombly; we can listen to Bach and Anthony Braxton and follow it up with Laurie Anderson; we can read James Boswell and Edward Lear before moving on to Vladimir Solovyov; we can watch a sci-fi thriller and the next night lose ourselves in Tarkovsky’s Mirror or Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

Is this inconsistent and incoherent? It might be seen to be, but I would say that this inconsistency is actually quite defining of what we are. As Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The choices of what we listen to, read and watch may be different, but we each have diverse and often contradictory tastes, both at any one time and through time. As a teenager I read lots of war stories and fantasy novels as well as listening to punk music. I actively hated both Wodehouse and Eliot and all they stood for, and I had little time for classical music or jazz. Forty years later, I love both Wodehouse and Eliot and have no interest in going back to the novels of Sven Hassel or Michael Moorcock. But even now, as I have suggested above, I shift from the light to the heavy, the old to the new, the tuneful to the discordant, the easy to the difficult. These are all parts of what I am. They are fragments of my personality. None of them defines who I am; not one of them is me. But each of them says something about me, and each is as real as the any other.

My choices, I am sure, are not confected. I do not listen to certain types of music because I think I should or because it is what ‘people like me’ are supposed to do. I do not watch black and white Russian and Japanese films out of duty, but because I really enjoy them as well as finding them compelling and challenging. I will quite happily read Edward Lear’s nonsense verse while there is Anthony Braxton’s improvised jazz playing in the background.

So I do not see all this variety as incoherent or inconsistent. It is just how I, and, I believe, most others, live. It seems to me to be perverse to believe one should have such a consistency so that if one is a traditionalist in politics one must also be one in art and music. Not only does this forget that these, now traditional artists and composers, be it Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Bach or Mozart, were considered outrageously modern in their own time, but it also ignores that different arts progress at different stages. To do this is to put artificial criteria over our individual choices.

There is a lot of debate and disquiet over the issues of difference and diversity. These terms can be used to impose categories on people otherwise unwilling to accept them. They might also be seen as the means to attack traditional values. I can accept both those points while also insisting that each of us is diverse and full of difference. I would go so far as to say that most, if not all, of us have contradictory tastes. I would further state that this is natural and to be relished. If we have different moods, why not diverse tastes that can accommodate those moods? I would suggest we accept difference and diversity for no other reason that this is just how we are. This does not mean that we have to accept these terms beyond categories that apply to an individual. We do not have to accept them in political terms and nor does one have to buy into a postmodern worldview. We can have diverse views, and remain traditionalists.

What I want to suggest is that we are made of fragments. Each of these demonstrate a particular feeling, attitude, mode of behaviour, even view of the world. Each fragment is, at it were, complete. It is entire and we can express it fully, whether it be a particular allegiance or an attitude towards a painting or poem. We can, of course, express negative attitudes and feelings regarding things we do not like or which we feel in some way oppress us or stop our enjoyment.

These are entire unto themselves: we enjoy Bach’s cello suites and that is it. We do not have to qualify our love for this music or justify it to anyone else. We do not love Bach because of his contemporaries or because of the period in which he lived. We can sit and listen and lose ourselves in its sublime qualities. Yet the following day we may be watching a game of football and lose ourselves in the tribe of fellow supporters shouting on our team. Later that day we may read Eliot or watch Saturday night television. We do not have to explain ourselves, and we would resent being made to. We do not question what we are doing either during or after, and the issue of consistency doesn’t enter our heads.

However, these fragments do come together into a whole. This whole is an entire person. We have a complete life that we take to be continuous and coherent and which we know consists of a multiplicity of parts, each of which can satisfy some aim, need or desire. We are seen by others as a whole and are expected to act as such. But this whole is, in turn fragments of a greater whole. We are entire as ourselves, but we can come together in a larger whole we call ‘community’.

What I particularly object to in politics is principle. I tense up when someone says that they act according to principle and I automatically wish to support someone accused of lacking principles. This is not because I have no principles of my own – I like to think I am reasonably principled in the manner I behave. But I make a distinction between the personal and the political. I want to be moral and, despite failing often, I work at being so. And, of course, I want others to be moral as well. What I do not want is for anyone, myself included, to feel enabled to impose their principles on society through control over political institutions. What I object to is not that a politician has principles but that they wish to impose them on everyone else, regardless of what these others may think. In other words, I do not want my principles to be swamped by those of someone else.

Any society is made of diverse and different individuals who believe in many different things. These views may well be irreconcilable. A society may consist of traditional Roman Catholics and radical feminists, and progressive liberals and reactionary conservatives. All of these views are legitimate and we must assume they are sincerely held. People naturally disagree on a whole range of issues such as abortion, immigration, gender, the proper roles of governments and markets, the environment and globalisation. While we hope that we can talk with those with disagree with, it will often be the case that we cannot agree. Some views are simply irreconcilable and all we can agree on is that we differ.

What we need then is some means to ensure we can be left to differ in peace. We might take the view that we accept the majority view, and there is some sense in this. But this does not end the issue of principles. Even if there is a majority in support of an issue, why should we assume that an argument is determined solely by the number of its supporters? A Roman Catholic will still believe they are right to oppose abortion, even if they know they are in a minority. A traditional conservative will not agree with radical views on the fluidity of gender merely because there appears to be a majority of parliamentarians who will vote for it. A majority does not negate or diminish the principles of the minority.

Politics, then, is essentially antagonistic. It is made up a diverse collection of views, deeply held and based on clear principles, but which cannot be reconciled. The proper response of government here is not to impose one view at the expense of the others, but to find a means of balancing these irreconcilable views in such a way that society remains peaceful and stable. This means developing and maintaining institutions that protect different views and maximise the ability of individuals to express them freely and safely.

This suggests that the only purpose to governing is governance itself. Governing is indeed an end in itself. There is no end to governing in either sense of the word ‘end’. Governing does not stop and there is no presumption that we will reach a higher or better state, whether we express that as human perfection, utopia or the end of history. Governing is necessary to hold a balance between antagonistic ends sincerely held by free and competent citizens. It is about protecting those institutions that allow for those views to be expressed in a manner that does not coerce others.

Government then does not believe in anything other than its own maintenance. The reason this is necessary is not because a society believes in nothing, but precisely because it believes in many diverse things. Just as there are irreconcilable ends in a society, so there are within each of us. We act inconsistently because we hold diverse views and act according to the context in which we find ourselves. We try to hold them in balance, but they are not necessarily reconcilable. We can only hold them serially and not concurrently (without making ourselves unwell).

However, it is this serial nature, that at any one time we are committed to a particular end, that allows us to lead untroubled lives. Each fragment of ourselves is complete unto itself and we can live with it. To be consistent is to lack imagination. It is where we do not feel or think. People who are oppressed or coerced appear consistent because they have views imposed upon them. They are told what to believe, what to think and how to act.

We are made up of regrets as well as triumphs, of things half done, things we wished we had done or not done, paths not taken or only part taken, things left unbuilt. These are all fragments, which we did not complete. Yet they stand there as memories or regrets. These too are now complete, in that they cannot be completed or added to. They can only be lost further or retained as they were left.

Think of a valuable pot that has been smashed into a thousand pieces. It is irreplaceable, and we feel we should try to save it, so we painstakingly put back the pieces back together again. From a distance, the pot may look as good as new. But when we get closer we can see the multiple fractures and how the pieces have been joined together. It is skilful work, but we can see that it is not the same. And there may be weak points or even bits missing. But it is still a whole, it is a pot – and it may well now have a different form of beauty that comes from being in this reconstructed state. We can sense its vulnerability and its complexity. We can better sense the love that went into its making and in its preservation. This is how we are, skilfully put together from many, many pieces. We may be scarred and there may be gaps but we are, in our own way, more or less complete.

Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev – the nuclear option

Image: Shutterstock

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane, 2021, 464 pages, £25

KEN BELL admires an unusually informed study of one of History’s nearest misses

Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the first work to mine the KGB files that are stored in Ukraine. Out of this, Plokhy has synthesised a new understanding of the crisis which argues that neither side understood the other, and both operated on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Fidel Castro was a caudillo, rather than a Marxist, but he realised that if Paris is worth a mass then Cuba was certainly worth some Marxist rhetoric, so he decided to announce his conversion to the principles of Marxism-Leninism in the aftermath of his victory at the Bay of Pigs.

For Moscow, this was a dream come true, but it did create three issues that needed to be addressed quickly. The first was the need to keep Cuba communist, and the second was how to deter further American aggression against it. Finally, there was a need to keep Peking from seducing Havana into its version of communism.

The installation of medium range nuclear missiles, with the Soviet troops to man them, answered all those issues and gave Khrushchev the added bonus of finally being able to threaten the USA directly; the USSR in 1962 still lacked the intercontinental missiles that the USA had recently developed. Khrushchev remembered the way in which Kennedy had accepted the fact of a Berlin Wall and hoped that the Americans would do the same with Soviet missiles in Cuba, if they could be installed before the Americans discovered their presence.

Things began to go wrong almost immediately. The advance party that was sent to Cuba reported that the country was heavily wooded, and installing the missiles could be done under that forest canopy. When the missile troops arrived, they discovered that palm trees do not provide much cover and rain forests are too dense for large trucks to move through. The country lacked bridges that could stand the weight of the Soviet trucks, and even Soviet rations began to go bad in the tropical heat. The troops began to contract dysentery and the whole thing began to look like a farce before it had got off the ground.

Luckily for the Soviets, the decision was taken to install anti-aircraft missiles first. These were quickly discovered by the Americans, but they had expected them, so did not trouble themselves over the Soviet ships. This meant the strategic and tactical nuclear missiles could be set up courtesy of American misreading of what was actually going on.

When the Americans did find out, Kennedy’s reaction at first was hawkish. But he quickly realised that a nuclear world war was not in anyone’s interests so began to find a political solution. However, by then his aides and military were almost united in speaking for war, so the blockade of Cuban waters that he came up with seems to have been intended to buy time and keep the warmongers off his back until he learned exactly what Khrushchev was willing to concede. For his part, once Khrushchev realised that Cuba was far more important than Berlin to the Americans he was more than willing to reach an agreement, but the problem then became bringing that about against a backdrop of rising chaos.

For instance, an American U2 aircraft over Cuba was shot down seemingly against orders from Moscow. The commander of the unit was in his bed with dysentery, so a less senior officer, under extreme pressure as he and his men had not slept for days while they battled to get their antiaircraft missiles operational, gave the launch order.

At sea, a Soviet submarine had surfaced to recharge its batteries. It carried a nuclear torpedo, and control over that weapon was in the captain’s hands. It was the middle of the night when he went up to the conning tower to communicate with the American ships that surrounded him via a Morse lamp, and the USAF took the opportunity to ignore its orders not to do anything provocative and began to drop flares on the boat so photographs could be taken. The Russians thought that they were under attack, and the captain ordered a crash dive and the torpedo tubes to be flooded. Luckily, the man carrying the Morse lamp got stuck on the ladder and the captain was able to look back at the main American ship and read an apology from its captain. Had that man not been caught for a few seconds with his lamp, most of the American ships would have been destroyed by the nuclear weapon.

Back on land, Kennedy’s willingness to swap the Soviet missiles in Cuba for American ones in Turkey almost came to nothing when the Americans realised that the Turks might just object to a deal about their country that did not involve them, but Khrushchev agreed that part could be kept secret. Then Castro got in on the act and refused to allow American inspections of the Soviet missiles as they were loaded onto ships, so the Russians had to agree to inspections at sea. Both superpowers were quickly discovering that even junior partners could not be treated with that same indifference that the Americans used in central America and the Soviets in eastern Europe.

Yet, there was just enough to trade-off, and just enough willingness to do it, to allow Khrushchev to walk away with an American promise not to invade Cuba, which meant that it would remain a communist country. Awash with Soviet arms and subsidies, Cuba ignored Chinese entreaties and remained a reliable Soviet ally until the USSR finally ceased to exist in 1991.

However, as Plokhy shows, that peaceful end to the crisis was a matter of good luck rather than good management. His work takes us through this period with a lucidity that allows his readers to finally make sense of those autumn days in 1962 when the Cold War almost became a catastrophe.

England’s musical Shakespeare

Henry Purcell
STUART MILLSON gives a glimpse into the life of Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659-95) is forever associated with the birth of opera (or masques) in England – works such as King Arthur and The Fairy Queen – the creation of semi-operatic scenic cantatas, like his music for The Tempest, and with expansive works for church and state, especially his odes for William and Mary and their ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and, later, funeral music of intense mourning for Queen Mary. Not all artists or musicians are celebrated in their lifetime, but Purcell was recognised as a great composer, ascending to the heights of achievement for his time – a reputation which enhanced the career of his younger brother, Daniel – also a composer. But it is in our own world that Purcell has truly come into his own: an unending stream of recordings, often in period-instrument form, from some of the greatest interpreters of baroque music, such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie. For Denis Arnold, the renowned General Editor of The New Oxford Companion to Music, Purcell warranted not just a few paragraphs and a portrait, but three pages of musical description and discussion – another impressive measure of the man.

Jan van Kessel, ‘Personification of Music’

Purcell was the second of four brothers and followed an early career as a young chorister in the Chapel Royal of Charles II, enjoying the early Restoration flowering of art and music. By 1673, his angelic voice was no more, but his musical talents had made such an impression that he was appointed as the custodian of the King’s collection of instruments. He also became a composer-in-residence at Westminster Abbey, going on to succeed the great John Blow as organist.

Composers such as William Lawes wrote very much for the delight or diversion of the Stuart court; just half-a-century later, ‘serious’ music had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in the theatre – as a form of art increasingly enjoyed by the wider society, with provocative political allegory never far from the surface. A perfect example is King Arthur (1691), with its libretto by John Dryden, which goes far beyond the boundaries of any conventional theatrical format – the story of the mythical warrior-king of the Britons, but with overtones of the contemporary struggle between the cause of James II (the rightful heir – but a Catholic) and the triumph of the Protestant succession, in the form of William of Orange. With its famous, ethereal patriotic air, ‘Fairest Isle’ – a slow, contemplative song sometimes extracted from the score and performed as a piece in its own right – Purcell emerges as a ‘composer-laureate’, long before the era of the national-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their oratorios of ‘Blood and State’ (Parry) or ‘Banners of St. George’ (Elgar).

Purcell’s English mysticism is something we tend to associate with musicians of an epoch much closer to our own, such as Vaughan Williams with his Flos Campi or Five Mystical Songs, and Holst’s unchanging, unforgiving Wessex landscape of Egdon Heath. Purcell brings us into a markedly supernatural country, of charms and prophecies, and the extraordinary presence of a ghostly character, the ‘Cold Genius’ – a singing spirit of frost, ice and wasteland, brought to stuttering life by a shivering bass singer, accompanied in a curious pre-echo of 20th-century music by the icy, scratchy, toneless, guttural bowing of string instruments. Purcell was ahead of his time in other ways too –with the rumble of wind and thunder machines in The Tempest, and waves of scurrying strings suggesting a rushing tide about to break across the land – a scene straight from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 Suffolk opera, Peter Grimes (credited as the first great English opera since Purcell).

As a concertgoer or buyer of recordings, it is worth remembering your first experience of a particular work – and often more fun to replay that memory (or vinyl disc) and compare it to the many other versions which have proliferated in the intervening years. I first encountered Purcell’s Chaconne on a record-buying expedition in 1981, the work appearing on a Decca LP collection entitled ‘English Music for Strings’ – a 1968 recording made at Snape Maltings, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

The Chaconne, or ‘Chacony’ as it is sometimes written, is an old dance-form, made up of variations (in Purcell’s piece, 18 in number) which flow effortlessly into one another, and founded upon what musicians know as a ground-bass theme (the deeper, more sonorous theme or tune that seems to underpin or “anchor” the whole work). Britten, a great admirer of Purcell, and of older English music generally, was immediately attracted to the gently-noble, faintly melancholic melody of the Chaconne, which had been preserved in a collection of Purcell manuscripts, stored in the British Museum.

Even with Britten’s modern string instrumentation and the rich reverberation it creates, we are transported in the first moments of the work to an England of 300 years ago – of lute- and viol-playing ‘people of quality’ at courts and country houses, of misty deer parks and an adjoining countryside of ancient steadings – and yet, despite the clear antiquity of the style, there is a universal essence to this music (very much like Bach) which somehow defies time. Readers may also enjoy the more authentic version of the Chaconne, performed by Canada’s Aradia Baroque Ensemble, which appears on the Naxos label, an interpretation that brings us the delicate, glassy, crystal feel of authentic baroque-era strings. The CD catalogues and Youtube brim with Purcell recordings.

This remarkable man, in charge of England’s musical formalities, was also fond of the occasional joke: listen, for example, to his Ode for the Birthday of Queen MaryCome Ye Sons of Art – to the section entitled, ‘Sound the trumpet’ and the line, “… the listening shores…” Something to do with all England listening for the word of its monarch, perhaps? Or a joke at the expense of trumpet-players, with the surname Shore – who had nothing to do in that particular section!

Pier Francesco Cittadini, ‘Vanitas – Stillleben’

Timelessness seems the very essence of Purcell, that shaper of national myth in music, a ghost who still comes back to life as the cold genius of our isle. It was the cold which brought about the composer’s untimely death in 1695: returning home late at night during a bitterly-cold November, so the story goes, it seems that he found himself locked out of his Marsham Street home by his wife of 14 years. And curiously, from then on, his country began to forget about him. The musicians and choristers of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey honoured his passing in a great service of remembrance ; yet the decades and centuries that followed saw the virtual disappearance of his name. Perhaps it was only Britten’s rediscovery in the 1940s and ‘60s that brought Purcell back to life – a crusade assisted and added to by composer-conductor, Malcolm Arnold, conducting full-blown arrangements of the 17th-century composer’s works at a Proms concert in the late 1960s.1

What we can say with certainty is that the jibe made during the mid-19th century (principally by Germans), that England was “the land without music” was only partially true. We had simply forgotten about our own geniuses.

  1. Malcolm Arnold’s conducting of Purcell’s suite from Abdelazar is available via: https://www.amazon.com/Elgar-Concerto-Vaughan-Williams-Orchestra/dp/B000000TKX []

The evolutions of revolutionary architecture

A 1934 competition project, Narkomtiazhprom – from Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism,1920-1980

Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930

Park Books, 2021, 624pp, illus., $65

Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital

Princeton University, 2021, 274pp + xii, illus., £34

Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980

Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020, 448pp, illus., £65

ALEXANDER ADAMS traces the neglected history of Soviet building design

The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus.  

The new school combined eight departments (fakul’tey): painting, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics (poligrafiya), and textiles1

There was a core curriculum which covered the basics of design and art, with additional topics: “Mathematics, Chemistry, Descriptive Geometry, Political Economy, History of Art, and Military Arts.”2. The school offered free education and encouraged applications from poor students, many of whom had part-time jobs to support themselves.

While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in its “communistic” spirit, Vkhutemas was over ten times larger than its German counterpart in terms of the student body. With an enrolment of more than 2,000 students, it was an unprecedented modern undertaking, rivalled only by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which counted well over 1,000 students in the 1920s3

VKhuTEMAS students with models

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a record of the school through its teaching material, archival sources and explanatory essays. It provides us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Soviet avant-garde in the brief window before Modernism was occluded by Socialist Realism. VKhUTEMAS was a cockpit of Constructivism and Functionalism. Constructivism was a Modernist movement which divided into two strands: a) a Cubist-inspired abstract school of art that deployed geometric forms and b) a utilitarian form of architecture favouring Euclidean forms and eschewing decoration. Functionalism is a principle that design must be ergonomic and pragmatic, subordinating aesthetics to function. There was a stress on modern materials, geometric forms and human psychology would aid design of structures, making them fully rational and determined by science. Architecture, unlike painting and sculpture, was not imitative and could thus be liberated from convention. Constructivism is avowedly Modernist in form; Functionalism is Modernist in form only by default. VKhUTEMAS taught both – inasmuch as they were distinguishable.

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space records school publications and course materials. These consist of montages, collages, photographs, diagrams and texts. These are reproduced photographically. The Russian text is partially translated into English for the first time. This large book reproduces pages from the archives at large size, most with translation facing. The syllabi are transcribed and translated. Some commentaries provide other information. Models in cardboard, wire, glass, plaster and string were made by students and were photographed as examples. The curriculum gives us information about the teaching methods, the ideas that were to be imparted and what students were expected to demonstrate. Examples are given of documents, fabric samples, clothing, furniture designs, posters, architectural plans and art work.

Although the foundations of the school’s teaching were doctrinal, the actual practice did allow for experimentation and personal expression. All tutors and students had to be members of the Party but it does not seem that the teachers were anything other than thoughtful, patient and responsive to their students. Teachers included serious artists already known in the West: Alexandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. 

Konstantin Melnikov Kurochkin, Gosplan Garage, 1930s

VKhUTEMAS was closed in 1930, victim of the political struggles and the Party’s declining approval for Modernism, which would soon be denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’. The solution to the unsatisfactory performance was to split up the school into different, specialised institutions. The fates of the tutors mirror the fate of the avant-garde under the Stalinist regime. Rodchenko moved from avant-garde design to documentary photography. Ladovsky was purged under Stalin, a fate that also befell Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and other Modernist artists. Aleksandr Drevin and Gustav Klutsis were executed in 1938 as part of a purge of Latvians (partly overseen by Lavrentii Beria).  Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (a Jew) died in a Nazi death camp.  

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a fascinating insight into Soviet Modernism and design pedagogy. It is a somewhat specialised volume but a valuable addition to any extensive library on art education, design history and Soviet fine and applied arts.


The rivalry between the USSR and the USA dated back to the inception of the USSR. From the earliest days, ambitious Soviet officials and architects eyed the skyscrapers of New York with envy. For them, the logical development of the USSR would be to harness the capabilities of Soviet New Man, unleashed through the liberation of labour and freed from the shackles of bourgeois tradition, in order to build a new society that would surpass the USA’s lead. Socialism was a development of – and ultimately, replacement for – capitalism and this would be demonstrated through the creation of buildings grander than those of capitalism.

One of the great projects was Palace of the Soviets (designed 1931-3, head architect Boris Iofan). It would be a vast auditorium for conferences, with a giant library, served by 148 elevators, topped by the tallest building in the world, at 415 m (1,362 ft), with a 100 m tall statue of Lenin on the top of the tower. This would use techniques and materials innovated by the British, Germans and Americans to construct a palace dedicated to the people rather than to commerce. (Iofan led a delegation of engineers to New York to gain technical information.) It was seen as a direct riposte to the West, refuting the idea that Russia was technologically undeveloped and that Socialism could not match capitalist democracies. It had been barely started by the time the Great Patriotic War diverted the labour and materials into the war effort.

As Katherine Zubovich explains in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Germany, Stalin planned a group of eight tower blocks and completion of the Palace to show that the USSR was ready to enter the modern age and rival the world capitals. These would accompany completion of the Palace of the Soviets. Although the ill-starred Palace would never progress – the alarming amount of ground water flooding the foundations indicated the unsuitability of the location for the world’s tallest building – the tower blocks would be constructed. It turned out there would only be seven, built over the period 1947-53.

In the late 1930s, Stalin had effectively halted Soviet Modernism in all areas. The social, educational and – in some respects – the economic sovietisation of the USSR proved highly disruptive, slow and counterproductive. The Revolution would have to be stopped and (purely in an unannounced manner) reversed in select areas. A good example is the rise of Socialist Realism, which replaced the experimental Modernism of Suprematism and Constructivism with academic painting and sculpture depicting workers and party officials. In architecture, Stalinism entailed curtailing the excesses of Modernism and Rationalism, in favour of Historicism made at inhumanly large size. As always in totalitarian states (past and present) words were redefined. “небоскреб/neboskreby” (“skyscrapers”) was redefined to mean Western capitalist tall buildings; “Высокое здание/vysotnye zdaniia” (“tall buildings”) was the preferred term for tower blocks in the USSR.

The heroic experimentalism of the early revolutionary period of the Modernist period had never materialised. Construction on the Palace of the Soviets had stalled. Although the city had suffered aerial bombardment, it had not suffered as much as Leningrad, not to mention Stalingrad. The project of boulevardisation and the new metro system from the inter-war period was intact. In January 1947, with the USSR still gradually recovering from the ravages of war, the decree was issued to construct eight new skyscrapers. The plans were initially fluid.

In the early months of 1947, Soviet officials, construction managers, and architects themselves had little notion of the shape the project would take over the following months and years. The skyscraper decree of January 13, 1947 was impressionistic at best. The document gave little indication of the outsized role the buildings would come to play in Soviet life4

The buildings were Hotel Ukrainia (the tallest building in the USSR), Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, Kudrinskaya Square Building, Hotel Leningradskaya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow State University headquarters and the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Construction was staggered due to the potential strain on labour, logistic and management. Zubovich outlines the internal politics of the bureaucracy and the shifting responsibility for the project as it came to life. The internal manoeuvring was not just a question of personal advancement but of survival by denouncing rivals as insufficiently Communist, as officials lived under the shadow of the KGB removing individuals due to counter-revolutionary subversion.

The ‘Seven Sisters’ displaced tens of thousands of Muscovites, who were evicted without compensation, although the Moscow government was obliged to find or build accommodation. The author tells the stories of some of the residents who were resettled to the outskirts of Moscow. The process was administered by Lavrentii Beria, former head of the NKVD. Rehousing the displaced population became a project in itself. The influx of construction workers required temporary housing, which would expand the city boundaries of Moscow.  

Construction became an opportunity for propaganda. The presence of women doing some of the lighter labour was heralded by the press as a triumph of communal co-operation in the world no longer encumbered by custom. Press coverage concealed problems:

Postwar shortages resulted in intense competition over materials, equipment, and labor between managers working across Moscow’s different construction sites. Building materials often arrived late or not at all, and construction equipment and gear were in short supply. Managers at all skyscrapers sites complained about a shortage of skilled workers5

Limitations in the conditions were obvious. Overcrowding in dormitories was commonplace. Internal Party reports noted

…workers’ housing was not only lacking mass-political activities and red [political] corners; living conditions in the material sense were abysmal6

Completion of the Seven Sisters coincided with the death of Stalin, soon followed by the era of the Great Thaw and de-Stalinisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. The untrammelled power and stylistic appropriation of the past were deemed indicative of the flaws of Stalin’s reign.

When Khrushchev spoke on the final day of the Builders’ Conference [in 1954], he called for greater efficiency in construction, increased use of industrialized and prefabricated materials, and an end to unnecessary decorations and embellishments in design that, as he stated, caused “unnecessary expenditures7

According to the new guard, Stalinism’s stylistic anachronism betokened a system-wide culture of deception. In terms of financial and human costs, monumentalism was indicative of inhumane excess that could no longer be supported.

Administrators and architects fell from favour but the undeniably impressive aspects of the project appealed to Communist regimes elsewhere. Soon structures typical of Stalinist Historicist architecture would spring up in the form of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, the Presidential Palace in Bucharest and buildings across the Eastern Bloc. 


A third book joins the space between the VKhUTEMAS and the Stalinist years, then brings the story up the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 seeks to place Soviet furniture, clothing, interior design and architecture in a continuum that integrates them within the ideals and reality of the USSR over almost its entire existence. Soviet design is relatively little known compared to other Modernist movements such as Secession, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Minimalism and Italian and Scandinavian Modernism. The reasons are that the USSR exported relatively little and (aside from political sympathetic states) it had little cultural and technological exchange with other states.

Due to its relative isolation, the USSR had to produce everything. This was a precursor to the creation of a new rational world suitable for Soviet Man, then, later, independence demonstrated the viability of self-sufficiency of the Communism-in-one-country doctrine. Soviet Design includes everything from teacups to underground stations. As with all areas of life in the USSR, the 1920s were full of bold experimentation and radical ideas.

Space was at a premium, so efficiency was prioritised. The drive to make furniture compact and multifunctional chimed with reappraisals of ways of living. Leading designer and theorist El Lissitzky declared,

Salons, halls, boudoirs, living-rooms […] everything has been swept away – only the bare living space is left8

New Soviet furniture could be folded away, rotated or reversed for different functions. Telyakovsky’s combination unit had a bookcase, desk and bed. Built-in storage was designed for new-build apartments. Soviet engineer-designers made a virtue of the limitations imposed by circumstances and, in doing so, their labours turned New Soviet Man’s domestic environment into something between factory cell, submarine berth and space-flight module.  

Soviet designs could be painfully uncompromising, with straight lines and flat planes more suited to showroom than living room – certainly not suited to human anatomy. Due to the severe restrictions (technical, material, financial, bureaucratic and political) many designs never went beyond drawing or prototype stage. Mismanagement, delays and lack of competition led to chronic shortages and compromises in all areas of Soviet life. Production targets were arbitrary and goods were often defective. Designers rarely saw their designs reach production in the quality they stipulated.

The earliest phase produced some attractive designs. A teacup and saucer from 1923 have spare geometric Suprematist forms on a white ceramic ground, crisp, dainty and assertively ant-traditional. The designer was Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a student of Malevich and one of the outstanding figures in Soviet ceramics. (Suetin designed Malevich’s coffin.) Some outstanding examples of suites or interiors were produced for public expositions.

The design of furniture models (in many cases never realized) taking their inspiration from Constructivist forms effectively ceased after 19349

By 1932, Stalinist policies decreed a return to order and convention – to a degree. Expressions of physical culture would become heavier, grander, more voluminous; traditional materials and forms would be adopted, although decoration would never become too elaborate. To give an impression of stability and continuity, the fine and applied arts would turn their backs upon “bourgeois formalism” of Modernism that distanced the proletariat from the products of their society.

This Historicism is evident in the submitted designs – reproduced in the book – of the Palace of the Soviets. Cinemas, theatres, department stores, hotels and other important spaces evoked the grandeur of the Romanov Empire period, complete with chandeliers, marble facing and dark lacquered-wood panelling. Rather than being challenged by Functionalist surroundings that asserted the dawn of a new age, Soviet citizens in the 1940s would be embraced by the stifling pomp of the belle époque, made available to all, not just the (now liquidated) capitalist class.    

Reverse engineering and copying formed part of Soviet design. The most notable example was the adoption of Art Deco for architecture, furniture and Metro stations. The use of crisp lines, simple forms, tubular metal supports and absence of ornamentation provided a counterpoint to the rival Stalinist Historicism. This Art Deco can be found in a showpiece ship that was used to ferry passengers to holiday resorts on the Black Sea.

All Union Competition entries, 1972 – from Soviet Design

Post-war reconstruction, advances in technology and the death of Stalin allowed moderate Modernist designs to reach production stage and dominate interiors from the late 1950s onwards. There was popular demand for domestic furniture that was informal and comfortable. We see curvilinear metal tubing, foam padding, slimline design and lightweight construction become commonplace – many of the products copied from Western examples. Electrical appliances became affordable. The communal canteens demanded by the communitarian ideals of the Revolutionary era – which had never been popular in domestic habitations – were abandoned in favour of fitted kitchens.

Significantly, the advent of the Eastern Bloc brought international trade on a large scale for the first time in Soviet history. Apparently, the USSR imported many interior fittings from Czechoslovakia. Despite advances, however, Soviet manufacturers were unresponsive to public demand, often unwilling to modify inferior designs. Lacking competition and the profit motive, manufacturing was deeply inefficient.

Soviet Design does much to familiarise readers with the origins, principles, limitations and unique circumstances that led to the designs produced in the USSR. The many large illustrations, explanatory narrative and concise biographies of major figures will make this book a primary introduction to one of the most neglected fields of design.

  1. Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930, p40 []
  2. Bokov, ibid, p132 []
  3. Bokov, ibid., p40 []
  4. Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital , p81 []
  5. Zubovich, ibid. , p150 []
  6. Zubovich, ibid., p154)

    Unrealistically high targets (motivated by arbitrary statistical ambition) pushed workers to breaking point. As with the pre-war metro construction, accidents were frequent. Pay was so low that there was even labour unrest. What was not made clear in the press was the amount of forced labour used. By 1950, 8,000 prisoners (including foreign nationals) were working on the Seven Sisters in zones segregated from the population and the (nominally) free workers.

    The buildings were well-appointed and the décor restrained. The public spaces at the lower levels were Historicist, pastiching Romanov-era state buildings, replete with marble cladding and columns. The Party elite scrambled to petition high officials to secure apartments. As it was, the number of apartments did not materially affect the housing crisis in the city. Although more generous than average Moscow apartments, the tower-block apartments were not large, especially when occupied by multi-person households.

    At the very moment Moscow’s skyscrapers were completed in the mid-1950s, they became symbols of Stalinist “excess” ((Zubovich, ibid., p5 []

  7. Zubovich, ibid., p201 []
  8. 1926. Quoted, p74, Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 []
  9. Krasnyanskaya, Semenov, ibid., p174 []

Medical notes from underground

“Theodore Dalrymple”, anatomist of modernity (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
MARK GULLICK profiles the cultural commentator THEODORE DALRYMPLE

The English writer Theodore Dalrymple, whose real name is Dr. Anthony Daniels, spent much of his professional career as a hospital and prison psychiatrist. He has also written many books on a variety of subjects, and travelled the world extensively.

But, even given the breadth of Dr. Daniels’s voracious reading and the length of his journeying, his most memorable books report back from a place far bleaker than the many and often pitiful countries he has visited. These are the books and essays which deal with his experiences among Britain’s ‘underclass’, and his ruminations as to why these unfortunates are kept in their place by a society which is, by global standards, extremely wealthy. These are the writings I will concentrate on here.

To read Dalrymple’s accounts of the inhabitants of the prisons, hospitals and sink estates where he ministered to them is to enter a type of hell, but what is most frightening is not any inscription above the gate reading ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, but the simple four numerals at the end of many of the most appalling essays. For example, ‘1995’ and earlier. Does anyone believe things have improved in the quarter century since the good doctor painted his Bosch-like visions of Britain?

One of the most apparent aspects of Dalrymple’s talent is his ability to take the pulse of his own culture, and he is never more accurate in his many observations than when writing about his fellow Britons:

Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture, vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now – and the old modesty is scorned

Anything Goes

Although it is Dr. Daniels’s literary avatar Theodore Dalrymple (a pen-name which puts me in mind of some Dickensian notary public) who publishes these diagnoses of country, people, political regime, or seismic cultural shift, it is the doctor who really does know best. He is a hyper-realist and draws on professional experience, not on social theories that happen to be de rigueur, and he has the ability to bring analytical forensic skills as much to a society, culture or woeful institution as he would be to the body or mind of a patient.

The National Health Service (NHS) in particular presents unfavourable symptoms. There are many hustlers and grifters who have exploited Britain’s much-lauded health service for their own advancement and comfort, and at whom Dalrymple often takes aim:

Britain now has more educational bureaucrats than teachers, as well as more health-service administrators than hospital beds

Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

This in itself is a scandal and, having worked for the NHS in four different capacities myself, I can vouch for Dalrymple’s depiction of “a British bureaucratic zombie, for whom work is a painful interruption of entertainment” (If Symptoms Persist).

Dr. Daniels clearly sports the livery of old-fashioned Conservatism, which naturally earns him sneers and smears from the bien pensant class, displaying as they must their ‘woke’ insignia with misplaced pride. Dr. Daniels is everything ‘woke’ is not. He clearly feels for the British ‘underclass’, but is able both to state plainly that “I delighted in what my patients said” (Not with a Bang but with a Whimper), and to render them in miniature with merciless accuracy:

More flagrant injustices by far, worse physical conditions, greater exposure to violence, were of course to be encountered elsewhere: But for sheer apathy, for spiritual, emotional, educational and cultural nihilism and vacuity, you must go to an English slum

If Symptoms Persist

Anthony Malcolm Daniels was born in 1949 in London’s fashionable Kensington. Thus, he began his life in a recently bombed city in a district of which, the last time I visited it five years ago, seemed still to be a building site in perpetuity, but for more modern reasons of appreciating the value of property rather than rebuilding one of civilisation’s great conurbations.

His father, we are informed in an essay on the poverty of English post-war architecture, was a communist (and Dalrymple will have much to say on the subject of communism) and despised Victorian art and architecture, to the extent of destroying some quite valuable paintings from that era which he felt were taking up loft space. This may or may not be a Freudian moment which directed the course of Daniels Junior’s future beliefs. We will never know; Daniels is scathingly dismissive of Freud.

In 1980, Daniels, writing as ‘Theodore Dalrymple’, so impressed the editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, that he began a regular column in that magazine on the strength of unsolicited submissions, a breaking of precedent by Mr. Moore. There followed a string of books – as well as regular writings in various periodicals online and off – which were mostly received with discreet critical approval without the usual attendant razzmatazz of press and television appearances. Dalrymple has always swum against the stream of what is now called the ‘narrative’, a sort of media-instituted and pre-fabricated substitute for the truth, and his profile in the mainstream media is concomitantly rather sparse.

For the British, at least, one of the most staggering allegations Dalrymple makes is that social services have absolutely no intention of helping those under their care. The NHS – at least at the level of management – are not overly interested in sick and injured people or their recovery, teachers are actively opposed to well-tried educational methods on ideological grounds, and the police would look askance at anyone suggesting they went out preventing crime by their presence as they used to do.

An example – from many candidates – concerns the British police. The ‘TICs’ mentioned here are ‘Taken into Considerations’, or crimes the defendant admits to in order to lessen the likely sentence for his present misdemeanour. A defence counsel will use these playing cards blatantly and the police will be all the more grateful for that, and for the following reason;

TICs are the means, roughly speaking, by which known criminals admit to offences they didn’t do, in order for the police to clear up crimes they can’t solve

Life at the Bottom

Criminals in one area tend to know each other, and these TICs serve as a kind of barter system. Added to this, the criminal serves less time for his act, and possibly none at all, while the police delight their masters by delivering improved statistics. Everyone, as they used to say at British fairgrounds, is a winner.

This wholly twisted version of policing is typical of Dalrymple’s dealings with the public sector in Britain, although many of his interactions provoke laughter as much as despair. Dalrymple is a comic writer in that he presents a lacklustre reality and invites the reader to find it grimly funny – Alan Bennett does something similar – while always gently reminding us that if we do find ourselves sniggering at this shabby round-dance of foolishness and ignorance, our laughter is very much in the dark, and we, like him, are whistling past the graveyard.

Although Dalrymple is an intellectual by definition, and one who indeed finds much compensatory delight in his studies of literature, we are fully aware of his ingrained attitude toward the intellectual class, “whose livelihood depends on ceaseless carping”. We recall Thomas Sowell, among others, when Dalrymple writes that:

[M]ost of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia

Life at the Bottom

It is no longer government that threatens social cohesion and culture, he writes, but “the universities and the intellectuals, or semi-intellectuals, that they turn out” (ibid).

Dalrymple is less an intellectual than a professional with both the life experience and the depth of reading to make him a perfectly capable philosopher. Indeed, he gives one of the finest mission statements for philosophy (my own subject) that I have come across:

The philosopher is an archaeologist of knowledge, rather than a builder of it: he strips away the misconceptions that have accreted since birth

In Praise of Prejudice

This definition is in bold contradistinction to the destructive, moth-like work of the intellectual, and bad ideas, when their time comes, can only lead to what modern sociologists term ‘bad outcomes’. One more than others.

Outside of the mainstream media, the dread realisation is taking place that the West is undergoing what I call ‘Sovietisation’ (although I am sure I am not the first to coin the phrase). It can scarcely be said that Britain, as one of the most egregious examples, is moving away from rather than towards the type of societal control around which the communist apparatus was constructed.

Writing from experience, Dalrymple has made many points concerning communism, but they have as their centre of gravity the same essential statement; the point of lying to the people, a practice inherent in the communist system, is not to persuade the populace of the truth of what is being said, but to humiliate them in the realisation that they must believe or, in many cases, die. This summation comes from The Wilder Shores of Marx:

Apart from the massacres, deaths and famines for which communism was responsible, the worst thing about the system was the official lying: that is to say the lying in which everyone was forced to take part, by repetition, assent or failure to contradict

Dalrymple still writes for several online magazines, and the closest he has to a mantra follows him there:

In my study of Communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate…

Interview with FrontPage Magazine

And, along the same lines: “[T]he purpose of political correctness is not to enunciate truth but to exercise power” (‘Rigid Diversity’, Taki’s Magazine).

A modern refusenik, then, but if Dalrymple is a contrarian, that should be placed in context. The British media has a rather cunning way of appearing to be in touch by occasionally feinting a blow at the clumsily named cultural phenomenon known as ‘political correctness’ (a chrysalis whose emerging creature is ‘woke’). But this is mere nose-thumbing for effect, and there is another aspect of modern cultural dysfunction that is sacred for the media – victimhood.

It is axiomatic for the British media class that, in a dreary revival of Marx’s misplaced dictum in The Communist Manifesto, everything must be viewed through the (distorting) lens of class conflict, and that battle to be further parsed into the constant war of oppressor and oppressed. This now has its new identity as racial/social justice. This is succinctly summed up by Dalrymple in his collection Farewell Fear. The author is describing the appeal of conversion to Islam to a woman named Lauren Booth, half-sister-in-law to ex-British Prime minister Tony Blair. Ms. Booth displayed, writes Dalrymple,

…the very characteristic thirst of modern people who have lived privileged lives for the safe psychological haven of victim status

Just as Dr. Johnson was of the opinion that patriotism (or the pretense of patriotism) was the last refuge of the scoundrel, now another doctor indicates that victimhood is the first refuge of scoundrels we must now call ‘woke’.

Here we are at the heart of cultural darkness, the blind spot that seems to affect Western governments. If whole generations of the ‘underclass’, along with ethnic minorities, and those of one non-heterosexual persuasion or another, are constantly told that they are neither culpable for their actions or, perhaps, in need of psychological care, and also that they are and have been somehow repressed by a supposedly dominant ethnic group, they will gladly accept the nomination.

And as victimhood is offered freely and for free, courtesy of the state in Britain, so too its status seems to absolve the victims of responsibility. Dalrymple makes a comparison between African countries (specifically Tanzania and Nigeria) and Great Britain:

Yet nothing I saw [in Africa] – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England

Life at the Bottom

You will emerge from the writings of Theodore Dalrymple enlightened and entertained, but also disgusted and with a stain on your soul, which admittedly doesn’t sound like an endorsement. It is a stain no soap could ever wash away – disgust with the weakness of people who could be helped by even a small show of strength on their part, disgust with the frankly wicked waste of money spent in the callow belief that it is a god who will answer the petition of prayer and provide for the meek and lowly, and disgust for the level to which British culture has been allowed, and even intentionally manipulated – to sink. Above all, you will feel a searing disgust with those ‘in charge’, those in well-remunerated positions of power who believe they are doing good when what they are in fact doing is misusing money to salve their negligible consciences and inflated egos, as well as adhere to political dogma which would disgrace a poor African nation, what Dalrymple calls “the baleful influence of mistaken ideas”.

The collected works of Theodore Dalrymple, advised as he is by his éminence grise, Dr. Anthony Daniels, should be read by every social worker and politician, every police officer and NHS manager, every journalist and every teacher in Great Britain, but of course they will not. Quite the opposite. They will be cast into the fire so that those people – many of whom Dalrymple describes as performing “makework” jobs – can return to the state-funded, well-sucked thumb of Critical Race Theory, or whatever name it has this month. As the good doctor himself quotes more than once from T S Eliot, “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.


Dr. Daniels was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for The Brazen Head…

BH: Is there any hope for the British public sector?

AD:  There are three main problems, it seems to me. First is centralisation. Second is the size and the number of the tasks it is expected to perform. The third is its corruption – moral, intellectual and increasingly financial. They are interconnected. In most cases, people have little idea what the purpose of their organisation is, and goals have been obscured by ideology and political entrepreneurs. As far as financial corruption, I am afraid it was Mrs. Thatcher who started the ball rolling. It is much worse than the offering of money under the table. Financial corruption has been legalised. 

BH: Do you see in the response of Western governments to the COVID pandemic reason and measure, or have they used it for a more sinister accumulation of power?

AD: I have some sympathy with governments that clearly had to do something. It is rarely, however, that governments relinquish powers willingly that they have taken in emergencies. Therefore, the return to the status quo ante will be difficult – and it wasn’t so very splendid to begin with.

BH: Do you see what I have called a ‘Sovietisation’ of the UK?

AD: I definitely see a Sovietisation of Britain – but not only of Britain. People are now afraid not only to voice opinions in public but (what is worse) not to subscribe publicly to opinions that they do not hold. They thereby lose their probity and therefore their locus standi to oppose the grossest absurdity and violation of common sense. As for Soviet-style langue de bois, it is everywhere: you can hear it uttered even in private. 

BH: I gather that you spend most if not all of your time in France. Do you ever feel a prophet without honour in your own land?

AD: I do not feel a prophet without honour because I do not feel a prophet. I often wonder whether I’m exaggerating things, whether I am too gloomy because of my personal experience, because gloom is easier to write about, at least interestingly, than success. I often ask myself how seriously people should take me, and I have no definitive answer, and certainly no tablets of stone to bring down from any mountain.