I can remember when “modern” people in the 1930s were still saying things like “We’re living in the 20th century now, you know,” as a justification for some folly such as pulling down their Victorian town hall. I learnt at an early age that people who use such arguments have no sense of history. When in the year 2000 people started telling me that we were in a new millennium now, I realised how old-fashioned modernism is.
Yesterday there was a new example of that tendency in an interview given to The Sunday Telegraph by Aaqil Ahmed, the “Head of Religion” at the BBC. He is not the head of my religion, I should add, because that person lives in Rome and not in Portland Place.
Mr Ahmed said that “it’s very easy to live in the past but we live in the present . . . we’re clear that we know what we’re doing and we will stick to that”. I am perfectly aware myself of the innate arrogance of the BBC, of which I was vice-chairman for five frustrating years in the 1980s, but I cannot remember an equally self-satisfied remark since my unreconstructed neighbour at a groaning BBC lunch table observed: “I’m only an engineer so you’d expect me to be a chauvinist.” Mr Ahmed is “only” the Head of Religion, so perhaps one should expect him to be a naive modernist.
Even so, it seems an odd thing to say, or even to think. I would very much like to live in the past, but I would not say it is easy. The past I would most wish to live in is, to a large extent, the past of philosophy and faith, not so much the past, admirable though that is, of Turner and Wagner.
Religion is based on history, including Islam, the religion to which Mr Ahmed belongs. His religion was founded by Muhammad, who was born at Mecca in or around the year AD570. In about 610, he started to receive revelations that were written down and became the Koran. These are historic events. Mr Ahmed went on to accuse the Church of England of “living in the past”. If only it could.
One has to take this issue seriously, because secular modernism has become one of the main threats to all religions. The recent debates about Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill turned on the contradiction between Christian beliefs and the minister’s unabashed modernism.
What I do not understand is why the BBC did not choose its head of religion from the majority English church, which is plainly the Church of England. Whatever other virtues Mr Ahmed may have, that would have been more democratic and professional.
What a swell stick insect
I can only speculate about the motivations of the anonymous purchaser who paid the record price of £65 million for Giacometti’sL’Homme Qui Marche I at Sotheby’s last week. Although £65 million is not as large a sum of money as it used to be, it is still quite imposing, big enough to buy 10,000 acres of English farmland, a penthouse flat in Knightsbridge or about 100,000 ounces of gold. Who wouldn’t prefer the land?
The Giacometti may have been bought for purely aesthetic reasons. Perhaps some billionaire with a taste for modernist stick insects was walking along Bond Street and only dropped into Sotheby’s for a cup of coffee. He may have come out saying: “Earth has not anything to show more fair than the Giacometti.”
Perhaps a trophy wife, or even more likely, a trophy widow, decided that the Giacometti would be just the statue to complete the furnishings of the apartment on Park Avenue. “Gee, honey,” she might have said, “that sure is a swell stick insect.”
Yet if it was not a coup de foudre, what other reason could there have been? I suppose it could have been bought as a status symbol, yet I am not convinced that keeping up with the Joneses applies to the world of Giacomettis and billionaires. If one already had the yacht and private jet, one might not be too impressed if the billionaire next door bought a Giacometti; £65 million cannot be a very impressive sum to other billionaires. You cannot out-Croesus Croesus.
I am forced to the gloomier conclusion that the motive for buying the Giacometti might have been purely financial. When I was first in the US, there were very generous tax benefits in presenting works of art to colleges or museums. The tax relief was big enough to give the donor a profit, plus the benefit of being “honoured in the community”. The need to take one’s accountant to Sotheby’s before deciding to bid on a work of art must be rather restricting.
It’ll be a hung Parliament
For some months I have been pointing to the stable long-term pattern of the opinion polls. Things can change, but I believe this is the best evidence we have of the likely outcome of a general election. Since last March, the polls have put the Conservatives near 40, Labour 30, and the Liberal Democrats at 20. Yesterday the latest ICM survey was very close to this forecast. If the election did produce a 40-30-20 result, the division of seats might be Conservatives 319; Labour 247; Lib Dem 54. The Tories would form the next government, but would be six seats short of an overall majority.