Saturday 27 April 2019

Shakespeare Within The Abbey

King Edward III (1312-77)
(in the National Portrait Gallery)

As a birthday treat, an old university friend gave me two tickets to a special event, "Shakespeare within the Abbey", organised by actor/director Mark Rylance and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. I wasn't quite sure what to expect: if I'm honest, it had all the makings of a horribly embarrassing theatrical fiasco.
Mark Rylance and Shakespeare’s Globe are thrilled to bring a company of 22 actors to Westminster Abbey for a unique event to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.

This unseated production invites you to roam the Abbey. As you explore, a beautiful and unexpected world unfolds in this sacred space. Consider the war-weary soldier or the hapless lover in the nave; behold a monarch in the transept or sit awhile in the pews and overhear a prayer or sonnet.

Audiences will experience fleeting, contemplative and intimate encounters with Shakespeare’s drama, poetry, dance and song beneath the soaring ribs of the magnificent Westminster Abbey.
I mean, it does sound a bit grim, doesn't it: an audience wandering freely about within Westminster Abbey, having random encounters with actors spouting bits of Shakespeare, completely out of context and without the comforting insulation of that "fourth wall". Hmm... I did seriously contemplate saying, thanks but, sorry, I was planning on having a bath that night. Nonetheless, my partner and I did meet up with that old university friend and his partner, yet another old university friend, and we boldly queued in the Cloisters, secure in the knowledge it would only last an hour and a bit, anyway.

As it turned out, it was brilliant. At least, it was once you had tuned in to the nature of the "experience". I was slightly thrown, at first, when approached by an actor in period costume, who grabbed my arm, gazed intently into my eyes, and began to recite Ophelia's words describing her recent encounter with the "mad" Hamlet. Yikes! I mean, I might have looked like Polonius, but I didn't have his half of the script. All I could do was nod sympathetically at her plight, and harumph in what I hoped was a suitably Elizabethan manner. It was a bizarrely trippy moment, like one of those dreams where you have lost all agency, and yet something unknown and undeclared is clearly expected of you. It was a relief when she drifted off, and I could joke that I hadn't realised we'd be expected to have done our homework.

Which, of course, we weren't. Part of the fun was working out what play we were encountering now, round the next corner. Isn't that Measure for Measure? No, Winter's Tale, I think... I was very impressed by the actors' ability to stay so intensely in character, despite directly addressing a bunch of folk in sensible outdoor clothes who were, in the main, determined not to be dragged through the fourth wall that was being so insistently broken down. Fourth wall? There weren't any walls! In a side chapel I found myself sitting next to yet another distraughtly soliloquising woman – I'm not entirely sure who, and this time dressed in a WW2 ATS uniform – but by then I had freed myself from any urge to say, "There, there, dear, don't go upsetting yourself: have you considered counselling?" Wisely, and despite the closeness of some of these encounters of the Bard kind, there was clearly no expectation of (or, I imagine, wish for) audience participation.

At the end of our session (the first of just two) we were all somehow shepherded into a cluster around a Capulet vs. Montague face-off, like a playground fight, which had been recast as a rap battle by the Intermission Youth Ensemble that pulled in all sorts of Shakespearean references, but which was eventually broken up by Rylance and the other grown-ups, and ended in a rather impressive group song of reconciliation. The Abbey doors opened, and out we trooped.

To be honest, though, the real star was the Abbey itself. I'd never been in there before, and it is simply incredible. I suspect we had greater access to every nook and cranny than everyday tourists do, and it was worth taking advantage of, despite a firm "no photography" rule. Royal tombs, elaborate memorials, Poets' Corner (which is way bigger than I'd imagined), amazing ecclesiastical architecture... The place is huge and, despite being stuffed end to end with these historical keepsakes and leftovers is still majestically cavernous, which does make it a good venue to hold a Big Do like a coronation every once in a while. I suppose it's intended to be a sort of national parish church and village hall, even if those of us with a Nonconformist heritage will never feel entirely at ease surrounded by such High Anglican grandeur. In fact, now I come to think of it, I have spent quite a lot of time nearby: in my role as a trades union activist at national meetings and rallies in the building just across the road, the Methodist Central Hall.

Edward (The Black Prince) 1330-76
(in the National Portrait Gallery)

Tuesday 23 April 2019

The Questing Vole

The Prof and I have been visiting Mid-Wales at Easter, now, for over 40 years. Which is pretty much as long as we have known each other. Two children, several mortgages, and a lifetime of ups and downs later, this annual trip has been a constant, one which started simply because her parents owned a cottage up a lane just outside Presteigne in the Welsh Borders, which offered us a cheap break from our working lives in Bristol. I say "cheap": I can't imagine anyone would ever have paid to stay in the place. Tucked in a damp hollow next to a stream, it had slate floors set directly into the ground, and no heating other than a conventional fireplace and a couple of two-bar electric heaters. One of the first tasks on opening the place up, even in summer, was to prop up the mattress on the bed and steam off the worst of the damp with one of the heaters. It felt rather like camping in a poorly-chosen spot in a large, less than weatherproof tent, where the incessant babble of the stream through the night merely served to emphasise the clamminess of the bedding.

The whole area was seriously underdeveloped, then, and (rather like our visits to Northern Spain and the Basque Country in the years after Franco's death) it felt like going back in time, to the 1930s at least, and occasionally the 19th century. In the high streets of the larger towns you could still buy the sort of clothes worn by the extras in any period drama set between 1920 and 1950, and the junk shops were full of the wonderful Victorian and Edwardian bric-a-brac of farmhouse clearances.  Small accidents of geography have meant that, in the subsequent years, some valleys have thrived, while others have remained in the shadow of subsistence, abandonment, and dereliction. Naturally, the prospect of bargain-basement rural seclusion has attracted several waves of those seeking an alternative lifestyle, out of the censorious eye of "straight" society, and one constant over the years has been the reliable presence of wholefood shops and craft outlets for the makers of lumpy, crusty pots and improbable jewellery.

Anyway, the idea of constant return reminded me of a little story that happened in that Presteigne cottage some time around 1978. One Friday night we were sitting by the fire – just companionably reading, drinking, and smoking, as we both did in those days – when we noticed something odd. A very small creature, a vole of some kind, was making its way across the slate floor, presumably having entered the room beneath the door that led to the kitchen and the back door, and was headed, between our two chairs, towards the opposite door that led to the hallway and the front door. It seemed completely oblivious to our presence. Strange! Then, the next night, exactly the same thing happened: same time, same creature, same route, same indifference to our presence. We had to head back to Bristol the next day, but enjoyed the supposition that, that night and probably every night, the vole was making its round through the house in complete darkness, like a miniature security guard, gobbling up the odd beetle or slug on its way. The bold (or daft) little thing wasn't going to let unexpected changes of circumstance – like two enormous creatures, a blazing fire, or unaccustomed illumination by electric light – get in the way of its routine. A vole's gotta do what a vole's gotta do.

Which is a metaphor for something, I'm sure, but have never quite decided what.

Oh, and I nearly forgot:
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still: three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived:
  For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
  Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
Sonnet 104
(Known to some as the "Carmen Miranda sonnet", because of that bizarre second line)
¡Feliz cumpleaños, señor Shakespeare!

Sunday 21 April 2019


One of the curious things about entering your senior years is the way you start to become invisible. To the young, in particular, you are now simply part of the oppressive grey mass from which they feel the need to differentiate themselves. No matter what tribal affiliations you may have, whatever your politics might be, however productive and active you remain, from the outside you're just another old geezer with thinning hair, a weight problem, and drab clothes from one chain-store beneath a sensible coat from another. Those who were once striking or beautiful probably feel this as a tragic loss; for the rest of us, well, in some ways it comes as a relief and a liberation. A few oldsters, of course, do find a late style that marks them out, or cling on to some of their youthful flamboyance, but the signs have become muddled and unreadable, as arcane and as dated as college scarves or regimental ties: so were you a teddy-punk or a heavy-metal hippie, grandad? And, frankly, as fashion accessories, that hearing aid and those bifocal specs dangling round your neck were never going to be a good look. Sure, you may have been deafened by Hawkwind and worn out your eyes reading Foucault late into the night, but nobody cares. I said NOBODY CARES, you deaf old git.

I felt this strongly when I was in London last week. I was there to meet up with my partner at a John Ruskin exhibition at Two Temple Place, and both on the way from and back to Waterloo station I mingled with the Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge. Two more different crowds it would be hard to imagine: the eco-warriors, self-consciously ragged and homespun, and excited to be at the leading edge and media focus of an important moment; and the grey-haired art tourists, silently moving from exhibit to exhibit in a billionaire's Palace of Art, bent over the relics of a former age's important moment. Two different tribes, and yet both mine; accepted and invisible in both. For a photographer, of course, this is a very welcome gift. Don't mind me, people, just carry on doing what you're doing...

The Ruskin show was rather dull, though, I thought. It merely served to emphasise that Ruskin himself, competent though he was, was not a great artist. What he was, of course, was a radical and important thinker and writer about art, society, industry and architecture, and the way aesthetics could or should link them all into a seamless polity of mutual respect and equal distribution, at a time when few could see the nature of the disastrous wrong turns and poor choices that were being made, the consequences of which we are living with now. Dipping into his writings since, I realise I'd forgotten how radical he was. Never mind his paintings of leaves and seaweed: you can more or less stick a pin in his encyclopaedic written work to come up with something that, disentangled from its Victorian locutions, still seems relevant today. For example:
Primarily, which is very notable and curious, I observe that men of business rarely know the meaning of the word 'rich'. At least, if they know, they do not in their reasoning allow for the fact, that it is a relative word, implying its opposite 'poor' as positively as the word 'north' implies its opposite 'south'. Men nearly always speak and write as if riches were absolute, and it were possible, by following certain scientific precepts, for everybody to be rich. Whereas riches are a power like that electricity, acting only through inequalities or negations of itself. The force of the guinea you have in your pockets depends wholly on the default of a guinea in your neighbour's pocket. If he did not want it, it would be of no use to you; the degree of power it possesses depends accurately upon the need or desire he has for it,— and the art of making yourself rich, in the ordinary mercantile economist's sense, is therefore equally and necessarily the art of keeping your neighbour poor.
Unto This Last
But, whatever links there may be between the world of Ruskin the Victorian writer and that of the protesters just down the road, I didn't get any sense of that essential radicalism from the exhibition, and least of all from its visitors. They were the Usual Suspects, the same baffled souls you find at so many exhibitions, seemingly looking for something in a framed picture or a display case that has somehow eluded or been taken from them in the world outside. I may look like one of them, I thought, but I still want to feel like those kids on the bridge, psyched up enough to forget about food, awake enough to do without sleep, and certain enough in the justice of a cause to be willingly carted away by the police, only to return later the same day, and do it all over again. They will remember these days into their own grey age.

I may share the convictions, however, but in my new incarnation as the Invisible Geezer I find I need regular meals, a comfortable bed (my back!), and – crucially – somewhere to pee at least once an hour. Plus, if I'm honest, I can also see the fatal flaw in the defiant, youthful narcissism of their activism, if only for the simple reason that I've been there, done that, myself. Activism is exciting; politics is boring. Real progress towards ambitious goals, I'm sure, will require enough of those grey-haired Usual Suspects, too, to be persuaded that what has eluded or been taken from them is something that can still be recovered, still be achieved, not by gazing upon some coloured marks on a piece of paper, but by demanding political change. That the game is not over; that invisibility is a reversible condition. Ruskin again:
All true opinions are living, and show their life by being capable of nourishment; therefore of change. But their change is that of a tree — not of a cloud.
Modern Painters

Thursday 18 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion

I was in London yesterday, so naturally gravitated to the Extinction Rebellion protest, which has closed Waterloo Bridge to traffic. It was a sensation situated somewhere between eery and exhilarating to stroll around on the tarmac amongst the encamped protesters, the temporarily installed trees and structures, and bemused-looking tourists. "Imagine a world without cars" was the clear message, underlined by the filthy air quality, which reduced that ever more unfamiliar and unlovely skyline to a blueish-grey sketch. I noticed most people were still keeping to the pavement, nonetheless, and I couldn't help but occasionally glance behind me to check for oncoming buses: I'm standing in the middle of the road on Waterloo Bridge! Ingrained instincts prevail, and it'll be a while until that imagining becomes a reality, I'm afraid.

There was something of a low-key festival atmosphere, with a stage, a skateboard ramp, and various other solid-looking facilities-cum-obstacles: someone had clearly put some time, thought, and money into this protest. Before the end of the afternoon, however, the police began to gather in greater numbers, and token arrests started to be made. This may seem an odd comment to make, but what struck me was how short some of the Met's coppers are now. I mean, I'm a strapping 5' 6", but some of those guys were shorter than me. Maybe they have a special Bantam Division to make eco-protesters seem more huge and threatening? It will be interesting to see how this pans out: the core protesters are perfectly serious about not budging. I imagine the police will be equally perfectly serious about getting the traffic flowing again.

Tuesday 16 April 2019

Sweet White Poison

Unplugged flute tooter, Powis Castle

I was pretty much off-grid last week, in a cottage without wi-fi, situated in a part of Mid-Wales where the erratic appearance of a two-bar phone signal is an Event. From a creative point-of-view it's something I should probably do more often. Like the boredom of childhood in the 1960s, it's a great stimulus to getting out and doing stuff during the day and also, like the computer- and phone-free nights of my youth, no impediment to just sitting around and thinking about stuff. I had some good ideas for more work that may or may not bear fruit in the coming months.

Sitting around idly one evening, a random, amusing thought that struck me was the hypocrisy of the Tate Gallery deciding to sever its ties with the "tainted" cash of the Sackler family. If you haven't been following this saga, it goes something like this:

Once upon a time, in the days before accumulating riches beyond the dreams of most small countries became a conscience-free competitive sport, the embarrassingly wealthy would seek to avert the all-seeing eyes of envy and equitable redistribution by doing Conspicuous Good Works. Institutions such as libraries, galleries, museums, and universities would bear the names of the wealthy, philanthropic families that had paid for them to be built, filled, and staffed. Later, other wealthy benefactors might pay for a new extension, endow a fund that enabled more stuff to be bought, or even donate their personal collections of stuff (generally as a tax dodge, it's true, and usually with the stipulation that the family name be attached in perpetuity). The Sackler family are one such: they made piles of money from pharmaceuticals, trading under the name Purdue, and over the years have funded many "Sackler Wings" and the like around the world.

However, one product associated with Purdue (and thus the Sacklers, even if indirectly) is a notoriously addictive opioid painkiller called OxyContin. Uh oh! As everyone surely knows, there is an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse in the USA, with OxyContin as Exhibit A. It seems photographer Nan Goldin – who achieved notoriety and A-list success with her unblinking documentary photographs of her circle of friends, blithely mired in New York's heroin, gay, and drag subcultures – had become addicted to OxyContin herself, and decided to launch a campaign to encourage the art world to reject Sackler money because, well, OxyContin, yeah? Which might seem just a little hypocritical, given the nature of her career launchpad (street heroin = romantically decadent; prescription painkillers = work of the devil). But one outcome of this campaign has been the cutting of ties with the Sacklers' sacks of "tainted" cash by the Tate Gallery in London, as little better than suitcases of grubby notes from the Medellín Cartel.

Phew, got there, at last! So, anyway, I had this amusing thought: Tate - Sackler - Goldin - hypocrisy - heh. Why? Because the Tate family, of course, had made their fortune from pushing sugar (though not, it appears, from exploiting Caribbean slavery). There had to be a blog post there, surely? But it seems Private Eye (a fortnightly satirical magazine of long standing, M'lud [1]) had beaten me to it, and done a far better job. I quote:
As the controversy over unethical arts funding continues, the Sackler Trust today announced that they want nothing to do with any gallery bearing the name of the discredited sugar magnate, Henry Tate.
  Said a Sackler spokesman, "Sugar has done irreparable harm to society, causing obesity, tooth decay and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes. Tate & Lyle is synonymous with this addictive white substance which has ruined so many lives."
  She continued, "Tate sullies the good philanthropic name of the Sackler family and this connection with the evil sugar trade is proving an unwelcome distraction from our hugely popular opioids."
Private Eye 1493, 5 -18 April 2019
So, leave satirical commentary to the professionals, I say.

But, FFS, you galleries, take whatever money you're offered, and stop being so prissy and faux-PC about it: all extreme wealth is "tainted", one way or another, from the Catholic Church and the Medicis on down. The patrons of art are always the privileged oppressors or the pushers of product, aren't they? But if you really don't want the money, please pass my details on to that nice Mr. Sackler, and let him know that I'll happily change the name of this blog to "The Idiotic Sackler Hat", or whatever he wants. Although I will be wanting payment in cash, not kind...

Sugar-rush shepherdess, Powis Castle

1. It occurs to me that, as well as describing Private Eye, I may need to explain this conventional British joke format to overseas readers. An English judge is addressed by lawyers as "My lord", pronounced "M'lud". It is considered amusing that, typically, judges will be (or pretend to be) entirely ignorant of popular culture, for example asking "Who are the Beatles?" (Answer: "A popular beat combo, M'lud").

Sunday 14 April 2019

The Weather in Wales

We made our traditional annual Easter expedition to Radnorshire this last week. A little earlier than Easter proper, obviously, but we had left our booking a little late.  It had snowed heavily the week before and, thoughtfully, they saved a little for us. It's good to get your boots in some snow at least once a year, even if you have to walk a few miles and track it down to its hilltop lair.

Then it went wet and misty. Very wet and misty. A good day to visit the famous bookshops in Hay-on-Wye (where I found nothing worth buying, but did have a strange encounter with a brochure, which I'll probably describe later).

Then it cleared up. We had a few of those beautiful clear, cold, sunny spring days. Walking on top of the world!

By the end of the week, it was actually getting quite warm. Once you were out of the wind, that is, crouched down in the lee of a hill, and wearing a coat, hat, and two pairs of socks. If you have an interest in trilobite fossils, by the way, that quarry on the horizon is a good spot to look for them. Except that the owner has now understood this, fenced it off, and installed a rentable shepherd's hut on the premises.

Monday 8 April 2019


Driving along a main road in Southampton, my eye was caught by an enormous, illuminated poster for the latest comic superhero film, Shazam! In one of those revelatory, Proustian moments that would be hard to explain at a road traffic accident investigation, I was transfixed, transported, transformed, transmogrified into a boy who could fly. Shazam!

"Just say the word", read the poster's tagline, and I knew exactly what that meant, although I hadn't said or even thought the word for nearly sixty years. It was like the call of some secret society of which I had been an unwitting sleeper, and immediately conjured up a black and white image of a man flying, with arms thrust forward, and his short cloak rippling in the slipstream. Luckily, I remembered to brake as the traffic slowed, and not try to fly over the car in front.

Perhaps I should explain. When I was about eight years old – this would have been around 1961/1962 – my friends and I used to congregate on Saturday mornings in Shephall Community Centre, one of a number of such multi-purpose neighbourhood centres, not unlike parish halls, which the Council provided for the residents of our New Town. It was just across the road from our primary school, and felt like part of our civic entitlement as junior citizens of the People's Republic of Stevenage; just like the library or the swimming pool, a continuation of school by other means. It was where, a few years later, I would attend weekly judo classes, and it was where my activist-minded grandmother ran the local Over Sixties Club. Anyway, on Saturday mornings, a large room would be filled with rows of stacking chairs, and a screen and projector set up. For a small fee, you could watch, communally, a couple of cartoons and one of those film serials that for a decade or two occupied the slot that would soon be filled by solitary TV-watching. As the room darkened, and the projector started up, numbers would appear on the screen, and we would all join in a ritual count-down. TEN, NINE, EIGHT...

Our favourite serial was the one in which a teenager transformed into a flying superhero by declaiming the magic word, shazam! For years – at our school, anyway – you would see boys with raincoats secured around the neck only, zooming around the playground with arms extended, shouting "shazam!" as their dark-blue gabardine cloak trailed behind. Beyond that single, repeated image of a man flying, however, I found I could remember nothing about it. I assumed the original serial had also been called Shazam! and that the new film was somehow derived from it, but could find no reference to it either in the movie's online documentation or on the wider Web.

After a bit of hunting around, however, I discovered it had really been called The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Its Wikipedia page actually includes the serial's full first "chapter", which is hilarious to watch now, not least for the introductions to the characters, where the actors mug for the camera. The mild racism, orientalism, and general assortment of off-the-peg cliches out of which the storyline is constructed is just the standard fare of the time, and not a lot more sophisticated than an imaginative playground adventure brought to the screen, but with better props and scenery. I expect Steven Spielberg and George Lucas sat in some similar venues as small boys, absorbing the influences that would lead to Indiana Jones and Darth Vader.

I imagine anyone born after 1980 will find it hard to credit that this was the standard of entertainment children expected and enjoyed at that time. No doubt the new Shazam! is slick, full of smart and ironic dialogue, and – it goes without saying – jaw-dropping special effects. But I wonder if it will sink so deep into someone's subconscious that, in 60 years time, they will nearly crash their hovercar by glimpsing the word "shazam!" on some nearby holographic advert?

[N.B. I'm away at the moment, mainly off-grid in Mid-Wales. I'll probably wait to deal with any comments when I get back in a week or so.]

Wednesday 3 April 2019

Money Will Ruin Everything

Southampton City Centre

"We have more or less come to believe that our culture is a support system for commerce, whereas it should be the other way round". Words of wisdom, indeed, which I wrote down as soon as I read them. That's it, isn't it, in a nutshell? "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd" [1]. Pretty much everything that has gone wrong since the late 1970s is summarised in that one elegant sentence, I'd say. It's not by anyone famous, though, just something left as a comment on another photography-oriented blog (Photos and Stuff) by a guy who comments as (and may indeed be called) Robert Roaldi. But then, as any blogger will attest, the comments are often what make blogging worth the trouble.

This change in values has been particularly noticeable in higher education, and I've remarked on it numerous times in this blog. Here's a good example from 2010. Now, while there was plenty wrong with the old idea of a university as a sort of finishing school for a ruling elite – even when enlarged, post-1945, to include the top ten percent of the ability range (at least, as measured in exam-passes) – the new idea that a university is a credential factory for certifying nearly fifty percent of the population as "workplace ready" is a comparative disaster, especially when tied to commerce-oriented notions like "value for money", "market competition", and the rest of it. "Look, Vice-Chancellor, there are next to no jobs for Egyptologists, and no research grants to be had from Big Egyptology, so why the hell are we running a course in it? Especially when the postgraduate courses in Advanced PowerPoint Presentation are so desperate for more teaching space..." But the same story has been repeated across the public sector, with devastating results: theatres, libraries, museums, and galleries – not to mention fundamental public services like social work, hospitals, general practice surgeries, and the police – have all been forced to justify their existence in service to a "price of everything, value of nothing" regime.

One arena in which even the more unobservant members of the general public must surely have noticed this corruption by commerce is sport. Once upon a time in Britain, many sports teams, up to and including national level, would have comprised two distinct categories of member: "gentlemen" and "players". In other words, there were the amateurs of private means, able to live the "Corinthian" ideal – as still (sort of) embodied by the Olympics – and then there were the professionals: talented players, usually working-class men paid a wage for their services, or sometimes given "boot money" (not to be confused with Zoot Money).  No-one would want to return to that. Professionalised sport (if you're into sport, which I'm not) is doubtless a Good Thing; and no-one would want, either, to revive absurdities like the cap imposed on professional footballers' earnings until the 1960s. But: the relationship between sport and commerce is now completely out of balance, with star players earning ludicrous amounts of money simply because, at the top level, things like TV rights, sponsorship, and merchandise have been leveraged so hard that the money machine is now wedged permanently open, and cash simply cascades into the more popular sports, bringing with it the inevitable greed and corrupt inversion of values.

Consider the English Premier League in football. Could the fact that fewer than a quarter of regular Premier League players are eligible to play for England – because of the luring of the most talented players from every corner of the world by those huge salaries – possibly have anything to do with the national team's poor performance, internationally? Not to mention the all too predictable failure of that fountain of cash to trickle down below the top league, never mind down to grassroots level, where native talent must learn which end of the pitch is which. Everyone knows this is true, yet, as noted above, because culture (very broadly defined) has come to act as a support system for commerce, when it should be the other way round, all anyone can do is shrug, as if the generation of huge cash flows in a single direction was nature's way of acknowledging the essential virtue of one course of action over another. We have been sold – and bought – the idea that markets are nature at work.

But what may work for elite sport or retail is a disaster for public services. There's no money to be made in providing school dinners or probation services or cleaning hospitals, except by reducing standards and staffing and salaries to unacceptable levels, so the government strategy of outsourcing such essentials to the lowest bidder among private, profit-making concerns was bound to backfire, sooner or later. The financial collapse of all-purpose government contractors like Carillion and Interserve is therefore hardly a surprise, neither is the stripping of contracts such as the Medway Secure Training Centre (in effect a children's prison) or more recently Birmingham's Winson Green Prison from that other outsourcing giant, G4S, because of too few, too poorly-trained, and too-often ill-disciplined and abusive staff.

If there's any up-side to Brexit, it's that we have had a chance to sit back and think: what kind of country, what kind of culture, do we really want to be? The alarming thing is that the answer that seems to be emerging is: we don't have a fucking clue. Or, worse, we don't fucking care. Perhaps we've become so used to outsourcing our problem-solving to the lowest bidder, that – like those idiotic cheats who buy all their college assignments from an essay bank and still feel entitled to a First – we've never really thought about it, because we've foolishly confused ends and means. I may not be able to get a doctor's appointment this week, but at least my tax bill is really low! My job may depend on EU membership, but I've had enough of being pushed around by Brussels! I don't trust our politicians, but I want them to take back control! I don't like immigrants, but I'm never going to do any of that dirty, low-paid work, thanks very much!

Or perhaps we never did give it that much thought, anyway – apart from that one shining moment in 1945 – and, like the idle great-grandchildren of some Victorian magnate, have merely been living off the financial and cultural capital of the trust fund of Empire. Which, it seems – now that we've finally got around to reading that letter from the trustees that's been sitting unopened on the national sideboard for the past couple of decades – may actually have run out some time ago.

William Draper monument, Bristol

1. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism ("True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd"). Same source as "A little learning is a dangerous thing" and a dozen other pithy sayings that have entered the language. Thus Pope's Essay is "what oft was thought" in action. Is there a word for something which embodies the very qualities it advocates? "Popery" is certainly not it...