Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Meet the mini Monet: Seven-year-old boy sells paintings for £900 each

He paints six pictures a week and his last exhibition sold out in 14 minutes...

Kieron Williamson kneels on the wooden bench in his small kitchen, takes a pastel from the box by his side and rubs it onto a piece of paper. 'Have you got a picture in your head of what you're going to do?' asks his mother, Michelle. 'Yep,' Kieron nods. 'A snow scene.'

I ask: because it is winter at the moment? 'Yep.' Do you know how you want it to come out? 'Yep.' And does it come out how you want it? 'Sometimes it does.'

Child Artist Kieron Williamson
Child Artist Kieron Williamson, aged 7, painting at home, Holt, Norfolk. This month, Kieron's second exhibition in a gallery in his home town sold out in 14 minutes.

Like many great artists, small boys are not often renowned for being talkative. While Kieron Williamson is a very normal seven-year-old who uses his words sparingly, what slowly emerges on the small rectangle of paper in his kitchen is extraordinarily eloquent.

This month, Kieron's second exhibition in a gallery in his home town of Holt, Norfolk, sold out in 14 minutes. The sale of 16 new paintings swelled his bank account by £18,200. There are now 680 people on a waiting list for a Kieron original. Art lovers have driven from London to buy his work. Agents buzz around the town. People offer to buy his school books. The starting price for a simple pastel picture such as the one Kieron is sketching? £900.

Kieron lives with his father, Keith, a former electrician, his mother, who is training to be a nutritionist, and his little sister, Billie-Jo, in a small flat overlooking a petrol station.

Picture perfect: A painting by Kieron, who took up painting at the age of five
Picture perfect: A painting by Kieron, who took up painting at the age of five

When I arrive, Kieron and Keith are out. When Kieron returns in football socks and shorts, I assume he has been playing football. But no, he has been replenishing his stock of pastels in Holt, a chichi little place where even the chip shop has grainy portraits for sale on its walls.

From Jan Lievens to Millais, there have been plenty of precocious geniuses in the art world. Excitable press coverage has compared Kieron to Picasso, who painted his first canvas, The Picador, aged eight.

'We don't know who Picasso is, really,' says Keith. 'I know who Picasso is,' interrupts Kieron. 'I don't want to become him.'

Who would he like to become? 'Monet or Edward Seago,' he replies. We are often suspicious of child prodigies. We wonder if it is all their own work, or whether their pushy parents have hot-housed them. People who don't know the Williamsons might think Kieron is being cleverly marketed, particularly when they hear that Keith is now an art dealer.

windmill painting
Stroke of genius: Kieron prefers landscapes, but plans to paint a portrait of his grandmother for her 100th birthday

The truth is far more innocent. Two years ago, a serious accident forced Keith to stop work and turn his hobby of collecting art into an occupation. The accident also stopped Keith racing around outside with his son. Confined to a flat with no garden, surrounded by paintings and, like any small boy, influenced by his father, Kieron decided to take up drawing. Now, father and son are learning about art together.

Kieron is rubbing yellows and greys together for his sky. 'There's some trees going straight across and then there's a lake through the centre,' he explains.

So, is this picture something you have seen, or is it in your imagination? 'I saw it on the computer and every time I do the picture it changes,' he says, handling his pastels expertly. Keith ducks into the kitchen and explains that Kieron finds pictures he likes on the internet. Rather than an exact copy, however, he creates his own version.

Figures at Holkham
Figures at Holkham by Kieron Williamson: There are now 680 people on a waiting list for a Kieron original. Art lovers have driven from London to buy his work.

This winter scene is imagined from an image of the Norfolk Broads in summer.

At first, Kieron's art was pretty much like any other five-year-old's. But he quickly progressed and was soon asking questions that his parents couldn't answer. 'Kieron wanted to know the technicalities of art and how to put a painting together,' says Michelle. Hearing of Kieron's promise, a local artist, Carol Ann Pennington, offered him some tips. Since then, he has had lessons with other Norfolk-based painters, including Brian Ryder and his favourite, Tony Garner. Garner, a professional artist, has taught more than 1,000 adults over the past few decades and Kieron, he says, is head and shoulders above everyone.

'He doesn't say very much, he doesn't ask very much, he just looks. He's a very visual learner. If I did a picture with most students, they'd copy it - but Kieron will copy it, and then he will Kieronise it,' he says. 'It might be a bit naive at the moment, but there's a lovely freshness about what he does. The confidence that this little chap has got - he just doesn't see any danger.'

Painting of a boat
Kieron has had lessons with Norfolk-based painters, including Brian Ryder and his favourite, Tony Garner

Garner says Kieron's parents have been brilliant at shielding their child from the business side and pressure this invariably brings. Keith and Michelle are extremely proud, protective and, perhaps, slightly in awe of their son. They insist that Kieron paints only when he wants to. 'We judge ourselves every day, wondering whether we are making the right choices,' says Michelle. 'Kieron is such a strong character you wouldn't get him to do anything he didn't want to do anyway. It's a hobby. Some could argue he's got such a talent, why aren't we doing more for him in terms of touring galleries every weekend. We are a family and we've got Billie-Jo to consider; you've got to strike a balance.'

With all the people wanting paintings, I ask Kieron if he feels he has to do them. He says no. So you only paint when you want to? 'Yep.' Do you have days when you feel you don't want to paint? 'Yep.' How many paintings or drawings do you do each week? One or two? 'About six.'

A painting by artist Kieron Williamson
Excitable press coverage has compared Kieron to Picasso, who painted his first canvas, The Picador, aged eight

Is he a perfectionist? 'You've got a bit of an artist's temperament, haven't you?' says Michelle, softly. 'You get frustrated if it doesn't work out. You punched a hole in the canvas once, didn't you?' But those incidents are rare. Sometimes, however, Kieron will produce 'what we classify as a bag of trosh', says Michelle. 'He's just got to go through the motions. It's almost as if it's a release. It's the process that he enjoys, because there are days when he is not really focused on his work, but he just enjoys doing it.'

The young master's tips

Sometimes, when they have taken Kieron out on painting trips in the countryside, the little boy has had other ideas: he has gone off and played in the mud or in a stream. He is still allowed to act seven years old.

What do his school friends think? Are they impressed? 'Yep.' A moment later, Kieron pauses. 'I am also top of the class in maths, English, geography and science,' he says, rubbing the sky in his picture.

Kieron explains he is sticking to landscapes for now, but plans to paint a portrait of his 98-year-old grandmother when she turns 100.

What does he think about people spending so much money on his paintings? 'Really good.' Would he like to be a professional painter? 'Yep.' He doesn't want to be a footballer when he is older? 'I want to be a footballer and a painter.'

Kieron enjoys playing football and, like his father, supports Leeds United. What other things does Kieron like doing? 'You played on the Xbox, but you got bored of it, didn't you?' says Keith. 'You said I could have it out at Christmas,' says Kieron. 'You can have it out in the holidays,' promises Michelle. 'He's a bit all-or-nothing with whatever he does, like the artwork. You have to pull the reins in a bit because otherwise he'd be up all night.'

What would his parents say if Kieron turned around and told them he was not going to paint any more? 'Leave him to it. As long as he's happy. At the end of the day, he's at his happiest painting,' says Keith.

Michelle adds: 'It's entirely his choice. We don't know what's around the corner. Kieron might decide to put his boxes away and football might take over, and that would be entirely his choice. 'We're feeling slightly under pressure because there is such a waiting list of people wanting Kieron's work, but I'm inclined to tell them to wait, really.'

I doubt many artists could paint or draw while answering questions and being photographed, but Kieron carries on. When he finishes, we lean over to look. 'Not bad. That's nice,' says Keith, who can't watch Kieron at work; I wonder if it is because he is worried about his son making a mistake, but Keith says he just prefers to see the finished article.

'Is it as good as the one I did this morning, or better?' asks Kieron. 'What do you think?' replies Keith. 'It's got a nice glow on it, hasn't it?' Kieron nods.

I would love one of his pictures but, I tell Kieron, he is already too expensive for me. 'I can price one down for you,' he says, as quick as a flash. No, no, I couldn't, I say, worried I would be exploiting a little boy.

I thank him for his time and hand him my business card. And Kieron trots into his bedroom, comes out with his own business card and says thank you, right back.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Try the minst pye (containing mutton and veal) from 1624

You're not going to find it in Delia's latest cookbook. And even if you could, tracking down a 'loyne of fatt Mutton' in the local supermarket could present a challenge. But for the families yearning for authenticity this Christmas, it might be just the treat.

Archivists have discovered one of the earliest recorded recipes for mince pies tucked away in the official papers of King Charles I.

In 1624, when the recipe is thought to have found its way into a file of state papers created by Charles's secretary of state Edward Conway, a mince pie contained ingredients only the very wealthy could afford.

Fine cuts of meat, foreign fruits and exotic spices were a luxury far removed from the largely meat-free diet of the poor.

In a spirit of seasonal fun, the Mail gave a two-Michelin-starred chef the task of recreating the 'minst pye' using the recipe from the National Archives.

Marcus Wareing was a little dubious when he first looked at the recipe 'For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent Bigness' in the kitchens of his restaurant Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley in London.

Loin of mutton was indeed tricky to find, so neck of lamb was used instead. But in other respects the chef remained true to the original and the result was a success.

'I was surprised how good it tasted in the end,' Mr Wareing said. 'It reminded me of something my gran used to do.' He added: 'I think it's great that something that tastes as good as this is from the 17th century.'


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Was Shakespeare a Roman Catholic?

Pretty tenuous "evidence" but interesting

Three mysterious signatures on pages of parchment bound in leather and kept under lock and key may prove the theory that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic who spent his “lost years” in Italy.

An exhibition at the Venerable English College, the seminary in Rome for English Catholic priests, has revealed cryptic names in its guest books for visiting pilgrims, suggesting that the playwright sought refuge there.

“Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis” signed the book in 1585, while “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” arrived in 1589.

According to Father Andrew Headon, vice-rector of the college and organiser of the exhibition, the names can be deciphered as “[King] Arthur’s [compatriot] from Stratford [in the diocese] of Worcester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford”.

A third entry in 1587, “Shfordus Cestriensis”, may stand for “Sh[akespeare from Strat]ford [in the diocese] of Chester”, he said.

The entries fall within the playwright’s “missing years” between 1585, when he left Stratford abruptly, and 1592, when he began his career as playwright in London.

“There are several years which are unaccounted for in Shakespeare’s life,” Father Headon said, adding that it was very likely that the playwright had visited Rome and was a covert Catholic.

The “Shakespeare” entries are being kept in the college’s archive for security reasons but have been reproduced for the exhibition, which illustrates the history of the college from its origins as a medieval pilgrims’ hospice to a refuge for persecuted Catholics during the Reformation.

Set in the college’s extensive 14th-century crypt, the exhibition conveys the clandestine atmosphere of underground Catholicism, with its spies and priests’ bolt holes. It traces the secret journeys made by Catholics to Rome and by Jesuit priests from Rome to England “to defend their faith despite the risk of being caught, tortured and martyred”.

In a recent book, a German biographer of Shakespeare, Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, said that she had “come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was a Catholic and that his religion is the key to understanding his life and work”.

Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel said that Shakespeare’s parents, friends and teachers were Catholics, as were some of his patrons, including the Earl of Southampton, who concealed Catholic priests at his country seat, Titchfield Abbey, and his London residence.

Further proof was his purchase of the eastern gatehouse at Blackfriars — a secret meeting place for fugitive Catholics — in London in 1613, she said.

Backers of the theory say that plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Measure for Measure are “rich in Catholic thought and rituals”, with positive depictions of priests and monks and invocations of the Virgin Mary.

Five of his 37 plays are set in Italy, another five wholly or partly in Rome and three in Sicily.

The English College exhibition, Non Angli sed Angeli, runs until July 2010.


Monday, December 21, 2009

Adolf Hitler's hatred of Jews 'stemmed from First World War'

A new book published in Germany says the murder of six million Jews in the Second World War was due to Hitler's belief that they "stole" victory from the country in the First World War

"In his madness Hitler was convinced that the 'Jewish poison' had done the same thing to his beloved Germany in 1918 what the 'cancer poison' had done to his beloved mother in 1907," wrote historian and journalist Dr Joachim Riecker.

'November 9: How World War One Led to the Holocaust' examines the speeches both public and private of Hitler to try to solve the riddle of how a dictator could morph into the industrial-scale murderer of an entire people.

"The core of his hatred lies at the defeat of Germany in WW1," said Mr Riecker, "where Hitler blamed the Jews for defeat of the country, the collapse of the monarchy and the ruination of millions".

Dr Riecker discounts previously held theories that Hitler began hating the Jews because a Jewish doctor called Eduard Bloch unsuccessfully treated his mother Klara.

He added: "Adolf Hitler loved only two things in his life: his mother and the 'German Reich'.

His mother died in 1907 very painfully from breast cancer which was seen at that time as the result of blood poisoning.

"Hitler saw the state 'poisoned' from within. Hitler lived in Munich, where Jews played a leading role in the revolution against the monarchy on Nov. 9th 1918. So suddenly the delusion came to his mind, that the Jews where the reason for the 'inner poisoning' of Germany and that they had stolen the victory from Germany," Mr Riecker said.

"And since this delusion revived the traumatic experience of the death of his mother, he developed the fanatic will to annihilate the "Jewish poison" – and thought that killing the Jews was the way to lead Germany to world domination.

"His anti-Semitism had nothing to do with Dr Bloch."

"Mr Riecker has produced an important and informative work," said German news magazine Der Spiegel in a review.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can I be complimentary, my dear Watson?

We celebrate flashy, insensitive Holmes, but it’s his sidekick’s common sense, bravery and friendship that we should admire

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” says Sherlock Holmes on first meeting John Watson in A Study in Scarlet.

Dr Watson, as Holmes correctly deduces, has indeed just returned from the Second Afghan War, after receiving a bullet from an Afghan musket at the disastrous battle of Maiwand, followed by a nasty bout of enteric fever.

Watson’s verdict on the war in Afghanistan is dour: “The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster.”

It seems somehow appropriate that Watson should be a wounded veteran of Afghanistan, for his is a peculiarly British sort of heroism that spans the ages: loyal, phlegmatic, doughty and modest.

Dr Watson, MD, may be the most unfairly overshadowed character in English literature. Guy Ritchie’s latest remake of the tale — starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson — has done something to redress the balance by giving Watson his own personality. But in the popular imagination, thanks largely to his representation on screen in the Thirties and Forties by goggle-eyed Nigel Bruce, Watson is a mere sidekick, a genial bumbler whose role is to ask the most obvious questions as foil to Holmes’s genius.

The real genius of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories lies not in Holmes, but in Watson, whose common sense, innate bravery and gentle friendship mark him out as the Victorian Everyman.

While an addict of the Sherlock Holmes tales, I have never had much time for Holmes himself — a cocaine-abusing, patronising, ascetic, asexual know-it-all with a taste for lofty pronouncements that sound impressive but which, when examined, mean nothing at all. “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” This is nonsense. Rule out the impossible, and all you have is a vast array of possibilities, one of which might be the truth.

Holmes, so sensitive to physical clues, seems incapable of gauging the emotional reactions of others. Dr Lisa Sanders has made the intriguing case that Doyle, as a trained physician, described the symptoms of autism in Holmes some 70 years before the disorder was identified by the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger.

Holmes does not make conversation; he offers disquisitions. He knows a lot about very specific subjects (the differences between 140 varieties of tobacco ash), but nothing whatever about contemporary literature, philosophy and politics. “His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge,” observes Watson. Worse, Holmes is not interested in learning what he does not know. “What the deuce is it to me?” he demands, on being told that the earth travels around the sun.

In all these respects, Holmes is the polar opposite of Watson, who is gregarious, eager for knowledge and happy to converse on any subject with no pretensions to expertise. Where Holmes is drug-addict thin, Watson is an excellent trencherman, prompting Holmes to remark, with typical insensitivity, “You have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you.”

Conan Doyle did not much like Holmes either, which may explain his decision to kill off the detective by pitching him over the Reichenbach Falls and his reluctance to resuscitate him despite the public clamour. “His character admits of no light and shade,” he grumbled.

Watson is, in some ways, disguised autobiography, for Doyle was himself the antithesis of Holmes. Holmes is bleakly rational; Doyle was romantic and superstitious. Holmes plays his violin, alone; Doyle hurled himself into team sports, and once took the wicket of W.G. Grace. Doyle doted on and depended on the various women in his life; Holmes thought that “women are never to be entirely trusted”.

In the contrast between the characters of Holmes and Watson, Doyle was not simply establishing the quintessential buddy partnership from which all others derive — Butch and Sundance, Batman and Robin and, most recently in the television series House, in which the deductive, medical-mystery-solving hero’s name is a play on Holmes (Home = House) and Dr Watson is Dr Wilson, his beleaguered ever-tolerant helpmate — Doyle was also making a point about character itself.

Holmes is flashy, brilliant and extraordinary, but it is Watson’s blunter, quieter virtues of simple decency that we are called on to admire, and it is his voice that we trust. Being right is all very well, Doyle seems to say through Watson, but being good is better. Watson is the man you would want to go into the jungle with or, for that matter, into the Afghan mountains.

Like many returning from Afghanistan today, Dr Watson dwells not on his own trials and injuries, but the bravery of his fellows. “I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.” One cannot imagine Holmes saying anything like this. All sinew and synapse, the great detective imagines war as a virtue.

In one of the last Holmes stories, His Last Bow, the greatest double-act in literature look out over the sea, having stymied a German spy plot in the run-up to the First World War.

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same . . . It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind nonetheless, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

Holmes is both right about Watson — a fixed point of honour through the changing ages — and utterly wrong. One suspects that good old Watson, his shoulder shattered by an Afghan bullet, knows that Holmes does not understand what war is really like; but he is far too British to say so.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Banned Gouais blanc grape is the long-lost mother of Champagne

The Gouais blanc grape, disparaged for centuries as an inferior wine ingredient fit only for peasants, has been revealed as the mother of many of today’s finest and most sought-after varieties.

A genetic study has shown that Gouais blanc is the chief ancestor of modern grapes such as Chardonnay, the grape used to make Chablis and a component of Champagne, and Gamay noir, which is most famous as the mainstay of Beaujolais.

“This is a striking conclusion, as Gouais is generally considered a highly inferior variety, and its cultivation was banned for many years in parts of Europe,” said Christopher Howe, of the University of Cambridge, who led the study.

Both Gouais blanc and Pinot noir were grown extensively in Europe in the Middle Ages, particularly in northeastern France. Gouais blanc, however, was generally considered to make poor-quality wine, and several attempts were made to ban its cultivation between the late 16th and 18th centuries.

In 1732 an act of the Parlement of Besançon sought to outlaw the grape, which it described as rustic and inferior, though also as high-yielding. The Parlement of Metz took a similar initiative in the same year.

While attempts to ban the grape outright failed, it fell from popularity and largely disappeared from French vineyards in the 19th century. The original variety survives today in only a very few vineyards and reference collections.

John Haeger, of Stanford University in California, another author of the research, said: “Typically, varieties of this sort were grown on flat land by peasants. Good vineyards, on the other hand, growing better and lower-yielding varieties, were owned and farmed under the supervision of the Church or nobility.

“Many of the bans were designed either to favour aristocrats and monastic orders over peasants, or force more arable land into the production of cereals and legumes to eliminate food shortages.”

The latest research, which is published in the journal Biology Letters, has used genetic fingerprinting techniques similar to those used in forensic science to establish that Gouais blanc made a much more significant contribution to modern viticulture than had generally been thought.

While it was already known that several modern varieties owed their origins to cross-breeding of Gouais blanc and the more respectable Pinot noir, the findings have shown that Gouais was in many cases the senior partner.

When such crosses are made, the female grape strain that is used provides more DNA than the male strain to their offspring, and thus has more influence on their later characteristics.

The study led by Professor Howe has now shown that Gouais blanc was the maternal parent in crosses with Pinot noir that produced at least nine modern grape varieties.

As well as Chardonnay and Gamay, the lowly variety was the mother of Aligoté, Auxerrois, Bachet, Franc noir, Melon (used in Muscadet), Romorantin and Sacy. Pinot noir was the maternal parent of Aubin vert, Knipperlé and Roublot, with Gouais blanc the male partner.

Professor Howe said: “It is ironic that the despised grape Gouais blanc was not just a parent for several of the world’s best-known and most important varieties, such as Chardonnay and Gamay noir, it was the maternal parent, providing additional DNA and potentially determining important characteristics of the offspring.”


Has the theory of the Protestant work ethic just collapsed?

Has a young Harvard graduate student in economics dealt a deadly blow to Max Weber’s theory that Protestantism favours economic development? Davide Cantoni has just produced a brilliantly argued paper which takes economic data from Catholic and Protestant cities in Germany from 1300 to 1900, subjects them to meticulous multivariate analysis, and finds no evidence that Protestantism per se made people richer.

Cantoni, whose CV reveals that he is a 28-year-old doctoral student with joint German and Italian citizenship, knows that he is walking into a minefield. Weber’s reputation as perhaps the greatest of all sociologists does not rest solely on his famous thesis; but it has iconic status and both drew on and developed the widely held belief that, to put it crudely, Protestants get out of bed earlier in the morning than Catholics.

Weber’s thesis proposes that the specifically Calvinist belief in predestination persuaded its adherents to pursue capitalism as an end in itself: there was nothing you could do to contribute to your salvation, so you might as well make money as an end in itself (and, in any case, a healthy bank balance could be a sign that you were among the elect). But, in fact, lots of thinkers before Weber had concluded that America, England and northern Europe were rich because they had freed themselves from superstitious, hierarchical popery.

It’s this broader version of the “Protestant work ethic” that Cantoni exposes to scrutiny, since the German cities of the Holy Roman Empire that he analyses were mostly either Lutheran or Catholic. (There were Calvinist cities, but their joyless creed doesn’t seem to have made a difference.) The abstract of his paper, which can be read in pdf format, reads as follows:
The Economic Effects of the Protestant Reformation: Testing the Weber Hypothesis in the German Lands


Many theories, most famously Max Weber ’s essay on the “Protestant ethic,” have hypothesized that Protestantism should have favored economic development. With their considerable religious heterogeneity and stability of denominational affiliations until the 19th century, the German Lands of the Holy Roman Empire present an ideal testing ground for this hypothesis.

Using population figures in a dataset comprising 272 cities in the years 1300–1900, I find no effects of Protestantism on economic growth. The finding is robust to the inclusion of a variety of controls, and does not appear to depend on data selection or small sample size. In addition, Protestantism has no effect when interacted with other likely determinants of economic development. I also analyze the endogeneity of religious choice; instrumental variables estimates of the effects of Protestantism are similar to the OLS results.

A total of 272 cities over 600 years: that’s some sample. And controlling for various factors is no easy matter – as this sort of equation demonstrates:

ln(ui t ) = χi + χt + ∑ ατ · Proti · Iτ + ∑ βτ · controli · Iτ + ∑ γτ · controli · Proti · Iτ + ε i t

Still, it’s worth ploughing through as much of Cantoni’s paper as you can understand, because so many common preconceptions about thrifty Protestants and bone-idle Catholics bite the dust. He sets out to test the hypothesis that the ethos of Protestantism (whether purely doctrinal or based on distinctive commercial practices) gave an economic advantage to certain German cities. And the hypothesis flunks his test because, even when Protestant cities perform better than Catholic ones, there is a better “fit” with other variables. More important, on the whole Catholic cities developed just as successfully as their Protestant equivalents.

Catholic and Protestant cities, though different in many respects, both became economically dynamic over the centuries – thanks, mostly, to the benefits associated with the emergence of the modern nation state, something that post-Counter Reformation Catholic rulers nurtured alongside their Protestant opposite numbers. Here’s Cantoni’s conclusion:

While there are many reasons to expect Protestant cities and states to have been more economically dynamic during the past centuries—because of their work ethic, their attitude toward business, their encouragement of literacy—the present paper finds that there is no effect of religious denominations on a likely indicator of economic development, city size. Despite their differing views on religious matters, Protestants and Catholics might not have been so different in their economic behavior after all.

This research, incidentally, is described as a “Job Market Paper”. I can’t imagine that Cantoni will have any difficulty finding the right outlet for his own work ethic.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Some Vintage Humphries

My magic flute -- by Sir Les Patterson

From chamber orchestras to chasing skirt, a misspent life in music
and politics is remembered

ALTHOUGH I'm often described as a rough diamond, I'm also a discerning music lover. In point of fact, since I have represented Australian culture all over the planet, I am heavily into the finer things of life: Australian wines and spirits, fine old Tasmanian cheeses and approachable members of the opposite sex community.

Long before my old mates in the upper echelons of the Labor Party saw fit to make me Minister of Culture, I ran the entertainment division of one of south Sydney's biggest footy clubs. Back in the rock'n'rollin' '70s I coaxed a lot of crash-hot international talent to that club and although Ol' Blue Eyes, Sammy Davis jnr and Shirley Bassey regretfully couldn't make it, I showcased the late great Don Lane, Johnny Young with the Young Talent Time team and my personal favourite, Kamahl.

There was always music in my home in the dress circle suburb of Kogarah (an Aboriginal word meaning the meeting of the waters, although water is not the preferred beverage of we Kogarah-dwellers). My wife, Lady Gwen, was very proud of our Stromberg Carlson radiogram and she had a pretty eclectic collection of discs spanning a whole musical spectrum – from Mantovani, right through Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to the Seekers, whom I almost lured to the club if they hadn't been overseas at the time.

Gwen would often sit up half the morning, God love her, in her candlewick dressing gown and pink fluffy mules sprinkled with toast crumbs, enjoying an Alpine and a pre-lunch Asti Spumante with Mario Lanza singing a Student Prince selection at full throttle. I was always proud of the fact that I was the only high-profile Australian politico with a high-brow wife who liked nothing better than a little musical soiree in the morning.

As my career blossomed and I copped the big posting in London as Australian Cultural Attache at the Court of St James with a commonwealth car in perpetuity, it was part of my briefing to go to operas, concerts and the occasional ballet. Even for me, some of the music was a bit too eclectic for my finely honed sensibility but I always liked the ballets, which I enjoyed from a comfy seat in the front row, affording me a ringside view up the ballerinas' plies and the occasional jetes.

I love nothing more than introducing young people to music and on these cultural excursions at the Australian taxpayers' expense, I often took as my companion a young, impressionable research assistant and the odd intern. My interns were rather aptly named, come to think of it, and they lapped up my wealth of artistic experience like thirsty kittens. God bless them.

If you are a red-blooded male, as I am, it is hard at first to work in an area that is largely the prerogative of the pillow-biting community, the Lord love them. Both the men and women affiliated with the Australian opera and ballet have all got proclivities of one kind or another and that's OK as far as I'm concerned, so long as the blokes don't try putting the hard word on me and the women-folk, in their black outfits and Sarah Palin glasses, don't make the move on my wife, whose medications and my long absences from the nest make her extremely vulnerable to the odd hand on her knee, be it male, female or indeterminate. Don't get me wrong, readers, I yield to none in my abhorrence of sexism in the workplace and homophobia. If you don't believe me, Google my lecture of a few years ago, "Meditations on Gender: The Recreations of a Diplomat".

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is an exciting group of young instrumentalists run by Richard Tognetti. I generally call him Dick because I can't get my tongue around his surname, though I can usually get my tongue around most other things. However, Dick is as Australian as Tim-Tams, Vegemite and intoxicated young women on Saturday nights. Like me he's an avid surfer and though it's a long time since I hung 10, my girl Friday will tell you that in the privacy of my taxpayer-funded government office, I manage to hang one pretty well every afternoon.

Dick and I have a lot in common apart from our love of eclectic music and I was delighted to discover that he and I are life members of the same lap-dancing club in Sydney. I am honoured to be joining the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a few pre-Christmas concerts where I will be singing some of my favourite and most eclectic Australian ditties. A couple of these, like The Road to Gundagai (Aboriginal word meaning meeting of the waters), were popular with my parents because it was the theme tune of Dad and Dave, a radio serial of yesteryear.

Young people and music lovers have probably never heard this classic before but my cover version of it will probably go platinum. I'll also be singing a song of my own composition dedicated to the love of my life. It will be the first time that this eclectic ballad has ever been accompanied by a chamber orchestra brave enough to play it. On other lips, the words of this song could offend but the way the ACO and I render it imparts a rare subtlety and resonance to the otherwise X-rated lyrics.

A final word about the rest of the concert, which represents the peak of my career. Barry Humphries, who is still alive and soon to be appearing on The Biggest Loser, will be in charge of the first half of the eclectic evening and good luck to him! The second half will kick off with me, and later on Dame Edna herself will grace the stage with a beautiful anthem she recently did at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of King Constantine of Greece, a symphony orchestra, a choir of 150 and audience of 5000 music-lovers. It was a great moment for Australia, rivalled only by the concert we'll be giving you. A ticket to this will be the best Christmas present you'll ever give yourself and a moving expression of your trust and faith that in the hands of Leslie Colin Patterson AO KBE, Australian culture is safe for all time.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Out with the new... in with the old: Village is first to bring back old phone box after 25-year battle with BT

It is one of the defining symbols of 20th century Britain . . . one which, sadly, has been committed to history by the mobile phone. But in one small corner of England, the red telephone box is making a triumphant comeback. The utility was returned to its rightful place yesterday in Hampstead Norreys, Berkshire, after a battle by the 600 residents which went right to the top at BT.

Red telephone box in Hampstead Norreys
Landmark victory: BT today returned the traditional red telephone box it removed 25 years ago from Hampstead Norreys in Berkshire following a two-year campaign by residents

Red telephone box in Hampstead Norreys

It is the first time one of the boxes has been reinstated in a public place. The original was removed 30 years ago to be replaced by a grey plastic and glass kiosk that villagers described as ‘a monstrosity’. It was entirely out of keeping with the quaint grade II-listed well and riverside gardens it sat next to, they said.

But after a two-year fight with BT, an original red K6 ‘Jubilee’ box was returned yesterday – complete with working phone. The victory is expected to prompt hundreds of other villages to demand similar restorations.

Red telephone box in Hampstead Norreys
The refurbished traditional box is hoisted into place. BT agreed to equip it with a working phone line

‘It really is a red-letter day for small communities who are trying hard to retain their village identity as well as its history and heritage,’ said campaigner Sheila Craig. ‘We hope that this will enable other small communities to follow our lead and to look into reinstating their telephone boxes if they feel that it would improve the village ambience as well as its amenities.’

Classic red boxes remained a common feature of most towns and villages until BT began replacing them with grey glass designs in the Eighties. The campaign to reinstate one had been ‘littered with refusal
and disappointments’, Mrs Craig added. ‘Initially, the request was met with a firm “No” as it was not within BT’s policy to re-instate old red K6 telephone boxes,’ she said.

Red telephone box in Hampstead Norreys
A villager takes a peak inside. The campaigners said it was the first reinstatement of a public K6 kiosk with a working telephone

Red telephone box in Hampstead Norreys
Out with the old, in with the older: Villagers considered the old 1980s phone box an out-of-place 'monstrosity'

‘But after responding to all of BT’s reasons as to why the work could not be done, the residents’ request eventually reached the highest levels within the company and agreement to install a telephone was reached.’

The villagers have bought their own red phone box for £2,000 and BT has agreed to install a phone in it. The cost of maintaining it will be funded by the parish council, and it has been guaranteed for the next ten years.

The box was refurbished and suppliedby Lincolnshire-based company-British Bits.

The K6 boxes were designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V in 1935.

Mrs Craig said: ‘It is so good to put back not only a piece of heritage but a facility which can be used by the whole community and visitors alike, especially as mobile coverage is very poor in the village


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Labour of love that saved Sir Walter Scott from his editors

An epic feat of scholarship that set out to rescue the novels of Sir Walter Scott from a litany of 30,000 editorial gaffes and typesetting errors has finally been completed, 25 years after the project began.

The Talisman, re-published last month, is the last in a 28-book sequence that has seen a team of researchers finally eliminate errors scattered throughout the standard editions of the novels. The books are, at last, “as Scott would have wanted,” said Professor David Hewitt, editor-in-chief of the Edinburgh Edition of the Waverley Novels.

In accomplishing his task, Professor Hewitt and a platoon of editors tracked down manuscripts and early 19th-century proof sheets in libraries in London, Edinburgh, New York and Moscow, comparing Scott’s originals with texts that had filled library shelves for generations. What they found shocked them: error after error strewn across every printed page.

Five or six mistakes a page is standard in the popular edition of each of the novels, with some pages containing ten or more. The final tally for each volume is enough to make a sub-editor blanch — 1,000 blemishes per book, the result of bad typesetting, accidental editorial errors and deliberate “improvements”.

Turning to a single page of Waverley, Scott’s first and most famous novel, Professor Hewitt itemised five mistakes, including paragraphing where none was intended, the word “accident” printed as “incident”, “which” printed as “whom”, and “lord” printed as “laird”.

The fifth example, yet another misprinted word, destroyed the vividness of a speech by the character Gilfillan, a Protestant Covenanting soldier, who deplores the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church that he has witnessed in continental Europe.

“Scott has Gilfillan say: ‘O! it would grieve your honour’s soul to see the mumming, and the singing, and the massing that’s in the kirk . . .’” said Professor Hewitt. “‘Mumming’ makes complete sense there — there’s a notion of theatricality about it. But in print it turned out as ‘murmuring’, which completely loses the meaning that Scott intended.”

Some mistakes obscure vital elements of a book’s plot. In Kenilworth, editorial laxness had obscured the circumstances surrounding the death of Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, who is pursued by the evil Richard Varney.

“We went back to the manuscript, and saw it made sense,” said Professor Hewitt. “There was a variety of drawbridge and the villain takes away the supports so that when Amy Robsart stands on it, it collapses and she falls into the ditch below. That made sense. But it made no sense in the existing printed version. Words and meaning have gone: you simply cannot work out why the drawbridge lets her down, and how the murderer has done it. So we restored the manuscript.”

For Professor Hewitt, 67, the publication of The Talisman represents the culmination of a lifetime’s work. In the 1960s, he wrote his PhD thesis on Scott, and went on to lecture on the Romantics and Scottish Literature at The University of Aberdeen, before he was appointed editor-in-chief of The Waverley Novels by Edinburgh University Press in 1984.

Almost immediately, the evident poor quality of the existing printed editions of Scott’s work had shocked his team, said Professor Hewitt. “We really couldn’t believe it to start with. But the more we worked, the more we found out. We gradually got emboldened by our research to realise that the printed texts were so faulty. We got bolder as we grew more experienced.”

Changes had never been insisted upon by Scott himself, because he had never noticed the mistakes — by the time the novelist was sent finished proofs of his latest work, he had already moved on to his next project and he had little time for final corrections. In righting these mistakes, Professor Hewitt acknowledged that the sheer scale of his research had occasionally proved daunting, but nothing had persuaded him to throw in the towel.

“Of course there are nights when you think ‘Oh I’ve had enough of this’ and every now and then one wants some fun and games,” he said. “But it has been perpetually interesting, partly because it has been such an adventure. Partly because we got to a stage where we trusted Scott to have got something right, whatever the printed editions told us.”

Their trust was not misplaced. Scott’s mother was the daughter of a professor of medicine and his father was a Writer to the Signet, and he was steeped in the intellectual currents of the Scottish Enlightenment. By his late 20s he cut a considerable public figure: Sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1799 to his death in 1832, and principal clerk of the Court of Session from 1806.

In private, he was astonishingly fecund. He edited the works of Dryden and Swift, and wrote a succession of hugely popular narrative poems of his own, beginning with The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805. Then, when the young Lord Byron cornered the market for longer poems, Scott responded by developing the historical novel, beginning with Waverley in 1814.

His books made him the most famous author in the world, influencing Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy, but also endearing him to the popular imagination in 19th-century Britain. Some of that legacy, particularly his “invention” of Highland tradition made him less popular in the decades that followed. He was “the sham bard of a sham nation,” according to Edwin Muir.

Since the 1960s, says Professor Hewitt, Scott’s reputation has revived. “He is not going to be popular like Jane Austen is popular. He makes really big linguistic demands. All that Scots language is magnificent — but it is very hard to read. Intellectually it is demanding too — you have to pay attention. For all that, we have already sold 50-70,000 volumes in this edition alone. That is quite a lot of books.”


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Porpoise porridge, Sire? World's oldest recipe book reveals dishes English kings enjoyed 600 years ago

Dishes of chicken blancmange and porpoise porridge are unlikely to whet the appetite of most modern food lovers. But such recipes were apparently fit for a king 600 years ago. Written by chefs employed by Richard II, they are included in what is thought to be the world's oldest cookbook.


A meal fit for a king? Visitors to Manchester University's John Rylands library are tasting meals cooked from the world's first cookbook written in 1390


John Hodgson, who looks after manuscripts and archives at Manchester University, shows off the world's first cookbook, written 600 years ago

The unusual dishes rival modern creations by British TV chef Heston Blumenthal, who is famous for his snail porridge.

Experts from Manchester University's John Rylands Library, who discovered the manuscript, have translated a handful of its 150 recipes, which are written in Middle English and date back to 1390. They include frumenty, a porridge-type dish made of bulghar wheat, chicken stock and saffron, and payn puff, a dish of boiled fruits wrapped in pastry.

The unusual cookbook, called the Forme of Cury, is believed to have contained dishes to feed servants and the royal family alike. It gives a fascinating insight into the delicacies of the time, including dishes of swan and peacock. After translating the recipes, historians wanted to try the dishes themselves.

However, with no ingredient quantities or instructions, making the dishes proved tricky. John Hodgson, who looks after the library's manuscripts and archives, said: 'One of the difficulties was that a lot of the recipes were very vague. 'It wasn't like Delia Smith or Gordon Ramsay books at all. The book doesn't specify quantities of ingredients or cooking times, so it was a case of trial and error to get the recipes to suit modern tastes.'


(Larger version of the above graphic here)

Treats fit for a Medieval  king (above): Tart in Ymber Day (egg custard tart), and Payn Puff (boiled fruit in pastry)

Several meals are being added to the library's canteen menu for visitors to try. Debbie Fletcher, manager of the library's cafe, said: 'It was a real challenge to find some ingredients. Trying to find a porpoise - it's not something you can pop down to the supermarket for'

Student George Arnett, 20, said: 'I was surprised how nice the food was. It's hard to believe they were eaten 600 years ago.'