UK National Yacht – Plato’s ‘Ship of Fools’.

The Prime Minister is no mean classicist and will therefore recall Book VI of Plato’s Republic. It contains the famous “ship of fools” allegory, illustrating the problems of governance prevailing in a political system not based on expert knowledge. It is of great relevance not only to the ludicrous UK National Yacht proposal but also to the many other problems we face as a result of poor governance over the last few years – and the unseemly leadership squabble we will inevitably see in the years to come. Of course, as well as a “national” reading of the allegory, one might also see each government ministry (Health, Education, etc.) as a ship in its own right. Plato:

There’s the shipowner, larger and stronger than everyone in the ship, but somewhat deaf and rather short-sighted, with a knowledge of sailing to match his eyesight. The sailors are quarrelling among themselves over captaincy of the ship, each one thinking that he ought to be captain, though he has never learnt that skill, nor can he point to the person who taught him or a time when he was learning it. On top of which they say it can’t be taught. In fact they’re prepared to cut to pieces anyone who says it can. The shipowner himself is always surrounded by them. They beg him and do everything they can to make him hand over the tiller to them. Sometimes, if other people can persuade him and they can’t, they kill those others or throw them overboard. Then they immobilise their worthy shipowner with drugs or drink or by some other means, and take control of the ship, helping themselves to what it is carrying. Drinking and feasting, they sail in the way you’d expect people like that to sail. More than that, if someone is good at finding them ways of persuading or compelling the shipowner to let them take control, they call him a real seaman, a real captain, and say he really knows about ships. Anyone who can’t do this they treat with contempt, calling him useless. They don’t even begin to understand that if he is to be truly fit to take command of a ship a real ship’s captain must of necessity be thoroughly familiar with the seasons of the year, the stars in the sky, the winds, and everything to do with his art. As for how he is going to steer the ship – regardless of whether anyone wants him to or not – they do not regard this as an additional skill or study which can be acquired over and above the art of being a ship’s captain. If this is the situation on board, don’t you think the person who is genuinely equipped to be captain will be called a stargazer, a chatterer, of no use to them, by those who sail in ships with this kind of crew?

How to Look at Portraits

Nicolas Poussin – self-portrait.

…or at least here’s just one more to add to the many ways one might look at them. Below is a wonderful passage by Bruno Snell (1896-1986), the great professor of classical philology at the University of Hamburg.  In it he reflects on ways of seeing in Homer, on the words Homer uses to “denote the operation of sight”. Derkesthai means “to have a particular look in one’s eye”, while paptainein means “to look about, inquisitively, carefully or with fear”. There are many other words, but I think these two are of particular interest and have some definite practical uses. Derkesthai and paptainein, for instance, are good concepts to bear in mind when one is trying to evaluate someone’s personality based on how they react to a given idea or situation, how they look. Second, the whole concept behind derkesthai is extremely useful to have to hand if one is attempting to describe and evaluate a portrait, say a painting, a photograph or a sculpture. There is often, in the best portraits, a degree of intensity that elevates them from the merely descriptive and places them in a higher realm, revealing some unique inner quality in the subject. Homer and Snell make good companions as one tries to unravel what that quality might be. As Snell put it, “The scholar too, like the restorer of an old painting, may yet in many places remove the dark coating of dust and varnish which the centuries have drawn over the picture, and thus give back to the colours their original brilliance.” 

Homer uses a great variety of verbs to denote the operation of sight. Of these several have gone out of use in later Greek, at any rate in prose literature and living speech: derkesthai, leussein, ossesthai, paptainein. Only two words make their appearance after the times of Homer: blepein and theorin. The words which were discarded tell us that the older language recognized certain needs which were no longer felt by its successor. 

Derkesthai means: to have a particular look in one’s eye. Drakon, the snake, whose name is derived from derkesthai, owes this designation to the uncanny glint in his eye. He is called “the seeing one”, not because he can see particularly well, but because his stare commands attention. By the same token Homer’s derkesthai refers not so much to the function of the eye as to its gleam noticed by someone else. The verb is used of the Gorgon whose glance incites terror, and of the raging boar whose eyes radiate fire. Many a passage in Homer reveals its proper beauty only if this meaning is taken into consideration: e.g. [Odysseus]: ponton ep’ atrugeton derkesketo dakrua leibon. Derkesthai means “to look with a specific expression,” and the context suggests that the word here refers to the nostalgic glance which Odysseus, an exile from his homeland, sends across the seas…. Of the eagle it may be said that ozutaton derketai, he looks very sharply; but whereas in English the adjective would characterize the function and capacity of the visual organ, Homer has in mind the beams of the eagle’s eye, beams which are as penetrating as the rays of the sun which are also called “sharp” by Homer; like a pointed weapon they cut through everything in their path. Derkesthai is also used with an external object; in such a case the present would mean: “his glance rests upon something,” and the aorist: “his glance falls upon an object,” “it turns toward something,” “he casts his glance on someone….”

The same is true of another of the verbs which we have mentioned as having disappeared in later speech. Paptainein is also a mode of looking, namely a “looking about” inquisitively, carefully, or with fear. Like derkesthai, therefore, it denotes a visual attitude, and does not hinge upon the function of sight as such. Characteristically enough neither word is found in the first person…. A man would notice such attitudes in others rather than ascribing them to himself. Leusso behaves quite differently. Etymologically it is connected with leukos, “gleaming,” “white”; three of the four cases in the Iliad where the verb is followed by an accusative object pertain to fire and shining weapons. The meaning clearly is: to see something bright. It also means: to let one’s eyes travel…. Pride, joy, and a feeling of freedom are expressed in it. Frequently leusso appears in the first person, which distinguishes it from derkesthai and paptainein, those visual attitudes which are mostly noticed in others. It is never used in situations of sorrow or anxiety.

Hancock’s Half Hour, Episode 2: The Yellow Socks

Days ago these were just yellow socks. Now they are the Socks of the Heartless Philanderer. Yellow socks have been given a bad name. Some regret this, while others say yellow socks were never a great addition to a man’s wardrobe. Will yellow socks come to be known as “Hancocks”, eternal badges of shame? Or are they now a defiant symbol of the devil-may-care Lothario? It will be interesting to see the fate of yellow socks, those already owned and those yet to be bought.

Hancock’s Half Hour, Episode 1: The Ministerial Code (Cabinet Office, 2019)

The Hancock Scandal presents an ideal opportunity to revisit the Ministerial Code, a document setting out the standards of conduct expected of ministers and how they discharge their duty. The full document – only 36 pages – can be read here. Below are two important sections: first, the foreword by Boris Johnson; second the Seven Principles of Public Life. This 2019 text is the latest version of the Code, shortly pre-Brexit and not a long way before Covid. Johnson’s foreword is especially poignant, when you consider the discrepancy between what was recklessly promised and where we are now: “We will seize the opportunities offered by Brexit, investing in education, technology and infrastructure, unlocking the talents of the whole nation and levelling up across our United Kingdom so that no town or community is ever again left behind or forgotten. In doing so, we will make our country the greatest place to invest or set up a business, the greatest place to send your kids to school and the greatest place in the world to live and bring up a family. To fulfil this mission, and win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety – and this code sets out how we must do so.” As to Hancock and Johnson, one can try to work out for oneself how many of the Seven Principles they have flouted while in office.


Foreword by
The Prime Minister

The mission of this Government is to deliver Brexit on 31st October for the purpose of uniting and re-energising our whole United Kingdom and making this country the greatest place on earth.

We will seize the opportunities offered by Brexit, investing in education, technology and infrastructure, unlocking the talents of the whole nation and levelling up across our United Kingdom so that no town or community is ever again left behind or forgotten. In doing so, we will make our country the greatest place to invest or set up a business, the greatest place to send your kids to school and the greatest place in the world to live and bring up a family. To fulfil this mission, and win back the trust of the British people, we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety – and this code sets out how we must do so.

There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined
in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.

Crucially, there must be no delay – and no misuse of process or procedure by any individual Minister that would seek to stall the collective decisions necessary to deliver Brexit and secure the wider changes needed across our United Kingdom.

The time has come to act, to take decisions, and to give strong leadership to change this country for the better.

That is what this Government will do.


The Seven Principles of Public Life

Selflessness: Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest.

Integrity: Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

Objectivity: Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.

Accountability: Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny necessary to ensure this.

Openness: Holders of public office should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for doing so.

Honesty: Holders of public office should be truthful.

Leadership: Holders of public office should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.

One Britain One Nation: Echoes of Early British Fascism in OBON

June 25 is OBON Day, a new adventure in national pride set up by OBON, the “One Britain One Nation” movement. On Friday, thousands of children equipped with Union Jacks will sing the OBON anthem, One Britain, One Dream, the rousing chorus of which is “We are Britain / And we have one dream / To unite all people / In one great team.” It is no surprise that the UK Government and The Department of Education are in full support of this jamboree. As faith in Boris Johnson’s government evaporates by the minute, OBON Day provides a welcome diversion from the disasters of Covid and Brexit. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, described OBON Day as “an amazing project” adding that the Government had “already asked schools to be able to participate in this and we are very happy from the dispatch box to reiterate that endorsement of this project and encourage them to play their part in it.” So, putting children in the front line of a nationalist push was a clever move on the part of OBON. It captivated a desperate government and drew support from a disillusioned public. Though the event has attracted ridicule and apprehension in many quarters, it remains popular in others and is likely to be well supported.

Some have inevitably likened OBON to the Hitler Youth, perhaps without realizing that Britain has a dishonourable history of its own when it comes to press-ganging children into a nationalist cause. June 1925, for example, saw the founding of the FCC, the Fascist Children’s Clubs, an offshoot of the women’s units of the British Fascisti, a forerunner of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. If your offspring joined this junior branch of the movement, they could expect a well-organised afternoon of activities: “I. Roll call and salute the Union Jack. II. Hymn and Lord’s Prayer. III. Historical and national subjects, lives of good men and women etc. IV. Games. V. Competitions given out for home work. VI. Patriotic songs and items of news. VII. General tidying up. Monitors take special charge of the Union Jack. God Save the King.” The following year a Mr Harrison Hill founded the Patriotic Song League. The first song he wrote for children proclaimed the virtues of nationalism in the face of the common enemy, which in those days was Communism: “We are all Anti-Red, and We’re proud of it, / All Britons, and singing aloud of it / If Red, White and Blue isn’t good enough for you, / And if you don’t like the Empire, clear out of it!.” Clearly, OBON would be the first to distance itself from historical movements like the FCC, pointing to its own avowed focus on  “inclusion” and “tolerance” as evidence of very different ideals. Nonetheless, there are unsettling similarities to be found in the ideology of OBON and that of the far-right groups that took root in the Twenties and Thirties. What are they? A careful inspection of the OBON website reveals a great deal.

First, OBON has unwarrantably appointed itself guardian of the nation’s moral compass. This is a well-known characteristic of extremist movements. It says, my italics, that its aims are “to make Britain an international model of moral rectitude” and to “re-appropriate the flag of Great Britain so that it represents all people of good conscience”. So, if your ideas of what constitute moral rectitude and a good conscience are not congruent with OBON’s, then you won’t be admitted to the fold.

Second, OBON also sees itself, with breathtaking impertinence, as a custodian of culture – which again is a familiar badge of extremism, recalling the cultural depredations of Hitler and Stalin. OBON’s cultural aim, again my italics, is “to create a single culture that embraces and accommodates differences without over-emphasising and reinforcing them.” In other words, your cultural differences will be tolerated as long you submit to the overarching principles of the new nationalism, the new culture hastily cobbled together to replace the old. Step out of line, and you’re for it.

Third, the OBON website is littered with entirely gratuitous jingo carefully calculated to appeal to nationalist sentiment and sentimentality – yet another characteristic it shares with extremist movements of the past. For example, when introducing its CEO and founder, a former police officer, we are told that “it can be said with confidence that Kash Singh wore the Queen’s uniform with immense pride.” It goes on to say that Singh “feels proud to dedicate his role as the Chief Executive of OBON to Her Majesty and the people of this Nation.” The jingoism is visually intensified by the OBON logo, an embarrassing clip-art hotchpotch featuring British lions rampant as supporters, surmounted by the Crown of England. It falsely implies endorsement by the establishment and unsuccessfully tries to create an impression of tradition and heritage.

Fourth, worst of all perhaps, is OBON’s shameless cooption of ideals that we all strive for and that are attainable without recourse to nationalist jingo. OBON says it wants “a society built on compassion, tolerance and harmony based on mutual respect”. Well, don’t we all? But we all know from history that founding a nationalist movement is emphatically not the way to achieve this. All OBON seems to have learnt from history is this: that to give a dangerous movement traction in this day and age, one must cynically sugar the pill with the tame vocabulary of “inclusion” and “tolerance”. The only sense in which OBON might genuinely be described as “inclusive” is that people of colour are now welcome aboard the nationalist bandwagon in a way they wouldn’t have been in the 1920s.

If anyone is tempted to dismiss all this as unduly alarmist and consider OBON a harmless and well-meaning diversion, remember that extremist movements gain traction in hard times and thrive on chaos. They start from slender and apparently innocuous beginnings and grow into monsters. Kash Singh, who as a police officer won the Criminal Justice Award for his work during the 2001 Bradford riots, should know this well. If he has forgotten it, he should revisit history – and make a careful assessment of the people who write his copy and shape his publicity.

I have every hope that children will eventually resist the nonsense peddled by OBON and rebel against it. I leave you with an aggrieved report from Rotha Lintorn-Orman, the founder of the British Fascisti, describing how she was attacked by a group of uncooperative children in the East End in 1927: “We went down, a party of 15 strong, all women members, to further our campaign for the formation of the Fascist Children’s Clubs which are organizing around the country to counteract the propaganda of the Red Sunday School. Nearest the platform there were about 200 children, and the Reds behind kept on pushing at the back, so that the children were driven towards us. After a while the children started throwing things at us.” Good for them. Lintorn-Orman was forced to retreat in disarray.

Degas and Horses

The following extract, from Degas et l’impressionisme by Robert de la Signeranne, contains illuminating comments on dance but also some key observations on “movement” in Degas’ work as a whole. For example, he refers to Degas’ racehorse paintings which demonstrate just as great a facility in capturing movement and energy as the ballet pieces. Signeranne suggests that the fluid energy of both dancer and racehorse is difficult for the naked eye to perceive. Since photography was still in its infancy, it fell to the artist to capture and reveal the complex anatomical exertions that make up a gallop in the final furlong or a flurry of exercises at the barre. Art was moving away from generalised summaries of movement – the triumphant but stylised depictions of a rearing horses or a dancer in full jeté – that one might encounter in sculpture and painting in the 18th century. Now, the emphasis was on creating the persuasive illusion of movement as it happened, rather than as it might be imagined in retrospect, easily and conveniently expressed in a serviceable but markedly limited set vocabulary. Degas, says Signeranne, reveals the ineluctable mystery of movement.

“Sans doute, la danse elle-même avait été mille fois représentée. C’est depuis longtemps, c’est depuis toujours que l’artiste a été séduit par cette musique des gestes. On a même parfois la surprise d’en voir les figures qu’on croit les plus modernes, ou, si l’on veut, les plus « décadentes, » dans des monumens anciens, comme, par exemple, la petite statuette antique du cabinet des Médailles. Mais les gestes particuliers auxquels oblige l’étude préparatoire du ballet : l’exercice de la barre, la marche lente sur les pointes, les flexions jusqu’à terre, tout cela était aussi peu connu que les mouvemens justes du cheval au pas, au trot ou au galop. Degas nous l’a révélé. Ses danseuses ne se tiennent pas dans une attitude définie, comme les Camargos du xviiie siècle. Les pieds picotent le plancher, les mains semblent prendre appui sur l’air, les coudes pointent, les tailles se cambrent dans le tourbillon lumineux des gazes, et le pas rapide, saccadé comme un pizzicato, semble amener, d’une seule glissade, la ballerine jusqu’au bord de la rampe. C’est l’illusion même du mouvement.”