Go – Winning at Last?

I’ve always been sceptical about Artificial Intelligence (AI). It seems to me that ‘artificial’ and ‘intelligence’ don’t really go together, unless intelligence is rather narrowly defined, as, for example, the ability to consider a vast number of logical alternatives very rapidly indeed. Machines can do that well, and over the last decades sheer number-crunching (with, I acknowledge, some bells and whistles) has caught up with, and overtaken, human ability at games such as chess (where the ability to plan many moves ahead is of crucial importance). Processor speed is crucial and processors have got faster and faster. The human brain, though, is not merely a processor and number-crunching isn’t the name of every game.


It’s interesting, therefore, to read that Google’s DeepMind division has come up with a strategy and an algorithm for the ancient Chinese game of Go that can now defeat the best human players. The problem is that Go, though a more simple game in terms of its rules than chess, has many more branching possibilities. There are more arrangements of little black and white counters on the board than there are atoms in the universe (I wonder how they know that!). Even today’s fastest computer processors simply can’t consider the branching possibilities fast enough to plot the right move, the one that brings the highest chance of winning (perhaps quantum computers will eventually be capable of winning with this crude approach). Apparently, Go is a game in which it’s hard to know who’s winning – the tables can turn at the last possible moment in a cascade of black to white or vice versa.

DeepMind’s strategies involve an interestingly empirical approach, combined with the more traditional number-crunching one. The algorithm looks at the overall pattern on the board and compares it with a catalogue of patterns in other games and the resulting win or loss. And the more it plays (and, of course, it can play itself in virtual space millions of times a day) the more it learns about which overall patterns are successful and which are not. At a certain point, the algorithm switches to, or also uses, the classic ‘let’s consider all possible outcomes’ approach.

It’s a clever idea, a ‘broader-brush ’empirical’ start and then a fine-tuned logical attack. And it’s worked.

But how ‘intelligent’ is that? Certainly it sounds more like the way humans think and solve problems. We don’t have brains that work like computers, capable of simple logical planning at lighting speed. And it’s interesting to note that the best Go players in the world talk of using ‘instinct’ to decide on their moves. This could be something like the ‘pattern comparison’ approach. Is this the beginning of the creation of real intelligence in a machine?

Certainly, there’s a suggestion that this approach to artificial intelligence will be more fruitful, and might be applied to the diagnosis of illness or to business problems. I can see that that might be true – look at millions of combinations of symptoms and track who dies and who lives, and thereby ‘learn’ which patterns are the more promising. But there is one essential difference, which is why DeepMind’s computer can play itself – the options are constrained, however numerous they may be, and they are known. A given counter is either black or white. The problem is a digital, binary problem, rather than an analogue one. The possible ‘positions’ in business or sickness are unknown in advance.

I am a pessimist about artificial intelligence. We will never create a human mind by building a machine. And I find that consoling. I’ve worked in IT for more than 35 years and have read about one AI breakthrough after another. And yet, the most that’s been achieved has been to win at Go.

I have more faith in that other retreating dream – fusion energy. It will deliver sooner and more usefully than AI, but, even so, not next year.



Sitting Pretty

Monday’s edition of the BBC’s Panorama programme, Richard Bilton’s report on Putin’s Secret Riches, was a surprisingly sloppy and bitterly disappointing piece of mudslinging, at least by the BBC’s generally high standards of reporting, so it’s hardly surprising that spokesmen for Vladimir Putin, Russian’s President, were scornful.

putin mud

I am no fan of Vladimir Putin. He presides over a government that is inefficient, corrupt and shockingly illiberal, and he’s leading his country into relative poverty and isolation. Russia is a country where the judiciary is once again a mere instrument of Government, where racism and homophobia are institutionally entrenched, where bureaucracy and the rent-seeking of bureaucrats and elected officials stifles free enterprise, where organised crime thrives, where most of the media are state owned and controlled, where critics are shot or poisoned in foreign countries and where plausible accusations of meddling in the affairs of other countries are denied with aplomb.

At the heart of this horror stands an ever more popular President, firm in his denial, contemptuous of his enemies., immune to the mudslinging of local and foreign media, and impervious to the opinion of other Governments and the international community.

When accusations of corruption were made in 2008, Putin employed some wonderfully colourful and strikingly unstatesmanlike language to describe them. ‘It’s simply rubbish,‘ he said. ‘They just picked all of it out of someone’s nose and smeared it across their little papers.’

Monday’s BBC Panorama programme accused Putin of corruption on a massive scale. It alleged:

  • That Vladimir Putin is the richest man in Europe, with a personal fortune of more than 40 billion dollars
  • That he owns (or owns by proxy) vast swathes of shares in some of the country’s largest oil and gas companies
  • That he was given a 35 million dollar yacht by Roman Abramovich, the yacht’s running costs covered by the state
  • That he owns a vast palace on the Black Sea coast, built with money diverted from oligarchs’ donations for health care

The programme’s narrator and reporter interviewed businessmen and advisers who had once been close to Vladimir Putin, most of them now cowering in exile. But the sensationalist style of the programme, which included the clicking and whirring of a ‘spy’ camera as if capturing surreptitious stills of the protagonists – contrasted strikingly with the absence of real evidence.

Impudent Russian journalist, Stanislav Belkovsky, claims on camera that he’s seen evidence of an offshore company used to handle Putin’s wealth, and that ‘recorded conversations about ‘Mihail Ivanovich” (Putin’s nickname) prove this. Hearsay within hearsay, but no substantial documentary evidence.

In Nice, at a secret location, Sergey Pugachev makes similar claims but provides no evidence. He’s a banker wanted in Russia for ‘looting’ his own bailed-out bank. Richard Bilton fails, conspicuously, to mention that judgements made against Pugachev in the British Courts in 2014 (following a case brought by the Russian state) led to the freezing of much of his wealth, and that he fled Britain to France despite a court order that he should remain. Reliable witness?

Retired St Petersburg policeman, Andrei Zykov, claims there’s evidence Putin was given a villa in Spain by criminals in return for favours granted whilst Putin held public office in St Petersburg. There are ‘wire taps’ to ‘prove’ it, but we don’t hear them.

Another man, who also ‘fell out with the Kremlin’ claims that Roman Abramovich gave a 35 million dollar yacht to Putin, though the nominal owner is an offshore company. No evidence other than hearsay is offered to support the claim that Putin is the real owner.

And so on. Desperate stuff.

But, most sensationally, Adam Szubin, who oversees the imposition of sanctions at the US Treasury, announced that the US has long believed Putin to be corrupt. But he offered only accusation, and no evidence.

Of course, I don’t doubt that much of what Panorama alleged is true. But if Russian public opinion is ever to be turned against the President, and if the mud is ever to stick, they’ll have to do better than this.

Which One? Paintings by Serban Savu.

I’d like to buy another painting by Serban Savu. He’s a Romanian painter who lives in Cluj Napoca in central Transylvania, one of several young painters and sculptors who work together at the Paintbrush Factory, an industrial building that was converted several years ago into a collection of studios, exhibition and performance spaces. It’s well worth a visit. Cluj Napoca is home to one of the most prestigious art schools in the country, indeed in Europe, and many of the best-known painters of Eastern Europe, some of them known globally, began their studies there – Adrian Ghenie, Marius Bercea, Mircea Suciu, and Serban Savu.

I first saw Serban Savu’s work at an exhibition in Prague (2013) called Nightfall, curated by Jane Neal  and I’ve loved his paintings ever since. I visited Cluj two years ago, met Serban and bought a painting – Landscape with Clerk – which now hangs in my apartment in Prague.

I’d like to buy another to hang in LLP Group’s offices. Which of these should I buy (I can’t afford all of them, and in any case there isn’t enough space)?



Live and work in former Communist Eastern Europe and you’ll be familiar with brutal apartment blocks such as this one, crudely built from cheap concrete, and planted without fanfare on a featureless expanse of dirt, a landscape cleared of natural vegetation. For me, perhaps, it has the special appeal of a souvenir. I’ve seen these blocks in Budapest, in Chisinau, in Bucharest, in Kosice and Moscow. I’ve shivered in them in winter, and sweated in them during the summer.

The painting is called Meeting, though it’s actually a number of meetings, some in progress, and some about to happen. Alternatively, it’s one group brought together by the painter, or the dog. It’s a frozen moment, full of possibility, full of character, and beautifully composed. It’s always a test for me to wonder if I can go on looking at a painting for days, weeks, months or years and still be drawn into it. This passes the test.

The Guardian

6 the guardian

This one contains just two elements, a painting by Filippo Lippi (Madonna of Humility) which Serban Savu saw in Milan, and a man who may be its guard, each, for different and obvious reasons, quite unconscious of the other. But as in Meeting what’s important lies in the relationship between the two, the guard dozing in quiet sympathy with the painting, or is he dreaming the painting. And who guards whom?

The Allegory of Painting

11 the allegory of painting

This and The Guardian were shown at Serban Savu’s solo exhibition at the Plan B Gallery in Berlin – Pictures at an Exhibition. I think this shows the main hall of the railway station at Cluj, but I might be mistaken (I spent a hour there attempting to buy a ticket to Budapest before discovering that the line was being repaired and no trains were running). Again, the appeal may be sentimental – I know those halls, those wet tiles, those kiosks selling bright fizzy drinks and biscuits made of powder, and those adverts.

Which one?

Swings, Traffic Lights and Roundabouts

The roundabout was my undoing when I made my last, futile attempt to learn to drive some twenty-five years ago. Yesterday’s depressing report that suggests we need even more of them is the final nail in the coffin of my motoring ambitions. I know now that I’ll never be able to do it.

The underlying problem is that I can’t do more than one thing at once. I can concentrate ferociously on one thing, and switch, in the blink of an eye, to another, but two things at once just isn’t possible. My overall ‘throughput’ is good, but I do things in series not in parallel.

True, I can breathe and walk at the same time, but those are instinctive activities. If there is more than one thing I have to concentrate on at once, I fail. That’s why I could learn to play the oboe (one note at a time) but not the piano (two hands being directed to do different things). How can you tell one hand to do this whilst telling the other hand to do that?

I tried to get through the entire miserable process of learning to drive in just one week. It didn’t help that I loathed my driving instructor. He was an irritable man, and spending six hours a day with him for a week, was absolute hell. Actually, I think he loathed me even more than I loathed him. Perhaps the problem was that I simply didn’t enjoy being told what to do. From time to time he would seize control of the wheel or slam the brakes on using his own set of pedals, and he could never satisfactorily explain why.

In approaching a roundabout he would issue utterly contradictory instructions, getting me started on the ‘slow-down and stop’ process (down through the gears, one by one, up and down with the clutch, and then the brakes) and then, quite suddenly, he’d reverse his instructions. If there was no one on the roundabout he’d switch hysterically to ‘No, go, go, go….’. I can’t imagine ever doing all the ‘slow-down and stop’ things on my own, as well as looking out of the window and turning the wheel.

Finally, I got out of the car and told him to do it himself. He drove me back to the Driving School and I caught the next train home. And that was that.

The good thing about traffic lights is that they’re a matter of stop or go (amber is stop as you approach, go if you are stationery). You can see them from a distance, so once you’ve started the ‘slow-down and stop’ process you can reasonably expect to complete it.

So I prefer traffic lights and I’m horrified to read in this recent report that 80% of traffic lights should be entirely removed, and replaced, I presume, by roundabouts. Traffic lights, we are told, cost the UK around 16 billion pounds a year in lost GDP, assuming that they delay every journey by two minutes, on average.

The roundabout, we are told, is greatly more virtuous:

  • Greater overall throughput (16 billion pounds more throughput)
  • Lower CO2 emission levels (because of that ‘STOP-no, don’t stop – GO’ feature)
  • Fewer serious accidents (speeds are lower when accidents do occur)
  • Easier for pedestrians to understand where traffic is coming from
  • Prettier (often planted beautifully, and sometimes bearing welcoming messages such as ‘Swindon, You’re Welcome To It’)

There is much that you can read about roundabouts in Wikipedia. For example, that the French have the most (indeed 30% of all the world’s roundabouts), and that the British have the highest proportion to road surface (these could be useful cocktail party factoids to go with how to avoid that contraflow system near Hove).

Over the years I’ve learned to be a useful passenger, despite my not actually knowing how to drive (well, I know, but I just can’t do). I generally keep a watchful eye on the driver and I’m known for the useful advice I offer him or her from time to time. I can now pass through roundabouts without undue anxiety, thanks to decades of trauma therapy that followed my abandonment of driving lessons all those years ago. It’s ok as long as I’m not at the wheel. But I will always avoid Swindon and Hemel Hempstead if I can. These two towns are home to ‘magic roundabouts’, devices that are a level more complex than the simple ‘binary’ roundabout.


A ‘magic roundabout’ is a central circle with an additional ‘satellite’ circle for each approach road. Enter one at your peril. Elderly drivers have been known to get lost in these for decades.




Taxing Times -Google and Tax

Google will pay 130 Million GBP in back taxes to the UK Government, in settlement of any potential dispute as to whether it should have paid more in the past. Whether Google has thereby established a new tax rate for the future I’m not sure. But if it has, it amounts to a derisory rate – about 3% on the real profit it obtains from its UK sales, some say.


Large multinationals, especially those providing software or services, take enormous and conscious advantage of the lack of clarity surrounding concepts that we too easily take for granted – such as the concept of a sale.

I am no tax expert, but I would presume that the idea of corporation tax, the tax on a company’s profits, is to tax economic activity in the country where that activity is carried out. This is fair recompense for the physical infrastructure, legal protection, and military protection that the taxing government provides.

But how do you define economic activity and its location?

In determining profit, there is on the one side revenue (usually a company’s sales) and on the other side there is cost. In general a company will want to record its revenue in the most lenient tax jurisdiction it can find.

So that’s why, if you’re a British entity you may well find that when you buy services from Google, you are actually buying them from Ireland. You will receive an invoice from an Irish company, and you will pay to an Irish company (let’s put aside the issue of whether an Irish company can run a bank account in the UK – that’s probably another complex matter, but we won’t go into it here). Your contract for the provision of services (an agreement that services will be supplied in return for money) is with an Irish company. This means that revenue is booked in Ireland. Google will then subtract costs and pay tax at a relatively lenient corporation tax rate on the difference.

In some circumstances you can imagine that Google needn’t even run a company in the UK. It might operate entirely in Ireland, and its forays into the UK might be confined to the occasional salesman’s visit. Indeed some companies operate in this way. They simply provide goods or services from another country. If you buy contact lenses, for example, from a Czech company and receive them in the UK, the Czech company’s costs will amount only to delivery costs, but even these would be contracted with a logistics firm in the Czech Republic. Fair enough? Possibly.

But of course Google does incur costs in the UK, and some of these, one might argue, are related to the services it ‘sells’ from Ireland. There may be a marketing, or sales department based in the UK, whose job is to cajole British companies into using Google’s services. And I would imagine that Google does indeed offset these costs against Irish revenue, by subcontracting ‘marketing and sales’ services from the Irish entity to the UK one, with a mark up on costs for the UK company. Thus a small profit is made in the UK on services provided by the UK entity to the Irish one. But the main profit is made in Ireland where customer revenues are booked, and where tax is lower.

But I also know for a fact that Google does incur other costs, such as marketing costs, in Ireland. I regularly receive calls from Czech (and also English) speakers based in Ireland who explain to me that by spending more on Google’s Adwords services I will sell more of my own company’s software and services.

The conceptual difficulty lies in the definition of a sale and where it takes place.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (the 8,000 page version) defines a sale as:

  1. the action or an act of giving or agreeing to give something to a person in exchange for money

Putting aside ‘agreeing to give’, a stage in the process (signing a contract) which doesn’t allow a company to book revenue, this definition is woefully inadequate for our purposes. Whilst it does cover the giving of goods (as in a shop), services (‘giving’ consulting, whether at a client’s offices or remotely) and the granting of a right to use software, it doesn’t help us to clarify where the ‘act’ takes place.

Many companies regard the ‘act’ as simply that of printing a bill (an invoice). Even if vast costs are incurred in the UK by sales representatives, in marketing, and so on, the ‘act of sale’ happens in another country because that is where the bills are created (and you could even imagine that these bills might be created by accounting clerks in the UK using software running on UK-based servers). In the end what it comes down to is that the ‘act’ is often generously defined solely in terms of the legal location of the company into whose accounts the bill will be booked.

If you broaden the concept of the ‘act’ to include all the surrounding precursor activities, such as marketing, business management, warehousing, even manufacture, then you might go a long way, with some kinds of company, towards capturing a larger taxable profit.

But take Amazon. Amazon does, indeed, do many of these things in the UK, but it’s one of those large international companies currently under scrutiny for its low taxable profit.

In any case, this approach doesn’t work well with software companies such as Google or Microsoft, or any of those whose marketing, products and delivery mechanisms are all digital. It isn’t easy to say where the ‘acts’ of sale occur. Underlying software (including its development), databases, support teams, even marketing teams, may be located outside the jurisdiction of the companies that are buying the company’s services. So, where should profit be taxed?

It’s not easy. If you go so far as to say that a company should be taxed in the country where its customers are you open up a Pandora’s box of complexity. My companies, LLP Group and systems@work, sell software and consulting services in seventy or so countries around the world. How would we go about declaring profits in each of these?

Some of these countries, it is true, charge a withholding tax on invoices we send to our customers. So, if we bill 100 to Albania, we might receive only 80. This mechanism, I suppose, is designed to prevent the movement of profit from Albania to the Czech Republic, and if we furnish proof of this payment to the Czech tax authorities, we can reduce the profits we pay here. But this mechanism is generally and rightly regarded as obstructive and most countries abandon it when they are fully integrated into the global economy. It is a huge disincentive to business, and more often than not simply results in fees being uplifted by the selling company to compensate for the frequent failure to make all the paperwork work.

It isn’t easy to set policy, but certainly something needs to be done. It seems obvious to the man in the street that Google ‘acts out’ its invoices in Ireland to reduce its tax bill in the UK.

But does the solution lie in the harmonisation of tax policy, or in taxing sales activity using a broader definition, one that reaches as far as the location of the customer?

Sorry, it is a dull topic, but it’s a hugely important and difficult one, and it concerns billions in taxes.

The Chutzpah of Nyet – Putin and Denial

Hats off to the Russians for the sheer audacity of their denial.

  • No, they had no hand in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The British Judicial Report is a ‘joke’, part of ‘an international political conspiracy’, an outrageous calumny. You can see the report here.
  • No, they had no hand in the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17
  • No, they are providing no assistance to separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine
  • No, they did not send little green men into Crimea in advance of their annexation (no, on second thoughts, as they admitted later, they did)



In totalitarian societies it is assertion that makes things true, and denial that makes them false, irrespective of the facts. Remember Orwell’s 1984. What was true yesterday may always have been false if denied tomorrow.

Russia isn’t (yet) a totalitarian society but it’s certainly not an open one. Official assertion and denial are all too often the bedrock of the ‘truth’ that’s peddled by state-dominated media.

When I briefly studied political philosophy, at a time when a generous ‘relativism’ ruled and the concept of ‘ideology’ was made much of, we were taught to consider that, depending on your point of view and values, the truth can seem very different. Facts themselves, or at least the language we use to describe them, are always a reflection of our attitudes, always a betrayal of bias. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, etc. One might as well say nothing for fear of self-incrimination.

But I think it’s true that the world really does look very different from Putin’s point of view. His background, his experience, his instincts, all tell him that the game he plays is no more and no less than the game all leaders and all governments play. He simply cannot conceive that the judiciary or the media in any state are not instruments of government. A judicial inquiry cannot be independent. It can only be ‘politicised’.

I choose to believe that this isn’t true. Indeed, I know it isn’t true. Whatever anyone might say about the corrosive effect of nearly six decades of life in liberal democracies (mainly in the UK), however often our ‘Western’ societies fall short, which they often do, however often conspiracy theorists ‘prove’ their points, and however often I might be mocked for my middle-class, bourgeois, self-interested complacency, I do believe that our media are very largely free, that our judiciary is very largely independent, and that our laws are applied consistently and fairly. I believe that we live in a very largely open society and that our democracy is real, or, at the very least, pretty impressive by international standards. I won’t be cynical about power and its way with the truth.

All ideologies are distorting, but some are more distorting than others.

The cruel killing of Alexander Litvinenko was very probably state-sponsored – Russian-sponsored, I mean. The circumstantial and direct evidence point fairly and squarely at both Lugovoi and Kovtun as the killers. What else could explain the appalling trail of dangerous radioactivity from aeroplane to hotel room, from football stadium to teapot.

Denial might be impressive, but will gain Russia nothing. As the Ruble sinks and Russia recedes into further isolation, who will benefit? Putin, perhaps, and his coterie? I don’t see how. Certainly not the Russian people.

Hocus Pocus – Religion and Nonsense

I usually start the day in the laziest imaginable way, first, by not getting out of bed for at least half an hour after my alarm has sounded, and then by watching BBC Breakfast. I’ve recently acquired something called IPTV and so the BBC’s UK-only channels can be piped directly to the TV in my sitting-room.


Breakfast television is pap, a cocktail of undemanding topics and mild jocularity. It goes well with a hot shower, a cup of tea and a biscuit called a Morning Tea Finger (see above). But my ears pricked up the other day when the subject of religion came up (you’d think that would be no-go before about lunchtime). It was prompted by a report that had just been published by some august institution, though I can’t remember which (you see, I don’t really pay attention). Apparently, more than half of the UK’s population now describe themselves as non-religious.

‘Worse than that,’ one of the invited commentators said, ‘Fewer and fewer are going to church, temple, mosque or synagogue.’



I would think it’s cause for celebration, myself. At least for those of us, like me, who can’t bear the posturing and utterances of most religious figures (consider the sanctimonious antics and unctuous, oleaginous tones of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury). It’s all hocus-pocus to me, nonsense, superstition, and it’s socially retrogressive too. I can’t understand how anyone can be taken in by it.

I describe myself as ‘culturally Christian’. That’s not something I can undo since it’s the context I was born into, but I’d as happily be ‘culturally Buddhist’, or ‘culturally Moslem’, ‘culturally Hindu’ or ‘culturally Jewish.’ I don’t know that these ways of being would actually be very different from one another. Most religions recommend compassion as a good way of getting started. But I’m not sure about ‘culturally Jehovah’s Witness’ since it’s not so clear to me what that would mean (I certainly wouldn’t reject blood transfusion or refuse the companionship of non-Witness folks). If religions were biscuits, the Church of England would certainly be the Morning Tea Finger. It’s a relatively tolerant and innocuous biscuit.

I am all for atheism. I enjoy ‘religious’ moments at the top of mountains, in the naves of great Gothic cathedrals and in the middle of great symphonies, just as anyone does, but let’s not let moments of contemplation and awe get churned into dogma. Frankly, I can’t understand how you can ever get from what one might loosely describe as the ‘spiritual’ (without any other-worldly implications) to a fat book of rules such as the Catechism.

But religion doesn’t necessarily place my friends and family quite beyond the pale, though I find it a challenge, the more so when it affects their opinions and actions. For example, there’s a branch of my family that’s staunchly Jehovah’s Witness and they are the kindest of all. I have a niece who is fanatically Roman Catholic and a nephew who is falling prey to Russian Orthodoxy but I won’t entirely reject them. Frankly, though, it’s hard to know what to do or say. There’s a part of me that insists they must be stupid to believe the nonsense that they do, and yet they’re not stupid. And some of my best friends are religious too (well, a small few of my friends).

It wouldn’t trouble me at all if I didn’t also believe that nonsense, in the long run, does harm.

Yesterday’s Heroes

Just outside Budapest there’s a place where yesterday’s heroes stand, like children doing penance in a corner. Memento Park contains most of the monumental statues erected between 1949 and 1989 by Hungary’s Communist regime. I remember them well from the late 1980s when they stood proudly on the main roads into the city, welcoming travellers to a socialist utopia, or in the largest public spaces. Just like the red star that topped the cupola of Budapest’s glorious Parliament building, everyone thought they’d stay where they were forever. And then a helicopter removed the star, and almost in the blink of an eye, in the early 1990s, yesterday’s heroes were all gone.


It’s a sad place, a reminder of tyranny and cruelty, but also of colossal human folly, committed by many in good faith. You’ll see Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, the heroes of the 1919 revolution (which, like so many revolutions, deteriorated into horror), and statues commemorating the liberation of Hungary in 1945 by the Red Army, and the sacrifice of thousands of Soviet lives that it entailed.


The park is an uncomfortable reminder of a past that was often cruel, but it’s also an example of crude revisionism. Were Marx and Engels bad men? They didn’t foresee tyranny. Should the sacrifice of millions of Russian lives in defeating fascism be forgotten and their symbols reviled? True, many of these statues are crudely propagandist, emblems of tyranny, but not all of them.

I’m reminded of this issue by the controversy that surrounds a statue of Cecil Rhodes that stands above the entrance to Oriel College in Oxford, to which Rhodes made a large donation, and which many now want to remove. The Oxford Union, a student debating chamber, last night voted narrowly in favour of its removal, but I don’t think the vote binds the College or the University. Another statue of Rhodes was recently removed from the University of Cape Town. He offends current sensibilities, his British and white supremacism no longer acceptable. Oriel College is resisting, but has pandered to modern sensitivities by placing a disclaimer on its outside walls.


What’s the right thing to do?

The first question to ask is ‘what are statues for?’

  • Some are intended (as at Oriel College) to honour their subjects
  • Some are deliberately propagandist. They promote and celebrate a particular political or religious idea. Many of the statues in Memento Park fall into this category.
  • Some celebrate the victors in a zero-sum game, and the virtues they extol depend on which side you’re on
  • Some reinforce the power of a single living individual such as Stalin, Kim Jong-un, etc.
  • Some adorn graves and thereby have a special ritual or religious significance
  • Some promote ideas that have universal appeal (think of Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais)
  • Some might stand as a warning to others (Ozymandias)
  • Some deliberately remind us of the iniquities of the past

And, does their significance and purpose change as time passes and deeds recede, or as values change?

Is removal a sensible way of expressing disapproval? Removal by destruction, or by altering a statue’s context (as removal to the Memento Park does)? How bad does someone have to be to be erased from public view?

  • Statues of Jimmy Savile (a pioneering and popular DJ) were immediately removed when it was revealed that he was a serial molester of children.
  • Saddam Hussein’s status was joyfully hauled down in Baghdad following the disastrous American-led invasion
  • The largest statue of Stalin in the world was removed from Prague in 1962 after his crimes were quietly acknowledged by Khrushchev.
  • There are countless statues of wicked medieval kings and queens. Should they, too, be removed, or has so much time passed that they have now become morally neutral, no longer an expression of approval or disapproval?
  • Churchill didn’t get everything right. He never paid his tailors and he shared many of Cecil Rhodes views on race and empire. I suspect, though, that his statue will stand in Parliament Square until the universe winds down.
  • Oliver Cromwell stands nearby, a much more dubious figure (he killed a King, presided over a military dictatorship, and committed acts of appalling cruelty against Catholics in Ireland and Scotland).
  • There are no statues of Hitler on public display in Germany, but there are images in museums, and a bust of Hitler on display at a military museum in the USA.

It is a matter of historical interest how a sculptor expresses an idea, whether his or others’, and we should always be reminded of the distorting power of propaganda. But after how long, or in what context, does a statue become an item of historical interest rather than an expression of current (ever more global) attitudes?

On balance I believe it would be foolish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. He is part of our history, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. We know what he was, what he did, and what he believed, and it does us no harm to be reminded of his achievements, whether they are to be praised or loathed. But he is surely no danger.


Snow, Titian and Vanity

Prague is beautiful when the snow falls, at least for those few days whilst it remains fresh and untrudged. It’s a few years since it lingered long enough for anyone to enjoy, but it was still there and pristine over the weekend when my partner and I took the 22 tram to the castle to visit the Titian and Vanity exhibition.


It’s a small collection (always a relief), put together on a fairly slim pretext – the existence of a few minor Titians in Prague, variations on the theme of a wide-bosomed lady considering her own beauty, a subject that brought Titian and his Warhol-style ‘Factory’ considerable commercial success. There’s also a masterpiece borrowed from the Uffizi, another from Barcelona, and – my favourite painting in the show – a rather intriguing painting of a woman transfixed by her own image in a mirror, to the evident distaste of a man I presume to be her suitor (see above). She’s more interested in her own assessment of her beauty than in his judgement, and she shows no interest in him. He must simply hold up the mirror, as if it’s the only route to her heart.

The exhibition is otherwise propped up by portraits of Titian, some of them self-portraits, and includes copies of Titians, paintings from the school of Titian, and a few engravings I wasn’t patient enough to look at and understand. I don’t mean to sound philistine, but the show didn’t exactly shimmer. It also happened to be the worst-labelled art exhibition I’ve seen in years (one painting was labelled as painted by Titian twenty years after his death), and the English translations were unreadable.

The globalism of the art world, though not new (Titans were brought to Prague even in the sixteenth century) is equalled by the globalism of the café world. As much fun was to be had outside the gallery, in the snow, and in gazing at the Lesser Town’s rooftops from a fabulously well-sited Starbucks, where, as it happens, globalism is celebrated through an intriguing map, which I presume to show the provenance of the cafe’s visitors.



Titians are fewer and further between. The best are to be seen in his hometown of Venice.




Two Musicians To Be Proud Of

I went to the Rudolfinum in Prague on Friday to see (and hear) the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra play the First Symphonies of Martinu and Mahler. Both are exhilarating works, the Martinu (1941) entirely new to me, the Mahler (1889) all too familiar (I remember playing an excruciating and very audible wrong note as principal oboist when the Oxford University Orchestra rehearsed the symphony in 1977, and the shame still resonates). The shimmering Czech sounds and rhythms of Martinu’s style are firmly rooted in the Czech national tradition, whereas Mahler’s range is wider, more allusive, even mocking, and his emotional range swings excitingly from sentimentality to sarcasm. So I prefer Mahler. It still seems the more daring work, even though it’s 52 years older.

In a sense, you need a ringmaster for Mahler rather than a conductor. Jiri Belohlavek is a great and distinguished conductor, but to my mind a little too stern and austere for Mahler’s extravagant palette. He doesn’t quite let go. You need a touch of vulgarity for Mahler.

The Czech Philharmonic is nevertheless a great orchestra. I was the guest of the second bassoonist, Vaclav Vonasek, who won a competition, Talent Roku (Talent of the Year) that LLP Group sponsored for four years in succession, a decade ago. It was based on the BBC’s competition – Young Musician of the Year – and I had the help of a good friend and former BBC Music Producer, Jill White, in designing the competition. A jury travelled around the Czech and Slovak Republics  and chose four young musicians to perform four concertos with a professional orchestra and conductor at a public concert in Prague. A final jury then chose a winner, who was awarded a year of study and subsistence at the Royal College of Music in London.

Vaclav Vonasek was the last of our four winners (various global financial crises eventually curbed our generosity). In London, he met our second winner, Jana Novakova (a violinist), who had made her scholarship last for an extra two years, and there they fell in love, and on their return to Prague they married.


Both struggled for a while, as artists do, but then Jana joined the Smetana Trio, and Vaclav, eventually, the Czech Philharmonic. Jana left the trio to have two children, a boy and girl, but has recently joined the Prazak Quartet and is playing all over the world. And Vaclav has just been offered the position of second bassoon and contrabassoon at the Berlin Philharmonic, the best and the most famous orchestra in the world. Hence his last performance with the Czech Philharmonic. He has two years to prove himself, before being offered a permanent position, but I have no doubt that he will succeed.


Jana and Vaclav are two of the best musicians I’ve met. There were times when both felt they could never live well from music or feel sufficiently cherished as musicians. It is a difficult, often unrewarding profession, and you are only as good as your last performance, never entirely secure. But they have succeeded and I am very proud of them and of our part in helping them.

The next two years will be difficult, with Vaclav living some of the time in Berlin, and Jana largely in Prague with the children, four hours’ drive away. But they will find a way. If Vaclav wins a permanent place in the greatest orchestra in the world, they will probably all move to Berlin, where I have no doubt Jana will also find acclaim.