Sunday, 22 April 2012

White is the new green

ACCORDING to a national headline: “Big energy firms ‘treat consumers with contempt’.” The report, based on market research by the pollsters YouGov, suggested that people get more annoyed by the companies’ big profits than their own big bills. Which is odd, but perhaps says something interesting (and uncomfortable) about human nature. Whichever way you look at it, though, it’s clear that the big energy firms could do with buffing up their public image. How apt, then, that facing that critical report should be a full-page advertisement for Scottish Power, claiming that they are “making a world of difference”. By “listening”, being “socially aware”, and by commitment to “renewable energy solutions”. All thoroughly admirable commitments. And all claims you will hear repeated, in one similar form or other, by a host of companies from BP to Siemens – never mind those rapidly proliferating firms that actually specialise in renewables. These days, clearly, every company with even a passing interest in power wants to paint itself green. Which is a good thing, if they’re consistent and honest about it. But perhaps they’d be better off painting themselves white. It’s long been known that the melting polar ice-caps have a vicious-circle effect on global warming. The more ice melts, the less white there is to reflect back the sun’s rays, and the more dark sea to absorb its heat – causing more ice to melt. And so on. The warming effect of black surfaces is why tarmac roads get shimmering, meltingly hot in summer. Put together the black roads and the black tiled or felted roofs and you’ve got one of the reasons why cities tend to be a degree or few warmer than the surrounding countryside. Why in summer, towns and cities can become almost unbearable. Two years ago, US energy secretary Steven Chu suggested that if roads and rooftops were painted white, it would reduce the need for air-conditioning. Now scientists at Concordia University in Canada have come up with some startling figures on the subject. They suggest that increasing the solar reflectiveness, or “albedo”, of roads and roofs – essentially by painting them white – could reduce a city’s power consumption by ten per cent. And that if it was done worldwide, the total effect would be to provide a CO2 offset of between 130billion and 150bn tonnes – the same as taking every car in the world off the road for 50 years. It sounds easy. It also sounds too good to be true. They say: “Increased albedo can decrease atmospheric temperature and counter some of the anticipated temperature increases from global warming.” So all we need is a bit of white paint. Well, a lot of white paint actually. And an awful lot of political will and international co-operation. Which might not be quite so easy – but surely worth trying.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Weeping Woman, the power and the glory

Picasso's Weeping Woman as shoulder-bag
IN 1937, at the age of 55, Pablo Picasso was already widely regarded as the greatest living painter.
His Blue Period, his Rose Period, his African Period, his development of Cubism and collage, his neoclassical phase and what he regarded as his two finest works – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and The Three Dancers – were all behind him.
He was not yet known as a political or ‘protest’ painter. But the civil war that had broken out in his native land, Spain, appalled him.
In April 1937 German bombers joined in the carnage, virtually destroying the Basque town of Guernica. It was an act of unprovoked savagery with no obvious point or meaning.
Later it would appear simply to have been a practice run for the Nazis’ coming attacks on Poland and elsewhere. At the time it horrified the world by its apparent randomness, and inspired what is probably Picasso’s best-known painting.
If you were to take a poll among art critics to determine the finest 20th century painting, I suspect his Guernica would come out top.
The huge – three and a half metres long – mural-style blast of surrealist anguish, all done in shades of grey and black, was commissioned by the doomed Spanish Republican government and is now on show in Madrid.
But it was not Picasso’s only artistic response that year to the horrors of the Spanish war. The other – along with a few preliminary sketches and other treatments of the same subject – is currently in London in the exhibition Picasso and Modern British Art at Tate Britain.
In dramatic contrast to the monochrome gloom of Guernica (present only in the form of a half-size photographic reproduction), The Weeping Woman is rendered in strong, almost garish, colours.
It is much smaller, a life-size head and shoulders, yet to my mind rivals the larger work for emotional power. It is exquisite, and exceptionally sad.
Unlike Guernica, you can stand close to it and take it all in, absorb it at the purely human, face-to-face level. To do so is alone worth the cost of entrance to the exhibition.
Seeing great art up close is always a more intense experience than you can get from any reproduction (though books and prints have the advantage that you don’t have to jostle with other gallery-goers to get a good look).
There is something disturbing about the belittling commodification of art in the souvenir shop. How much is lost, though – and what awkward questions raised – by the conversion of The Weeping Woman from oil-on-canvas to print-on-shoulderbag.
Yet that is the form in which I (or, rather, my 12-year-old) brought the work away.
And it has to be said that it makes a great fashion accessory, even if most of Picasso’s original emotive intent has been lost in the transition from art to mere design.
I wonder what Picasso himself would have thought. Come to that, I wonder what the great man, who in 1944 joined the French Communist Party, would have made of the fact that rich collectors have spent more on his works than those of any other artist. Perhaps, being as much egotist as leftist, he wouldn’t much have minded.
The Tate exhibition, meanwhile, is a good opportunity to see a smattering of those works together.
It’s not very kind, though, to those British artists whose efforts are hung alongside the Picassos.
Only the abstract, and occasionally faintly surreal, work of Ben Nicholson may possibly have influenced Picasso. Otherwise the influence appears to have been all one way.
And while others may make a case for the sculptor Henry Moore, for me only the work of Graham Sutherland comes close to living with the Picassos on almost equal terms.
Sutherland (1903-1980) is an under-rated artist, possibly because of his religious themes and overt Catholicism. His Crucifixion and Deposition, purely as depictions of human suffering, stand up well alongside Picasso’s Weeping Woman, which is no mean feat.
By contrast, the Picasso-wannabe Duncan Grant (1885-1979) appears an unskilled dauber and the currently lionised David Hockney as a distinctly minor talent.
The extraordinary achievement of Picasso, clearly on view in this exhibition, is to have taken on almost every art movement or style of the 20th century and done most of them better than anyone else. A couple of endearingly inferior early Impressionist works only underscore that point.
He also happens to have answered that difficult question “What is art?” better than most.
“Art,” he said, “is a lie that makes us realise the truth.”

HAS the government really performed an immediate U-turn on plans to legalise state snooping on all our emails, phone-calls, texts and internet connections?
Have they realised that this is, as one commentator put it, “among the most serious threats to freedom in the democratic world”?
That, as the Tories’ own former leadership candidate David Davis said, it “would be expensive, unnecessary, and a huge invasion of everybody’s privacy”?
That the hitherto complaisant LibDem MPs might actually rebel on this issue – and some Tories too?
Or is their manifesto pledge on civil liberties really as worthless as David Cameron’s election promise that the NHS would be “safe” with him?
It all seems a little unclear just now.
But there is a delightful aptness in the suggestion that we should protest by sending copies of all our emails – the more of them, and the more trivial the better – direct to home secretary Theresa May at

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Maude must carry the can

OF all the delusions we labour under in this supposedly free society, the fiction of free speech is one of the most enduring.
In reality we have no such thing. And it is by no means clear that we should have.
Our words, as much as our actions, can have consequences. Just ask any Islamist cleric jailed or deported for inciting hatred.
You can’t ask Derek Bentley, because he was hanged in 1953 for allegedly telling his friend Chris Craig to “let him have it” just before the 16-year-old Craig shot a policeman. Whether he meant “shoot him” or “give him the gun”, his words had doubly tragic consequences.
You might ask Francis Maude, the cabinet office minister, whether he feels responsible for the 40 per cent burns that put Diane Hill of York in hospital last week.
When Maude suggested motorists take the “sensible precaution” of filling up jerry cans with petrol in case of shortages he was wrong. Dangerously, stupidly, irresponsibly wrong.
Mrs Hill took that “sensible precaution” and ended up in a critical condition as a result.
Was Maude culpable?
My friend Jeremy thinks not.
“In a free society stupid people should be able to say stupid things,” he said. “If other people then act on them, that is ultimately their responsibility.”
Perhaps. But as a government minister, does Maude not have some responsibility for his words, and the effects they have?
The excuse “I was only following orders” may not exonerate the perpetrator of war crimes – but that doesn’t let the officer who issued the fatal order off the hook.
Maude was only issuing advice, not an order, but it was deeply bad advice delivered with the authority of office.
Jeremy concluded: “Maude is not personally responsible for that woman’s injuries, but his position as a fit and proper person to hold ministerial office in a UK government should now be challenged.”
I’d certainly agree with the second part of that.
Government responsibility for the panic buying that left some filling stations empty of fuel before a delivery drivers’ strike has even been called can hardly be denied.
Like a Mexican wave, an outbreak of racism or schoolyard bullying, the fuel-buying frenzy is an irrational behaviour that generates its own barely stoppable momentum. It’s one of those social phenomena which shows we’re not as far advanced on the other mammals as we like to think we are.
As with a run on a bank, it only has to be reported that it might happen to ensure that it does.
In this case, the instigators were the government, whether by inept accident or cynical design, I couldn’t say.
Either way, the rights or wrongs of the delivery drivers’ case have been swept aside in the hysteria.
The matter is complicated – and neither ready headlines, mass hysteria nor, it seems, this government are made for dealing with complexity.

THERE used to be a T-shirt slogan: “The trouble with political jokes is… they tend to get elected.” Which is, I suppose, a sort of political joke itself, though not a very funny one.
Then there’s this, which isn’t very funny either – not because it isn’t true, but because it’s too true:
“Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.”
Laugh? I nearly grimaced.
This paints such a precise and painful picture of the present British government that it has to be hotly topical.
Yet in fact it’s a quote from comedian George Carlin, who happens to be (a) American, and (b) deceased. He died in 2008, aged 71. A good man gone.
Funnier, and definitely topical, was a Haldane cartoon in last week’s Times.
One be-suited man to another: “If you’re on a tight budget we can arrange access to Nick Clegg.”
Works on so many levels.