Tuesday, 12 May 2009
The Prime Minister who took the bus to work
One of my most cherished possessions is a lithograph, This England, by the Polish exile Feliks Topolski. It was part of the Schoolprints collection commissioned as the Second World War came to an end by the husband and wife team of Brenda and Derek Rawnsley. Derek, a pilot, was killed before the conflict was over. The series was commissioned so that impoverished schoolchildren would have the chance to look at something ‘good’ as they laboured in their classrooms. At its centre are the wartime leaders Winston Churchill and Clement Atlee, the Cavalier and Puritan united for the nation’s good, surrounded by its institutions: the army, the police, the judiciary, the church and the people. It may be significant that Topolski had survived the carnage of his native Poland to become a British citizen in 1947. He wasn’t embarrassed by democracy and freedom, and his is a wonderfully romantic and inspiring vision of Britain, made all the more appealing by the current slew of sleaze emanating from the Commons.
Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead whose personal integrity and moral centre mark him out as a shining light among our current crop of parliamentarians, has collected an intriguing array of writings by Atlee, the modest and clear-minded politician who took the bus to work. Attlee’s Great Contemporaries: The Politics of Character is published by Continuum at the end of this month. Atlee’s book reviews, are especially striking, precise and measured, benefitting from his proximity to the great people and events of his day. In a review of Violet Bonham Carter’s account of her friendship with Churchill, Atlee describes the great war leader (and his fierce political rival) as a mix of ‘energy and poetry’. Perfect. In the essay, ‘The Pleasure of Books’, Atlee ponders his own library of 3,000 volumes. Recalling his early love of Rossetti and Browning, as he grows older he finds himself drawn ever more to Shakespeare and Milton. He prefers Trollope to Dickens, and Austen to all. He praises Gibbon and ‘sundry Italians: Machiavelli and Cellini and, of course, Dante.’ He wears his learning as easily as he bore great responsibility. Today’s politicians prefer to draw attention to the football team they support. Such is the cultural cringe.
But bright spots remain. Yesterday BBC Radio 3 was named Radio Station of the Year. Though the core of its content remains classical music, its history output is considerable. In a year when the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth was wilfully neglected by much of the media, Radio 3 broadcast readings of Samson Agonistes and Anton Lesser’s astonishing performance of Paradise Lost. Night Waves, the excellent evening discussion programme, regularly tackles historical subjects; last night it looked at changing interpretations of the Norman Conquest. Almost every day offers an unexpected delight; witness Jonathan Keates’ recent broadcast on Purcell and poetry. Words and Music, the Sunday evening programme which was singled out for its own award, has brought Britain’s rich legacy of poetry to the fore. The daily essay has tackled the Homeric epic and the good death. The same impulse which gave rise to the Third Programme, today’s Radio 3 was that which created the Schoolprints. It is Arnold’s urge that all should have access to the best. Atlee would have approved.