Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.

2016 September

A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Botswana and Hereditary Power

To any observer it must be obvious that hereditary power of some kind is natural and most of the time inescapable. It’s not that you need to be born into power to wield it, but experience shows it doesn’t hurt. Since I was born, there has been just one American presidential election (2012) in which a member of either the Bush or Clinton families was not either the official candidate of their respective party or a significant contender for that role.

In Canada, the current prime minister has sailed into office solely on a combination of good looks and being the son of a previous prime minister. In Ireland there are no fewer than forty-one families who have had three or more members elected to the Oireachtas (or to the Commons before it). The relatives and descendants of Timothy Sullivan managed to elect thirteen members between 1874 and 2016 as MPs, TDs, senators, or MEPs. Sullivan’s son and great-grandson both served as Chief Justice of Ireland to boot.


Sir Seretse Khama

Botswana — the most succesful state in Africa by many gauges — today celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its assuming the mantle of sovereignty after eighty-one years as a British protectorate. Given that the United States, Canada, and Ireland are generally viewed as succesful countries, the hereditary aspect of power might help explain the comparitive success of Botswana, a multiparty state with free and fair elections, relative to its neighbours. The fourth and current president is Ian Khama, formerly a lieutenant general in the Botswana Defence Force. President Khama is the son of Sir Seretse Khama, the Balliol man who led his country and its people to independence fifty years ago and served as Botswana’s first president. Sir Seretse in turn is the grandson of King Khama III, last kgosi of Bechuanaland before the protectorate and leader of the Bamangwato tribe.

When Sir Seretse Khama became leader of Botswana it was the third poorest country in Africa — now it is the sixth richest on the continent in terms of GDP per capita. In a continent not known for good government Botswana, though not without its problems, is an oasis of stability and order.

At today’s celebrations for the fiftieth year of independence, President Khama wasn’t taking any credit for his country’s success: “Where we may have failed we take the blame. Where we succeeded we thank God.”

September 30, 2016 1:20 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

A Fifty Pound Note

The recent arrival of the new fiver has caused some flurry of excitement and one of the notes finally reached the Cusackian exchequer via the barmaid at the Ox Row Inn in Salisbury on Friday night. I’m indifferent to the design; it’s inoffensive but I’d prefer to see Churchill depicted in his coronation robes rather than Yousuf Karsh’s iconic photograph.

My favourite Bank of England note, however, remains the Series D £50 first issued in 1981 designed by the Black Country artist Harry Eccleston. Sir Christopher Wren lookings crackingly baroque, and St Paul’s Cathedral looms like a great ship over the City of London he helped to rebuild after the Great Fire 350 years ago.

Eccleston was the first banknote designer to work fulltime for the Bank of England which he joined in 1958, retiring in 1983, and introduced the concept of historical figures from British history gracing the back of the notes (which are of course fronted with an image of the Sovereign). This particular note was the first fifty-pound note to be issued since 1943. It was replaced in 1994 and withdrawn from circulation two years later.

September 28, 2016 2:10 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Oliver VII

Oliver VII
by Antal Szerb, trans. by Len Rix
Pushkin Press (2013), £12, 208 pages

Hungarian by nationality, Catholic by faith, Jewish by birth — Antal Szerb was capable of touching the boundaries of intense seriousness bordering on the mystical (as in Journey by Moonlight) or magical (The Pendragon Legend) even though he is probably better known as paragon and only member of the interwar neofrivolist school of literature.

Here he is at his frivolous best with a novel about the monarch of a Ruritanian kingdom in crisis who abdicates and escapes to Venice incognito, where he falls in with a crowd of confidence tricksters who ultimately, unaware of the ex-king’s true identity, force him to impersonate himself.

In Oliver VII, romance, intrigue, and the perpetual allure of the genteel portion of the criminal class all combine in an enjoyable farce.

September 28, 2016 2:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Red Mass in Edinburgh

The opening of Scotland’s judicial year was marked this past Sunday by the Archbishop of St Andrews & Edinburgh offering the customary Red Mass in St Mary’s Cathedral.

This year Archbishop Leo Cushley was joined by Lord Drummond Young and his fellow Senators of the College of Justice, Lord Uist, Lord Doherty, Lord Matthews, and Lady Carmichael.

Gordon Jackson QC, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, and Austin Lafferty of the Law Society of Scotland joined many sheriffs, QCs, advocates, solicitors, trainee solictors, paralegals, and law students.

“These men and women serve the nation in a high office and come here to ask the Lord’s blessing upon this year’s work that they carry out on our behalf,” Archbishop Cushley noted in his homily.

“Know that we appreciate the difficult and complex tasks that you have and the duties that you perform – which are very onerous – on behalf of us all and that you be assured of our prayers and our support for all that you do to apply the law of the land with virtue and with justice and with mercy.”

Source: Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh

September 27, 2016 2:45 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Oxford: An Architectural Guide

Oxford: An Architectural Guide
by Geoffrey Tyack
OUP (1998), £16.99, 384 pages

Geoffrey Tyack writes with a fluid style that accesibly conveys a great amount of specific detail of people, places, materials, and more without the reader feeling the least bit overwhelmed. Even the most veteran Oxonophile will gain deeper insight into what buildings were built by (and for) whom, with what money, and how they’ve been adapted over the centuries. A model guide to the architecture of the finest university town in the world.

September 21, 2016 4:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

Norway’s New Passport

The Scandos are known for being among the few peoples who can do modernism well, as evidenced by the new design chosen for Norway’s passports and identity cards. The kingdom’s Directorate of Police called upon the services of Oslo-based multi-disciplinary design studio Neue after their ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ won the jury’s first prize in an open competition.

The final judgement argued ‘Norwegian Landscapes’ was the best concept:

“It illustrates the Norwegian identity as well as making sure the passport will be viewed as a document of high value. The concept is deeply rooted in Norwegian culture and will make the documents widely accepted among the population. It will remain relevant for many years to come and it has clear user benefits.”

“The design is attractive and stylish, the colours are subtle and the abstracted landscapes are exciting. The proposed solution seems to be designed with great emphasis on the function of passports and ID cards, and is immediately accepted as a document of high value.”

“The concept is the competition’s most subtle and stylish, and stands out from the competing entries. Aesthetically, the landscape motifs have achieved a very distinctive expression. The jury appreciates the simplicity of the solution.”

(more…)

September 20, 2016 12:40 pm | Link | No Comments »

The Spina di Borgo

The Baroque is a style of joy. It is often hailed (or derided) as the most Catholic of styles and in some sense this is true. The festivity and physicality of the Baroque reflect the God that Catholics worship — “the Love that moves the Sun and other stars” as Dante put it — but a Love made incarnate, made man, in a very real and tangible world.

The Baroque is also the style of the surprise: the corner turned to an unexpected vista or the jet of water sprinkling a king’s unsuspecting courtier.

One of the most superb examples of this was the great basilica church of Saint Peter in Rome where prince, pilgrim, and pauper alike moved in a dark warren of palaces, hovels, churches, and alleyways, perhaps catching an occasional glimpse of the great dome looming as they closed in on San Pietro, finally to emerge from the shadow into the great light of the piazza.

That warren of buildings was the Spina di Borgo (“Spine of the Borgo”) but this experience is now sadly lost to us since the 1930s when the Kingdom of Italy’s fascist premier Benito Mussolini decided to raze the neighbourhood. Instead we now have the long boulevard called the Via della Conciliazione, named in commemoration of the Lateran Treaty establishing formal relations between the Holy See and the Italian state.

While Il Duce ostentatiously took credit for this urban crime by symbolically swinging the pickaxe beginning commencing demolition the concept, though flawed, was in fact an old one. Leon Battista Alberti submitted proposals during the reign of Pope Nicholas V (mid fifteenth century), and numerous other architects — Carlo Fontana, Giovanni Battista Nolli, Cosimo Morelli — drew up similar plans. The Piazza San Pietro only took its now instantly recognisable form in the 1650s when the curved flanking collonades enclosed the space like great welcoming arms superbly framing the basilica’s façade.

Mussolini turned to Marcello Piacentini — an accomplished if sometimes uneven architect — assisted by Attilio Spaccarelli. Piacentini favoured closing off the view from the avenue with a closed collonade, echoing Bernini’s own plans for the piazza, but was overruled.

The razing of the Spina presented a problem in that the undemolished buildings left flanking the Via della Conciliazione were now mostly at odd angles to the new boulevard. Piacentini attempted to solve this by flanking the road with two rows of obelisks that doubled as streetlamps providing a line directing the viewer towards the great basilica beyond, otherwise unimpeded by any visual interruption.

Overall the construction of the Via leaves a rather boring and clinical feeling. The charm and chaos of the Spina has been replaced by a clean and dull boulevard, useful for little more than traffic efficiency and crowd control. The loss of the Spina di Borgo is mourned.

September 14, 2016 10:10 am | Link | 1 Comment »
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