Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
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 | 1 Comment »

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 | No Comments »

The Flag of the Arab Revolt

An English Catholic contribution to Pan-Arabist vexillology

Though often overshadowed by the more theatrical T.E. Lawrence, Sir Mark Sykes (7th baronet) was still by all accounts a remarkable man. Educated by Jesuits in England, Monaco, and Belgium, young Sykes had instilled in him a cosmopolitan sense of adventure by travelling with his mother across the Middle East, Mesopotamia, India, and Asia throughout his childhood. It was during his travels in the provinces of the Ottoman empire that Sykes’s lifelong fascination with Islam began. By the time it was appropriate to go to university he found the atmosphere and formality of Cambridge stifling and left without taking a degree, but not without gaining a reputation for good humour with a special talent for mimicry.

At 25 Sykes wrote his first book, Dur-ul-Islam, which Kipling found so fascinating he couldn’t put it down until forced to by the necessity of sleep. After forays in the civil and diplomatic services, Sykes was elected to Parliament as the Unionist candidate in Kingston upon Hull. A romantic tory at heart, he disliked being labelled as conservative. “It is impossible to be a Conservative,” Sykes argued, “when there is nothing left to Conserve.”

When the Great War broke out in August 1914, Sykes recruited a batallion of men from his Yorkshire estates alone, but his unique insight into the Ottoman empire was put to good use in military intelligence. In May 1916 he was sent to negotiate the Anglo-Franco-Russian carving-up of Ottoman Asia with Charles Georges-Picot of the Quai d’Orsay.

The question of what the Turks’ Arab subjects themselves wanted only became a question the following month with the beginning of the Great Arab Revolt. This huge undertaking to wrest the Arab peoples from centuries of Turkish rule found a leader in the Sharif and Emir of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali of the Hashemite dynasty, but the uprising needed a symbol to rally round, and Sykes was the man for the job.

The flag of the Arab Revolt that Sir Mark Sykes designed was to be one of the most influential flags in the history of vexillology, launching the four pan-Arab colours into the world of flag design. Black represented the Abbasid dynasty, green for the Fatimids, and white for the Ummayad, all of which was united by a triangle of red for the Hashemites who hoped to rule Arabia.

Twelve modern states today employ designs descended from the flag Sykes designed. Among them is Jordan, now the only land ruled by the Hashemites – the Sauds kicked them out of Hejaz while the brutal slaughter of the 1958 coup deprived them of the Iraqi throne.

Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba was made famous by its capture during the Great Arab Revolt – retold in David Lean’s 1962 film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – and it is there today that Sykes’s flag flies from one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.

July 28, 2016 10:50 am | Link | 1 Comment »

The Old Cannon Brewery

Robert Gwelo Goodman is one of my favourite South African artists whom you might recall when I introduced you to one of his paintings of the Groote Kerk in Cape Town. It’s not surprising that he lived in a unique dwelling — an old brewery in the verdant Cape Town suburb of Newlands, nestled as it is in the nape of Table Mountain.

Now Gwelo’s old brewery is up for grabs. (more…)

June 9, 2016 8:55 am | Link | 3 Comments »

Die Ou Swaai Pomp

The old water pump at the corner of Prince Street and Sir George Grey Street in the Cape Town neighbourhood of Oranjezicht was part of the system created by the Swede Jan Frederik Hurling in the 1790s for his farm, Zorgfliet. This particular structure was erected at the pump site in 1812 to a design by Louis Michel Thibault, embellished with a water-sprite gargoyle attributed (inevitably) to Anton Anreith.

It was operated by swinging the wooden handle on the side to and fro, hence why it is known as a swaai, or “swinging”, pump.

The photo above is the work of the Cape photographer Arthur Elliott whose work not only documents the early architecture of the Cape but more often than not manages to do so in an artistic and evocative manner.

Elliott is especially valuable considering how many of these structures faced the wrecking ball in the intervening century since he took his photographs, though — as you can see from a Google StreetView capture below — the Old Swaai Pump is still in its place today and is a monument protected by national and provincial law.

June 9, 2016 8:54 am | Link | No Comments »

A Baroque Church Portal

This church portal in the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam was originally in the Nieuwezijds Kapel, or Church of the Heilige Stede. That church was originally built in commemoration of the 1345 Miracle of Amsterdam, but after the ‘Alteration’ of 26 May 1578 — when Amsterdam’s Catholic city government was deposed and replaced by a Calvinist one — it and all the city’s other churches were taken over by the new Protestant administration.

In 1908 the elders of the Protestant congregation of the Nieuwezijds Kapel decided to demolish the fifteenth-century church and build a smaller one on the site, while building shops on the remainder of the site to prevent the resurgent Dutch Catholic church from building any chapel or shrine on it. This seventeenth-century baroque enclosed portal was then transferred to the Oude Kerk where it remains today.

Despite the anti-Catholicism of the Nieuwezijds Kapel elders in 1908, the Miracle of Amsterdam is still comemmorated every year on 15 March when thousands of pious Hollanders march in the evening Silent Procession (Stille Omgang). This year’s procession attracted 7,000 participants.

April 26, 2016 10:10 am | Link | No Comments »

An Old Name Returns to Banking

or: What Daniel O’Connell has to do with the 2008 Banking Crisis

Daniel O’Connell was a remarkable man by any stretch of the imagination, and is most often recalled for his part in bringing about the Relief Act of 1829 which emancipated the Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland from an officially oppressed legal status. Among his many achievements, however, was in London in 1825 founding the National Bank of Ireland.

As the RBS Group’s website notes, O’Connell:

…helped draw up the agreement that established it, spoke at public meetings to drum up support for it, invested in it, attended its first board meetings and, in 1836, was appointed its governor. He became an important figurehead for the new bank and there was even a proposal, not implemented, to put a bust of O’Connell on the bank’s notes.

The National Bank was created with the aim of injecting cash into the rural economy in Ireland, and its charter ensured that half of its returns would accrue to local shareholders in the country. O’Connell, not the best manager of financial affairs, ended up accruing huge personal debts to the bank and had to be quietly bailed out by several others (commencing a tradition of surruptitious banking amongst the nation’s major politicians).

Anyhow, the National Bank expanded across Britain and Ireland. In 1966 its Irish core was sold to the Bank of Ireland, and the English and Welsh branches were acquired by the National Commercial Bank of Scotland (which was a 1959 merger of the National Bank of Scotland and the Commercial Bank of Scotland). This, in turn, merged into the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1969, with the superfluous National Bank branches being turned into Williams & Glyn’s Bank the following year. (more…)

April 15, 2016 4:00 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

A Land, not a Republic

Bohemians seek to rename Czech Republic as ‘Czechia’

What are we to make of the growing movement against the name ‘Czech Republic’? It seems a welcome development, although one has a certain hesitancy in adopting the name ‘Czechia’ which somehow just doesn’t ring true from the English tongue.

Many will still automatically recall ‘Czechoslovakia’, an artificial country invented in 1918 which lasted a surprising seventy-four years. Its two successor states will celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary of independence next year, and perhaps this landmark event has provoked some introspection regarding the country’s name.

It’s not that the Czech Republic is alone: there are plenty of countries whose official names included an adjectival demonym — the French Republic, the Italian Republic, and the Hellenic Republic spring to mind. But these three examples all have names that more readily spring to mind — France, Italy, Greece — and which are used more frequently then the official state names.

Besides the Czech Republic, the only other example of a country known only as ‘the [demonymic adjective] Republic’ is the Dominican Republic, which cannot be known as Dominica owing the nearby sovereign island of the same name. (The island Dominica was named after Sunday whereas the DR was named after Saint Dominic, the patron of its largest city.) Even the Central African Republic is often referred to as Centrafrique (in French, at least).

Is it a move against republicanism? Not especially. When neighbouring Hungary adopted its new constitution it dropped the state name ‘Hungarian Republic / Republic of Hungary’ in favour of just plain ‘Hungary’ while maintaining a republican form of government. More influential perhaps is that it’s often viewed as a bit tinpot-dictatorship to have the word ‘republic’ in your country’s everyday name. (more…)

April 15, 2016 2:30 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Michael Ellis

Stumbled upon the website of a firm called Thameside Media whose architectural photographer, Michael Ellis, has done some superb work in capturing English churches on film (metaphorical film, I suppose, now that the world has gone digital). (more…)

April 14, 2016 2:44 pm | Link | No Comments »

St Pancras Town Hall

St Pancras Town Hall is an interwar classical building by the architect A.J. Thomas (of whom I know little). The façade is a little clunky but in the warmer months it’s adorned with arrangements of flowers that soften this stern civic edifice with a bit of welcome frivolity.

When the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras was merged with the neighbouring bailiwicks of Hampstead and Holborn to form the London Borough of Camden in 1965 this was chosen as the town hall of the new entity, so it’s now referred to as Camden Town Hall.

But of course of all the buildings under the patronage of the fourteen-year-old, fourth-century martyr Pancras, the most prominent is the international railway station across the Euston Road (below) that connects this metropolis with the rest of the continent across the Channel.

April 11, 2016 11:00 am | Link | No Comments »

Master Mitsui’s Ink Garden

Daniel Mitsui is one of the most interesting artists out there, exhibiting a wide range of influences from the Celtic to the Oriental. Among his latest works is an ink drawing on a Catholic theme. As Daniel explains:

I received a commission to create a Catholic religious drawing in a Chinese style. These explorations into artistic traditions outside of European Christendom are always exciting, and China was new territory for me. When developing the concept for the project, I looked to one of the early missionaries to China, the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci.

Some time in the very early 17th century, Ricci gifted four European prints to the Chinese publisher Cheng Dayue: two engravings by Anthony Wierix from a series illustrating the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, another by the same artist reproducing the painting of the Virgin of Antigua in Seville Cathedral, and one by Crispin De Pas the Elder from a series illustrating the life of Lot.

Master Cheng copied these images into his Ink Garden, a model book of illustrations and calligraphy. The missionary saw this as a good opportunity to disseminate lessons in Christian doctrine and morality among the Chinese population.

Continue reading here.

April 4, 2016 7:05 pm | Link | No Comments »

Canalside Wanderings

The sun put its hat on this weekend, and after a delicious and vaguely German breakfast by King’s Cross on Saturday I fancied a little canalside wandering. Walking the Regent’s Canal from the new Central Saint Martins all the way to Paddington, I stumbled across the Catholic Apostolic Church in Little Venice (above). It has been over ten years since I popped in to the former Edinburgh outpost of this strange and fascinating denomination, now much reduced in numbers since its apex in the late Victorian period. (more…)

April 4, 2016 7:00 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Diary

EVERYONE was at the Opera last night. It was the final performance of a magnificent production of Il trittico, Puccini’s triptych of three one-act operas alluding to the Divine Comedy. While I go to the theatre fairly often I hadn’t been to the opera since many many moons ago when I was dating una Italiana who had a taste for it. These days, the Mad Architect is one of the handful of people I tend to go see things with. His tastes are similar to mine but he is easily irritated and always seems to pick a fight with some other member of the general public (or once, on the Eurostar, the barman – but it was actually deserved in that case). This can provide some intense amusement to the observer so long as you are prepared to disown him totally at a moment’s notice (which I have yet to do).

Anyhow, during the first interval we wandered out onto the open terrace – from whence smoking has since been banned – and who should we stumble upon but the charming and deeply fun Valentine Walsh, one of the finest art restorers in Europe, with a relation of hers. Then, but a few seconds later, our own roving reporter Alexander Shaw appeared with an old school friend. As I sometimes point out, London can feel like a delightfully small town. The Spectator’s Rod Liddle and Michael Portillo of ‘Great Railways Journeys’ fame were also in evidence, but we let them be.

But what of the opera? The first act, Il tabarro, is set on the banks of the Seine and was well sung but more than the singing I admired the highly architectural setting imagined by the mononomical set designer ‘Ultz’. (How one both derides and admires the arrogance of arrogating to oneself a single name – but then, like Hitler and Stalin, I myself am often known by surname alone.)

The second one-act opera in this triptych, Suor Angelica, was the real meat. Here is a deeply intense display of love and hatred, sin and repentance, compounding personal tragedy with the reality of mortal sin. Sadly we were deprived of the vision of the Blessed Virgin called for in Puccini’s original but it was surprising that director Richard Jones played the opera’s Catholicism straight and frank, without any of the usual modern snobbish sneering. Ermonela Jaho was powerful in the title role, convincing. Valentine was in tears.

But if Il trittico is like a three course meal then Gianni Schicchi is the delicious pudding. When Buoso Donati dies and leaves all his wealth to a monastery, his eight predatory relatives are forced to call upon the clever peasant Gianni Schicchi to use his worldly cunning to fake a new will. This is Italian farce at its most amusing but also its most beautiful and as Gianni includes the most well-known operatic song in the world – O mio babbino caro – it’s a crowd pleaser as well.

The Mad Architect noted that the English don’t really enjoy opera: they take it far too seriously, whereas the Neapolitans love it and join in the singing, even if they don’t know the words. Alexander thinks the Royal Opera House has become little more than a giant cruise ship for plutocrats and then descended into telling us his plan to sell Deptford to the French (or was it to Hong Kong?).

My only complaint was the surtitles, which often did not match the original Italian. This happens on Scandinavian crime dramas as well, in which non-blasphemous swear words are inaccurately translated as blasphemous English ones. But this is probably some contrived vogue in the realm of translators, that you mustn’t translate things as they are but to something somewhat similar but not quite the same, thus depriving you of the character of the original language.

What’s next on the agenda then? Sometime at the Old Vic, I think, and then something at the Almeida, and later on this year there’s Ryszard Kapuściński’s book on Haile Selassie, The Emperor – “I was working in the Ministry of Ceremonies then, Department of Processions…” – being done in a stage version at the Young Vic.

March 16, 2016 2:00 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

A Gothic Library for Christchurch

Christchurch, the oldest city in New Zealand, was known for its gothic cathedral before the February 2011 earthquake destroyed its spire. Modern architects, as voracious a species as ever existed, descended upon the city like a plague, declaring that everything traditional must be demolished and hideous glass hulks raised instead. They succeeded in convincing the city’s Anglican authorities to deconsecrate the cathedral (despite remaining mostly intact) and plans for its future remain vague.

Local architectural designer & engineer James Carr has come up with a proposal to build a central library for Christchurch on Cathedral Square. The design complements the gothic cathedral (or whats left of it) and would be a handsome addition to the city.

More whimsical perhaps is Mr Carr’s idea to build a gothic rugby stadium in Christchurch.

February 25, 2016 1:45 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Suid-Afrika

Suid-Afrika — ’n kleine bietjie van Hemel.

February 24, 2016 10:15 am | Link | 3 Comments »
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