The MT diary: Howard Davies

Blair's stained-glass moment; Clarke's last swipe; Washington cooler; NY's new wonder.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The prime minister dropped in the other day - just for half an hour or so - to open a window. I was surprised, too. The short version of the story is that the Webb Society (Sidney and Beatrice, George Bernard Shaw: that lot) offered us a stained-glass window originally commissioned by Shaw in 1910 - to celebrate the Fabians.

The leading members are portrayed in medieval costume, under the inspiring motto 'Pray devoutly, hammer stoutly'.

It was on display for many years in the Webbs' house in Dorking, where it was originally unveiled by Clement Attlee. Then it was 'mislaid' for decades, possibly stolen, surfacing once in Phoenix and finally showing up at auction in London last year. The LSE, with its Fabian ancestry, seemed the right place to show it again.

It never occurred to me that Tony Blair would agree to do the honours at our modest ceremony - until I did a bit of research and discovered that he is, in fact, leader of the Labour Party. In this business you learn something every day.

He was gracious and witty, even though he was accosted on the way in by a demonstrator, an Iraqi. His aim was to thank Blair for the invasion, which was doing so much for his country. (Must speak to our head of security: we have to find a way of keeping eccentrics off our premises).

A couple of days later, Charles Clarke (remember him?) turned up to launch a new research centre, which will look at the role of the media in society, particularly the relationship between the press and politicians.

It was 24 hours before he had to reveal that it was Home Office policy to release illegal immigrant rapists from jail on request with a bus pass and a few luncheon vouchers. In the circumstances, he might have thought twice about launching into an assault on the government's civil liberties critics, but he pressed on.

His main general point was that the press are quick to accuse the government of totalitarian tendencies, using inflammatory language (words like Stalinist and draconian trip off the word-processor) that is unhistorical and even hysterical. That is, surely, a fair cop. And Dave and Deirdre Spart in the front row helpfully shouted 'Nazi' a couple of times, which made his point more effectively than he did himself.

The oddity was that he personalised his attack, choosing the unlikely targets of Jenni Russell (Guardian), Henry Porter (Observer) and, particularly, Simon Carr of the Independent. (One of Carr's pieces was subjected to a withering, line-by-line deconstruction). Now Russell is a thoughtful commentator, Porter is a sort of Kensington man of letters who appears in glossy mags and Carr is a comic-cuts writer - the poor man's Simon Hoggart. Clarke should have chosen a better class of opponent.

It was interesting, though, that the assembled representatives of the Fourth Estate chose entirely to ignore his points about the media, preferring to ask aggressive questions about Asbos or legal aid. 'They don't like it up 'em,' as Corporal Jones of Dad's Army used to say.

Back on the east coast of the States for a few days, I notice a change of mood about Blair and his government.

Until recently, he has been everybody's hero in Washington. The Republicans are grateful for his continued support for their embattled president, while the Democrats wish they had a leader to rival his (as they see it) popular appeal. Just as Thatcher did in her later years, he has become a British product doing well in the export trade, while losing market share at home.

Now doubts are creeping in. The New York Times had some fun with the Prescott/Clarke/ Hewitt debacles, and phrases like 'on the ropes' have started to appear. At every meeting you have to answer the 'when will he go?' question.

I adopt the policy of saying '06, '07 and '08, sequentially, so at least a third of the people I meet will one day think I'm an acute political analyst.

In New York, however, we Brits can be proud that Eric Idle's Spamalot has been the hottest ticket for months, though that speaks volumes for the quality of the rest of Broadway.

It is Monty Python reworked to aim at the average American sophomore's sense of humour, with an added dose of hard-hitting 'satire': laboured musical 'jokes' at the expense of Broadway shows. A grim mixture that will no doubt transfer triumphantly to the West End.

The opening of the month, or rather re-opening, was the JP Morgan library. It has been closed for almost four years while the trustees threw money at Renzo Piano, who has added a new wing and a concert hall.

But the result is quite something. Morgan's study, where the American financial system was regularly rescued, has been lovingly restored. He smoked his cigars under a 16th-century wood ceiling, with four exquisite Memlings standing guard. There is a Morgan Stanley gallery with a collection of drawings to die for - from Andrea del Sarto to Picasso.

Oddly, too, there's a collection of musical manuscripts, including a Beethoven score, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in his own hand and some notepaper from the Mayfair Hotel on which Bob Dylan scribbled the first version of Blowin' in the Wind. I didn't have old Pierpont down as a Dylan fan: just shows how wrong you can be about a guy. For these and other wonders, 36th and Madison is the place to go.

Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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