James Martin on coming century of extremes, and ‘idiot bloggers’

During the course of this evening’s Commonwealth Lecture, Dr James Martin has twice referred to ‘idiot bloggers’. I think he’s blaming the web for allowing (self)promotion of ‘pseudo-science’. But here goes..

The Royal Institution is in Mayfair, on a street packed with jewellery shops. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth eases his tall frame out of a black limousine and follows me in.  Everyone’s in suits. The wine’s courtesy of the high commissions of South Africa and New Zealand. All very fancy. 

Everyone’s here to see this James Martin chap, who’s funded (and founded, and named, and chosen the staff of) Oxford University’s new 21st Century School. He’s presumably vastly wealthy. But he holds himself quite quietly. He seems unassuming. Mild-mannered. 
And then he leads a captive audience (the lecture hall in the Royal Institution is rather small) through a hundred or more powerpoint slides, skipping across disciplines, suddenly changing tack to deal with something else that his wandering mind appears to have remembered, then returning again and again to the starving child photo. From nanotechnology to transhumanism. [shows photo of 500 yr old tree being logged]. Quantum entanglement. [shows photo of Maglev train; photo of starving child].
And it’s fascinating. 
Broadly, the gist goes as follows
“We’re completely screwed“: population growth, climate change (inevitable) –> famine, massive inequality. 
“Wow, look at the amazing science on the horizon”: cancer treatments, GM crops, mass produced nuclear power stations, computers that will be ‘a million times more intelligent that we are…but it’s a different kind of intelligence’.
“But remember we’re screwed.
“But remember there’s technology…and hopefully the various institutions I’ve founded at the 21st Century School [he’s provided $50m; Gates, Soros, etc have matched it for Institutes for Future Cities, for Nanotechnology etc] put the pieces together to solve some of the problems.”
He’s aware of how the technology will enable a global elite to live incredibly well: astonishing new laser tech will help us eradicate cancer, we’ll build amazing new cities (in the Arctic Circle and in the very south South America) – but he’s very worried that we’ll remain as callous towards the poor as we are now. He shows pictures of shanty towns next to great architecture, and pictures of Bangladesh and starving kids. He says we’ll see ‘famine on an unimaginable scale, in the late 21st Century’. You get the sense that this is the one he doesn’t know how to solve – technology can’t help him here. Technology can’t save us.
Dubai Island by Djumbo.
“Is there a sort of meanness in the spirit of mankind?…It costs less to save the forests than the bankers…The most powerful people fail to put together the big picture…Does democracy work?”

Without any science to talk about here, in this question of ethics and inequality, he doesn’t have a lot to suggest. He talks of ‘a higher layer above government’ and speaks of the ’70 scientists in the House of Lords’ and even of ‘world government’, but one that mustn’t interfere with the sovereign.
I manage to grab him at the end to ask more about global governance. He uses a hearing aid and leans in to hear me better. ‘Do you have anything at the School relating to global governance’, I ask, hoping this is the start of a conversation that ends with a scholarship. ‘No; that was the one we couldn’t get matched funding for – we planned on an Institute for Global Governance, but nobody would match the funding.”  
James Martin
So you can get funding for an Institute for Future Cities, but not one for Global Governance? How non-strategic, shortsighted, muppety failish is that? The thread that runs through all of these massive problems, through the organisation and funding of the solutions, is global governance. Maybe they’re all funding Jim ‘Blackberry’ Balsillie’s new school.
We’d better hope so.

The real van Gogh at the Royal Academy, London – until 18 April

Despite the crowds, this exhibition is utterly absorbing. The RA has gathered an impressive selection of works from the UK, Amsterdam, the States and private collections. The sense of the ‘real’ comes through the display of perhaps twenty of van Gogh’s letters.

He wrote copious short letters, some of which include sketches of planned paintings: a detailed ‘scribble’ of a weaver at a loom on a letter to his brother, Theo, becomes the great painting hung alongside it.


There are seven rooms showing different elements of Van Gogh’s work, progressing chronologically. The exhibition begins with his ‘scratches’ (sketches), follows the introduction of colour and the impact of impressionism, his move to Arles and Provence, before his final move north of Paris. The role of literature is highlighted: we read that he was a great fan of Dickens – much moved by Dickens’ humanity and his true portrayal of the poor.

The curators translate sentences from the Dutch and French letters which concern his works, but more moving are the personal details. He begins one letter with the tragic statement that ‘I have found a restaurant where I eat for a 1 franc’, a sweeping down stroke forming a stylish ‘f’. In another he asks his brother to send him brushes and sketches the types he wants.


His addiction to his work comes through strongly, writing of his desire to constantly paint and sketch,  to record the beauty of seasons, landscapes and people, as though under an obligation to constantly improve, to perfect.

His handwriting degenerates as time goes by, he writes on both sides of paper, on the backs of sketches, on envelopes, anything he can get his hands on to explain his enthusiasm, his awesome passion and magnificent ambition that, for him, was always unsatisfied. It drove him to depression, exhaustion and ultimately suicide, though it took the poor man two days to die of his gunshot wounds.

The exhibition includes the last letters between Vincent and Theo,  both dated (thurs) 23rd July 1890, and finally the draft that Theo found upon Vincent after he’d shot himself in the chest, complete with still pinkish blood stains.

At the RA

One gallery visitor, stood next to ‘The Yellow House’, a work of breath-taking beauty, says ‘I must admit I’m not enamoured by  any of them ’, leaving one wondering what could possibly do it for her.


The RA packed its visitors in, one compared the space to rush hour on the Northern line. And on very dodgy calculations, the gallery must be taking several million pounds from ticket sales. While they must cover the costs of staging, does the surplus simply revert to the general gallery funds? They could spend some of it on decent cycle parking.

The exhibition finishes on the 18 April, but happily, you can view all van Gogh’s letters at the fantastic http://vangoghletters.org/vg/  – and if you have £400, get the book described by the Economist as possibly ‘the best autobiography of an artist yet to appear anywhere’. Could I borrow £400?

Købke at the National Gallery

Who’d have thought that there was this great Danish artist called Christen Købke?


Not me. Possibly because he only left Denmark once, during which time he was a bit homesick, so went back to Copenhagen. And he died at 37. Poor chap.


But GREAT paintings! Like Denmark’s Constable. Painting at roughly the same time. Stunning romantic images of Denmark following their rather poor show in a face-off against Britain , which helped Danes think warmly of the motherland again. Not excessively romantic, but just glowing enough to make you want to go to Denmark a little bit, clever use of light, and even cleverer framing type stuff. Denmark is also very pink, apparently.


File:Christen Købke - One of the Small Towers on Frederiksborg Castle .jpg


Runs until 13 June.


Watch the little film in the little film room too, cos it gives you a super close-up of the picture of his dad, which is intricate and beautiful, but very small in real life.