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I love the new statue on the fourth plinth. It is well worth a visit whenever you are passing through central London.

Ostensibly, it’s about innocence, joy, hope, and (as one of the artists says) ‘looking to the future’: a young boy, slightly older than I expected (is he about six or seven?), leans back in delight on his golden rocking horse, held in suspension before he lunges forward again.

But there is the rub: ‘looking to the future’. What future? It’s impossible not to compare the rocking horse with the military horses that adorn various other plinths round London, and with George IV’s horse on the third plinth just the other side of Trafalgar Square. And that sets up three implicit meanings to the statue that perpetually jostle with each other and create an incredible hermeneutical tension.

Is it saying: Forget the military heroism, the cult of the strong leader, the violence of war – there is something simpler and purer here, the innocence of childhood, which should lead to a brighter future without the disfigurement of war?

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the iconic warriors, and all they have done – for good or for ill. Look at them, and see how they were once as innocent as this young boy. See how innocence can be corrupted. See how quickly childhood disappears.

Or is it saying: Look at the heroes around you, the warriors, the liberators, the tyrants, the demagogues, the nameless horsemen who have led others into battle over the centuries. Look at them, and see how they were never innocent, because their aggression and their posturing started in the nursery, when they played at soldiers, and when their mock heroics – like this rocking horse moment – cast a psychological mould and set them on a trajectory that would lead to a thousand battlefields.

In other words, do you see in this boy an innocence that need never be corrupted, or an innocence that will one day be tragically corrupted, or a faux innocence that hides a corruption that has always been there and will one day wreak havoc?

In theological terms: Do you believe that there is no such thing as the Fall (that we live in and will continue to live in a time of Original Blessing), or that since the Fall we are prone to corruption and affected by it in different ways depending on our circumstances and our reactions, or that we are fundamentally corrupted by the Fall and without innocence or hope from the very beginning?

In psychological/sociological terms: Do you think that the harm we suffer or do is avoidable, or the inevitable result of our nurture, or the inevitable result of our nature?

Is it anti-war or pro-war or pre-war or indifferent-to-war or post-war or just a boy on a rocking horse?

Aside from these slightly heavy puzzles and provocations, it is an absolutely beautiful object, a joy to behold! And if you want to forget all the references to war and corruption and the Fall and just enjoy it as a celebration of the innocence of childhood – that’s fine…

Some words from Mark Brown’s article:

The 4.1-metre golden boy was unveiled on the fourth plinth on Thursday to whoops, aahhs and confused looks from foreign tourists in passing coaches. The reaction from Scandinavian artists Elmgreen & Dragset was one of immense relief.

“You’re not allowed to make tests, so it is a bit of a gamble,” said Ingar Dragset. “It’s installed the night before – it’s nerve-racking.”

The boy’s formal name is Powerless Structures, Fig 101, and he sits on top of a plinth designed to host a bronze equestrian statue of William IV by Sir Charles Barry, which was never installed.

More than 170 years later the boy becomes the latest in a series of contemporary art commissions that has included Marc Quinn’s pregnant Alison Lapper and, most recently, Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Yinka Shonibare.

The statue was unveiled by Joanna Lumley who said she was thrilled to be revealing what was a “completely unthreatening and adorable creature” to the public.

Lumley said the plinth was great because it gets people talking. “What I love about this plinth, which is extraordinary because it’s empty, is that everybody is waiting to see what comes next … and everybody becomes an instant art critic. Everybody knows what should be there, what’s better than last time, what’s marvellous, what’s wonderful, what’s dreadful.”

Michael Elmgreen said it was deliberate that you have to walk around the square to meet the boy’s eyes and to see his expression – he is looking away from George IV “because he is afraid of him”.

While the other statues in the square celebrate power, this work celebrates growing up. He is a “more sensitive and fragile creature looking to the future”, said Elmgreen. The hope is that it might encourage people to consider less spectacular events in their lives, ones which are often the most important.

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Look through any current affairs section in your local bookshop and you’ll find a pile of books that should really be classified under ‘future affairs’, dabbling in the science/art of futurology, and claiming to predict what the world will be like in ten, twenty or a hundred years’ time.

George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years is one such book that I’ve just finished reading. I don’t know anything about him, or STRATFOR, the ‘preeminent private intelligence and forecasting firm’ that he founded. But it’s a provocative read, partly because so many of his predictions go against the prevailing wisdom you find in the media. This is because, he claims, the underlying issues are always geopolitical, which ends up meaning geographic and demographic; and there is a sort of destiny to the way nations will relate that arises from their geographical strengths and vulnerabilities, and from their demographic profiles.

China, for example, is not going to be a major player in the twenty-first century, despite the present economic boom there. That’s because most of the country is inaccessible to the outside world; only the Eastern seaboard cities will be able to flourish – and they won’t want to be shackled by the centre forever; and the one child policy has created an aging population that won’t have enough younger people to sustain it.

The United States, instead, which everyone thinks is in decline, is actually only at the beginning of its world dominance – according to Friedman. That’s because, to vastly oversimplify,  it’s the one country that can continue to dominate (economically and militarily) both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And dominating the world’s oceans matters more than any other single political or technological asset.

The US-Jihadist ‘war’ is just a small distraction that won’t figure very heavily in the history books; there will be a new cold with Russia, as it reasserts its Eurasian dominance; and the real geopolitical conflict towards the end of the century will be between the States and a resurgent Mexico.

And while everyone else is worrying about the population explosion of the coming decades, Friendman believes that the most significant geopolitical fact of the next hundred years will be a global population implosion, together with the resulting scramble to attract the ever-decreasing numbers of available migrant workers, and the development of new technologies to cope with the declining availability of labour.

You can buy the book and disagree with him to your heart’s content! But it’s interesting to note, in the news just over the last few days, reports of a possible economic bust in China, and of a reverse trend in Mexican immigration into the United States, as people move back home to benefit from the vibrant Mexican economy…

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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness – will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

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