J. W. M. THOMPSON
There has been at least one intervention in the great Healey-Wigg-Mountbatten argu- ment over defence policy which expressed, in the most unequivocal way, enthusiastic support for Mr Healey's policies during his long years at the Ministry of Defence. This took the form of a letter to the Times by a Mr Geoffrey Williams, of Swanage Road, Lee-on-Solent, and what distinguished it was not merely the hint of hero-worship that could be detected but also the con- fidence with which Mr Williams set about explaining what Mr Healey's nuclear policy really is. Having subsequently had a talk with Mr Williams, I now understand both these aspects, for it turns out that he is not only the twin brother of Mr Healey's Parliamentary Private Secretary. Mr Alan Lee Williams, but is also engaged upon an 'authorised biography' of the Minister, a work which he has undertaken with the full co-operation of Mr Healey himself.
Mr Williams held a post at Southampton University until last November when he re- signed, so he tells me, to give himself fully to his writing. There is something pleasingly unexpected in any member of the Govern- ment becoming the subject of a lengthy authorised biography just now. But Mr Geoffrey Williams promises a very thorough study, taking in his hero's pre-war com- munist period but presenting him finally as the representative of a significant right wing tradition within the Labour party, a tradition which he means to examine against the background of such divisive events as German rearmament and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. As to whether the Life of Healey will appear in time to pro- vide ammunition for either side in the elec- tion campaign, that must be uncertain; but it is due to appear later this year.
It is hard not to be somewhat sickened by the cataract of money which flows at the big international art auctions. The man who paid more than half a million pounds the other day for a Van Gogh painting may be wholly inspired by a Platonic idea of beauty: more likely, this anonymous buyer was also investing in prestige (to be realised at some future date) and acquiring a scrap of painted canvas which he thinks, prob- ably rightly, a securer form of wealth than the world's official currencies. The contrast with the condition of the painter, who was impoverished, unrecognised, and ultimately mad, is all too stark.
Some interesting questions about the func- tions of art in society are raised by this continuing spectacle of extravagant ex- penditure on the works of dead artists. The great art boom since 1945 has been on so vast a scale that one is tempted to think it a unique expression of modern affluence. This is not quite true, in fact. The period before the Thirty Years' War, around the beginning of the seventeenth century. saw something rather similar. The buyers then were the European princes, whereas now they are industrial and financial potentates. But the objectives were equally the acquisi- tion of prestige, of the necessary signs of wealth and power, through obedience to powerful fashion. Professor Hugh Trevor- Roper, in his most interesting Walter Neu- rath memorial lecture in London recently, examined this period of competitive royal collecting in a cut-throat international market in learned detail. Plainly the lust for ownership of artistic treasures among the rich was at least as great then as it is now.
The age of plunder
The historical parallel fades, however, when one thinks of the wildly unrestrained loot- ing of the princely collections which fol- lowed during the Thirty Years' War. This, too, prompts unenthusiastic thoughts on the nature of the art collector's passion. In the 'Indian Summer' of the princely collectors which preceded 1618. vast libraries and gal- leries had been assembled. Then, under the cloak of ideological war between Catholic and Protestant, these were looted wholesale and dispersed. The Pope seized the great Heidelberg library, transporting it entire on a huge mule train over the Alpine passes to the Vatican, where it still lies. The mar- vellous collections of Munich were carried off by the invading Swedes. who sacked one European treasure house after another as part of the routine of conquest. And the greatest collection of all, that of the emperor Ludovic it in Prague. was captured by Queen Christina of Sweden's armies and carried off down the Rhine in a fleet of barges.
Thus the modern period of relative sta- bility for works of art and learning, based upon the collections and institutions which now seem like permanence itself, was pre- ceded by what Professor Trevor-Roper justly called a period of 'volcanic convulsion'. The modern gangs of art robbers are as nothing compared with their princely predecessors— even if they do alarm present-day collectors, and persuade the man who bought that Van Gogh the other day to try to keep his identity secret for the time being at least.
'The first stirrings of spring have come to our corner of England' (writes 'D.D.T.', our Rural Pursuits expert). 'Today the dawn chorus from the new motorway sent an early rumble through the village, as the merry note of the motor-cycle mingled with the deeper call of the first motor-coaches of the season. Walking down the lane, I saw that there had been a light fall of litter, hinting at the full harvest of summer days to come: and at the ford, one hardy visitor was already at work washing his parked car in our little stream. All nature seemed busy in honour of the season. Out in the fields, the steady hum of the tractors blended cheerfully with the short, sharp sounds of hedges being bulldozed and the shrill cry of the power-saw at work in the copse. At the ancient village inn the new car park was being swept. ready for the first migrants tempted by the sunshine; and the juke-box was already in full song. Our rubicund village policeman showed me with pride the colourful traffic signs which have appeared as if by magic in the village street. I was able to match this vernal display with the news that, by the churchyard. I had actually heard the first transistor of the sea- son, something not usually recorded before April! Truly, as Gilbert White must surely have said, 'every springtime is like the birth of a new world from the ruins of Ole old!'