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January 05, 2006

Richard D. North considers the aesthetic tastes of dictators: Dictators' Homes - Peter York

Posted by Richard D. North

Dictators' Homes
by Peter York
Pp. 160. London: Atlantic Books, 2005
Hardback, 14.99

Richard D. North - the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - reviews a study of vulgar tastes, Peter York's Dictators' Homes.

I ought to have liked this book. I like Peter York and I am interested in the aesthetic aspirations of dictators. Saying one likes "Peter York" has its problems. This is the brisk, bossy and assertive persona of Peter Wallis, who in real life (well, in the metropolitan, chatterbox media world where I have the occasional luxury of meeting him), is a shrewd, friendly, rather modest and private Hampstead liberal. P York advises businesses on social trends and how to surf them to commercial advantage. P Wallis is the much-loved guest and companion at many a supper all over London. I fear that, much as I like both Peters, the Yorky one who wrote this little tome has let himself down. This is a depressing book because it is not a sufficiently serious or funny one.

Egomaniacs with absolute power have always dictated taste as well as national policy. The powerful are patrons. One would have expected that a style-guru would understand such things. To make a business out of defining ton, and what's in and what's out, is almost as undemocratic an affair as running a tyranny. It requires the ability to condemn people out of hand, and to assume an effortless confidence in one's superiority. So being arbitrary ought not only to come naturally to P York, but also rather appeal to him in others. And yet one of the smaller problems with this little effort is that it is relentlessly sneery about its subjects.

Part of the difficulty is the style of the enterprise. It is breezy and slapdash, without being properly satirical. It treats lightly of horrible men, pretending ostentatiously to treat them as though they were merely Hallo!-fodder. So it compounds its unattractivenesses. It is no better than all the other lofty de haut en bas efforts which discuss the follies of the nouveaux riches, but then it fails to deliver the swipes which its chosen very bad men deserve. If it had been riotous in some way, it might have been more forgivable. If it had essayed real bad taste attempted a Larry David or a Mel Brooks we might have roared our heads off in a useful way.

Besides, we are given a one-size-fits all analysis. The dictators are all treated on the same basis. Being bad, they had bad taste. They are not even graded logically: the degree of their badness did not dictate, for York, the badness of their taste. Actually, of course, it is not obvious why even a man as bad as Hitler should not have had good taste. Nor is it obvious that a Tito for all that he was ruthless should have had bad taste at all. He was only a bit bad, but that surely can't explain why he had ordinarily chintzy bourgeois taste at about the time when millions of Westerners were going much the same way. As for Stalin surely a very bad man - I have a positively soft spot for his architectural legacy.

Hitler's domestic milieu seems to have been humdrum and dreary: the vernacular and the chintzy jostling one another. His wider taste his view of what would be good in public was of course both grandiosely classical when it came to buildings, and very preoccupied with ideas of decadence when it came to Art. Still, to the embarrassment of those who want only bad things from bad men, there is a definite handsomeness to the representational, "onwards and upwards" vernacular he liked in painters. Like him, I prefer it to German Expressionism.

Lenin seems to have rather liked an absolute bleakness in his private living arrangements: what, in the hands of a Wittgenstein or a Thomas Merton, has been thought an admirable minimalism. It happens that Stalin's private dacha was rather a good-looking place, both in and out, and so York can't get much purchase on it either. When we come to Stalin's wider tastes, surely there is much to admire in his stark neo-Classicism. Again, it is possible that the Brutalism, the Gothamism, of Stalin's Foreign Affairs building in Kiev, or even of Franco's cathedral in the Valley of the Fallen, will continue to be thought beautiful in an awesome, "Sublime", sort of way. As time goes by, the rather more timid "brutalism" of our own much reviled Richard Seifert (the "Developers' Architect", rather than a Dictators' Architect), he of Centre Point, is worth looking at in rather the same way. Won't Deny Lasdun's slabby National Theatre become a National Treasure though it is also Bunker Chic?

York says that dictators can't tell the public from the private. But he rather demonstrates that they do. For many, a palace is only formally a home. York's dictators often seem to have had rather cosy taste for their actual living spaces. Idi Amin lived as though in Virginia Waters or the Kenya's Happy Valley: quintessentially European tastes. Add Tito's solidly middle class taste, and one sees that many dictators are prone to the humdrum. Saddam Hussein was an exception: he lived in anonymous squalor, hoping to avoid the assassins who threatened his more public space. But his taste in 1970's album cover art for his palaces is no crazier than that of millions of adolescent males.

Bokassa and Mobutu, in their very public palaces, seem to have shared a Napoleonic take on splendour, which was itself a take on the splendour of the likes of Louis XIV, the Sun King, which has ever since the late 17th and early 18th centuries been a major theme in classic "Good Taste". But wasn't that always a problem with the best French taste? The world of gilt and velvet always seemed to risk parodying itself. It teetered on the brink of vulgarity. From the moment of the French revolution, English aestheticists like Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight declared that the severities of classicism and a certain modest vernacular were a safeguard against the arrogance which the French elite displayed.

Of York's crop of dictators, the Ceausescu's seem to make his case best. This hypochondriacal couple seemed to have liked their intimate spaces to be on a colossal scale, and they didn't develop beyond a ghastly Napoleonism. And York is right: there are shops in London (many of them within easy reach of the Arab quarter at the bottom of the Edgware Road, not far from his own splendid town house, and Madonna's) where Tyranny Interiors reign supreme. But is he as right to decry hotel taste? There is often something soothing about the pretensions of a grand hotel: some are positively lovely, and plenty of others achieve a rather splendid insulating effect. I quite like the old-fashioned, cod-country house splendour of, say, a Lanesborough Hotel. It is much easier to live with and in than the alienating minimalism which is affected by the Intimidating Hospitality industry fashionable with the media young.

Have I risked taking this little squib too seriously? Perhaps. It's Peter York's own fault: this book makes one po-faced.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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