what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It generally uses books (old and new) and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours. So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, December 22, 2014


As a politician from my late 20s, I quickly learned how soon public expectations turn to dust – not least because my first speeches “on the stump” (ie in the open air) warned people that I could make no promises (I would generally have to stop myself from adding “except blood and toil”!).

I found that such an honest approach paid off – and from 1968 I had an undefeated record of 8 public electoral victories and a further string of 8 consecutive successes in the contests which were held immediately after the elections by the ruling Labour party (of which I was part) to decide the key positions.

It was as such a “seasoned” politician (I love the bon viveur sense this epithet gives – as in “add some seasoning”!) that I was initially elated and then deflated by Obama…..
But I was still moved by yesterday’s Presidential inauguration of Klaus Iohannis here in Bucharest – first his speech to the unrepentant parliamentarian sinners with its declaration that their stable needed cleansing….then the motorcade to the Cotroceni Palace we had passed just last week - to accept the baton from ever loquacious Basescu. 
What a contrast Transylvanian Iohannis makes – with his typically slow delivery! But it was this modesty and circumspection which won him his highly unexpected victory last month and which gives many Romanians the first hope they have had for some time…..        

In 25 years, the Romanians have had only one brief five-year respite from the insidious poison which the plutocrats (regardless of political label) have been injecting into their veins. Iliescu – who led the palace revolution this time 25 years ago - may have been personally incorruptible but all his minions quickly took the silver; and University Professor Constantinescu simply proved unequal to the task of reform. By coincidence, the country’s first post-communist Prime Minister Petr Roman was talking volubly on his mobile (in French) in the English Bookshop at midday – but I failed to identify him. Otherwise I would have approached him to remind him that some 24 years ago, he gave me an hour-long interview…….     

Romanian television has these days been playing images of the uprising 25 years ago and one of the links carried a striking 5 point contrast of life 25 years on – as typified by cars, communications, television channels, churches and….. malls. Petrol, for example, was then rationed (I remember the hassle driving in 1992 the 650 kms from the border down to Bucharest) whereas now the cars block the pavements everywhere.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nudging the politicians out??

The World Bank used to be a name to conjure with. Its keynote annual “World Development” reports blazed an ideological trail in the 90s – particularly its infamous 1997 neo-liberal attack on the State to which Japan actually issued a specially-commissioned riposte.
The Bank’s 2014 World Development Report - entitled “Mind, Society and Behaviour” – is a showcase for the newer type of behavioural economics which the Bank would have us believe has replaced the discredited system of economics. A lot of people – such as those at Real World Economics – would disagree…..
The World Bank (WB) no longer seems to arouse the controversy and anger it once did – presumably because there are now so many more worthy targets such as real bankers and plutocrats. Twenty years ago my bookshelves were stocked with exposes of the ecological, social and economic damage WB lending policies were inflicting on developing countries. Special websites and books with such names as “50 years is enough” were dedicated to the abolition of both the Bank and the International Monetary Fund
The Washington Consensus” was a phrase we angrily splattered our conversations with – denoting the intellectual homogeneity, it not hegemony, the Bank exercised over the economics “discipline”.
Successive WB Presidents toned down the neo-liberal rhetoric and skilfully co-opted a lot of the critics – particularly the NGOs. So things are quieter now – but be under no illusions. Behind the scenes, the Bank’s largesse toward the academic community ensures that economists continue to act as castrated  lapdogs of prevailing power. And over in Brussels, the Economic Commission exercises the same sort of lobotomy surgery of most academics who stray into its territory….

Indeed the recent fashion for governments to “nudge” their citizens to various forms of desired behaviour makes one wonder why we bother with politics any more. They are, after all, just so much unnecessary grit in the machinery….  .whose simplistic interventions really should be challenged with rather more effective systems of challenge than most parliaments can manage these submissive days.

But don't let me put you off from what seems quite a good read - the RSA link  (the second above) is a serious treatment of the report.......
and the Real World Economics collective continues to gives us much-needed and bracing home truths eg this thoughtful piece Challenging the current economics curriculum by the Vice-Chancellor of one of Pakistan’s Institutes of Development Economics

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Bucharest's contrasts

The Sala Radio is one of Bucharest’s best-kept secrets – with great acoustics and the recitals broadcast on the radio. Its Radio Chamber Orchestra kept us on our seats last night with first a Romanian composer (Toduţă)’s charming piece - violin Concerto No.1 for String Orchestra. Then JS Bach : Concerto no. 1 in A minor for Violin and Orchestra, BWV 1041 F – with virtuoso soloist CRISTINA ANGHELESCU; and then a rollicking Mendelssohn : Symphony No. IV in A major, op 90 – Italian. 
The young conductor - Mattei POP - cut a gangly but effective figure on the podium

Pensioners can get a 3 month season ticket for 35 euros – that’s about 1 euro a performance! Little wonder they are such afficandos! And one of Bucharest’s ancient trams (number 24) takes you right there (from Piate Viitoreii). 
About time Bucharest’s dreadful butcher mayor took time off from destroying the past and looked at the spanking new trams Sofia is adding to its fleet……
Romania's best classic station - Radio  Muzical - is playing here now

At the opposite end of experience are the Bucharest shopping malls – I thought the Sofia ones were bad but the gargantuan Cotroceni one just across the Gara de Nord area is a really aggressive slap in the face. Typically, it has no information desk or display and is a therefore a nightmare to navigate. 

We had walked then bussed to see Robert Duval in the film The Judge which gives a nice portrait of small-town America and also has great performances from Robert Downey Jr and Bob Thornton. On the way home, in the heaving bodies and dark, we mistook a number 11 tram for a number 1 and had to retrack at the spaghetti junction around the equally offensive and gargantuan Carrefour. At this station, the tracks run at two levels – and, typically, there were no signs to guide us to the upper track….The journey was therefore completed with a combination of foot, bus and foot….Hats off again to Mayor (butcher) Oprescu! 

The drawing is Daumier's Gargantua!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Access to National Galleries

I’ve been a bit sniffy in the past about Sofia’s National Gallery of Art – so let me take my hat off to them for their display of digital facilities. I was a bit annoyed on Thursday to be denied access to an exhibition of Nouveau Art’s Nikola Rainov (for reasons of some private party) but was placated by being given the opportunity to use a smart phone to access some 200 watercolours of the past century which have not so far been available to the public – along with useful information about the painters.
This is part of a wider project of gradual digitization of the entire archive of the museum in 2015.

I managed to see the Rainov exhibition the following day – you don’t often see his work. And it was accompanied by a superb small catalogue – sadly almost entirely monolingual.
Running in a neighbouring room, was another delightful small exhibition of urban life here a hundred years ago – with a charming video of an elderly lady displaying various artefacts from the period.

And my ever-ready camera was able to catch this shot of a very sharply-dressed elderly visitor to the gallery…..

Lack of translation is one of two features which used to distinguish the National Gallery from the municipal one across the road – whose catalogues have been bilingual for quite some years. The second feature is pricing – the national Gallery used to charge 5 euros (now 3 – with pensioners half price). The municipal gallery was free – until last year when a nominal charge was introduced (with pensioners free). 

It reminded me of one of my political colleagues in the 1970s Janey Buchan (who became an MEP in the 1979), She was a tireless advocate in the 60s of the rights of ordinary people (before the days of the Consumer Association) and was particularly strong on the importance of free entry to museums and art galleries, Thatcher put pressure on to introduce charges (although the British Museum held out) but entry was made free again in 2001 – with significant subsequent increases in visitors.

And I was glad to see that the Neil Mc Gregor, the renowned Director of the British Museum had declined an invitation to direct New York’s Metropolitan Museum because it charged an entry fee.   

The attitude of Sofia City Gallery is yet another proof of the superiority of municipal to central government

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


I enjoy writing which focuses on objects – WG Sebald’s use in his novels of old photos; Edmund de Waal’s focus in a family history on amber miniatures; Neil McGregor’s various histories built on various cultural artefacts eg Germany – the memories of a nation – whose entire podacst can be heard here. It’s good also to see some of the objects – on an excellent blogsite

For me, this particular approach offers a real window into how people have lived their lives in the past. My little book on Bulgarian Realist painters (subtitled “How to get to know the Bulgarians through their paintings”) lists 140 painters from the early part of the 20th century and tries, in a few lines, to capture their significance.
This wasn’t easy – I first have to put the artist’s name in Cyrillic script and then copy and paste on Bulgarian google – then google translate what seem to be promising entries. Then there is the problem that these give the barest facts (except long lists of exhibitions and honours which add not a jot to our understanding of the person!) And it goes without saying that most art “criticism” is gobbledygook…

What I need is a sense of the character – how they lived their lives…..the friends they had. I am, for example, very fond of the Gregor Naidenov’s aquarelles of café life in Sofia in the 1930-1950s – but, so far, have been unable to find out anything about the man. And I was impressed with a book on Boris Denev which included lovely black and white photographs of him with friends and in various studios and exhibitions….also a recent book on a classic Bulgarian photographer, Stoyan Sertev which not only reproduced many of the old photographs (including lovely ones of Nicola Tanev) but included a CD of the quartet he led.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the 700 page book I had discovered here based on Ruhmen Manov’s personal collections of old Bulgarian photos and cultural artefacts A Fairy Tale about Bulgaria which gives a wonderful sense of the history of the country…….

Earlier in the year my E-book Mapping Romania – notes on an unfinished journey used 16 different ways to try to get a handle on the country - namely travel guides; travelogues – which can be divided into the serious or the (sadly increasing number of) tongue-in-cheek type; histories - which deal with what are considered to be the key events in the shaping of a nation; novels; social and cultural histories (including jokes) – which give insights into how ordinary people lived their lives; memoirs and diaries – dealing with those who were more “distinguished”; blogs; magazines; television, films and plays; photographs; paintings and caricatures; buildings; conversations and encounters; friendships; music; food and wine

It’s not easy to find books which do justice to countries – travel books do their best but are somewhat one dimensional. More serious books suffer from being written from one particular academic discipline - be it history, economics, politics. Anthropology seems to offer more eg this one I unearthed - The anthropology of Ireland. And this series on the cultural history of cities is quite excellent.

So perhaps it’s about time that someone gave Bulgaria/Sofia a cultural treatment. Rumen’s book (which I bought at a discount yesterday – 75 euros) is a useful start – linked to the book on Stoyan Sertev; to Sofia Enigma and Stigma which contains eveocative black and white photos of old, crumbling buildings in Sofia; and  to the marvellous 600 page Sofia’s Mount Athos which is a superb study (complete with photos and GPS coordinates) of the 46 monasteries which cluster around Sofia  - many since the 14th century. And Elisabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

Despite the continuing political silences about the 42 years Bulgaria spent under communism, the 20th century can still be felt in Sofia - only this week I bought a (copy of) a little 1947 litho scene  of the part of Vasil Levsky Street which has the University at the end, complete with one car and a horse and cart – part of a series dictator Georgi Dmitrov apparently commissioned of artists then. That was the same day I came across a lovely 1935 landscape by Boris Denev – banned by the communist regime from paintings after 1944 – which had been lying in a house for several decades. It still has the typical white frame used in the 1940/1950s.

And one of my prize possessions is a 1942 journal on every page of which are several pencilled figures - clearly the work of Ilyia Beshkov, the famous caricaturist. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Desperately seeking...Satire

I’ve talked before about the power of satire. Fortuitously, this morning, I found a good example of its use. Contrast today’s report from the OECD about the “wealth gap” and the failure of the “trickle-down” theory of change with this satirical diatribe on the Daily Show  (which I found as a link on the discussion thread)
Until now, I wasn’t a fan of John Oliver – he just didn’t seem to be able to hold a candle to Jon Stewart on the show but what I’ve seen in the clips I’ve viewed so far today has changed my mind. The combination of biting comment with irreverent (and irrelevant) photoshots and sound bites is a powerful mix – as you will see in his treatment of the issue of “net neutrality” which he effectively parses and deconstructs, in Orwellian fashion, as actually “f***in corporate takeover”  

Satire has long been a powerful weapon against the pretensions of power – Voltaire’s Candide and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are well-known literary examples. Ralph Steadman and Gerard Scarfe are modern caricaturists in the tradition of Hogarth; and the Liverpool poets (Roger McGough, Adrian Henry) sustained the protestors of the 1960s. British people are not so familiar with the Bert Brecht’s City poems or the savage anti-bourgeois paintings of Georg Grosz in the 1920s and 1930s.

A powerful satirical essay “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” was penned by the author of the Yes Minister TV series and exposes the emptiness behind the rhetoric about democracy and government. It is available only on my website at -
In 1987 Management Professor Rosabeth Kanter produced “Ten Rules for Stifling Initiative” which I have often used to great effect in Central Asian training sessions.

1999 saw the appearance of The Lugano Report; on preserving capitalism in the twenty-first Century which purported to be a leaked report from shady big business but was in fact written by Susan George.
Management guru Russell Ackoff’s great collection of tongue-in-cheek laws of management – Management F-Laws – how organisations really work ( 2007)  As the blurb put it –“They're truths about organizations that we might wish to deny or ignore - simple and more reliable guides to managers' everyday behaviour than the complex truths proposed by scientists, economists and philosophers”.  An added bonus is that British author, Sally Bibb, was asked to respond in the light of current organizational thinking. Hers is a voice from another generation, another gender and another continent. On every lefthand page is printed Ackoff and Addison's f-Law with their commentary. Opposite, you'll find Sally Bibb's reply. A short version (13 Sins of management). A typical rule is – “The more important the problem a manager asks consultants for help on, the less useful and more costly their solutions are likely to be”.

Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power may not be satire but it is a very salutary counter to the thousands of unctuous managment  texts which attribute benign motives to senior management. 

A spoof on the British Constitution produced a few years ago is another good example of the power of satire. A Guardian article just a couple of days ago drew our attention to the apparent decline in Britain of the genre and linked to an older piece in the LRB

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Intellectual autobiographies

We all search for meaning in our lives – which is why I find it puzzling that intellectual biographies and histories seem so rare….. I mentioned, the other day, the recently published Worldly Philosopher – the odyssey of Albert O Hirschmann
Another book of that genre I enjoy dipping into is Comparative European Politics – the story of a Profession – which presents a portrait of a profession, through intellectual (auto)biographies of the older generation of leading scholars in the field such as Hans Daalder, Juan Lintz, Richard Rose, Giovanni Sartori and Vincent Wright. The book gives a wonderful picture of intellectual endeavour in the post-war period showing how particular experiences turned them towards the study of politics when it was still a quiet field.
My uncle – Wilfrid Harrison - was actually one of the first post-war UK Professors of Politics which may partly explain the turn my life took – with the fateful decision in 1962 to switch at University from modern languages to politics and economics!

“The Story of a Profession” describes the scholarly infrastructure for international research which they developed in the post-war period and offers stories of academic careers, of achievements and of doubts, of lessons learned or imparted.

But patient surfing on the internet on the last 24 hours has unearthed quite a treasure trove – starting with a great interview with political anthropology Professor Cris Shore  whose work (on the EC) I had noticed some weeks back and who turns out to be the son of a famous Labour Minister (in the 1960s Wilson Government)
That, in turn, led me to these reflections of leading Public Admin Professor RAW Rhodes – whom I had come across in the 1970s as he was starting his academic career – and to an amazing number of articles and books easily available in which he dissects and challenges the British political tradition. One review puts it as follows
Rhodes’s project is to offer an account of what he and Bevir call the ‘stateless state’. This is an image of the state that focuses on the agents of the state – the civil servants, politicians and special advisors – rather than its institutional structure. The state for Rhodes is effectively the sum of their actions. But they do not have free reign: their agency is situated in various webs of relations and beliefs, which are themselves shaped and influenced by particular longstanding narratives and traditions.
Rhodes identifies three particular narratives which are highly influential: the Westminster narrative, which are the longstanding codes of conduct around political neutrality and service to the minister which govern the behaviour of civil servants;
the managerial narrative, which has become increasingly prominent in the UK since the 1960s and in which the practices of managing, reputedly based on the private sector, according to identifiable targets and with appropriate sanctions shape conduct in the departments;
and the governance narrative, in which coordination is achieved through the internal and external organisation of networks across the state and often into civil society as well.
These narratives are not necessarily complementary and often competing. The image that is produced is one of various agents reproducing the state through their constant negotiation between these received traditions and the problems and dilemmas that confront them, rather than the more familiar image of the state as powerful, hierarchical and ossified institutions wielding structural power
On my surfing I also came across a charming tribute to another comparative political scientist; and also this autobiographical essay by the neglected development economist Andre Gunder Frank