what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events.
It rather uses books (old and new), incidents, links 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!

And, for once, my mountain redoubt gets pride of place....

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me"

The Scots (like the Irish) have a reputation for leaving their country to seek fame and fortune in far parts of the globe and have done fairly well out of it – although some of the early migrants were driven from their homes by rapacious landlords (The Highland Clearances) and famine.
Armenians were brutally evicted from their lands by the Turks after accusations that they had been helping the (Russian) enemy – the famous travel writer, Leigh Fermour, paints a vivid picture in his final book of meeting up with some of their descendants in the early 1930s in Plovdiv in central Bulgaria (as I did 75 years later).
Greek aggression led in the early 1920s to savage ethnic cleansing and population exchange between Turkey and Greece; Italians bled from the country in the early part of the 20th century; Hitler’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s led to a massive exodus from which America and Britain were the beneficiaries; no quarter was given during the murderous Spanish civil war and led to a huge refugee flow across mountains to southern France.

The end of the war – and the radical redrawing of European boundaries by the victorious forces – saw tens of millions of people forcibly removed from their homes and trekking in all directions. Keith Lowe’s 2012 Savage Continent; Europe in the aftermath of World War II rightly talks of it being “an until now unacknowledged time of lawlessness and terror” to whose portrayal the final section of Stephen A’Barrow’s recent Death of a Nation added a powerful voice.   

Post war saw the first ships arrive in Britain with West Indians seeking a better life – joining Indian and Pakistan middle class people whose restaurants woke the country up from a gastronomic torpor… and Germany was, of course, the recipient of many Turks in the 1970s also seeking a better life there….

John Berger’s 1975 book The Seventh Man was so called because he reckoned that fully one in seven of the working force in Britain and Europe was then an immigrant. 
And indeed – full disclosure - so am I! My blog masthead states, rather cheekily, that I am “a political refugee from Thatcher’s Britain” but, truth be told, I am actually an economic refugee. It’s the fees I earned from my work with (mainly) Danish, Dutch and German companies that keeps me in my current life- style in Bulgaria and Romania. No need to make ironic comments – call it “reverse flow”……

The shocking scenes which hit us earlier in the year from the Mediterranean and now from the Balkans show a crisis, we are told, as great as the post-war period. Figures become meaningless after a time – so what are we to make of the figure of 50 million – quickly taken up to 60  and then 70 million?? This report gives us the detail

Time was when we would open our hearts and homes to those driven from their countries by forces outside their control. My parents did in the early 1940s when they took in a family belonging to the Free French forces stationed in my home town – I still remember the red, white and blue of the silver-crepe ornament which adorned our front window at Christmas in the 1950s; and our PE teacher was a refugee from the Greek Civil War……

But materialism and fear (the later instilled by the prejudice whipped up by the media) have hardened our hearts. It appears that the old spirit is still alive only in Germany….

update; a few minutes after posting this, I came across this short but masterly podcast about the situation - putting to shame the outpourings of the corporate media which spew their poison at us every minute of the day. A real example of what a lone voice can achieve!!!!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rural life in the early part of the century

One of my great fortunes in life is to have a mountain house which had stood empty for more than a decade when we first clapped eyes on it in summer 2000 and bought on a whim (and for a song). It needed a lot of work – it had no running water, electricity or insulation.
Indeed it was little more than a shell – its lower (stone) level hewn into the hillside having served as a shelter for family cows and the maturing of cheese; the wooden floor above as accommodation – kept warm in the winter by the heat of the animals below – and the attic as storage for the hay.   
It is part of a collection of houses which form one of the scattered villages which cling to the mountain valleys which stretch up from Brasov and Campulung and whose stories deserve to be told.

For the next few years, Daniela (living 200 kilometres south in Bucharest) would hitchhike almost every weekend; find the workmen and materials; lug the materials from nearby villages and manage the work of digging (water and sewage), building (bathroom, kitchen and stoves) and insulation. My excuse was that I was a few thousand kilometres further east and therefore managed to take in only a bit of the insulation; the construction of the subsequent central heating; back terrace; and loft conversion……   During that last bit of work we were delighted to find not only beer bottles from the 1930s but carefully-kept accounts of the sales of the cheeses – a real glimpse into village life….
The house may be legally (and emotionally) mine – but it is Daniela’s creation – down to the furniture, bookshelves, arrangement of the paintings and the Rene McIntosh stained glass-like designs…..

Only since summer 2008 have I been able to spend substantial time here (from May through to October) and get a sense of the sorts of lives people lived here in the twentieth century….centred around the church and its frequent saintdays whose piped incantations echo around the valley…..
I am a city boy but have grown to appreciate the superb air and silences here.

One small section of my library is devoted to books which try to give voice to this (dying) way of life – the titles include -
Road to Alto - an account of peasants, capitalists and the soil in the mountains of southern Portugal; Robin Jenkins (1979)
- House by the Shore – twelve years in the Hebrides; Alison Johnson (1986)
- A Wild Herb Soup – the life of a French countrywoman; Emilie Carles (1991)
 - "A Year's Turning"; Michael Viney (1996) about life in a remote Irish location to which they moved in the late 1970s
-  Celestine – voices from a French village; Gillian Tindall (1996)
- "Mourjou - the life and food of an auvergne village"; Peter Graham (1998);
 - Harry Clifton's poetic "On the Spine of Italy - a year in the Abruzzi" (1999)
War in Val D'Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944; Iris Ortigo (2000)
-  Love and War in the Pyrenees; a story of courage, fear and hope 1939-1944 – Rosemary Bailey (2008)
 - Notes from Walnut Tree Farm; Roger Deakin (2008)
 - An Island in Time – the biography of a village; Geert Mak (2010)

Recently I have been reading -
- The Stronghold – four seasons in the white mountains of Crete; Xan Fielding (1953)
- Thin Paths – journeys in and around an Italian mountain village; Julia Blackburn (2012)

All of such books make for gripping reading – but the last two I have found particularly powerful – perhaps because I am now spending more time with my 89-year old neighbor who was widowed earlier in the year. For many years in the 50s and 60s he delivered the post in the valleys here – on horseback! He must have some tales to tell!

Blackburn's book has touches of WG Sebald - poetic with small unfocused black and white photos...she befriended the old people in her village and gradually got them to talk about their lives....first time I had heard of the feudal system still prevailing there in the early part of the 20th century with the residents calling themselves "mezzadri" (half people) and being at the beck and call of "il padro"....    

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Working Across Cultures - how it expands the mind

I opened a veritable Pandora’s Box of personal memories this week – with the post on memoirs……..
Then remembered a stack of large notebooks I had used in the 1980s to record both initial scribbles and final typed-up papers as I had struggled to make sense of the nature of the organisational venture I was then engaged in - trying to reshape a large bureaucratic system in the West of Scotland. And duly found about 1,500 pages – stashed away behind the Scottish section of my bookcase!!
As I dipped into them, I realized that I now write much better than then – indeed that I think more clearly……And how much of this I owe to my nomadic lifestyle of the past 25 years. 

In central Europe in the 1990s I needed to speak more slowly (generally through interpreters); had the time in the pauses, as the interpretation was being done, to think carefully about both what I should be saying - and how to say it. And, under questioning, I was having to explain more clearly what I thought my concepts actually meant!!
Far from being a nuisance, it helped me see things from other people's point of view. I was having to “relativise” – to be aware that the experiences and images certain words and concepts brought to my mind generally aroused very different images in my interlocuteurs’ minds – and to try to deal with this…..  
I was able to produce a detailed analysis of the 1980s venture only nine years later - thanks to the greater "distance" my nomadic work had helped me develop. A short Urban Studies fellowship in the mid 1990s in my old University (Glasgow) also helped. You can see the result in Organisational Development and Political Amnesia

All relevant to the flood of books which hit me this week – mainly collections of essays – a genre I have loved since my schooldays when Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb were favourites. The literary canon, apparently, distinguishes various forms of essay and “personal essay” is evidently the more precise term for the type I like. The Art of the Personal Essay is a 770-page collection with a superb introduction to the genre by Phillip Lopate who writes…….

The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue -- a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship. (xxiii)

The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. We must also feel secure that the essayist has done a fair amount of introspective homework already, is grounded in reality, and is trying to give us the maximum understanding and intelligence of which he or she is capable. . . . How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilation’s, aches and pains, humorous flashes -- these are the classic building materials of the personal essay. We learn the rhythm by which the essayist receives, digests, and spits out the world, and we learn the shape of his or her privacy. (xxiv-xxv)

The collection makes quite an interesting contrast with the other 700 page anthology which landed with a thud this week - The Lost Origins of the Essay by John D'Agata. Both volumes are international in scope (unlike John Gross’s 704 page classic The Oxford Book of Essays edited some decades ago which looks only at English writers) but D’Agata’s seems to have more focus on longer, Eastern works. Lopate’s gives us the range and writers we expect. Both are large and handsome but the Gray Wolf Press edition of The Lost Origins of the Essay is a real example of sensual work – with great quality paper, typeface and a delicate folding cover. And interesting background piece on that publisher here 
Three of Clive James’s explosive collections also await - Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002; A Point of View; and The Revolt of the Pendulum: Essays 2005-2008. But

And I’m tempted to order George Orwell’s Collected Essays which I have been without for the past 4 decades….. talk about making up for lost time……

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Intimations of Mortality

Those of us who enjoy good health don’t give a moment’s thought to the prospect of growing old and frail. Making a will should be a wake-up call but is all too quickly forgotten. I sometimes wonder if my inability to even start the process of applying for the pension which was rightfully mine some years back is not a sign of psychological resistance to the very notion that I am “getting on in years”!
The face that stares back at me from the mirror has still some resemblance to my old passport photos (the body doesn’t). When my mother made the decision at age 95 to transfer from the independent flat she had in a small and lightly ”supported accommodation” I vividly remember her looking around at her new neighbours – most of whom were considerably younger than her – and remarking (quietly) that there were a lot of old people around!

It is indeed all in the mind…..It’s almost 50 years ago that The Coming of Age by Simone de Beauvoir burst on the world 
In 1967, Beauvoir began a monumental study of the same genre and calibre as “The Second Sex”. La Vieillesse (The Coming of Age, 1970) met with instant critical success. “The Second Sex” had been received with considerable hostility from many groups who did not want to be confronted with an unpleasant critique of their sexist and oppressive attitudes towards women; “The Coming of Age” however, was generally welcomed although it too critiques society’s prejudices towards another oppressed group: the elderly. This masterful work takes the fear of age as a cultural phenomenon and seeks to give voice to a silenced and detested class of human beings.
What she concludes from her investigation into the experience, fear and stigma of old age is that even though the process of aging and the decline into death is an inescapable, existential phenomenon for those human beings who live long enough to experience it, there is no justification for our loathing older members of society – nor should the “aged” merely resign themselves to waiting for death or for younger members of society to treat them as the invisible class.
Rather, Beauvoir argues…. that old age must still be a time of creative and meaningful projects and relationships with others. This means that above all else, old age must not be a time of boredom, but a time of continuous political and social action. This requires a change of orientation among the aged themselves and within society as a whole which must transform its idea that a person is only valuable insofar as they are profitable. Instead, both individuals and society must recognize that a person’s value lies in his or her humanity - which is unaffected by age.

Thanks to campaigning efforts of bodies such as Age Concern (in the UK) and the efforts of prominent older people such as retired trade union leader Jack Jones and Joan Bakewell, I noticed signs about a decade or so ago of such positive developments….but the media and entertainment industry (which still tends to set the tone) is still remarkably “ageist. On Golden Pond was unusual for 1981 (with Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn as the elderly couple) but was a one-off - presumably the studios calculated they needed more upbeat messages.
More recently we have had the French film “All Together” with Jane Fonda and Geraldine Chaplin and, in early 2013,  another (more harrowing) French film. In the same year a Japanese politician was caught telling the elderly to hurry up and die but British think-tanks offered some reasoned discussions about housing options for the elderly in the UK and good material on the whole issue of images and perceptions of old age.

And the writer Penelope Lively had a more celebratory piece - 
So this is old age. If you are not yet in it, you may be shuddering. If you are, you will perhaps disagree, in which case I can only say: this is how it is for me. And if it sounds – to anyone – a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not. Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response.
I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in the spring sunshine, and the cream and purple hellebore in the garden; I listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of selective abortion, and chip in at points; the sound of a beloved voice on the phone brings a surge of pleasure.
 I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.
Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.
It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I've seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

The following year, Jenni Diski had a much nastier take on old age in a piece called “However I smell”

Atul Gawande – author of the book I wrote about yesterday – may be a surgeon and Professor but is not your normal medic. In this interesting interview earlier this year in Guernica magazine he explains how he came to be able to give voice to his own uncertainties and to celebrate by example the importance of “listening” – something which medical training has apparently come round to only recently……  (this critical section of the interview is toward the end)  
The biggest thing I found was that when these clinicians were at their best, they were recognizing that people had priorities besides merely living longer. The most important and reliable way that we can understand what people’s priorities are, besides just living longer, is to simply ask. And we don’t ask. 
Guernica: How did your research on end-of-life care change how you behaved as a doctor? 
Atul Gawande: As a doctor, I felt really incompetent when trying to understand how to talk to patients and their loved ones about an illness that we were not going to be able to make better. We might be able to stave off certain components of it, or maybe we couldn’t even do that. And I felt unprepared when it came to having those difficult conversations and helping patients make those decisions.
I found that these end-of-life care experts were making me feel much more competent. They were giving me the words that I could use, and I began to use those words. I’d simply say to a patient, “I’m worried about how things are going.” I’d ask questions like, “Tell me what you understand about your health and your prognosis.” “Tell me what your goals are, if time is short.” “Tell me what your fears and worries are for the future.” “Tell me what the outcomes are that you would find unacceptable.”

This little newsletter also carries a useful overview on the subject

The photograph is, coincidentally, one of those from Australia's recent national photographic awards  

Monday, August 24, 2015

Facing up to our Mortality

About once a year a book has me on the edge of the seat and really challenged - Being Mortal – illness, medicine and what matters in the end seems to be this year’s book. It’s written by a rather special doctor of Indian origin who has been working in US hospitals and also writing for The New Yorker …. Atul Gawande
Initially it presents a rather harrowing description of what the onset of age does to our body – and how modern medicine responds….with more and more sophisticated (and expensive) treatment – increasingly in hospital. The deservedly acclaimed film  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” may be about patients in a “mental home” but the treatment which audiences saw exactly 40 years ago is all too evident in all institutions these days…..

In my parents’ generation people tended to die a few years after retirement but a mix of factors (eg the decline of manufacturing industry and medical advances) has added at least 10 years to “life expectation” in Europe and North America.
That led to political panics a decade or so ago about the fiscal burden of pensions (assuaged to an extent by the breaking of social promises and contracts) and the constant climb in health costs then led to campaigns to get us living more healthily. But the public continue to expect the best medical treatment and - when that fails - institutional care of “the elderly” who tend these days to be living on their own hundreds of miles/kilometres away from sons and daughters….       

Gawande paints an ugly picture of the suddenness with which people in their 70s can fall from autonomy to institutional dependence and regimentation and rightly accuses us all of failing to prepare for this.
I am as guilty as the next although a little voice has been encouraging me this past couple of years to “copy and save” articles and papers about ageing - on which I will draw for my next post

The heroes in Gawande’s story are some mavericks who couldn’t accept the regimentation; had a passionately-held vision of an alternative system which allowed people to assert the independence they had come to expect in their own homes; and had the guts, skills and perseverance to build examples of such alternatives whose results were not only cheaper but led to a better quality of life…..By 2010 the number of residents of such small complexes which spread across America was approaching the number in nursing homes. But then, Gawande tells us 
a distressing thing happened – the concept of assisted living became so popular that developers began slapping the name on just about anything. The idea mutated from a radical alternative to nursing homes into a menagerie of watered-down versions with fewer services….concerns about safety increasingly limited what people could have in their apartments and defined ever more stringent conditions which would trigger discharge to a nursing home. The language of medicine, with its priorities of safety and survival was taking over again” (p101)

And the boards running such places wanted the profits which come from a larger scale than the original concept  
I was reminded me of the “sheltered accommodation” my mother chose to live in between the ages of 85 and 95 – cooking and shopping for herself. I checked and there it was – a complex of only seven flats – part of a charity which has more than 100 such places in the UK…So all is not lost!!!

But the importance of “autonomy” – whether in company structures or the way we live our lives……- is still hidden from most of us.......

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Art of the Memoir

Politicians have given narcissism a bad name - the story-line of too many of their autobiographies being "Look what I achieved - despite all the bastards out to get me". And yet there are superb exceptions such as Dennis Healey’s “Time of my Life” beautifully-written and wry study of politics when it mattered – with a dash of culture thrown in from time to time. En passant he mentions that Leonard Woolf’s 5-volume “Memoirs” were an inspiration - when I eventually got round to reading them I had to agree they were one of the best in the English language. By contrast Tony Benn’s 50 year series of “Diaries” are little more than a series of notes…..

Other examples of authors who led fascinating lives and whose account of them generally avoids the emptiness of modern political scribbles are -
 Arthur Koestler's 4 volumes - "an unrivalled study" as the blurb on the back of the third volume ("The Invisible Writing") puts it "of twentieth century man and his dilemmas"
- JK Galbraith’s “A Life in Our Times; Memoirs” offer an unsurpassable repast of memories and intellectual musings
The various volumes of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography convey a powerful sense of an exciting new Europe taking shape in the post-war rubble.
Writer Luise Rinser’s “Saturn auf der Sonne” (2nd part of her autobiography) does the same for Germany
graphic artistTisa von Schulenberg’s harrowing little book “Ich Kann Nicht Anders” covers her life before the war….
I also thoroughly enjoyed historian Fritz Stern’s “Five Germanies I have known
And, recently, novelist Gunther Grass’s so poetic “Peeling the Onion
Poet Dannie Abse’s “Goodbye Twentieth Century” is a gentle memoir
Diane Athill’s various Memoirs are as good as they get
Des Wilson, the great campaigner, I knew briefly in the late 70s and he was good enough to send me his rumbustious “Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure
Clive James’ output is almost unclassifiable – memoirs, essays, notes – give a real insight into a great mind, reader and writer…
- .Gregor von Rezzori is one of the most neglected of writers from lands which have been variously part of Austro-Hungary, CzechoSlovakia, Hungary, Romania and now Ukraine. Over thirty years he wrote marvellous prose about his early years in the town of Czernowitz when it lay in the northern redoubts of Romania. It is difficult to classify them – novels or memoirs? Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (1979) and Snows of Yesteryear (1989) generally appear as the former but to my mind can be read as “creative memoirs”.
Amitai Etzioni and Richard Rose are two prolific academics whose foray into Memoir ( entitled respectively“My Brother’s Keeper” and (very jazzily?) Learning about Politics in Time and Space(!!) give a great sense of their intellectual development. And, like Fritz Stern, they straddle different countries…….

What exactly, I wonder, do we get from these attempts of creative people to make sense of their lives? What insights into human behavior? What lessons for us? There must be a Phd thesis in there somewhere???

The painting is one of three I bought in May at an exhibition in the Military Circle gallery from a master of book graphics - Alex Ivanov

Friday, August 21, 2015

Waste and Needs - where is the Imagination?

The young need hope to survive – but so many of Europe’s young people live in a hopeless situation – well-educated but fighting for jobs. The Greek situation is particularly horrific – with more than half of youngsters in their 20s unemployed – but things are almost that bad in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain. In Europe as a whole, there are 5 million youngsters (ie 16-24) jobless – an average of 1 in 4. This is a useful little paper on the subject.
In 2013 the EU established a 6 billion fund (for a 6 year period) to deal with the problem – less than a third of what the ILO had suggested in 2012 was actually needed. And a year later Angela Merkel had to admit that little progress was being made in the implementation of the Youth Employment Initiative.

Youth unemployment rates are slightly better in Bulgaria (one third) and Romania (one quarter) but the young people I know here are either working on short-term projects with EU funding; self-employed; working with friends and family; or (at best) climbing the greasy pole of academia…..

European money in these two countries is mind-boggling in its scale - but its impact difficult to see. It is notoriously difficult to access – even in northern Europe where they tend to play by the book. In southern countries, the behavior of civil servants, municipal officials and their various political and business patrons makes life even more difficult for those with pet projects. Hardly surprisingly, therefore, that we have seen various scandals in the management of the huge funds which the EU has seen fit to transfer to these countries in the last few years. This has led to “absorption” rates of less than 20% (in 2012 Romanian managed 11% but Bulgaria 34%!!) - although Balkan Insight tells us that Romania’s rate was 30% in 2013. 

That’s 1 billion euros actually paid out in one year – mainly for motorways….although the total value of the contracts signed off that year was a mind-boggling 17 billion euros

The only projects I see in my part of the Carpathians are actually tiny - but counter-productive – grants to guesthouses which take the money from the mouth of the older village residents who have tried to supplement their meagre existence with “Cazare” (bed and breakfasts)…..

What I don’t see is any attempt at creative harnessing of the money to the multiple social needs in rural areas – decrepit social and physical infrastructure could be brought into the 21st century with the help of the trained skills of young people.
But that would require not only new forms of social enterprise – but a more Germanic approach to skill development, encouraging not just the fashionable IT skills (and academic learning) but also the more practical skills required in rural areas……

I googled “social enterprise in Romania” and was encouraged to find several reasonably recent reports. The academic ones hardly worth wasting time on but this 2014 country report made for interesting reading

This past couple of weeks, my village authorities have been busy upgrading the little road which runs below my garden – it doesn’t go anywhere, just connects about 10 houses only 3 of which use cars (mine being one) so fairly pointless. But the “Bucharest Live” blog gives us a lovely insight into such roads in another part of Transylvania

I wish someone would do a real study of the mentalities (and networks!) of the people who have the fate of such places in their hands…….