what you get here

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Close Encounters of the…..”bureaucratic” kind

Next year will mark my 50th year of “close encounters” with what might be called, neutrally, “state structures” (or more emotionally – “bureaucracy”). Except that I am a political “scientist” and was trained in the 1960s in the Weberian tradition – to understand that generally emotive term in a more analytic way as “the exercise of rational-legal authority”. Weber – like most classical philosophers and sociologists – was intrigued a hundred years ago by the source of social obedience. Why do people obey the rulers? And he produced the most satisfactory answer – with a famous three-fold classification – traditional, charismatic and rational-legal authority…..
The 1930s had its fill with charismatic authority and the world settled amicably in the 1950s for “rational-legal” authority – although, in the 1960s, clever people such as JK Galbraith started to mock it and such as Ivan Illich and Paole Freire to critique it. Toffler’s “Future Shock” (1970) was probably the real warning shot that the old certainties were gone – and “change” has become a blizzard since then. We have been overwhelmed by the fads and fashions of organizational “reform”, “reengineering”, “transformation”……even “revolution” and no longer know who to believe or trust – let alone obey…..  

I’ve tried, over this half-century, to track the more important of the texts which have been written (in the English language at least) about the efforts of administrative reform – by various groups of people and have just developed an innovative classification I thought I would share with you –

Communicating administrative reform
Type
How many
Active in the field
Who they write for
In what format
With what “Tone”

Academics
Too many!
One another – and students
Academic journal articles; and books
Aloof and opaque
Journalists
 Fair number
The public – and professionals
PR handouts generally; more rarely an article
Breathless; More rarely critical
Politicians
A few
The electorate
PR handouts; more rarely a pamphlet
Critical of the past; optimistic of the future
Think-Tankers
A lot
Opinion-makers
Booklets; and PR material
ditto
Consultants
Even more!
Senior civil servants

Confidential reports; very rarely booklets and even a few books
Celebrating their “product”
Officials
Few
One another; OECD

Descriptive papers
ditto
others
Very few
The poor middle-ranking official who is expected to achieve the required change
Toolkits; manuals; roadmaps; notebooks
Open, humorous

 Sometimes I try to make sense of this avalanche of material eg in the early part of the In Transit – notes on good governance book which I wrote in 1999 for young Central European reformers – or The Long Game – not the log-frame - where I tried to capture a sense of the various organisational models with which consultants were trying to entice central European policy-makers. 
More recently I’ve tried to incorporate such texts with relevant blogposts in a draft book about “Crafting Effective Public Management” – but have had to accept that it simply reads too abstractly – “writing about writing”!!

But, as I said, a few weeks back, someone with my experience of straddling all these worlds must (and does) have something distinctive to say about all this organisational effort. And I think I perhaps have cracked what’s been wrong – I’ve been using the wrong “tone” in those efforts
In the last few days I’ve therefore decided to adopt a different approach….. 
…..of “telling a story”…..of the times when a few of us came together and, through a combination of imagination, discussion, networking and sheer inspiration, were able to raft something (a project) which gave the system a bit of a jolt…..

In fact I had written a lot about these occasions – but have never given the papers the profile and legitimacy I now realize they deserve. I’ll give some examples in the next post

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

French Letters

The last post suggested it was not easy to find well-written books which gave a true sense of the intellectual styles and trajectories of individual European countries – at least not in the English-language. Perry Anderson is one these rare characters – to whose extensive analyses of contemporary France, Germany and Italy I duly supplied appropriate links – taken from his stunning study The New Old World (2009) which occupies a prominent place in my library. I have just discovered that the book can be read in its entirety HERE (all 560 pages).
I would rate the book easily the best I have ever read on what it is to be European – about a third being a survey of the literature on the “European Project”; another third being insightful and acerbic analyses of the political and intellectual currents of the “Core” European countries (with the noticeable and dismissive exclusion of the UK); and the final section (“The Eastern Question”) devoted largely to Turkey.
 
I reread Anderson’s chapter on France after the last post – and have to say that it gave me a better feel for the contemporary French scene (excluding the last decade) than the book my post was focusing on viz “How the French Think”

And there are other well-written books on France which explore the intellectual as much as the political – with the outstanding La Vie en Bleu – France and the French since 1990; Rod Kedward (2005) due surely for an update?
I bought it quite recently and was immediately gripped by its opening style. But, full confessions, I soon put the book aside – basically because it’s too daunting a read at 700 pages…One review (just double-click the hyperlink in the title) puts it nicely - 
In recent decades, historians have increasingly attempted to uncover the unique combination of attributes that precisely defines France.  They variously study the national “passions”, realms of memory, or socio-political characteristics in order to define that most elusive of elixirs: Frenchness. Some authors champion a specific set of characteristics, arguing that the key can be found in immigration, diverse social traditions, or cultural identity.
All share a common quest to determine what makes France tick, and how its unique path formed the national consciousness and institutions.  This is not merely an antiquarian exercise.  In an age of urban rioting by the children of excluded immigrants, ongoing debates about the legacy of Vichy and Algeria, and strident anti-Americanism, these studies have a striking contemporary relevance. The latest such effort is Rod Kedward’s “France and the French: La Vie en Bleu since 1900”, and it ranks among the most ambitious of its kind.
Already acclaimed for his now-standard studies of collaboration and resistance during the Vichy years, Kedward here offers an examination of “French political cultures and their chequered narratives, in which the meanings of the past reverberate through every action of the present” (p. xiii).  Simply put, he wishes to eliminate the traditional boundaries between modes of historical inquiry, arguing that political history cannot be adequately addressed without the inclusion of society, culture, memory, and even behavioural studies. 
Only a proper examination of these “multiple narratives” offers a genuine aperçu into French history and its contemporary resonances…… Kedward argues that the history of France since 1900 has been dominated by three central themes – the Republic; Ideology; and Identity.  From the turn of the century onwards, the population and government were obsessed with the idea of the Republic, a neo-Jacobin conceptual framework perceived to be universal in its application. 
Kedward contends that this uniformity dissipated after 1930, inaugurating an era of ideological conflict, in which the nation evolved from elitist party politics towards multiple strands that encompassed “the margins, the outsiders, the subjugated and the minorities” (p. 3).  The period culminated in the événements of 1968,pitting Gaullism against a variety of left-wing alternatives.  Yet the experience of that year both confirmed the existence of ideological pluralism and simultaneously denied it, yielding to a third duration in 1970, the age of identity, when notions of gender, race, sexual orientation, region, and even ecological commitment all trumped allegiances to political parties and doctrines.
 Although various tropes re-emerge in each section--the fight between economic modernization and tradition, the proponents and detractors of dirigisme, struggles for gender equality--Kedward deftly demonstrates the evolution of the various arguments, shifting through the paradigms of unity, diversity, and difference that characterize each historical period.

Inspired by Hazareesingh and Anderson, I now want to go back to Kedward and try to do its 700 pages full justice. I know it deserves it – but it’s so much easier to read smaller books!!!
On that subject, let me remind my readers about my ten tricks of fast reading and comprehension. They are very simply expressed -

General
- Read a lot (from an early age!)
- Read widely (outside your discipline)
- Read quickly (skim)
- If the author doesn’t write in clear and simple language, move on to another book asap. Life’s too short……Bad writing is a good indicator of a confused mind

For each book
- Mark extensively (with a pencil) – with question-marks, ticks, underlines, comments and expletives
- Read the reviews (surf)
- Identify questions from these to ensure you’re reading critically
- Write brief notes to remind you of the main themes and arguments
- Identify the main schools of thought about the subject
- Check the bibliography/index at the end – to see what obvious names are missing

And what did I discover when I applied the last test to “How the French Think”?? That it doesn’t have a bibliography or “further reading” list and that Kedward is not even in the index!! Bad blood somewhere???

Other books on French thinking

The End of the French Exception?: Decline and Revival of the 'French Model'; edited by T. Chafer, E. Godin (2009)   

The Anthropological turn in French Thought – the 1970s to the present – an academic thesis  Lignes – thesis on a cultural mag; Perry Anderson’s studies are always good for an analysis of journals – here’s an entire thesis devoted to one French mag!!



Sunday, September 10, 2017

Styles of Thinking.....and writing

I’ve been quiet these past few weeks largely because of the arrival here in the mountains of a (rare) Amazon package containing a fascinating and diverse collection of titles covering art criticism, capitalism, the European Union, populism, Denmark, the Soviet Union, France, political memoirs and…. reflections on death!! I’ve been going through them – flicking and casting the memoirs aside; and keeping a very interesting The Passage to Europe for later close study

The pick of the bunch was ” How the French Think – an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people” (the link accesses a great summary of the various issues by the author) and a book which has encouraged me to explore further the issue of “national mentalities” or ”cultural thought patterns” which had been the main focus of some recent posts.
The book resists the temptation of just tracking “cultural traits” (eg that the French are “disputatious”) and chooses instead to focus on the arguments of some of the key French figures (starting with Descartes) and on the wider context of their work. Indeed, if I have a criticism, it is that the author probably resists that temptation too well – I would actually like to have seen more treatment of these supposed cultural traits…… 
The notion that rationality is the defining quality of humankind was first celebrated by the 17th-century thinker René Descartes, the father of modern French philosophy. His skeptical method of reasoning led him to conclude that the only certainty was the existence of his own mind: hence his ‘cogito ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’).
This French rationalism was also expressed in a fondness for abstract notions and a preference for deductive reasoning, which starts with a general claim or thesis and eventually works its way towards a specific conclusion – thus the consistent French penchant for grand theories. As the essayist Emile Montégut put it in 1858: ‘There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played such a great role, and whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies.’ The French way of thinking is a matter of substance, but also style. …….
Typically French…, is a questioning and adversarial tendency, also arising from Descartes’ skeptical method. The historian Jules Michelet summed up this French trait in the following way: ‘We gossip, we quarrel, we expend our energy in words; we use strong language, and fly into great rages over the smallest of subjects.’ A British Army manual issued before the Normandy landings in 1944 sounded this warning about the cultural habits of the natives: ‘By and large, Frenchmen enjoy intellectual argument more than we do. You will often think that two Frenchmen are having a violent quarrel when they are simply arguing about some abstract point.’ 
Yet even this disputatiousness comes in a very tidy form: the habit of dividing issues into two. It is not fortuitous that the division of political space between Left and Right is a French invention, nor that the distinction between presence and absence lies at the heart of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction. French public debate has been framed around enduring oppositions such as good and evil, opening and closure, unity and diversity, civilisation and barbarity, progress and decadence, and secularism and religion. 
Underlying this passion for ideas is a belief in the singularity of France’s mission. This is a feature of all exceptionalist nations, but it is rendered here in a particular trope: that France has a duty to think not just for herself, but for the whole world. In the lofty words of the author Jean d’Ormesson, writing in the magazine Le Point in 2011: ‘There is at the heart of Frenchness something which transcends it. France is not only a matter of contradiction and diversity. She also constantly looks over her shoulder, towards others, and towards the world which surrounds her. More than any nation, France is haunted by a yearning towards universality.’

The book is so good that I began to realize how few books there are which tell a compelling and reasonably comprehensive story about a country’s intellectual journey. Theodor Zeldin has written brilliantly about French Passions; Perry Anderson has been a fairly solitary English-speaking writer paying serious attention to contemporary debates on the European continent – whether France, Germany, Italy or even Turkey.
Peter Gay wrote amazing books about the Austro-Hungary legacy; Peter Watson’s “German Genius” has the scope but lacks the narrative …it’s just a bit too much of an Encylopaedia. But I am still racking my brains to identify a book which does justice to the UK’s intellectual and political traditions in the gripping style of Hazareesingh (the author of the book on the French). There is a guy called Stefan Collini who has covered some of this ground – but I’ve never read his stuff……       

The other question which Hazareesingh’s book raises for me is why so few other “knowledgeable people” seem able to write clearly….indeed seem to take positive pleasure in hiding their thoughts in impenetrable language…
In recent years I have been trying to gather my disparate thoughts on public sector reform which are currently mainly in the form of papers, blogposts and hyperlinks. Most writers on this subject are academics or consultants (with the latter being in a tiny minority) and I like to think that I have something distinctive to say by virtue of having straddled – at various times – the diverse roles of academic, political leader and consultant (and in 10 different countries). I recently developed a table which divides the huge academic literature on the subject into five schools 

I’m still a firm believer in the adage that if you want to know something about a subject, you write a book about it. It sounds paradoxical but the act of writing forces you to confront your ignorance and helps you to develop the questions to allow you to identify the most appropriate books for you to read.
I may have 200 pages in the present draft but I know they are essentially random notes – there is no “dominant narrative” of the sort you can feel in Hazareesingh’s book. I don’t particularly want to begin at the beginning again but the text needs the discipline of a clear structure and set of questions…..I decided to let my thoughts run free and look at some academic books on the subject
The Sage Handbook of Public Administration was produced in 2003 by Guy Peters and Jon Pierre and is actually quite well written for an edited book – as is The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (2006) but the language of Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research; D Beland and Robert Henry Cox (2011) is quite incoherent despite containing articles by authors such as Mark Blyth, Colin Hay and Vivian Schmidt for whom I have a great deal of respect.

I got so angry with the language being used that I went back to some points I had written a decade ago for a group of students in Bishkek - and tried to update and extend the argument in the light of what people like Stephen Pinker have been saying recently….
The sociologist C Wright Mills once famously took a turgid 400 page work of Talcott Parsons and reduced it to some 10 pages! And I notice that novelists (such as Benjamin Kunkel, John Lanchester and James Meek) have started to turn their hand to summarising political and economic texts and trends…..
We really do need a lot more writers helping us make sense of social science writing…..

 A Resource
A presentation of “How the French Think”  by the author - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLpHCT8GfYk
“the pessimistic turn in French thought” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izsO2AQ7qk8
Two reviews of the book -

Thursday, August 31, 2017

"Common Endeavour"

Up at 1,350 metres, the season’s changes are quite noticeable. August 15th is known as St Mary’s day in this part of the world and as the sign generally for a faint new chill to the morning air - after the heat which has driven people up from the plain for the previous month or so….
Autumn is coming – and I have decided to make available, in book form, the 60 posts which have featured in the blog so far this year and which bears the title - Common Endeavour – the 2017 posts so far  

It’s a bit cheeky, I grant you, to offer a 2017 annual just over half way through the year! The one frustrating thing, however, about a blog is that it gives a reverse image of reality – with the most recent post coming first and the reader then required to scroll down for the earlier contributions……Noone these days has the patience to search for the first posts and scroll UP…..whereas a book format allows you to begin at…….…the beginning.

And regular readers will know that a new Feature was quietly introduced in recent months – a “Further Reading Resource”. With two thirds of my readers not having English as their first language, I have perhaps become more conscious of the need for an inviting start to these posts which also tries to “position” the subject in the wider commentary……Hence the appearance of the “Further Reading” list with which book notes in particular now end… 

Focus
Early posts couldn’’t help touching on the first shocking weeks of bully boy Trump’s occupation of the White House but, thereafter, ignored the idiot – a tactic I’m surprised more have not suggested as an appropriate weapon to use against such a narcissist. Political misbehaviour in Romania caused more of a public backlash here and was duly the subject of some initial posts - which were followed in the summer by some musings about the failure of most post-communist societies to take seriously the task of building institutional capacity.........

For several weeks from mid-March, I ran a series of posts which started with an observation about   how badly served we are by the hundreds of economics books which jostle for our attention. The opening post suggested some tests we might apply to screen books out – with the drawback that we actually need the book in our hands in order to make the call!
Follow-up posts used some diagrams……which also help guide the reader through the maze of books……More than 100 key books were identified, briefly explained - and hyperlinked. And will all be useful in the task which lies ahead – of severe editing of the present draft of Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation

As a bonus I’ve added, as an Annex, my Sceptic’s Glossary – being my definition of some 100 plus terms used in the questionable discourse of our elites. I’ve set this in the context of texts (and images) which I’ve found useful during my life in the puncturing of their pretensions….. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Political Economy Thriller

Yanis Varoufakis is like the treacly spread product Marmite – which people either love or hate – there seems no compromise between the two positions.
 I happen to think he’s a very good analyst and writer – if rather too prone to court the headlines for sllck comments.
I had first come across him in 2012 when I enjoyed The Global Minotaur – America, the True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy (2011) and had then followed his elevation and performance as Greece’s Economics Minister - for 6 brief months - in 2015 with great interest.

I have just got around to reading his And the Weak Suffer what They Must? – Europe, Austerity and the threat to Global Stability (2016) which clearly draws on his experience of his harrowing 6 months in the eye of the financial and political storm - but which resists the temptation to elaborate on his personal encounters with the various European and international players in that “Drama” (which is actually also the name of a small Greek town very near the border with Bulgaria in which a problem with fuel injection once forced me to spend a night!).
Such an elaboration, he told us, needed a bit more distance – but it was not all that long in coming – in the form of Adults in the Room – published earlier this year which Paul Mason has described as one of the greatest political memoirs…..

Although “And the Weak Suffer…..” has been published for more than a year, it has (if Google is to be believed) attracted surprisingly few reviews.
It seems fairly obvious that Varoufakis has offended so many of the powerful figures in politics and academia that only people such as Mark Blyth and Paul Mason are willing to put their heads above the parapets and write positively about him……
But one fan is an Australian academic whose review of the book on the Open Democracy website is, for me, a model of how a review should be conducted with a focus on both content and style;    
This book is far more than a re-statement of Varoufakis’ 2011 book, The Global Minotaur…but it is that first book which provides the structure here – as a play in three acts.Act One is set in the years 1944 to 1971. When the present global economy was set up at Bretton Woods, the US was gripped by a New Deal fear of international financial chaos but was not prepared to let its dominance of the post-war globe slip in order to generate a truly self-balancing global economy.
This led to the US rejecting Keynes’ plan to construct a genuinely international currency and a genuinely international set of surplus and deficit rebalancing institutions but…….., by investing their own surplus into Germany and Japan in particular, the US was able to re-build Europe and Asia and recreate them – politically and economically – in something like its own image. On the whole, things worked exceptionally well for what we now call the post-war boom (1949– 1971). But when the astronomical expense of the Cold War kicked in and the US stopped running a surplus, the Bretton Woods system simply fell over, leaving the globe in a mess.
 Act Two the US was able to maintain global dominance as a deficit economy. The Nixon Shock of 1971 produced the stagflation sickness of the 1970s which was then ‘cured’ in the 1980s by the staggering success of financialized and transnationalized corporatism. But the architecture of the post-Nixon area was inherently unstable, inherently disconnected from sustainable human and economic realities, and it all came crashing down in 2008.
 Act Three starts in 2008. Here, after acts one and two have both ended in tears, the global economy is terminally wounded and must either die or face radical reconstructive surgery. Now, despite the various appearances of recovery, it is simply the case that the mechanisms and institutions that used to keep the global economic order in some sort of functional balance have all failed. We have only just started Act Three, but it could end quickly, and violently.

The reviewer than asks one of the questions so few bother to – “So, how does “And the Weak Suffer as they Must?” take up this narrative and tell us things we did not know and need to know now?” 
Reading “And the Weak Suffer as they Must?” is like reading a gripping thriller. It is a page turner because the plot itself is a relentless sequence of astonishing twists and turns driven by the cunning ingenuity and hubristic folly of its key protagonists.Even if you know a lot about the Eurozone, Varoufakis’ carefully researched account, with its vivid glimpses into the motivations and outlooks of key players, and its expansive breadth in appreciating the global dynamics pressuring localized decisions, is unerringly startling.
Yet it is no novel. Varoufakis’ book has something made-up stories can only mimic; the texture of real history. But here is the key thing that Varoufakis has so carefully noticed. In the texture of real history, convenient illusions are typically a great deal more influential in the circles of power and normality than is truth.
It is for this reason that, in real history, truth usually seems stranger than fiction. And yet, Varoufakis also notices that the texture of history is such that truth always has the last say, no matter how hard the powers of illusion and convenience seek to keep the dream alive by helping us to stay asleep. Varoufakis’ insight into the relationship between what normal mainstream people and the great and powerful want (even need) to believe, and what is actually going on, is a key feature of the significance of this book.
He weaves his intricate and tense narrative fabric out of illusion and reality (the texture of real history) by constantly shifting our gaze between three interconnected focal lengths.
- With the first, Varoufakis enables us to see how the world looks through the myopia of the common man’s desire to doggedly hope that our leaders know what they are doing while we just get on with our lives. This myopia is savagely reinforced by the news media and integrated with the myopia of European high power.And that high power cannot see past the end of its own nose, defined as it is by the bureaucratic echo-chamber of self-perpetuating institutional power. 
- This short-sighted focal length insight is then overlaid with a 20 20 focal length perspective provided by Varoufakis’ forensic knowledge of how Eurozone power actually functions. Here we get a nauseating sense of how badly awry things are when very basic macro-economic realities are simple banished from the ‘negotiating’ table laid out by the powers that be. 
- This perspective is in turn overlaid with a telescopic focus, the far-sighted and sweeping historical panorama which shows us why the Eurozone is what it is. This enables us to see – in the one account – the disjunction between ‘normal’ financial and public affairs orthodoxies, the ‘realism’ mandated by prevailing power interests, and what is actually happening to Europeans.

This is one of those books which needs to be read a second time – and more closely…..and rates up there along with Mark Blyth’s Austerity – the history of a dangerous idea (2013). In a few months, another (smaller) book will come from Varoufakis. I already have the German version which is called “Time for Change; how I explain the economy to my daughter”. The English version bears the title “Talking to my daughter about the economy; a brief history of capitalism

A Varoufakis Resource

Friday, August 25, 2017

"Bridge of Friendship" interview

I’m “chuffed” at being the focus of a long interview published this week by a young Bulgarian journalist – on a bi-lingual venture called Bridge of Friendship, Vlad Mitev is based in Russe - which boasts the bridge of that name (over the Danube) – and uses his location to write in Bulgarian and Romanian (and often in English) about various aspects of his region. Not only economic (his original focus) but cultural aspects come within his remit. In this cross-border focus, he is quite exceptional… and deserves support.

I had been intrigued by his blog and we had met up earlier in the summer – in Russe – on my way back to Bucharest which is, of course, a mere 60 kms from the Danube and Bulgaria and it was there he sprung on me his idea of an extended interview. Hardly the shy and retiring type, I was only too happy to oblige….
Behind his modest facade, he’s a tough cookie and soon made it clear he would take no diversionary nonsense from me as, inevitably, I tried to move the discussion into more familiar waters…..For Vlad I was merely an intriguing specimen of a Brit who had apparently opted to make his home in both Bulgaria and Romania and he wanted to explore not so much my reasons for this - as my impressions of the two countries and their differences; and any thoughts I might have about the scope for more cooperation… 

One would have to be a bit insensitive to straddle two countries without gaining some impressions – which, of course, always say more about the visitor and his values than the “natives”. And the more countries I have lived in (almost twelve I think) the more fascinated I have become with cultural aspects (in the widest sense). 
It’s not just history and the language which poses a problem at the Danube – it’s the very alphabet! So it’s hardly surprising that people say that people tend to turn their backs to one another at the river. For a few weeks, a couple of years ago, I entertained the thought of helping to develop a cross-border project based on cultural aspects – but simply could not drum up enough interest from my (admittedly limited) networks….. 

The interview gave me full rein for hyperlinks - and a list at the end gives full access to key texts…...

Earlier in the year I tried to celebrate the principle of bridge building – across the boundaries which divide groups – not just nations – but classes, intellectual disciplines and professions. At an early age, I found myself a lot in “no-man’s land” operating a fairly solitary role but, ultimately, one which offered me exciting new perspectives. But it was, apparently, a central European saying that “the problem with bridges is that horses shit on them in peacetime and they are the first thing to be blown up in times of war”
But Vlad’s efforts on Bridge of Friendship deserve everyone’s admiration – and support 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stories

I’m not a great reader of novels – the interactions and fate of fictitious characters pale against those of the real people I find in histories…..And, if I want good prose, I find it in essays, travelogues and short stories – although I grant you that it’s only in stories (short and long) that the inner life of people can be treated in depth…..
Perhaps that’s why I’m so partial to short stories – produced by the likes of William Trevor, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabakov, Joseph Miller and……Joseph Roth

Seven years ago, however, one post here did actually pay tribute to about 75 novels which had taken my fancy – only one third of which, interestingly, were British….And, of those, most were Irish or Scottish since I have found their style of writing much more lively than that of English novelists…..It’s not just the older generation I’m referring to (such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir and Robin Jenkins) but also the younger writers (such as Andrew Greig, James Meek and James Robertson on the Scottish side – and Sebastian Barry and John McGahern on the Irish).

Too many contemporary English writers seem to be unable to shake themselves out of their limited middle-class environment – eg Ian McEwan, although this is not something you could say about his acerbic mate Martin Amis. Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernieres are two exceptions who deal with big issues – the latter giving us “Birds without Wings” about the tragic exchange of population in early 20s Anatolia. And Lawrence Durrell still thrills me – despite the reputation he has unfairly been given for “over the top” writing…… 

When I was a teenager in the late 50s, it was the modernist fiction of Aldous Huxley and HG Wells which grabbed my fancy – with Evelyn Waugh for light relief (books such as “Scoop”). Joseph Conrad I read when I wanted something more exotic - and DH Lawrence for the emotional side of things.
The 60s brought the “angry young men” with writers such as Alan Sillitoe, John Bratby and Kinsgley Amis – the 70s the university realists – eg Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson
By the 80s EM Foster and Thomas Hardy were big – as films brought their books to life. On the contemporary front, Fay Weldon's journalistic prose made the woman's case....

There’s a nice little overview of the writing of the 1945-90 period here; and a more substantial survey here. It’s always interesting to see what foreigners make of British literature and I found the analysis and set of notes of The Desperado Age – British literature at the start of the third millennium (2006) revealing – if a bit forced. The author is Lidia Vianu (2006) who was then Professor of English literature at Bucharest University.

Lists of personal favourites are rather self-indulgent and pointless – unless including some sort of justification for the choices….which might just persuade us to give some of the texts a whirl…. 
It’s in that spirit that I now update that earlier post. 
In 2010 I hadn’t quite adjusted to my Romanian base – so had missed a baker’s dozen of superb books - Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (originally written in the 1950s but only widely available from 2010); Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy (written in the 60s but receiving a new lease of life after the film); and Gregor von Rezzori’s brilliant three semi-autobiographical books drawn from his time in Romanian Czernowitz (now in southern Ukraine) – first written (in German) between the 50s and 70s but issued by NYRB only recently.  
Rebecca West’s massive and stunning Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – a journey through Yugoslavia  was first published in 1941 and is actually four books in one – about Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia – but received a huge boost from the 90s Yugoslav conflagration. It’s not, of course, a novel but, 75 years on, it is a gripping read - and still repays study.

I would stand by my 2010 list – with the embarrassing exception of Paul Coelho! And I also don’t know how Jason Godwin crept onto the list…. Otherwise the mix of South American “magic realism”; French romanticism and nihilism; Irish, Israeli and Egyptian realism; and Scottish whimsy stands up well……
My tributes to the likes of John Berger and William MacIlvanney demand their addition – as do JM Coetze and Svetlana Alexievitch 

ps this post - and some earlier this year - are in the tradition of blogs such as A CommonPlace Blog where older people try to identify the books and journals they have enjoyed and would recommend to others