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!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Neglected Bulgaria

Bulgaria – by virtue of its size and Cyrillic script - gets a raw deal on the internet. To help enlarge its profile I therefore offer this E-book of 100 pages - Bulgarian Explorations which I have drafted in the past few weeks in anticipation of one of my daughter’s first visits to the country
I shall run excerpts from it during February….starting with this - 
The Balkans have for the past few centuries been a source of great fascination for west Europeans. For intrepid travellers from the 18th century at least, this was the furthest extremity of the world that they could reasonably attempt…..The Debated Lands by Philip Hammond (2002) looks at about 500 books written by these travellers - first at the motifs of discord, savagery, backwardness and obfuscation which characterise the 19th century British travel books about the area. Danubian Principalities; the frontier lands of the Christian and of the Turk” (1854), for example, is written by a British engineer who found himself in the land just south of the Danube in what is now North-East Bulgaria and offers a view just 20 years before Bulgaria was liberated from the “Turkish Yoke
There then followed a strand of writing in the late 1920s which, as Hammond puts it,  “took the romanticisation into deeper territory – with a revolt against western modernity and mass society –
 From the end of the First World War until the outbreak of the Second, travellers were finding in this previously depraved corner of Europe…. " a peace, harmony, vivacity and pastoral beauty in utmost contrast to the perceived barrenness of the West, and which produced benefits for those weary of modernity that ranged from personal rejuvenation to outright revelation”.
 According to this alternative balkanism, violence had disappeared from the region, savagery became tamed, obfuscation turned to honesty and clarity, and the extreme backwardness that had formerly been the gauge of Balkan shortcoming was now the very measure by which it was extolled. For many travelers, any mystery that did remain around the geographical object became less the marker of a befuddled and dishonest culture than a vital indication of spiritual depth…….” 
Meet Bulgaria; RH Markham (1932) (who was Balkans correspondent of The Christian Scientist) may be seen as an example. The link gives you the entire book which paints a charming picture of a rural society – and has a complete chapter on painting.
 Undoubtedly the most famous travel writer for this part of the world was Patrick Leigh Fermour (generally known as Paddy) whose trilogy about his walk from the English Channel to Istanbul in 1933 was finished only last year. A Time of Gifts (1977) covered mainly his experience of Nazi Germany; Between the Woods and the Water (1986) of Hungarian aristocratic houses in Transylvania. But, in 2013, after a 25-year gap, we got The Broken Road (2013) dealt mainly with the Bulgarian and Greek sections of his trip. Paddy’s writing is quite exquisite. He led a very full life – a website is devoted to his memory; and a great biography came out quite recently.
 Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury (1982) follows a British linguistics lecturer, Dr. Angus Petworth, on his first ever visit behind the Iron Curtain, to Slaka.
 His arrival, the paranoia of his hosts, the changing moods of his ever-present interpreter and guide, the secret trysts with attractive female novelists, his increasingly desperate attempts to phone home and the fall-off-the-chair-laughing diversion into second-division British diplomatic circles are brilliantly written vignettes that can only be based on real events.
These may or may not of course have happened in Bulgaria – Slaka ultimately borrows a little from every country once behind the Iron Curtain – but anyone who visited before (or even immediately after) 1990′s overthrowal of the communists will immediately recognise much of communist-era Bulgaria in Bradbury’s book.
Especially good are the descriptions of the hotels: dark wood everywhere, omnipresent men in long coats reading newspapers, peroxide-blondes smoking at lobby bars, terrible service and Byzantine bureaucracy. 
Imagining the Balkans by Bulgarian anthroplogist Maria Todorova writes that In the approach to the First World War specific countries were embraced by economic and military alliances and some countries acquired what has been called a "pet state" status.
Todorova sums up as the pet state approach to south-east Europe as consisting of “the choosing from amongst the Balkan states a people whose predicaments to abhor, whose history and indigenous leaders to commend, whose political grievances to air, and whose national aspirations to advocate”. In this way Montenegrins, Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians were all, at different times, picked out for laudatory comment. 

Friday, January 30, 2015


Strange the way the mind works….the original intention behind yesterday’s post was to give a simple description of the trouble I’m having deciding what sound system best fits my needs……
Instead I found myself resurrecting memories……and sketching a way of life that will strike the present generation as …..well…...weird!
The idea of debt still had religious echoes in those days – the injunction ”neither a borrower nor lender be” still resonates in my mind. That’s why the word “sin” suddenly crops up in the post….

This led my thoughts back to a book which made such an on impression on me a few years back that I bought an additional couple of copies to ensure that I had it on hand more easily – Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity – why modern life makes it impossible to be happy
Drawing on philosophy, religion, history, psychology and neuroscience, he explores the things that modern culture is either rejecting or driving us away from:         
Responsibility – we are entitled to succeed and be happy, so someone/thing else must be to blame when we are not
Difficulty – we believe we deserve an easy life, and worship the effortless and anything that avoids struggle (as Foley points out, this extends even to eating oranges: sales are falling as peeling them is now seen as too demanding and just so, you know, yesterday…)
Understanding – a related point, as understanding requires effort, but where we once expected decision-making to involve rationality, we have moved through emotion to intuition (usually reliable) and – more worryingly – impulse (usually unreliable), a tendency that Foley sees as explaining the appeal of fundamentalism (“which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God.”) 
Detachment – we benefit from concentration, autonomy and privacy, but life demands immersion, distraction, collaboration and company; by confusing self-esteem (essentially external and concerned with our image to others) with self-respect (essentially internal and concerned with our self-image), we further fuel our sense of entitlement – and our depression, frustration and rage when we don’t get what we ‘deserve’

At that point I shook myself and tried to get back to the issue in hand – should I buy a Denon or a Bose? Should it be Bluetooth?

But now I felt I needed to explain why I was needing something apparently portable when, for the first time in 25 years, I am no longer nomadic….(.or at least only between 3 locations…….!)
In 1990 I had left the West of Scottish and found myself “on assignments” – my “user name” indeed on most websites is "nomadron" – and what does my wicked mind then divert me into? Nothing less than memories of Dick Barton, special agent to whose radio programme I was, with many millions of others, an avid listener in the early 1950s!!!
I duly inserted the Wikipedia link but was then tempted to have a look at an old black and white movie from the period. Did actors really speak and behave like that in those days???

So let’s start again……clearly music is important to me….but, until a year or so ago, I had been content with simple radio/CD players. The collection has grown - in all 3 locations I now call home…
But the demise of one the simple music systems called for a replacement and a simple bit of research and the accident of one of the quality Denon music system outlets being located on one of my regular beats in Sofia had me installing it in my mountain house – to my great satisfaction….

Now my ear had a standard of comparison…….I am on the primrose path to hell……..
My education about technical options grows by leaps and bounds! The Bose branch at the Bulgaria Mall in Sofia wasn’t exactly heaving with goodies – and could offer only a 2 week delivery date for most systems…..And I could listen only to the smallest  – a 19x6 cm Bluetooth Soundlink Mini at 450 levs (that's 230 euros). That didn’t offer the depth which the larger Denon portable speaker does at 400 levs…..
But there is another quality Bluetooth option – SoundTouch portable at 850 levs which also offer at the same price a non-portable version (ie with electricity connection). The full Bose range is here

A Technopolis branch in the same (empty and soulless) Mall offered a Logitech 2600BT with 2 subtle cones (connected obviously but with a fine small white wire looking like Lasagne) and costing (with a tiny adaptor) only 289 levs…….only problem – the guy couldn’t get it to work……….And, as the review video says, they’re not really portable……and lack quality sound…….But interesting….

On balance I’m left with 3 options –
- Stick with my simple 5 year-old 50 euros Philips radio whose tones are reverbating powerfully around my flat’s large sitting room as I write
- The 400 levs Denon – with as good a quality as the complex headphones with digital to analogue converter at 550 levs (let alone the 2000 levs amplifier and speaker systems with cables…..
- The as yet untested Bose SoundTouch options – cheapest of which (both portable and non-P) are 850 levs…….

Much as I am tempted to stay with my old Philips radio, it doesn’t allow streaming – or audio for films from Zamunda (the Bulgarian PirateBay)!!

Choice! Choice" Or as the Germans put it - Die Qual der Wahl!!
And they say this is the "instant gratification" generation! More like "paralysis by analysis"!!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Travelling Light

Although some of my earliest political acts (after demonstrations against UK repressions in Central Africa in 1959 and the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde in the early 1960s) were about boosting consumer choice (under the influence of Janey Buchan) I’ve never actually bought into the “consumer ideology” with which my generation was, I think, the first to be gripped…..

My parents, married in the immediate pre-war period, enjoyed existential (but not material) luxury. Money was scarce – my father existed on a Scottish Presbyterian Minister’s “stipend” (of less than 1000 pounds a year) although we did live rent-free in a “Manse” owned by the Church of Scotland….
Any spare cash soon disappeared into the hands of various folk who would come begging to the house……my father was a well-known “soft-touch”….
He never owned a car – being a familiar (or “well-ken’t”) figure striding (and pausing to chat on or pick up paper from) the streets of the shipbuilding town in which he spent 60 years of his life.
He would earn some spare cash from tutoring – although it was never clear whether this was from necessity or love of learning…….

I grew up in the 1950s – aware of television which was, however, a real luxury. I have a memory of watching (on a neighbour’s set) the 1952 Coronation for a few boring minutes before being let loose on an empty street and, a few years later (on Saturday afternoons) my friend Les Mitchell’s set in neighbouring Newton St first the football results and, in 1963 the first episodes of Doctor Who!
Bliss it was……..

It was 1966 or so when I acquired my first flat – with 2,000 pounds from my mum’s hard-pressed savings – and Habitat furniture…..In 1968 I outmatched my father’s income almost at first go when I became a Lecturer at a Paisley College. The very same year I was elected to Greenock’s town council and soon became a Chairman of a major committee.
In celebration I bought a second-hand Volvo saloon from a lover’s father’s garage…….. shades of John Updike. And, thereafter, a series of such cars. I acquired my first new car at the age of 47….And my first fitted kitchen a few years earlier…… 

When, after leaving Scotland, I transferred the flat (and remaining mortgage payments of some 20k) to my wife, I had neither savings nor debt……………………verily I was a happy man!

I have, since then, accumulated some possessions – one house (for 6000 euros) and helped my partner acquire a flat in central Bucharest…..But for 25 years I have rented most of the places I have stayed in – about 20 addresses during the period…..which is more than 100k in rent – but probably balanced by the absence of any legal requirement to pay tax…….The nomadic life has meant minimal possessions…..verily I am a happy man…….
although the groaning suitcases from Central Asia brought carpets, ceramics and small stuff…….and, since then, the books and paintings have been accumulating…….in four separate locations………..and in 1997 I acquired another new car (albeit a modest Daewoo Cielo) which purred happily all over North, South and Central Europe for 16 years…….. verily I began to sin…………………..

In summer 2013, I blew it……I not only bought a Kia Estate – it was a long-considered choice…..during which time I pondered other brands such as Skoda……. Verily I  sinned!
This is all by way of prelude to the tale of my first real consumer search a few weeks ago – for a sound system for my laptop with which to listen to classical music……
A tale which I will tell tomorrow.........(Insallah.......)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Greek tragedy

At last a Minister of Finance with some integrity…..Yanis Varoufakis – to whose important “Global Minotaur” book I devoted a blogpost almost three years ago - has emerged from the chaos that is Greece as the Finance Minister of the new Syriza government. He is either a very foolish or a very courageous man!

His has been one of the clear and strong voices of economic sanity for the past few years, using his blog to great effect – giving us not only analysis but challenging recommendations. In a post earlier this month, he explains why he decided to run in these elections. He’s fully aware of the ease with which honest people get corrupted (in different ways) by office and assures us that will keep a letter of resignation in his inside pocket for use whenever he “loses the commitment to speak truth to power”. The problem, of course, is that he has just become that power!! So his dialogue will have to be with his conscience!

Paul Mason – from whom sadly we do not hear much now that he has moved from radio to television – had a recent interview with him in which Varifakous promised to “destroy the Greek oligarchy system". In 2010, Varifakous wrote (with fellow political economics Professors Stuart Holland and James Galbraith – son of the famous JG) a 12 page modest proposal for resolving the European crisis…..

Klaus Kastner is a retired Austrian banker who has a very sharply-written blog called Observing Greece and gives us not only an interesting and measured response to the Syriza victory but access to the programme on which Syriza ran

We are all very rude about the Greeks – and their role in European events in the last 100 years gives us every reason to be. Their invasion of Turkey in 1919 caused massacres and massive migration treks and regional instability. Of course, Britain’s elite has always had strong Hellenic prejudices and has consistently been on the sidelines cheering the bloodletters and oligarchs on……..A long article in November last year gives the detail on Winston Churchill’s role in the horrific Greek  Civil War post 1944My gym teacher at school was a Greek communist who was one of many forced to leave the country because of the violence. His nickname was “Wee Pat” and I still remember his stentorian voice as he would bellow to those wanting to be excused the stronger exercises “keep your vest on boy!”!!!

Those wanting to keep in touch with Greek events might usefully use the Macropolis website which started in 2013 specifically to help outsiders try to make sense of the Greek tragedy…..

Thursday, January 22, 2015


This is the fourth flat I’ve had in almost 8 years in Sofia – and it’s interesting what different perspectives (and indeed feelings) about the city one gets from the different micro-neighbourhoods. John Berger’s phrase “ways of seeing” comes to mind. Two were in spitting distance of one another – near the football stadium (Nikolai Pavlovitch and Khan Krum streets) – each going back to the 1920s…. Patriarch Eftemi Boulevard and Graf Ignatiev street were the backbone of the area. The very names resonate with history…..Krum referring to the first Bulgarian Empire; Ignatiev to the Russian military assistance in removing the Ottoman yoke from the Bulgarians; Pavlovitch the most influential of Bulgaria’s early painters.
The third flat was more modern, Lajos Kossuth St, just off Hristov Botev Boulevard – next to a lovely old Bulgarian revival building which actually houses the Catholic Prelate!  The street names celebrate the power of ideas about independence in the 19th century….
Now I’m in a charming period flat in the old area between Vasil Levski, Dondukov and Princess Maria Luise Boulevards – on the edge of the Jewish neighbourhood which was focused on the fascinating women’s market, subject of an excellent brief here. Prince Dondukov played (as Russian Governor) a key role in the drafting of the Bulgarian constitution which was famed in its time as one of the world’s most liberal. “Stefan Stambolov and the emergence of the Bulgarian nation” (1993) is a rare book in the English language about those times…..

The neighbourhood has rapidly become my favourite…it’s a mere 10 minute stroll up Danube St (where my flat criss-crosses with Tsar Simeon St) to the magnificent Alexander Nevski Cathedral behind whose dome Mount Vitosha dominates the skyline. And then down past the colourful Russian church and the back of what was the Palace and is now the National Gallery – with its small park area and statues. The through the little park with the jazz buskers, the National Theatre and Sofia City Gallery via Vitosha walking street, Levski Boulevard to the Rodina Hotel where I swim and keep fit.

It was four years ago (!) that I wrote of the joys of strolling around Sofia which you can experience vicariously in “A Walk in the Street of Sofia Guidebook “ (Kras Plus 2002) - a marvellous bilingual history of the 6 parts of central Sofia for those who want to appreciate the city’s singularity by foot. Sadly I’ve not so far been able to find another copy in the bookshops….here instead are a few photos I took of the area just 500 metres or so around my flat last weekend and installed in a newly opened flickr account
Sofia Enigma and Stigma (Enthusiast 2011) by “dandy” Ljubomir Milchev is a lovely little ode to the city which contains evocative black and white photos of old, crumbling buildings in my neighbourhood. Imagine my delight in discovering, in a nearby magic bookshop on Rakovski St, “Time and Beauty; art nouveau in the Bulgarian cities” ed Vittore Collina (2014) – a booklet produced with great care and thought – a real labour of love.

And it was just a couple of minutes from the Cathedral that I found on Saturday the most amazing gallery which has been lying waiting for me for 7 years – the Atelier of Bulgaria’s Grand Old Man of Art, Svetlin Roussev… but that needs an entry on its own 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lives worth Living

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty this morning – if that is the right word to describe my feelings on reading of the death from cancer of two figures I knew nothing about but who seemed to epitomise everything we mean by the phrase “a life worth living”.
From curiosity I had punched into an ad for a book released today called “Late Fragments” which turned out to be the touching memoir of a young activist, Kate Gross, who died on Christmas Day in her early 30s and who wrote the book as a celebration of life for her family

I’d no sooner read that than I hit, completely by accident, a tribute to another (rather older) cancer victim – one Mike Marqusee – a journalist and leftist campaigner a typical example of whose writing can be read in this article on Red Pepper.
This is a good review of one of his (short) books about pharmaceutical companies – which raises the question of what accounts for the huge increase in the number of deaths from cancer which “developed” countries have experienced in recent years.

Apart from the obvious explanation of tobacco, other factors relate to the rise in awareness and reporting - eg
- the increased emphasis on physical exercise and preventive health care
- the greater publicity which cancer has received
- the increased frequency of medical tests for the condition

But I am surely not alone in thinking that artificial food additives also have a lot to do with it.
At this stage, of course, I should declare an interest. It was at this time two years ago that I sought a biopsy - which revealed a medium-serious level of prostate cancer and had resort, in the summer, to a 2 month course of radiation treatment (in Germany).
That seemed to do the trick – although I do need to take a daily hormone pill. And, having read up on the subject, do also try to have daily exercise and (following the advice of a Professor Plant) good vitamin input  

Our lives are all too short – Gross and Maqusee both lived rich lives which have been cut tragically short. Each, in their different way, shows what we can - and should - do with our life. 

By one of these coincidences, I was this afternoon interviewed by a roving TV mike on Sofia's streets and asked how important physical exercise was to me (this after I had explained I did not speak Bulgarian). To the interviewer (and cameraman) 's obvious delight, I then extolled the virtues of the Rodina Hotel; of Bulgarian vegetables; and of daily walking and fitness routines.......... En passant I mentioned my own brush with cancer........

Friday, January 9, 2015

Beshkov's country salutes Voltaire's and Daumier's in sadness for the slain journalists of Charlie H

Today’s somber post is my tribute to the French journalists slaughtered so savagely in Paris this week.
As they would surely have wished, it is written in celebration of the courage of all those who have sought over the ages and in all countries to use their artistic skills to mock the pretensions of the dogmatists and the powerful.  But it is also written in support of the humanistic principles exemplified by writers such as Voltaire…..

Only last month I wrote a post Desperately Seeking….Satire about how much we need satire in these times and, more than two years ago, had celebrated it in a detailed post as “the greatest art form”. You will find the posts useful since they try to record the artists and writers who have risked their livelihoods and lives for centuries in the pursuit of principle.   

Simon Jenkins spoke for many people with his piece in Wednesday’s Guardian which is reproduced (with cartoons) in this excellent blog I came across recently

In one of these serendipitous moments of which my life increasingly seems to consist, I came across, earlier this week in Sofia’s open-air book market, a copy of a lovely small book about the friendship in the 1930s between Bulgaria’s most famous satirist and cartoonist, Ilyia Beshkov and an √©migr√© journalist from Hitler’s Germany.
It is a powerful evocation (largely from the memory of Beshkov’s widow) of that period of his life when the vendetta against his cartoons had reduced him to poverty – but how the support of friends sustained him. You can actually read the full text of the book here – although sadly not the cartoons.

I was in the middle of drafting this post when friends here in Sofia contacted me about the tribute which will take place at 18.00 this evening at the French Embassy in Sofia.

I am delighted to be in a position not only to attend but also to have the opportunity of displaying the poster-size reproductions I just happened to bring down from Bucharest of 5 Daumier cartoons – which I propose to inscribe (in French of course) with suitable text, mentioning Charlie Hebdo, Daumier and Beshkov…..