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, July 30, 2013

Campulung - one of many of Romania's small jewels

We drove yesterday over the spectacular passes from Fundata to Campulung and through the various fascinating settlements which line the road.
Campulung is a town of 40,000 people nestling in the Carpathian foothills and has a long and turbulent history, having been occupied (and frequently set alight) by Turks (in 1738 or so), Austrians, Germans (in The First World War) and even Russians (1828-32). The quieter times after Independence gave the town a chance to exploit its location, culture and climate and superb examples of classic Romanian houses are to be seen there – giving a sense of how the nouveaux riches besported themselves in its baths and streets in the years before the First World and in the 25 years before communism took hold.  
 Campulung was first documented in 1212, in a document by the Hungarian king to the Teutonic Knights. A Saxon community was living there, whose leader was Lawrence of Longocampo. 
Basarab I the Founder (1310-1352) established the capital in Campulung - the first of the Romanian Country. It was also deemed by some to be the cradle of the Romanian language - a letter written in 1521 by one of the stewards of the town to Hans Benkner of Brasov is apparently the first document written in Romanian and the country’s first printing presses started in 1635 here - after the mid-seventeenth century ruler Matei Basarab founded in Campulung the first paper mill in the country. 
One of the oldest schools in the Romanian Country was established in 1552 by Mrs. Chiajna, wife of Prince Mircea Ciobanu. The Roman conquerors have left traces in the area, the camp of Jidava (Jidova) located at the exit of Campulung towards Pitesti is a testimony to this.Heavy fighting took place in the cliffs around Rucăr-Bran in the autumn of 1916. 
You get a sense of the present-day town in this video. Sadly, it being Monday, the town's small private art gallery was closed - it not only has interesting exhibitions but stocks an excellent supply of booklets on the town's history.

Another great post from Tourist in my Country - this time about one of he many derelict palaces one can find tragically scattered around the countryside

Two years ago today, I was blogging about Bulgarian Realist painting

Monday, July 29, 2013

post-industrial dereliction

Detroit (briefly) hit the news recently as the first US city to declare bankruptcy. The statistics are horrific – In half a century, this blogpost tells us Detroit has gone from having the highest per capita income in the US to the lowest.
in 1950 the city had more than 1.8 million inhabitants; this year the population will probably slip below 700,000. Just since 2000, the city has lost 26% of its people. In 1950, Detroit was 82% white – it's now 82% black. 76,000 homes and buildings in once-prosperous neighbourhoods have been abandoned, with many houses on offer for 1,000 dollars
250,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Detroit in the past 50 years. 47% of the residents of the city of Detroit are functionally illiterate. Less than half of the residents of Detroit over the age of 16 are working at this point. 60 per cent of all children in the city of Detroit are living in poverty. The violent crime rate in Detroit is five times higher than the national average.
And these images of the decay and dereliction are nothing short of apocalyptic 
For many of us, this is a sign of things to come – a vision of the future. Civilisations come and go – and it is fairly obvious now (apart from the millions of climate deniers) that the Western model has passed its “sell by” date. If it’s not ecological limits, it will be increasing social unrest (from wealth disparities, food prices, immigration).
For another, powerful school of thought, however, this is not just overblown but misses the point about capitalist creativity or, as Schumpeter put it, creative destruction – technology will come to the rescue; more supply will be brought forward to reduce prices. Crises create opportunities.
Two articles exemplify this way of thinking – one in The Guardian and the other, less surprisingly, in the Harvard Business Review.
However my friend The Slogger typically seesit all very differently

Saturday, July 27, 2013

going out in style

OK removing myself from the Amazon tentacles in true masochistic style – with 24 books waiting for me in about 8 separate packages and delivered to my long-suffering neighbours in the past week.
Among them the fascinating biography Worldly Philosopher – the odyssey of Albert O Hirschmann one of my intellectual heroes -
  Hirschman was a schoolboy in Berlin but forced to leave (for Paris) in April 1933 by the Nazi threat. He spent his career in constant motion. After studies in Paris and doing graduate training in London and Italy, fighting in Spain, and spending the first part of the war in France, he left for the United States, by which point he had begun to lose track of his own movements. “This makes my fourth—or is it fifth?—emigration,” he wrote to his mother. He accepted a fellowship at Berkeley (where he met the woman he would marry, Sarah Chapiro, another émigré), did a tour of duty for the O.S.S. in North Africa and Europe, and, with the war concluded, served a stint at the Federal Reserve Board, where he grew so unhappy that he would return home to his wife and two daughters in Chevy Chase, shut the door to his study, and bury himself in Kafka. He worked for the Marshall Plan in Washington, providing, Adelman says, “the thinking behind the thinking,” only to be turned down for a transfer to Paris because of a failed national-security review. He was in his mid-thirties. On a whim, he packed up the family and moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where he worked on a project for the World Bank. He crisscrossed the country with, Adelman writes, “pen in hand and paper handy, examining irrigation projects, talking to local bankers about their farm loans, and scribbling calculations about the costs of road building.”
Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.
 Tony Judt's "Thinking the 20th Century" makes a marvellous copunterpoint to the Hirschmann biography.

Also in the packages was the massive art tome on Stanley Spencer by Keith Bell. ; and Edward Thomas's "Annotated Collected Poems"

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Romanian art slowly emerges from the shadows

Bucharest’s newly-opened Museum of Art Collections is stunning – well worth the 20 year wait for its opening. 
Housed in a huge, refurbished palace on Calea Victoriei, it hosts in about 60 rooms private collections of art (in suites of rooms) which had been built up by individuals and families and then taken by the state during mainly the communist period: thus Elena and Anastase Simu Collection, the Iosif Iser Collection, the Elizabeth and Moses Weinberg Collection, the Ulmeanu Elena Collection, the Alexandru Phoebus Collection, the Hrandt Avachian collection. 
The museum boasts over 12,000 works including all artistic genres: painting, drawing, sculpture, decorative arts – most of it Romanian art and represented by artists like Nicolae Grigorescu, Stefan Luchian, Ioan Andreescu, Jean Al. Steriadi, Nicolae Tonitza Nicholas, Nicholae Darascu, Theodor Pallady, Iosif Iser and, my favourite, Stefan Popescu - shown here – 
as well as valuable pieces of folk art (icons on glass and wood, ceramics, furniture, fabrics XVIII - XIX). 
Romanian sculpture is illustrated by Oscar Han, Corneliu Medrea Milita Patrascu and Celine Emilian. European and oriental (Turkish, Persian, Japanese, Chinese) art can be seen - as well as icons, folk art, rugs (XVI - XIX), silver, porcelain and glass, furniture, miniatures. The Museum of Art Collections is a division of the National Art Museum.

It seems to take some time for the great Romanian paintings to see the light of day - unlike Bulgaria where I have found it so easy to view (and purchase) old masters in the various Sofia galleries and where I was, from the beginning, treated in a courteous and friendly way.
Not so in Bucharest whose gallery-owners for the most part are offhand if not aggressive.
It is only in recent months that I have revised my opinion of Romanian art which I had seen until now as dark and brooding if not downright ugly (eg Gheorge Petrascu). Jean Steriaid is one of my favourites - shown here.....
I owe this revision to books produced by the painter and art collector Vasile Parizescu the latest of which is a huge volume - with the great title Life as Passion - which details, with splendid pictures  the various art collections which have been developed privately in 20th Century Romania. Earlier this week, in the small antique shop in the arches of Ion Ghica street near the City Museum (you can get a great birds' eye view of the city centre by clicking on the appropriate button here), I chanced upon a large and weighty 380 page volume which itemises the incredible collection of business-man Tiberiu Postelnica (coincidentally the grandson of Ceaucescu's last Minister of the Interior and Head of the Securitate. You can imagine the process by which he came to accumulate the collection he now has and so shamelessly boasts about in this 380 page volume!!!)
But truly important collections, according to sources who wish to remain anonymous, belong to someone very discrete: for instance, the businessman Tiberiu Postelnicu owner Total Distribution & Logistics Group has a substantial art collection, with hundreds of pieces. Retired General Marius Opran, former adviser to Ion Iliescu, is known to have an important collection of art in his possession - worth 50 million euros (one of the pieces was a painting by Pissarro, "Carpenter"). Another important collector Adrian Zdrobiş businessman with a substantial collection of Romanian masters, family heritage, with dozens of pieces of Pallady Andreescu or Grigorescu.
Tonitsa is generally not a favourite of mine - but I make an exception for this nude - .
And a couple of the Grigorescus in the collection are shown below - the last being a self-portrait.






Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confessions of an Amazon addict – breaking the habit

Over the past decade I must have bought at least 500 books from Amazon – my nomadic existence made this highly convenient. I could have the books delivered in places which had no real English bookshops (such as Tashkent, Baku or Bishkek) where I was working – or pick them up later in Bucharest or my mountain house in Transylvania. My old neighbours in the village have been very good at ensuring that the post office (and UPS) delivered them securely.
It’s actually been too convenient a service – for which, of course, I have paid a reasonable amount (delivery costs on my Amazon packages amount now to 50% of the face value of the books.
But my recent visits to the fabulous Anthony Frost English bookshop in Bucharest have now persuaded me to try to kick the habit. The statistic which their manager Vlad gave me – of 2000 independent booksellers left in the UK compared with France’s 5,000 – is a powerful one. Unlike Britain, tax legislation in France (and Germany?) helps independent booksellers. And nothing beats the chats about books in such a bookshop - and the customised recommendations!  

Amazon is a robber baron whose tactics are detailed in a very long entry in Wikipedia - driving out competition by extensive loss-leading; tax-avoidance; bullying of suppliers; slave-labour conditions in their huge warehouses.
Their failure to pay corporate taxes has attracted wide criticism for some time and seems to have led to political consensus for action amongst European leaders. The Seattle Times had a recent four-part expose 
The company's hardball efforts to fend off collecting sales taxes — a key advantage over brick-and-mortar stores — has ignited a backlash in several states (of the USA). In the publishing world, smaller companies have begun to publicly criticize Amazon's bullying tactics. In some of its warehouses around the country, Amazon is drawing fire for harsh conditions endured by workers. And the company contributes to charities a tiny fraction of what other big corporations give.
To this list I would add the charge of false pricing – the initial price which attracts you does not include VAT or delivery charges (outside the UK)

At least one independent book publisher in the UK has joined the campaign and a website gives info of various other actions being taken by companies.
What is amazing is how global investors have allowed the bubble in Amazon stocks to continue. These times could soon end -  but in the meantime the damage has probably been done. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cultural pursuits on a quiet Bucharest sunday

Just as I maligned the city in my last post, Bucharest is now showing me a kinder face. Dental treatment has forced me to stay in the city for a few weeks – and the cooler temperatures have made this – and brisk morning walks - a bearable proposition. Yesterday was a glorious day for walking – overcast and, at 20 degrees, about 15 cooler than is normal for this time of year. And the palm-sized Fuji camera acquired during the Koln trip gives an additional incentive to walk. Building facades we had taken for granted during our normal walks from Piata Victoerei to Unirii acquired therefore a new perspective as we traversed the side streets – deserted as they are (apart from some early birds in the cafes) during these summer weekends.
I had wanted to get some snaps of the houses in the area bisected by Hristov Botev street to the north-east of the concrete fascism of the Unirii area - but light drizzle forced a readjustment and we found ourselves veering around just before our destination; and arriving in the small gallery under the Military Circle chatting to a young, untrained artist who is an active collector of Romanian painters and member of the Romanian art collectors’ association.
It was the last day of Mihai Sandilescu’s exhibition – with paintings with a strong sense of colour I don’t often find here. They reminded me of Matisse and the towering (but strangely neglected) figure who was Caillebotte.

Mihai recommended we visit the current exhibition at the Bucharest Municipality Museum which turned out to be a marvellous collection of paintings devoted to the Romanian House – temporarily lent by private owners (downstairs was another temporary exhibition – of less interesting works for sale at reasonable prices). I go some new names for the file in which I am making notes on Romanian realist painters of the past century – a file which now has about 60 names and 50 pages.
The visit gave me nine new names – Artachino, Constantin (1870-1954); Baesu, Aurel (1896-1928); Alper, Juan (1857-1901); Cismaru, Mihai (1943-2003); Catargi, George (1894-1963); Darascu, Nicolae (1883-1953); Ghiata, Dimitir (1888-1972); Ludeosanu Aurel Popp (1874-1960); and Popescu, Cicerone (1908-70). We were now more than 3 hours into our cultural walk which culminated in a quick visit to the second hand bookshop on Strada Ion Ghica – unearthing 2 good-looking current German guidebooks to Romania (for 5 euros each) and a pristine (and Romanian) edition of Umberto Eco’s stunning On Beauty (for 10 euros).
Then on to the Anthony Frost English bookshop where its manager gave me an illuminating insight into the current booktrade.

Suitably chastened and all the more determined to break my Amazon habit, I emerged with four books – Bucharest Tales (in the New Europe Writer series);Vassily Grossman’s A Writer at War; Friedrich Reck’s recently rediscovered and amazing journal from the Nazi period - Diary of a Man in Despair - which has the poetic power of a series of Georg Grosz paintings combined with some Brecht poems (and this from a scion of the German aristocracy) The book is also reviewed here.
The final book was one of their 45% off bargains – another in the delightfully-produced New York Review of books series The Gallery by John Horne Burns.

The painting and book visits and chats were so filling there simply wasn't an appetite left for the planned visit to the newly-opened Museum of Art Collections back nearer home at Calei Victorei......   

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Romanian Diary 1958

A nice discovery in a Magheru Bvd bookshop – a book of black and white photographs of Romania in 1958 produced by a photographer Inge Morath of whom I had never heard – despite my affection for people such as  Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capra and Robert Doisneau.

Morath was, by birth, an Austrian brought up in Germany; worked with many famous photographers and had the distinction of being married Arthur Miller in 1962 after his divorce from Marlyn Monroe. 

The book - Romanian Diary - was reprinted in 2010 and the subject of a local exhibition here

We went to the Matache market this morning - our first trip for some months. Some good stuff (cheese and herbs) on offer from individuals lining the approach road. And the stalls were groaning with good vegetables and fruit.
But just outside was a war zone - thanks to the senseless demolition being inflicted on the city by its evil mayor Oprescu.

Sarah in Romania has a good rant about his latest vandalism. And these are some pics of the area now that the old market building was demolished (illegally) earlier this year.







Monday, July 15, 2013

Among you, taking notes

I am not a fan of the city of Bucharest. I find it ugly, noisy, and dirty. I find it difficult to understand its fans – such as one PVE Wood whose idiosyncratic A Political Refugee from the global village is a highly readable blog I turn to frequently.
After 3 months’ absence, I noticed that even the bird-caws are aggressive – compared with Koln! But it is always a pleasure to visit its bookshops after a gap, particularly the two which are hidden at the far side of the National Gallery beside a very old small Kretzulescu church. 
The Humanitas bookshop had another mouth-watering title from the great series on old Romanian buildings being produced by the Igloo architectural group - Campulung Muscel – sketches for an architectural monograph. Campulung is a small gem we always try to visit on our way up to the mountain house – when, that is, we take the longer route via Tirgovishte (also worth a visit). It has an amazing number of vernacular villas from its time as a haven for artists and the Bucharest bourgeoisie - and was, during Ceaucescu times, a place of exile for those out of favour.....

But the great finds were in the Anthony Frost English bookshop next door. 
A signed copy of Timeless and Transitory – 20th century relations between Romania and the English-speaking world (2012) by Ernest Latham is an intriguing and highly readable collection of essays by an American specialist in Romania who worked in the 1980s as a cultural attaché in the Bucharest American Consulate. His historian's take on the country can be seen on a series of short videos

Naomi Mitchison is, for us Scots, a name to conjure with. A very independent-minded lady born in 1897, she published her first (of 80 odd!) book in the 1920s and lived from the late 1930s in Carradale House on the edge of a small village on the beautiful Kintyre peninsula behind the peaks of the island of Arran. Among you taking notes – the wartime diaries of Naomi Mitchison 1939-1945 ed Dorothy Sheridan (1985) are the diaries she kept at the behest of Mass Observation, a volunteer body which encouraged people to record in diaries the life around them. I was born only a sea-gull’s flight away from Mitchison’s home in Carradale as she was writing her notes on everyday life in wartime Scotland and will read her book through my parents’ eyes and ears. She died, after an extraordinarily full life, in 1999. She is one of a generation whose ilk we shall not see again!! In a future post I shall pay tribute to women of her generation from both the UK and Germany......

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath ed Karen Kukil (2000) are 700 powerful pages packed with poetic freshness which encourage me to get hold of her poetry.
My final find was "Windy Arbours - Collected Criticism" (2005) by an Irish American writer Aidan Higgins I had never heard of. It's a collection of short book reviews written in a language one can only call poetic. 

The delight of the Anthony Frost bookshop (apart from its music and the coffees which occasionally come your way) is that you could only find titles like that there. Books which celebrate the past......

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A hymn to the Carpathian meadows

Back in Bucharest - and straining to get into the mountains. A wonderful hymn to the area in the current National Geographic
these valleys in the Carpathian Mountains in the centre of Romania contain one of the great treasures of the cultivated world: some of the richest and most botanically diverse hay meadows in Europe. You can find up to 50 different species of grass and flowers growing there in a single square yard of meadow, and even more within reach as you sit down among them. This flowery miracle is maintained not by nature but by nature worked with the human hand. The richness is there only because a meadow stays a meadow if it is mown every summer. Abandoned, it will be filled with scrub in three to five years. As it is, for the moment anyway, Transylvania is a world made beautiful by symbiosis. All day long the smell of the meadows gradually thickens, and as the sun drops, the honey-sharp smell of the butterfly orchids, night scented, pollinated by moths, comes seeping out of the hillsides. Go for a walk, and you’ll find the flowers crowding around your feet. Practically no chemical sprays and no artificial fertilizers—too expensive and distrusted by these poor, small-scale farmers—mean the hillsides are purple with meadow salvia and pink with sainfoin.
The photo is one you will find in a marvellous album The colour of Hay. But an even greater treat is the occasional blog Carpathian Sheep Walk by Caroline Juler, author (amongst other things) of the delightful Blue Guide  Romania which I referred to in in a blog about good books about Romania some time ago.
If its photographs you are after, have a look at these great pics of the countryside in the Maramures area further north.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

getting to know the Germans

Last year I dared to recommend “getting to know the Bulgarians through their painters” (of the last 100 years) and to produce a small book about it. Now I've had the idea of trying to understand the Germans through their literature of the past 50 years. I’ve been gripped by a book I picked up a couple of days ago (for 1.5 euros) called Light Years – a short history of German literature from 1945 to the present, available, sadly, only in German. It’s very far from being your normal, dry listing of worthy books – but rather a series of short and very human vignettes by Volker Weidermann (of the FAZ) of German writers as they struggled to make a living in post-war Germany. I’m almost half way through – and already feel I have made a lot of new friends. 
As I’ve mentioned already in this series of postings I’ve been doing in the past 2 months from Koln (20 so far), anglo-saxons wanting to read about European countries are well served with countries such as France, Italy and Spain but starved when it comes to Germany. There is no contemporary John Ardagh writing – despite the best efforts of Simon Winder and Peter Watson. Of course there’s no apparent market for such books – apart, perhaps, from those taking short-trips to Berlin for stag parties! But Germany is so vast, diverse and culturally rich that it definitely deserves far more books devoted to it than the dreadful choice currently available eg Spring Time for Germany - a little better, admittedly, than the stuff which Roger Boyes has been inflicting on the British public. Watson's "German Genius" or Winder's "Germania" are not the easiest of reads.
I see that there is a "very short introduction" to German Literature available on the Amazon site - it will be interesting to read it - and compare with the Weidermann text.

In a small way, Weidermann's book reminds me of the magnum opus of Clive James – "Cultural Amnesia" - which gave us a few pages apiece on European writers of the last century (most neglected) and was indeed tempted to alert him to Weidermann’s book - not least because of this profile. 
I've been one of James' camp followers for some 40 years and cannot imagine a world without him (see his website!!). I find him one of the world's best wordsmiths and renaissance men! One of the very few people I would like to spend some hours with. I was, first, captivated by his songs with Pete Atkin (the 1970s?); amused with his TV commentaries (written and TV); seduced by his autobiographies; and then stunned with his massive "Cultural Amnesia"

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Model Germany?

Germany has, at the moment, the reputation of an invincible powerhouse - although it was some 15 years ago seen to be somewhat sluggish. I have referred in recent posts to the various critiques which have surfaced in the past few years. Last week's Der Spiegel had a large feature on the decline of public investment - and the deterioration in public infrastructure.
This theme is picked up again in a publication by the European Council for Foreign Relations, entitled  - a German Model for Europe? which 
examines the reasons for the success of the German economy during the last decade. In particular, it describes the elements of the Agenda 2010 – essentially a set of labour market reforms implemented by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 2003 onwards – and explores their contribution to Germany’s macroeconomic performance. It points out some problematic elements of Germany’s economic performance during the last decade and concludes that Germany’s economic success is a product of a combination of nominal wage restraint, supported by labour market reforms which have brought down the reservation wage and put downward pressure on wages, and severe spending restraints on public investment as well as on research and development and education. On the whole, this cannot serve as a blueprint for Europe.