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!

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Status Quo is not on offer

The Anthony Frost English Bookshop in Bucharest has quite a few books on the Scottish Independence debate waiting for me – which I hope to pick up later in the week when I make the (very pleasant) 5 hour drive up there. 
In the meantime, I am catching up with the content of the 3 blogs which are dedicated to the constitutional aspects of the debate. 
Notes from North Britain (a blog written by Adam Tomkins, Prof in Public Law at Glasgow University) is proving to contain first-class material – this post from a year ago gives an important bit of the recent history and makes the critical point that a No vote is not a vote for the status quo 
The SNP first assumed office following the Scottish parliamentary election in 2007. Alex Salmond became First Minister as leader of the largest single party in Holyrood. The SNP did not in those days have the overall majority of seats in Holyrood that they have enjoyed since 2011 but they were, by a solitary seat, the largest single party. They ruled for four years as a minority administration. 
Alarmed at the advent of Nationalist rule, the three Unionist parties in the Scottish Parliament established an all-party commission to review Scottish devolution and to make recommendations as to its further development. This review, known as the Calman Commission, reported in 2009. The thrust of its recommendations was accepted by the then Labour Government in Westminster, and when Labour lost power in 2010 their broad acceptance of Calman was not reversed by the incoming Coalition. On the contrary, Calman was embraced by the Coalition as it had been by Labour.
 The result was fresh legislation in Westminster to augment the powers of the Scottish Government, to enlarge the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and generally to reboot Scottish devolution. That legislation was passed last year and is called the Scotland Act 2012. 
Let’s pause here to notice one thing. If you like devolution (and, indeed, if you’d like to see more of it), note who has delivered it. Labour created it in 1997-98 (with the original Scotland Act 1998) and the Tory / Lib Dem Coalition, with Labour’s support, delivered round two in 2012. The Scotland Act 2012 is not the promise of future powers. It has been enacted. It has been passed. It is the law of the land. It has been delivered. The Unionist parties — all three of them — have delivered what they promised. We have grown so used to politicians failing to deliver on their promises that it is just worth noting that this failure has not been repeated in the case of Scottish devolution. 
And, now, note this. The SNP opposed both the moves to create devolution in 1997-98 and the moves to enhance it in 2009-12. So, what does the Scotland Act 2012 do?
- Some of the changes are massive. Huge new borrowing powers are conferred on Scottish Ministers, for example, in order to assist them with the planning and delivery of Scottish public policy.
- And unprecedented tax powers are conferred on the Scottish Parliament, representing the biggest internal shift of fiscal power away from Westminster since the Acts of Union, no less.
Again, it is important to reiterate that these are not idle promises of what might be done in the future (“vote NO and then we’ll see”).All of this has already been delivered (“vote NO to preserve what’s already done”).
The new powers will significantly alter the nature of the powers which MSPs have. Thus far, their fiscal powers have been sharply focused on deciding how to spend public money, and a number of the achievements of Scottish devolution have been decisions to spend public money differently from how it is spent by Ministers in London. But, thanks to the Scotland Act 2012, MSPs will now also have powers to decide how to raise public money: that is to say, decisions over taxation. Decisions about tax are among the most sensitive that politicians have to make.
 The aim of the Scotland Act 2012 is that, by handing these powers to MSPs in Holyrood, the Scottish people will think ever more carefully about the sorts of folk they want to elect to the Scottish Parliament (“with power comes responsibility” and all that). 
Now, the scheme of the 2012 Act is that the handing over of tax powers from MPs in Westminster to MSPs in Holyrood will be staggered.
It’s not all going to happen at once in a rash fit of fiscal irresponsibility. To start with, the focus will be on income tax, as well as on one or two more minor duties such as stamp duty and landfill tax. But — and here is the beauty of the Scotland Act 2012 — the Act provides that new taxes may be devolved to the Scottish Parliament without the need for any fresh Westminster legislation. We know, for example, that Scottish Ministers have said that they wish to be able to set their own rates of corporation tax. A lower rate (such as Ireland’s) might attract additional international investment into the Scottish economy, the SNP have argued. The SNP may or may not be right about that, but let us assume that they are correct.
The Scotland Act 2012 contains the trigger that can enable the power to set rates of corporation tax to be devolved from London to Edinburgh without any further parliamentary time having to be taken up. All that needs to happen is for the Scottish Ministers to make a case to the UK Government that this needs to happen in the Scottish national interest and, as long as the UK Government is persuaded, the power can be devolved without further ado. 
This is why I say that there is no such thing as the status quo in Scottish politics. Responsibility for income tax in Scotland is set to become shared for the first time between Scotland’s two governments (in Edinburgh and London). Responsibility for new and further taxes can and will be devolved to Scottish Ministers as soon as the Scottish Ministers make the case that this should be done. Devolution has always been a fluid and flexible regime. The Scotland Act 2012 makes it even more fluid and flexible. 
The choice that confronts us on referendum day is a choice not between “change” and “no change” but between the SNP’s vision for change and everybody else’s. A NO vote is a vote FOR the ongoing fluidity and flexibility, development and growth of devolution. The only party that opposes this vision is the SNP.

Deepening the Scottish debate

There’s been a lot of discussion in the past decade about the extent to which such things as the social media and blogs are changing the media and politics. I am no fan of newspapers. Indeed I have not bought one for 20 years. Although I go to The Guardian website every morning, I do so for its articles rather than news - simply because media coverage of critical issues such as the debate on Scottish Independence is so superficial. Indeed, lets call a spade a spade - its piss-poor! 
The media and politicians are caught in a vicious circle of one-sided simplifications. The marketing philosophy which is our new religion has everyone convinced that the public does not have the attention span of a gnat. So we are fed a steady diet of headlines and short statements.

Weekly and monthly journals are not much better – The London Review of Books and Vanity Fair are rare in the licence they (occasionally) give to writers such as James Meek and Michael Lewis to write 10,000 word articles. For serious writing, you have to go bi-monthly journals such as New Left Review or The Political Quarterly - although, so far, even these titles have failed to give the issue of Scottish Independence the attention it deserves….

To get serious consideration, you have to go to a few dedicated websites and blogs. In the posts of the last couple of days I referred to the website of the UK Government - which has been issuing a series of issue assessments called “Scottish Analysis”. The UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has also been conducting its own hearings and reports (although the latter are seen as rather partial)

Probably the most useful website is one set up 2 years ago on the initiative of academics across the law schools of the Scottish universities. It seeks to provide an independent framework within which the key questions concerning Scotland's constitutional future can be aired and addressed – and is called The Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum. Its site gives all the key documents, a timeline and offers links to current debate. 

Two very useful blogs have been active for some years – Devolution Matters is an individual blog which 
aims to help inform debate about devolution and the UK’s ‘territorial constitution’, drawing on my academic and professional knowledge.  Much of the debate tends to be conducted in black-and-white terms (‘devolution’ versus ‘independence’ and so forth), when the reality is more complicated.  This blog will try to illuminate current issues, and explain the constitutional, technical and administrative issues involved.  It draws on my knowledge of those matters, which means it focuses chiefly on devolution to Scotland and Wales, and the implications of that for the UK as whole.  I am less involved in issues relating to Northern Ireland or the governance of London, and so have less to say about those issues.
UK Constitutional Law is a collective blog which goves public law scholars the opportunity to expatiate on a range of constitutional issues of which the devolution of power is only one.
One important post considered the uncertainties surrounding a “yes” result – looking in particular at the timetable and the complications which would ensue from the uncertainties about (i) EU negotiations, (ii) the General UK election of 2015 and(iii) the Scottish elections of 2016.

Finally a new project at the IPPR Think Tank has started to explore a “Devo More”option – against the possibility that the Scottish people reject Independence but wish to continue (as they certainly do) the push for greater powers.

This is the third in a series of postings this week on the issue of Scottish Independence - a referendum on which will be held(for the Scots) on 18 September.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hanging Together???

Two things you wouldn’t pick up from media coverage of the Scottish referendum are that –
·         60% of UK public spending in Scotland is handled by the Scottish Government – devolved since 1999
·         A significantly additional amount is slated to be given to the Scottish Government – under powers granted in a Bill approved in 2012 which will, however, only be implemented if Scotland votes “No” in the referendum.

I had cleared today to look more deeply (as an ex-pat Scot) at the issues involved in the historical vote which will ‘take place in September. It must be one of the world’s most transparent and sustained dialogues – it’s been going on for 2 years since 2014 was first announced as the date. Slovakians were offered nothing similar 22 years ago and the recent Crimean vote was simply a farce.  

A new blog (for me) Notes from North Britain gave me a useful quotation -
The choice before us in September is not “independence versus the status quo”; “change versus no change”. A No vote is guaranteed to mean that devolution will change and develop. How do I know this? I know it because it’s already been legislated for, in the Scotland Act 2012. This Act, described at the time of its enactment by the then Secretary of State for Scotland as the largest transfer of fiscal powers within the United Kingdom in its history, will bring to Holyrood a substantial degree of fiscal devolution. These new powers — as long as Scotland votes No to independence — will come fully into force in 2015 and 2016. Now, this is not “jam tomorrow”, as Nationalists sometimes claim: it has already been legislated for. So the choice we face on 18 September is one between bringing devolution to an end (for there will be no devolution if Scotland becomes independent) and developing devolution further.
And I was then led to what are clearly 2 key texts – the first a statement from the Chairman of the Yes Campaign which bears the rather Boon and Mills’ title - We Belong Together. The second is a more academic approach which also sports a rather curious title “Hanging Together” . You will find the voluminous official Scottish Government White Paper arguing the case for independence in a previous blogpost.

My attention span, however, for such analyses is not what it once was - and I was quickly sidetracked by a visit to the second-hand Elephant English bookshop a few minutes away. In particular by a couple of books from the 1990s and 2000s about the Naples Bay area; and by Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008) which has him revisit a heroic 5,000 km train journey he undertook in the 1970s......

So the various papers which the British Government have been publishing in the last year to help inform Scottish voters about the issues involved will have to wait until I return from my diversions. Those impatient to get on with things could have a look at this.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Drifting Apart

There’s less than 6 months to go to the referendum on Scottish independence. The wind is in the sails of those who want to cut loose from England…..a few months back those disposed to vote “Yes” to the question about independence  accounted for only a third of the electorate . Thanks to what is widely seen as bully tactics by those with political and financial power, those in favour of independence are now within a few points of those disposed to say no.
My father was Scottish; my mother English. I left Scotland 24 years ago but still strongly identify with the social democratic ethic of the nation (and it is – and always has been – a nation, with its own legal, religious and educational sovereignty). The different culture is evident from the fact that only one Conservative politician (out of 75) represents a Scottish seat in Westminster. And all Scots are increasingly alienated from a neoliberal Coalition Government which has been in power since 2010 in London. The Scottish Parliament and Government (Executive) which has been in power in Edinburgh since 1999 has differentiated itself strongly from that ideology – not least since the Scottish Nationalist gained an overall majority in 2007. But is this alienation a sufficient reason to cut off the ties with England which we’ve had since 1707?

As an ex-pat who has no vote (no residence) who follows the various discussion threads, I am amazed at the self-confidence of all who take part. Where is the agnosticism and scepticism which such a portentous issue requires…..??
Donald Rumsfeld is not normally someone I would quote, but his comment about “unknown unknowns” deserves respect and understanding.  In all the discussion, I have seen no serious attempt to develop different political, fiscal and social scenarios for Scotland let alone England.

It is obvious that a highly- developed country of 5 million people could operate as a nation state – there are about 40 members of the United Nations and a quarter of EU member states with smaller populations.
The real questions are more on the following lines -
·       How independence would affect the dynamics of trade, currency and investment (public and private) in Scotland - and in the residual (disunited) Kingdom
·       With different scenarios for relations with Europe and the Euro
·       What precise additional benefits will independence give which the traditional and post 1999 measures of Devolution don’t
·       How these benefits measure against the risks suggested in the first two sets of questions….    

At the personal level, I face a future where 2 of my daughters would have passports from a different country; in which I’m not even sure what form my 2015 passport (and driving license) will take; nor in which denomination my (yet unclaimed) pension will be paid. All minor nuisances, I readily agree, compared with the anguishes of migrants in the Europe of the first half of the 20th century......

One of the few discussions which reflects my concerns was on the site of the Royal Society of Edinburgh -
However, there is much that Scots currently take for granted, aspects of good government at the micro-level, that might be threatened by independence. Will an independent Scottish state have to replicate the entire panoply of government ministries and public agencies, many of which benefit from economies of scale and are run – relatively speaking – cheaply and smoothly as British-wide institutions? How much would it cost Scotland, for instance, to set up its own equivalent of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency at Swansea or, alternatively, to contract in to it from outside the United Kingdom? In other areas of public administration, the costings will be more elusive. By contrast with the humdrum and unspectacular efficiency of the DVLA, the BBC provides a compelling example of a widely loved service, whose broadcasting role in Scotland would be precarious in the event of independence.Moreover, notwithstanding coded talk of a ‘social union’, welfare and pensions are, of course, likely to be even touchier subjects for Scots. Unionists need to capture for themselves the rhetoric of social union.Obviously, matters of public administration and the distribution of benefits do not capture the imagination of the wider public in the same way as centuries of grievances – or imagined grievances – concerning the overbearing behaviour of a richer and more powerful neighbour.
Nevertheless, such is the complexity of modern society that an interlocking set of effective UK-wide bureaucracies – however dull and uninspiring a subject for campaign slogans – is not to be lightly jettisoned without overwhelming good cause.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs is chaired by an ex-colleague of mine who was notorious all of 30 years ago for his duplicity and who does not seem to have improved much with his added years. This site gives an insight, however, into the seriousness with which that committee at least has taken the issue of separation and this evidence gives a sense of how the economic aspects are being explored


Georgi Markov - a forgotten writer

What do Europeans think when they think of Bulgaria? Until last year’s fuss about immigrant workers, the typical response would probably have been a scratch of the head and a reference to the Black Sea coast. A minute’s more thought by older respondents might produce a reference to the poisoned umbrella which killed a Bulgarian dissident in London in the 1970s. 
Georgi Markov was a famous writer assassinated on a London street by the Bulgarian secret services – although the precise details are still not known.

A well-known sculptor, Spartak Dermedjiev, is someone who has tried to keep Markov’s memory alive – initially with an exhibition and, earlier this month, by marking Markov’s birthday with a small monument in a square in central Sofia. Coincidentally The Nation journal published a piece about the man -
When Georgi Markov left Bulgaria in 1969, at the age of 40, he was one of the country’s most lionized writers, the darling of readers and, until that point, party officials.
By all accounts, his success was astounding. He was a chemical engineer by education and worked in various factories in his youth, writing only in his spare time; yet his second novel, “Men”, was named novel of the year by the Bulgarian Writers’ Union in 1962.
Markov was immediately granted full membership in the organization, an unprecedented honor at that time.The award flung open all of the important doors. “Men” was quickly adapted into a movie, a play and a radio drama, and translations of the novel appeared throughout the Eastern bloc. Markov’s subsequent books were also praised by critics and his plays staged in major theaters in Sofia and across the country. He was appointed to a cushy editorial position at Narodna Mladezh, one of the most prestigious Bulgarian publishing houses. And that, in turn, brought him more rewards and privileges.
He became increasingly critical of the regime and eventually failed to return from a foreign visit – landing up in London where he broadcast for the BBC and Radio Free Europe. His broadcasts (often about aspects of Bulgaria) were collected in a book called In Absentia which (sadly) I cannot find online. The article recounts what is known about the role of the Russian KGB and its Bulgarian equivalent in the eventual assassination of the writer in 1978 – but also makes some comments about the lack of proper recognition today of the man.
Last year, a sociological study spearheaded by the Hannah Arendt Center in Sofia examined young Bulgarians’ knowledge of totalitarianism in Europe and at home. The respondents were between the ages of 15 and 35, and the results were striking: 79 percent hadn’t heard of the Gulag; 67 percent hadn’t heard of the Iron Curtain; 51 percent didn’t know the reason for Markov’s death; and 89 percent had no knowledge of the book In Absentia Reports. 
The Bulgarian crisis of historical memory is hardly peculiar to young people, especially when it comes to Markov’s literary works. Most adults are familiar with his name today, but only in the context of his murder. Few have read his essays or novels, and only the biggest bookstores in Sofia stock a book or two of his by chance. It is much easier to find a copy of the memoirs of the dictatorTodor Zhivkov than, for example, Markov’s excellent novellas “The Portrait of My Double” and “The Women of Warsaw.”
 His work is not taught in schools….. The Bulgarian who should have taken the same position in his nation’s literature and political history as Brodsky in Russia, Havel in the Czech Republic and Milosz in Poland has been relegated to the dustbin of memory. After his murder abroad, Markov was killed a second time, this time in his home country.
Well at least there is one person, Spartak Dermedjiev, whose work keeps his memory alive!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Putting words in their place

Questions of English reverberate through our daily lives.  When we use a language, we may be making a social connection, answering a question, enjoying ourselves, passing time, or showing off, but fundamentally we imagine that the interest of the person or people to whom we are speaking is engaged.  The desire to shape and emphasize this engagement is crucial.  How do I get you to listen to me?  Can I persuade you to like me, hire me, trust me, come and see my etchings? 
Manipulations of our language -- by the state, advertisers, salespeople, factions, preachers, prophets, poets, cheats -- are legion.  Then there are other questions.  How do we refer to social groups other than our own -- people of a different ethnic background, say, or people with disabilities?  How do we address strangers, which words are hurtful, and when is it okay to swear?  Is the language of an email different from the language of conversation?  What songs can we sing, and how should we pray?
This is an English language blog – written by a young-hearted old-fogey who, as such, prides himself on his use of the English language. I shiver when I hear prepositions being (in my view) misplaced. It has been some time, for example, since “different to” apparently replaced “different from” but I still can’t accept the new version. We (still) say “I differ from you” – but, despite this, have allowed “to” to usurp the place of “from” when it follows the word "different".  
The Language Wars by Henry Hitchings (from which the opening quotation is taken - page 20) is a book which puts some of this prejudice in its place.
It will come as something of a relief to find out that, when it comes to language and usage, the sky has always been falling. People have been lamenting the coarsening, bastardizing, and very death of English ever since it first emerged, with each successive generation looking wistfully to the previous generations’ undiluted character and general superiority. Hitchings takes a common sense stand when surveying contemporary usage; there are rules, he writes, and there are principles, and when “we write, and also when we speak, we should pay attention to the needs and expectations of our audience, and we should never forget that we are part of that audience.” 
Hitchings deftly charts the boisterous evolution of English, couching it in rich historical context. To wit: as English emerged in Great Britain out of the dialects brought by Germanic settlers in the 5th century, regional usage ruled. Given the obvious lack of ability or opportunity to easily cultivate written works, dialects varied widely from place to place. As a result people tended to be very tribal and jingoistic about usage; it seems we have a natural tendency to believe the way we speak and write is correct and to regard other accents as impolite, rude, uneducated, or the evidence of straight-up moral turpitude.
English was mostly repressed until the 14th century; French (or Latin) was then the official language of government. After the Black Death wiped out a third of Britain, however, surviving peasants and laborers began to rebel against established labor laws. The language of protest was English, and it started being taught in schools around 1350. Soon thereafter, Chaucer began using English (specifically a London-based dialect) in his work. This decision, Hitchings writes, “was bold”, and the rest, as they say, is history: after Chaucer’s death, “as his poetry circulated widely in manuscript, he was anointed as the inventor of English as a literary language.” 
Plague, revolt, the cultural power of poetry? Awesome stuff. Equally awesome is the nutty rogue gallery of usage experts (many of whom are self-proclaimed (natch)) Hitchings has the good sense to let stride through the narrative. For instance, who knew that it was none other than John Dryden who led the charge against ending sentences with prepositions? Or take Lindley Murray, an American expat in Britain in 19th century and celebrated grammarian, who insisted on not using the relative pronoun who when referring to children “for the reason that ‘We hardly consider children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection.’ ” This is just the tip of the iceberg; it turns out that people who care deeply about language are frequently pretty crazy generally. 
In a quick 300 pages, Hitchings takes his readers from the emergence of English; through the divergence of “English English” and “American English;” how it grew to become the lingua franca of business and power and the sociopolitical ramifications of this; evolving conceptions of vulgarity and swearing; the sowing of many Englishes around the world and their complex legacies; the death of British imperialism; George Orwell; all the way up to the present day, where he touches on the influence of the internet, text messaging, PowerPoint, and technology generally. It’s quite a trip.
The New Yorker reviewer took a more severe view of the book’s “descriptive” or relativistic approach – clearly belonging more to the “prescriptive” school which Hitchings takes every opportunity to ridicule. But the review gives a very good summary of the different ways English useage developed  on the other side of the Atlantic
For a long time, many English speakers have felt that the language was going to the dogs. All around them, people were talking about “parameters” and “life styles,” saying “disinterested” when they meant “uninterested,” “fulsome” when they meant “full.” To the pained listeners, it seemed that they were no longer part of this language group. To others, the complainers were fogies and snobs. The usages they objected to were cause not for grief but for celebration. They were pulsings of our linguistic lifeblood, proof that English was large, contained multitudes. 
The crucial document of the language dispute of the past half century was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. This 2,662-page revised edition of the standard unabridged dictionary of American English was emphatically descriptivist. “Ain’t” got in, as did “irregardless.” “Like” could be used as a conjunction, as in “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Some of these items had appeared in the preceding edition of the unabridged Webster’s (1934), but with plentiful “usage labels,” characterizing them as slang, humorous, erroneous, or illiterate. In Web. III, usage labels appeared far less often; they bore more neutral names, such as “nonstandard” and “substandard”; and they were defined in subtly political terms. “Substandard,” the dictionary tells us, “indicates status conforming to a pattern of linguistic usage that exists throughout the American language community but differs in choice of word or form from that of the prestige group in that community.” Two examples that the dictionary gave of words acceptable throughout the American language community except in its prestige group were “drownded” and “hisself.”
On many sides, Web. III was met with fury. It was the closest thing to a public scandal that the quiet little world of English-language manuals had ever seen.Out of it a new lexicon was born: the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1969. The A.H.D. was a retort to Web. III. It was unashamedly prescriptive and also, strictly speaking, élitist. 
This is one of these rare books to which I want to return immediately it’s finished. Its 15 page bibliography is an incentive to further searches. It has a tantalising reference to the way young English people now tend to finish their sentences on an interrogatory note – apparently known as “uptalk” or "high-rising terminal" - even when there's no question involved.

Those with an interest in the continuing development of our vocabulary are recommended to use the Lexican Valley blog 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Some recommendations for those visiting Sofia

This has become the time of the year when my mind turns to the Carpathian house. Most of the last 7 winters have been spent here in Sofia (with forays to the small Bucharest flat and some sad weeks in a Belgrade winter) and I have been particularly happy with the latest attic flat (right in the old quarter, off Patriarch Eftemi Boulevard) with the 1927 date carved in the stone entrance.
It has the sort of stairhead I imagine Ilyia Beshkov using for one of his wry sketches….. and my small flat (which I;ve been renting for 16 months) has all the original wooden features and stained glass as well as a nice veranda onto a set of leafy courtyards. I thought I would have to give it up but my landlord has changed his mind and offered me an extended lease – which I am happy to take. Despite its centrality, there is no noise – except that of the bells of the old nearby Church on Ignatiev St   

I will miss (for the next few months) my home-made walnut, sesame and sunflower seed bread which I buy from the corner vegetarian restauarant – with superb fragrances wafting across just before I hit the shop itself.
I will also miss the Bulgarian Rakia and its incredible range of white wines - although I have been changing my allegiances in the lists of the last two.
Rakia is rather tasteless – compared to Romanian Tuica let alone Scottish or Irish whisky. But it is the spirit I have grown to prefer – although still insisting on the wine rather than plum or pear variety   For the past year or so, under the influence of my arty Bulgarian friends, my preferred  “poison” has been Yambolski ( a town in east-central Bulgaria). Half a litre for 4.5 euros! But I have now been introduced to Kailashka Rakia from Pleven, north central of the country. It has very good marketing – with a label reminding us of a Kentucky Bourbon and a 1922 date.
So I’m in mellow mood – having had a delightful afternoon cycling and picnicking with 2 young friends in the famous South Park with the quiet retro music one finds in Sofia’s parks – generally guitar or jazz.

I used to be a fan of reasonably-priced St Ilyia white wines in central Bulgaria (Stara Zagora area) – part of the Edward Miroglio group - but have now gravitated to the Black Sea Gold winery of Pomorie (Burgas) whose Soroko (Chardonnay) has the sort of “tickle” I love. And the nearby Ethno winery offers amazing tastes and prices.

And restaurants I will miss? 

  • For sheer value for money and atmosphere, the atmospheric house nearby - at the corner of 6th September and Khan Krum Streets - is the greatest. Divaka is actually a chain of three with the more central (and cavernous) being just off Vitosha Bvd and Solunska St.  
  •  The Club of the Architect is the classiest restaurant.
  • The Rocket offers a great experience (with a retro decor and rakias a speciality) in the gardens at Bvd Dondukov right next door to the Vaska Emanouliva Art Gallery  
  • Grape Central Tsar Samuel 45 is  a new addition to a small street which offers great art experiences. Nice brick décor and a fantastic selection of Bulgarian wines, grouped by Region – with modest eating to match the wine.
  • Made in Home (Angel Knchev ul. 30A) is a small local restaurant (house wine only) with the best atmosphere (for me). Its just off Vitosha.
Beshkov drawings illustrate the text

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The power of images

Black and white phography is a wonderful if neglected art-form - particularly from the early-mid part of the 20th century when brutalisation extended to give us concrete. Masters of the genre were Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Robert Doisneau, George Brassai and Andrei Kertesz 

Today I want to pay tribute to a couple of Bulgarian masters – Stoyan Sertev and Ivo Hadzhimishev. I had a fascinating lunch yesterday with Ivo – recognised as Bulgaria’s best photographer – after I had found a wonderful production of his - "STOYAN SERTEV (1906 – 1974) AN EPOCH IN BLACK & WHITE" which contains photographs of prominent artists from the late 1940s. Those of Nikola Tanev, for example, have taken the breath away of friends I have shown it to. Others show sculptors working on the monumental work of the period. 

Stoyan Sertev was actually a musician whose other passion was the camera. His huge archive has kept hundreds of frames from 1939 till the end of his life. He mainly shot works of art and their creators, architectural projects, theatrical and opera performances. 

Ivo Hadzhimishev was responsible for an exhibition on his work at the National Gallery late last year (and also the catalogue) and says about the latter: 
“The images that we can see in front of us have passed the test of time – they have emerged from oblivion, and, with them or because of them, a multitude of Bulgarian artists and intellectuals who have left a trace in Bulgarian and European culture have returned and taken their place in the image memory of Bulgaria. These photographs have been lived through. They have been created first and foremost by the heart and spirit – and that is their value!”
Bulgarian National Radio provided recordings of “Avramov” quartet from the Gold Fund for the audio disc accompanying the edition and Alexander Sertev’s family.

The first photograph is of Nikola Tanev - with an actress friend in 1947 at Sozopol.



The book gives an amazing feel for an era and some of the personalities which dominated it - particularly poignant in view of the traumatic events of that period. The book deserves a higher profile - significant that my friends had never seen a copy.......  

The photo on the right has, in the middle, the unmistakable figure of Vladimir Dmitrov- the Master - and, below that again, a favourite of mine Zdravko Alexandrov

I find it so important to have such personal reminders of my favourite artists. It is one thing to see their paintings and some text about them - quite another to see their photos, particularly if animated - or sometimes better - caricatures!
I was reminded, as we talked, of photographs displayed in the hallway of the building in which painter Tsanko Lavrenov’s grandson now lives. showing the devastation from the allied bombing of Sofia 
They were taken by Lavrenov in the immediate aftermath of that bombing. There is an interesting article here on the subject 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Indifference to our European Neighbours

A post in September last year drew attention to the scandalously superficial treatment which Europeans get of their neighbours. Michael Lewis’s detailed articles (in Vanity Fair) on German, Greek and Irish aspects of the global financial crisis a few years back was an exception which proved the rule. The London Review of Books (belying its name) is about the only publication which gives us in depth coverage of issues and (occasionally) countries. 
France and Germany, whose traditions would lead you to expect such intelligent treatment of other societies, disappoint - despite Die Zeit, for example, being a weekly, with the additional liberty that offers.
In desperation I have now added New Left Review and a new-look New Statesman to the list of journals which now wend their way to my mountain retreat. Already I feel a difference!! 
Time perhaps to revise the assumption about non-intellectual Brits? 

And also to ask a simple question - there are tens of thousands of journalists and academics churning out articles in (hundreds of) thousands of journals in the general field of politics and social policy. Can we not think of a way of making the better of these pieces more accessible - in various European languages?? That's the Eurozine concept - but they're selecting from a rather precious bunch of cultural magazines whose language doesn't take many prisoners! 
There are a few other titles which are trying this idea - eg Project Syndicate but from a rather narrow ideological base ; and Le Courrier International which gives us articles from a variety of (global) newspapers - but these ARE newspaper articles and suffer from the limitations of that genre. 
Time for more experimentation!

One of the factors which gets in the way of even this simple idea is the specialisation of political, professional and academic silos - just have a look at the lists of academic magazines at publishers such as Elsevier,Sage or Wiley. Twenty- odd years ago journals such as Parliamentary Affairs, Political Quarterly, West European Politics and Government and Opposition offered civilised reading. Now, with the exception of Political Quarterly, you get highly specialised  topics with boring technocratic prose.

In my days, we had the magazine Encounter (Der Monat in Germany) which gave me stimulating articles by renowned French, German and Italian writers, for example, but was then discovered to have been funded by the CIA and soon folded. Where is its equivalent these days? Le Monde Diplomatique and Lettre International perhaps - except there is, sadly, no English version of the latter - and only a short version in English of the former (whose language is, in any event, a bit opaque). 
In 2004 Carl Fredrikkson wrote an article about the need for a proper European public space where ideas were exchanged across national boundaries and Jan-Werner Muller returned to the issue earlier this year with an important article entitled The Failure of European Intellectuals?
But I am actually asking for something simpler - clear and insightful writing about different European societies. The recent publication on The Inner lives of Cultures could give us only one European system!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Indifference to our European differences - part I

Three years ago, to the day, I was expressing my concern about the absence of good writing on specific european societies and systems
it's actually easier for a Brit to find about what the Chinese are feeling and discussing than it is to get a similar sense about the various countries of Europe! If you don’t believe this, have a look at the reading list in section 6 of my briefing paper on administrative reform in China. This gives a rich variety of material which can be read about relevant current developments in China. The Chinese-American migration and intellectual exchange has been a powerful mechanism to give us that.
There seems very little equivalent for individual countries of Europe. Ralf Dahrendorf , Tony Judt, and Perry Anderson are some of a very small group who have had the ability to focus intellectually on European countries and communicate them to us clearly. Perry Anderson’s papers on the ongoing debates in countries such as France and Germany which he brought together in his 2009 book The New Old World are exceptional. 
I would like, for example, to plug into the thoughts of greens, left and other groups in the heartland of Europe – and learn what they are doing in practical actions (social enterprise), policies and discussions to help shape a shared vision and agenda for social change.
Where do I go to find this out? Newspapers and journals are too general – and books (apart from Paul Hawkens and Paul Kingsworth) so specialised and numerous that it needs a specialist to help. But where are the "gatekeepers" to help us identify such pe0ple? In posts in previous years, I’ve tried to give a sense of the limited number of good books on, for example, contemporary French, German, Italian or Spanish societies – let alone Polish or Romanian ones!
Sadly, the subsequent years of intensive reading have given me no reason to revise my judgement about the paucity of intellectual efforts to transcend European national borders. Indeed one book which I found last year in Sofia’s second-hand English bookshop (The Elephant) strongly confirms it. It’s Malcolm Bradbury’s 1995 Dangerous Pilgrimages – transatlantic mythologies and the novel which looks at mutual American-English influences on the development of the novel in the past couple of centuries.
I thought I had found an equivalent Modernism – a guide to European Literature 1890-1930 which Bradbury had edited a few years earlier – but it turns out the book is a rather stale series of essays on only the key European figures of that period. Nothing comparative since 1930!
My post of 17 March 2011 went on -
The barrier to our understanding of developments in other European countries is not just linguistic. It stems also from the intellectual compartmentalisation (or apartheid) which universities and European networks have encouraged in our elites. European political scientists, for example, have excellent networks but talk in a highly specialised language about recondite topics which they publish in inaccessible language in inaccessible journals. What insights they have about each other’s countries are rarely made available to the wider public. The same is true of the civil service nationals who participate in EC comitology or OECD networks – let alone the myriad professional networks. We talk about gated communities – but they exist virtually as well as physically. 
Sign and Sight used to translate outstanding articles by non-English language authors (but folded in 2013) - so Eurozine is left as the only network of 75 European highbrow journals and translates interesting articles into at least one major European language
In principle, the most interesting books on a country’s society should be written by nationals of that country – they after all know it best - and duly translated. For example  Luigi Barzini’s The Italians probably still gives us the best insight into Italians despite being written more than 50 years ago. And Geert Maak the Dutch.
But generally, it is outsiders who seem  more able to capture the essence of a country and its people - eg Peter Robb key aspects of Italy; Theodor Zeldin the French; John Ardagh (several decades ago) the Germans. Spain is better served - although Gerald Brennan's South of Granada also remains (after 50 years) one of the best insights.....although this week's book by Jeremy Treglown looks to rival if not supplant it
What does all this tell us about modern writers I wonder? I suppose translators are just too busy to form an association and do some writing themselves?

Recently I referred to an interesting study of 10 societies - The Inner Lives of Cultures only one of which, sadly, was European – Romania. But the chapter was an insightful one  - if missing any references.

The painting is one of Atanas Matsourev's wonderful aquarelles. His technique is amazing - they look so much like oils. I met him a few weeks back - and bought this sketch. a self-portrait. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Benn's inspiration

It's extraordinarily difficult to sum up a person's life - there are so many phases and different (if not conflicting) facets....I was deeply involved as a Regional politician from 1970-1990 and experienced Tony Benn's positive and negative aspects powerfully - if not personally. 
He was latterly a deeply divisive figure within my party - making few concessions and bearing a heavy responsibility for the breakup of the Labour Party and for Thatcherism. 
From 1990 I was a (distant) spectator and could experience (and admire) him simply as a diarist and (marginal) activist - exposing brutally the realities of the British political system. 

Alternately I respected him; rejected him; and revered him........Did I change - or did he? Or was it our expectations which changed? The answer, I suppose, is all three. We never remain the same - nor do those who judge us (with different and varying standards) . 
I am sorry that so few of the obituaries I am reading do justice to such complexity................There are some interesting interviews - but they are recent. To get any sense of Tony Benn, you have to go to the Diaries which he actually seems to have started in 1940!................

My last post on his passing was a long one - as befits a man of his complexity and fascination. For someone who had such polarising policies, he had a very even, if not sweet, temperament. He was reason personified, idealistic and boyish in his enthusiasms. 
The Obituaries section of The Daily Telegraph is recognised as Britain's best - and has a long entry here for those who want all the detail on Benn's long life - and its significance for British politics.

The last part of my tribute in the previous post emphasised Benn's almost religious commitment to the decency and struggle of ordinary people - as expressed, for example, in the history of the Levellers (of the 17th century) and the Chartists (of the 19th) and the values of the non-Conformists and Quakers. He was not a religious man but, like many of us, he had a strong moral strength which was based on the religious beliefs of his parents....... 
A good short video here - with various appropriate tributes......

It is interesting that several of the tributes to Tony Benn have made the simple point that he “encouraged people”. The journalist Gary Younge observed him for many years and has given perhaps the most eloquent comment on this part of his appeal -
The two things that stood out were his optimism and his persistence. He believed that people were inherently decent and that they could work together make the world a better place – and he was prepared to join them in that work wherever they were.This alone made him remarkable in late 20th-century British politics. He believed in something.
For some this was enough: they were desperate for some ideological authenticity, for someone for whom politics was rooted not merely in a series of calculations about what was possible in any given moment but in a set of principles guiding what was necessary and desirable. Criticisms that he was divisive ring hollow unless the critics address what the divisions in question were, and how the struggle to address them panned out.
Benn stood against Labour's growing moral vacuity and a political class that was losing touch with the people it purported to represent. The escalating economic inequalities, the increasing privatisation of the National Health Service, the Iraq war and the deregulation of the finance industry that led to the economic crisis – all of which proceeded with cross-party support – leave a question mark over the value of the unity on offer.
 What some refuse to forgive is not so much his divisiveness as his apostasy. He was a class traitor. He would not defend the privilege into which he was born or protect the establishment of which he was a part. It was precisely because he knew the rules that he would not play the game.He hitched these principles to Labour's wagon from an early age. Its founding mission of representing the interests of the labour movement in parliament was one he held dear. He never left it even when, particularly as he got older, it seemed to leave him. His primary loyalty was not to a party but to the causes of internationalism, solidarity and equality, which together provided the ethical compass for his political engagement. When people told him that they had ripped up their party membership cards in disgust, he would say: "That's all well and good. But what are you doing now?" 
The devotion that has poured out for him since his passing is not simply nostalgia. The parents of many of those who embraced him in recent times – the occupiers, student activists, anti-globalisation campaigners – were barely even conscious at the height of his left turn. They are not mourning a relic of the past but an advocate for a future they believe is not only possible but necessary.
The trouble for his detractors was that Benn would not go quietly into old age. He didn't just believe in "anything": he believed in something very definite – socialism. He advocated for the weak against the strong, the poor against the rich and labour against capital. He believed that we were more effective as human beings when we worked together collectively than when we worked against each other as individuals.
Such principles have long been threatened with extinction in British politics. Benn did a great deal to keep them alive. In the face of media onslaught and political marginalisation, that took courage. And, in so doing, he encouraged us.
A dissenting prelate put it this way in his tribute -
All history is the history of struggle, and religious history was, for him, no different. "For many, many centuries, political arguments were fought out in religious terms, and I've never thought we can understand the world we lived in unless we understood the history of the church. All political freedoms were won, first of all, through religious freedom."
Likewise, there is no way of understanding the politics of Tony Benn without understanding the very English traditions of religious dissent that so shaped his imagination.Asked last year how he would like to be remembered, he answered: "I would be very pleased when I die if somebody put on a stone: 'Tony Benn – he encouraged us'." Well, he encouraged me. Tony Benn, rest in peace.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The quintessential Englishman - Tony Benn - RIP

I have been collecting various links on the subject of old age – being very aware of how many of my erstwhile heroes had reached (and surpassed) the critical age of 90 eg Denis Healey, Diane Athill and Helmut Schmidt.

I had confidently expected Tony Benn to join their ranks – but have just learned that he has been struck down at 88  

How to explain this maverick left-wing British politician to my global audience?
·         First that he was quintessentially English in background – his grandfather founding a famous publishing company. This privileged background gave his socialism a slightly artificial tone - despite its undoubted genuineness (his family came from non-conformist stock). He never really "belonged"...... 
Benn became a (Labour) parliamentarian in 1950 (before I came to political maturity a decade or so later) and was a technocratic Minister in the Labour governments of the late 1960s. His famous Diaries, which he started in 1942, give a unique perspective about (if not insight into) our political culture in those days.
·         After the Labour defeat of 1970, reflecting perhaps wider social changes, something changed in him and he became increasingly left-wing and a real thorn in the power system of the Labour Party. He developed (with Stuart Holland) an alternative economic strategy and was the catalyst for the split from the party of the “social democrat” wing led by Roy Jenkins which then doomed the Labour party to 18 wasted years. I famously shared a political platform at the Port Glasgow shipyards with him in 1978 during the highly-charged referendum about a Scottish Parliament.
·         I had been a great admirer until then but felt that he had “lost the plot” as he threw his lot in with the “wild left”. In retrospect, however, the right who took control of the rump of the Labour party were hardly any better!

He was, as The Guardian editorial put it, 
one of the most charismatic, most controversial, most inspirational and most divisive public figures of the second half of the 20th century. He evolved into one of the great political educators, a role to which he was ideally suited by his personal charm, his sense of humour, his passionate interest in new people and new ideas, and his profound commitment to the importance of politics. Long after he stopped being a player at the top table of politics, he fired new generations with an interest in how power works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, there is no doubt that he will always be remembered.
Let his obituary tell the story -
·         When Labour lost the 1979 general election, Benn was well placed to assume the leadership of the left, and began to propose constitutional changes to give greater representation to the views of activists and trade unionists in drafting the manifesto and in selecting MPs. Militant and other Trotskyite groups who had perfected techniques of entryism sponsored the resolutions on party reform. Two very different groups were now following Benn. On the one hand there were revolutionaries of various kinds, many of whom wanted to destroy capitalism and did not mind killing off the Labour party in the process. On the other, Labour's left wing felt disappointed and betrayed by what they saw as the failures of the party's five years in office. The more progress Benn made with his demands for reform, the greater the possibility of a split became. When Callaghan resigned the leadership in 1980, Benn came close to running against Foot, but decided to stay his hand.
·         Despite Foot's passionate appeal to unity, Benn did stand against Denis Healey in the September 1981 election for the deputy leadership. Healey won, under the reformed system that Benn had championed, by less than 0.5%. This margin was accounted for by some of the MPs who would soon be leaving for the Social Democratic party, launched the previous March – though others of this group actually voted for Benn in the hope that he would win.
·         Labour began the long, hard climb back to power. The left of the party split – the Tribune group backing Foot and later Neil Kinnock and Benn setting up his own Campaign group in 1982. He declared the 1983 election a triumph because never before had so many people – 27.6% – voted for a socialist programme. Foot managed to keep Labour in the game, and when Kinnock took over after the election the high tide of Bennism had been reached. It took a decade to roll it back completely, but Benn's realistic challenge for the leadership was over.
In 1987 the first volume of his diaries appeared, covering the period 1963-67. Subsequent volumes then appeared almost annually, covering the whole of his career. At the same time Benn began to present more and more reform bills to the Commons. He did not do things by accident. The switch from trying to capture the party to producing an endless flood of words, in bills, the diaries, collections of essays, videos of speeches, CDs, DVDs, through websites and in semi-authorised biographies formed the great project that filled out his final years.

In response to the flood of his own words the public's perception of him shifted. Much of what he said was highly critical of the Blair governments and the European Union. He appealed to the anti-war movement, the anti-globalisation movement and Ukip supporters in about equal measure. Benn's self-image remained stubbornly self-confident: as he once said: "It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you."

 He had half a century in parliament. Then he had an Indian summer as a national radical treasure, the Home Counties' favourite revolutionary. He will be remembered as a great parliamentarian, a great radical and a great diarist. He will be forgotten as a practical politician and a political thinker. In the end his reputation will be significantly greater than the sum of his achievements because of the vast archive he accumulated and the quality of his diaries. He was like Samuel Pepys – someone who described an age without ever having shaped it – and is remembered for his words rather than his deeds and by many for his personal kindness and generosity with time and conversation.

The Guardian editorial put it very well -
Like his Puritan heroes, Tony Benn belongs in the great tradition of English revolutionaries – a passionate radical destined to be loved in popular memory for his defence of democracy and freedom, whose passing leaves the political world a smaller place.
There is a streak of madness in all who stand for office - and there was a time when I felt that the messianic streak in Benn had got out of hand. To understand him properly requires understanding the tradition he came from - ie the radical,Christian non-conformist tradition of the Levellers,the diggers,the Quakers and Methodists,RH Tawney,Kier Hardie and Stafford Cripps. He once said:

''My mother taught me that the Bible was about the Kings who had power and the Prophets who preached rightousness.She taught me to be on the side of the Prophets and I have always tried to do that although it has got me into a lot of trouble''