what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Monday, August 30, 2010

The four musts of 政治体制改革 (political reform)

I continue my vicarious interest in events in China – and how the system can adjust to the incredible environmental and social pressures now clearly threatening it. China Digital Times gives me a daily overview – and Hu Shuli’s piece yesterday on political reform (the chinese characters are apparently pronounced zhengzhi tizhi gaige) is quite fascinating
Economic reforms and political reforms are complementary and mutually dependent. Deng Xiaoping, the original architect of China’s economic reforms, recognized this fact early on. He said: “The question of whether all of our reforms can ultimately succeed is still to decided by the reform of the political system.”
If we go back to the beginning of reforms, we see that economic reforms and political reforms ran in parallel. Abolishing the system of life-long tenure in leadership posts, promoting the separation of the functions of the Party and the government, strengthening the function of the National People’s Congress, government dialogue with the public on major issues — these were all early trials.
In the past twenty years, however, political reforms have been far from sufficient, a fact that is undeniable.
We must beware this idea that has lately reared up — that China’s economic strength and successes are themselves a demonstration of the success of China’s political system. According to this logic, China’s political system has not changed in the past 60 years, and it is suited as well to the planned economy as it is to the market economy. Given the “political advantage” represented by this “China model,” reform was never necessary before, and reform is equally unnecessary in the future. This argument is blind to the fact that our political system is unsuited to China’s economic development right now. Moreover, it gainsays the CCP’s pronouncements on political reform, and shows blatant disregard for public feeling on this issue.
The failure of forward progress on political reform also has something to do with our apprehensions. No doubt the greatest apprehension among these is the fear that political reform, if not done carefully, will lead to social unrest. This concern is entirely understandable, and it deserves an ear. But if this fear is permitted to carry the day, the factors of social instability in China will only continue to pile up.
Owing to the sensitivity of the political reform issue, the reform discussion over the past couple of years has focused on more limited ideas like “government reform” and “administrative reform”, which have actually served to distract from the real and critical tasks of reform.
In his recent speech, Wen Jiabao said political system reforms “must protect the democratic and legal rights of the people; must broadly mobilize and organize the people to manage the affairs of the state, the economy, society and culture in accordance with the law; must resolve on a systemic level the problem of over-concentration of power and unchecked power, creating the conditions for allowing the people to criticize and monitor the government, firmly punishing corruption; must build a fair and just society, in particular protecting judicial impartiality and prioritizing the assistance of weaker elements in society, so that people may live with a sense of safety, and have confidence in the development of the nation.”
These four “musts” are a significant contribution, and can be seen as breakthrough points for political reform. The most important thing, however, is that we act quickly.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

what happens when the rivers run dry?

Our taps run dry each morning at the moment – the water returns only about 07.00 when I finally flush the toilet and scamper around filling 3 litre plastic bottles. Hopefully things will return to normal next week – when the holiday-makers return to their homes in the plain where the temperatures are slowly subsiding (to 32 or so). But, according to Fred Pearce’s What happens when the Rivers run dry? , there will be no return to normal for us globally. I am at the early stages of this book – but am already stunned at some of the statistics. I had not realised that it takes 2,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of coffee – and countries like Ethiopa and Brazil can ill-afford the export of such “virtual water”. Nor had I appreciated that the “Green Revolution” of the 1970s – which dramatically increased crops and saved the fate of many nations – was not only wasteful of water but in most places has been draining water aquafers which take decades in most case to refill. I knew about the damage which dams had inflicted – both directly (by alteration of biodiversity) and indirectly (when so many Chinese dams, for example, collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s killing millions) – but had not appreciated how the hydraulic works can go wrong - eg those in the Indus valley started by the Brits in the 1930s and continued by The World Bank after Pakistan gained its independence set off effects which have totally poisoned the soil and forced mass migration. It is so ironic to read of the plight of these people 3 years ago who chose to remain without adequate water or livelihoods now swept away in floods whose effect is reckoned to be larger than the last 3 greatest natural disasters (The Tsunami, the Haiti and Kasmir earthquakes )
I find it strange that there is so little coverage has been given to the water issue – compared with that of climate change. I mentioned recently Ricardo Petrella’s concern 20 years ago - but have seen little discussion of the issue in the media since then. If ever we wanted an example of counterproductivity in public policy=making this is it!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Germany and China

I am a rare British example of a Germanophile – it was bred by my father’s reconciliation (Versoehnungsmission) work in the late 1950s in the Detmold area where he twinned (in the modern jargon) with a church in Heiligenkirchen village. The visit the family made with him in 1955 was instrumental in my opting tofocus my scholastic activities on modern languages in senior school and the first two years of University. I enjoy my visits to Germany and have worked for 3 German companies – one of which (a small Berlin energy consultancy InnoTech) famously told me in 1992 or so “We don’t pay you to think’we pay you to obey”). I had started to object that an EU programme which was supposed to be helping central Europeans adjust their energy systems was just a front for western commercial interests.
And I did notice in Uzbekistan that it was the Germans who cosied up to the regime when the rest of Europe was boycotting it; and also, more recently in Beijing, that Germany had a very high profile in China.
An interesting article in der Spiegel points to the dangers of the growing German dependence on the Chinese economy
The Chinese to this day admire imperial latecomer Germany for having caught up with Britain and France. After World War I, German officers and representatives of heavy industry came to the aid of the Chinese nationalist general Chiang Kai-shek.
Economic relations were eagerly revived in the 1980s. In 1984, VW signed a joint venture agreement with the state-owned Shanghai automaker. Even after the bloody suppression of student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989, German industry was unwilling to spoil its cozy relationship with Beijing's leaders. Only three months after the massacre, Otto Wolff von Amerongen, chairman of the German East-West Trade Committee, became the first foreign official to pay a visit to then-Prime Minister Li Peng. During the administrations of former Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, the Germans were viewed in Beijing as docile partners who were more interested in their business deals than in questions of human rights.
The first major rift happened in 2007, when Merkel received the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Chinese-occupied Tibet, in Berlin. The furious Chinese cancelled scheduled diplomatic meetings and threatened to suspend contracts. German business leaders, like BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht, argued that it would be preferable to settle differences with China on the quiet.
But Merkel was unimpressed at first, noting that as German chancellor, she would decide with whom she was to meet. It's debatable whether Merkel would get away with such a gesture today. China has become stronger and more powerful since then, and unnecessarily provoking the country is probably not a good idea.
During her most recent visit to Beijing, the chancellor handed her hosts a list of dissidents in Chinese prisons. She addressed the subject of human rights, but she did it quietly enough so as not to embarrass the Communist Party leadership.
Merkel is convinced that China wants to become a superpower at all costs. The financial crisis has only accelerated this process. The chancellor senses the new self-confidence of Beijing's leaders, and she wants to ensure that Germany will not be left in the dust when the world's political center of gravity shifts.
Hence, she is interested in a good relationship with the Chinese. But how does one build close relations with a country when one is simultaneously criticizing it for its human rights violations and contempt for international rules?
This is the big question that currently shapes Germany's China policy. Merkel's challenge is to cultivate the relationship without creating the impression that she doesn't care about democracy, civil rights or protecting German economic interests.

German Impotence
Speaking recently to a small group of confidants, she mused that it doesn't help to vehemently parade one's own impotence on the issue of human rights. Instead, during her recent visit to Beijing in July, she encouraged German business leaders to air their frustrations over trademark piracy and mandatory discounts -- and she was successful. Siemens CEO Peter Löscher complained about the poor prospects for Western companies in bidding for government contracts in China. BASF CEO Jürgen Hambrecht criticized Beijing's policy of forcing Western companies to disclose their know-how, noting that it "doesn't quite correspond to our notion of a partnership." Officials at the German Economics Ministry say that "there was a completely new tone" at the meeting.
The effort shows that, 30 years after the beginning of Chinese reform policies, Germany's involvement in China has reached a turning point. Until now, it was considered de rigueur for anyone doing business in China to conform to local norms, sometimes to the point of self-denial. Those who managed to sidle up to Beijing's functionaries -- derisively referred to as "panda huggers" -- were most likely to garner the best contracts. In the future, Germans will face a completely new challenge in China. They'll have to learn that sometimes it's in their best interest to say no.
For politicians, this means defending Western values of democracy and the rule of law, even in the face of Chinese opposition. All around the world, from Africa to Asia to South America, Beijing is trying to tout its model of authoritarian state capitalism as the better alternative. If the West hopes to preserve its influence in these regions, it will have to prove that it is not prepared to abandon its basic principles. After all, credibility is also a value.

No Choice
It is no less important for the rivals of East Asia's rising industrial power to do their homework. For example, the United States, by long pursuing a policy of paying for its consumption with borrowed funds, has become dangerously dependent on Beijing. China has been the US's biggest creditor for years. With its trillions in foreign currency reserves, Beijing could manipulate the value of the dollar almost at will.
If the United States hopes to liberate itself from this dependency, it has no choice but to find its way back to the type of economy that was long held in high regard in the US. The government in Washington should finally clean up its deficit, and US consumers need to save more.
For Europe, too, much depends on whether it manages to solve the financial problems in the euro zone. As long as countries like Greece, Ireland and Spain are threatened by bankruptcy, the euro remains acutely at risk. But if the monetary union collapsed, the Germans would also suffer. Their currency would most likely become much stronger, thereby significantly curbing exports. The challenges for European politicians are obvious. Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and others must avert national bankruptcies in the euro zone and reestablish a sustainable basis for the monetary union in the long term.
The German economy faces an enormous challenge, and yet sometimes it seems as if its business leaders are still reluctant to take on the Chinese. "We can either do without this huge growth market, or we submit to the Chinese conditions," says one German auto executive. "There is nothing in between."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

tribes, traditions and transitions

A time for superficial dipping – with another Amazon packet thudding onto the table. At the moment I’m locked into Jonathan Watt’s grim journey around China’s environmental disasters
and spellbound by William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way
This last is a memoir of ten years spent in Transylvania and the Maramures as an age-old way of life gradually crumbles in the face of modernity. Jason Goodwin (who writes so well about the ottoman way of life) has given it a very positive review on the Amazon site.
It's a gripping and affecting account of the experience of living in this remote and beautiful region of Europe, telling a story that's almost impossibly romantic. He chronicles a near-mediaeval way of life, with its horses and witches, its casual kindness and grace, its wholeness and jealousies -interwoven with his own story - the years he spent living the peasant life, the rumbunctious affair with his Gypsy girlfriend, the brutality of the police, the cruelty and the wisdom of country life.
I particularly enjoyed his description of his attempts to learn the scything technique which so well matches my own.
With guests here, I slept last night under the eaves in the attic last night for the first time since it was refurbished all of a year ago. It’s about time we gave it some decorative treatment!

The morning dawned cloudy for the first time for amore than a week – and an article on Kyrgzystan got me to browsing through recent stuff on this country which I knew so well in 2005-2007.
One of the articles was by my friend David Coombes
The admirable Crisis Group has just issued its detailed assessment of the horrific events of April in that country
And I noticed that the guy who was central asian Director of Crisis Group – David Lewis - has an interesting analysis of the area - Temptations of Tyranny in Central Asia

Another interesting recent discovery was the debates which the Economist journal now runs online – the most recent of which was on the Chinese development model.

New York Review of Books blogs are always interesting – and, with all the recent publicity about Wikileaks, this one on secrecy in China is worth a look
Finally – and remembering what I said recently about satire - PJ O’Rourke has a great piece on the way our understanding of far-off countries is filtered by journalists

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

idyllic summer days

Superb weather for the past week – almost cloudless skies and generally with a cooling breeze which makes the trees around us dance in son et lumiere style. A late post since various things including domestic duties intervened eg erection of alight barrier in front of the house to deter our neighbour’s cow from leaving smelly messages now that we’ve invited her to our (greener) field. And then – because of the sudden and welcome return of the water which had vanishedfrom our taps a day or so ago – some serious washing.
Just settling down when a call came from down the hill – “packet at the post office” and 17 more books and 2 DVDs were duly unpacked and added to the groaning bookcases. So only time to refer to two of the only blogs I can find in English about life in Bucharest. Sara also follows Romanian events vert closely - from America I think.
The image is of Bran castle - just down the road

Monday, August 23, 2010

European conversations

A lot of anxieties have been expressed in books and articles in revent years about what the internet is doing to us eg our minds and relationships – and this recent article gave a good overview.
And Martin Kettle wrote recently about how the Net is increasingly making native English speakers, if not exactly Europhobic, certainly Euro-ignorant.
One of the several excellent bloggers I came across yesterday - John Nnaughton - summarised it nicely -
This autumn we will be bombarded with news about the US midterm elections. Fair enough. These are significant elections in the world's most powerful country. But if we are to be intelligent and rounded beings we also need to be well informed about and engaged with elections in places much nearer to home, and especially those that arguably have more to tell us about the temper of the times in our part of the world – like those in Sweden next month – above all. But that is not going to happen as long as we are voluntarily imprisoned in the Anglosphere. Yesterday, once again, the latest UK generation got fewer A-levels in French, German, Russian and Spanish than the generation before. Next week, there will be fewer GCSEs in modern languages too. The trend is inexorable. We are cutting ourselves off from the world. Another New Yorker cartoon, this time by Robert Mankoff, comes irresistibly to mind. A woman is talking to a man at a cocktail party. She asks: “One question: if this is the information age, how come nobody knows anything?” The answer is simple. They are speaking to us from outside the Anglosphere but we no longer understand them.
And, of course, my own blogroll proves the point. I do have excellent French – and passable German – so there really is no excuse for me. To be fair I did, last week, dowload a couple of German book sites – and do subscribe to Der Spiegel (which sends me daily articles in English); to Eurozine which covers european cultural matters and which have translations of articles from about 70 small european journals; and also to Sight and Sound. ButI need to be more proactive - the least I can do from henceforward is to read more diligently the blog of people like dodo - who is on the EuroTribine website which covers aspects of current affairs in individual Eurpoean nations. Paul Mason of the BBC also seems to roam beyond Britain’s shores – see this piece of his on the Spanish financial situation.
By the way, the dodo link gives an information packed briefing on the development of bullet trains in China – an excellent case study in what that country can achieve when it turns its mind to it. Good pics as well.

I thought I would check what European blogs were on offer on google – and was disappointed initially to find that the blogs which were rated in the 2009 Euro Wiki blog competition were all very glitzy and shallow things.

But I did across this site whose concept is very good – creating a network of people in European cities commited to sharing insights about life where they live. /
The last entry, however, of the Bucharest site was in 2007!
Difficult to find a painting illustrating the internet - the only appropriate one I cd find is this one by Gauguin - gossipers'conversation!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

schools and what they do to you

Here ‘s a nice job – wandering the streets of different European cities and taking photos to illustrate the fashion styles! You can catch the result on Face Style.In fact, I do very much enjoy looking at the theatre which faces in streets give us and sometimes wish that I had the camera with me and was able to catch a face surreptitiously. So well done the Guardian!
A nice example in the Observer of how a serious but well-worn subject can be brought to life with satire and good writing. In this case, the subject is the respective value of schools and universities.
Mitchell has a jaundiced view of schooling and some sympathy apparently with parents who do their own schooling. Inevitably he gets a high response rate to his article (everyone is an expert on education!) – and some good points eg
School teaches you to cope with boredom. It helps you to appreciate your free time. It introduces you to the idea of a working day from an early age, and gives you structure and (important for kids) stability. It teaches you how to deal with conflict, who to avoid, how to cope with really horrible situations then go home afterwards. School (especially with regard to uniform) is a great leveller, and, valuably, is often so rubbish that you're actually glad to reach adulthood.
Personally school was a valuable experience for me. I had the feeling that 1955-60 was the end of a golden period for state schools. We still had streaming – with an examination at age 11 determining whether you went to a the prestige high school – or the secondary modern. Teachers there wore gowns and most commanded fear and respect - even (or particularly) the characters amongst them eg the great English teacher who would frequently raise high his desk lid in front of him to seek solace in a whig of whisky! Classes were small - and almost all the members of our final group went on to make something of their lives eg a national theatre director (Bill Bryden), a star Chelsea footballer (Charlie Cooke), a BBC designer (Alex Gourlay), a paedetrician (Cameron Shepherd), an American academic (Rhoda Urie) etc
Of course, streaming was unfair and wasteful of national talent – and was abolished in the 1960s. And I did later develop an enthusiasm for the anarchistic ideas of Ivan Illich – as set out in his Deschooling Society. And, if you want more on this fascinating writer of the 1970s I have just noticed a festschrift.
The painting is by a Russian realist - Bogdanov Belsky

Saturday, August 21, 2010

consultant waste, claustrophobia in China

Today’s Guardian carries a story that the UK Health Service spent 300 million pounds last year on management consultants – equal to the cost of 10,000 nurses.
In London alone managers shelled out more than £114m last year on management consultants – almost double what they had spent two years previously and £30m more than the money spent on breast cancer services in the capital. Costs were inflated, say critics, by the consultants' salaries, which were reportedly as much as £1,000 a day. Experts have questioned whether the government gets "any value at all" from the private sector. Last year a report by McKinsey & Company proposed sacking 10% of NHS staff – some 137,000 people – to help achieve planned £20bn efficiency savings in the health service, and warned that GP time "lost to tea breaks" should be reduced as part of a scheme to improve "GP productivity" to the tune of £400m
Two or three books have been written about the incredible sums of money the New Labour government spent on management consultants.

I mentioned yesterday that I had come across some great new (development) blogs but gave the address of only one (Owen)whose CV is one of the most interesting I’ve come across in recent years – on secondment in Africa from the UK International Development Department – with a strong academic bent and keenness to share his reading.
One of the leading figures in the academic development world is Simon Maxwell of the UK’s Overseas development Institute and his website contains not only a blog but copies of his extensive publications. It was from this that I learned of the recent EU Reflections report which is worth a look.
The third very useful blog I came across was that of Chris Blattman - an American academic

I have not so far mentioned that one of the things which really fazed me when I arrived in Beijing at the beginning of this year is that I could not access either my website or blog. I should not have been surprised since the tiff with Google was at its height. But it was one of two factors which made me feel, for the first time in my life, really claustrophobic The other factor was the approaching Chinese New Year – and the daily news on local TV of the congestion on trains and planes as 150 million plus people went home or (the richer ones) on vacation to Europe. I wanted out of this place – and knew that it would not be easy!
But the blocking of Google Scholar and most blogs (including my own) really did make me feel that I was in a prison. The world suddenly shrunk and I was trapped with huge buildings towering around me. I was denied, for example, the essays of Daniel Bell about aspects of China; and would not have been able to discover, as I did yesterday, a 250 page PhD thesis about policy implementation in China

Friday, August 20, 2010

Carpe Diem

In the last 24 hours I have been buying Amazon books as if there were no tomorrow. Some 36 will be winging their way to the mountains in the next few weeks – not counting the 15 or so which are scheduled to arrive in the next week. At my age, one can only count one’s blessings and access as much as one can.
I got on a dangerous roll when I dipped into the Amazon recommendations (based on my reading patterns) and found so many of the sort of travelogues I love which mix interviews with background history of the country. A lot of these and history books I’ve ordered cover the Balkans (larger definition) and also central Asia and Caucasus in which I spent 7 creative years. The haul includes several Patrick Leigh Fermor’s I don’t have and Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levantine trilogies.
I’ve started to read Daniel Bell’s China’s new Confucianism whose intro semed rather to undermine its thesis when it indicated that, for the moment, the new-found respectability of Confucius is only verbal. It does not extend, as he wrly puts it, to elderly people having one vote for their leaders let alone the multiple vote which might be implied by the confucianist respect for the wisdom of the aged.
One of the most distasteful aspects of contemporary China is the complete disrespect of the forces of law and order for the law and of the rights of the ordinary citizen. I had read a lot about the collusion of municipalities with developers and the ruthless way villagers and townfolk alike have been and are brutally evicted from their homes to make way for the new buildings which now blight the country.
Lawyers who try to defend the people are thrown into prison.

A country the size of China, of course, cannot be run from the centre – the Provincial Chiefs (who have a majority of power on the party’s central presidium) dominate. An article in the Foreign Policy journal put the matter starkly -
Consider how aggressively Chinese cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment. By 2025, China is expected to have 15 supercities with an average population of 25 million (Europe will have none). Many will try to emulate Hong Kong, which though once again a Chinese city rather than a British protectorate, still largely defines itself through its differences with the mainland. What if all China's supercities start acting that way? Or what if other areas of the country begin to demand the same privileges as Dalian, the northeastern tech center that has become among China's most liberal enclaves? Will Beijing really run China then? Or will we return to a fuzzier modern version of the "Warring States" period of Chinese history, in which many poles of power competed in ever-shifting alliances?
Some great blogs found this morning – in the development field. And one of them has a very helpful series giving useful advice on IT to people like myself. From the latest of these, I was able to download three helpful bits of software.

The woodcut which adourns this post is taken from Frans Masereel’s The City published in 1925 and can be read in its entirety on the link. I’m very fond of old woodcuts – and tried unuccesfully to find in my favourite art bookship in Brussels
(Posada) more Jacques Engelbach woodcuts which I came across in a nice 1927 book I picked up for 1 euro in a Brussels fleamarket in June.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

more Transylvanian and Balkan flavour?

The title of this blog is Carpathian Musings since I am now based here in this marvellous mountain range – in its southern sweep in Romania – but a recent incident has made me realise how little about the immediate area or country I mention in the blog. The other blog I started a couple of years ago but which transmogrified into this one contained much more about life in the mountains.
The starting point for today’s story is one of my many book blogs. At one level it is hardly surprising that those who read should also want to share their pleasure – and write about their recent reads in a blog. For me, the discipline of summarising key points in a book fixes them more solidly in my mind – and may actually create a few questions which send me back to a reread or search in another book. But that is for the non-fiction which tends still to be my fare. What I find amazing is the care and love book bloggers devote to the sentences and characters in fiction. I am deeply grateful to those bloggers who reproduce whole chunks of text to give the reader their own sense of a book and of its style – rather than leaving us to rely on an opinion. One of the best such bloggers is Pechorin – who asked recently about central European literature. As someone with a base in the Carpathians I was happy to share a couple of recent overviews I had come across on the subject – but I then decided to add my own blog address to the second comment. But immediately Max (such is his name) graciously acknowledged and promised to look at my blog, I could anticipate his shocked response – “this guy doesn’t really read novels – and where are his musings about the Carpathians?”
Technically the Carpathians sweep from the plains 150 or so kilometres north of the Danube (in which Bucharest is the largest city) to north Romania, up into Ukraine and then across most of Slovakia – and I did blog (however briefly) in June about my latest trip to superb Slovakia.
But the content of this blog belies its title. The focus here is, of course, on issues of public management - since it takes over from the blog I wrote under the “publicadmin reform” rubric. Ideally I should retitle the blog Carpathian Musings about Good Government! But that would make it more difficult for me to celebrate the wines, paintings and mores in an area which extends for me to the other side of the Balkans mountain range which runs across central Bulgaria.
It’s almost exactly twenty years ago that I started my work and nomadic existence in what was then called countries of central and eastern Europe (CCEE). It started with a personal invitation from the Head of WHO’s Public Health Office in Copenhagen (on the basis of my role then in the Healthy Cities network) to identify the scope in the new central europe for developing networks of preventive health. WHO had long had small offices in all these countries and my job was to fly in and spend a week or so talking not only with Ministers and party leaders but with representatives of the new NGOs. One of my most vivid memories is driving in an ambulance to Brasov (just down the road from where I am now) with the young doctor who had been assigned to me in Romania, hearing German being spoken in the streets; talking with both the University Rector and an episcopalian Bishop; and then being driven on to Alba Iulia to talk with the Archbishop of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. I also had a moving hour long discussion in Bucharest with the old, frail and highly respected Leader of the Peasant party who had recently been released from 20 years’ imprisonment. My WHO tour included a stunning visit to a snowy and blue skied St Petersburg in mid-January - where I remember being shocked by the completely different value system eg that a life had no value (from a bright young woman) or that food should be subsidised and controlled by the municipality. The one capital I was not allowed to visit in this busy 6 month spell in 1991 was Belgrade. Copenhagen knew something the rest of us didn’t about the coming conflict in the Balkans.
And, since that dreadful conflagration, the Balkans have (once more) being marked apart. Indeed those of us in the Technical Assistance business since then have used a threefold classification - central Europe (for countries such as Poland; Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia with their borders with EU countries); CIS or Commonwealth of Independent States (for those to the East which had never experienced capitalism or democracy); and the troublesome Balkans (the countries of ex Federal Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and Romania) where the Ottoman influence was still evident. Not so, of course, here in Transylvania which was not only Austro-Hungarian until the Trianon Treaty but had Saxon immigrants in medieval times. The old border with Ottoman-controlled Wallachia is just at the back of my house!

Anyway, the point of all this is to promise that I will try to give more of a Balkan flavour to this blog – or rather Transylvanian and Bulgarian flavour – not least to counter the impression that I am leading a vicarious life and missing home. Of course, on fine days here, I have a certain hankering for the Clyde and the Argyll hills and a sight of the Hebrideans – but I have no wish to return to the dreary weather! And I follow the politics simply because it’s an easy case-study for me.
As I’ve mentioned the Ottoman influence, let me finish by pointing you to a provocative article on Turkish styles of argument.
In Turkey, it is normal and expected to say that you will do something, have done something, or agree with something when, in fact, you won’t, haven’t, or don’t.Not only is truth here derived from emotion, but the emotions themselves are more intense and more transitory. Arguing a mild difference of opinion by screaming and threatening would come across to Westerners as weak at best, lunatic at worst. Not here. No shame attaches to displays of anger that in the West would result in the issuance of restraining orders. The fights dissipate as quickly as they start; everyone proceeds to drink tea and moistly proclaim their mutual love. The entire incident is then forgotten, except by the American, who is still shaking with rage and nurtures her resentment forever
Thanks to Marian for the photograph of my neighbourhood. Her stunning collection is worth a look.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

the seasons change

Apparently August 15th is St Mary’s day (?) after which the season begins its winddown to autumn – and, in the mountains, the change is palpable. The air had a new edge a couple of days ago; the clouds over the mountains which had been absent for a couple of weeks slowly returned yesterday. Good weather for the lads on the roof; but this morning I felt vaguely cold as I woke up at 06.00.

Some horrifying scenes and stats from pollution-infested Beijing to which I almost committed myself earlier in the year for a long sojourn. I have never felt so alienated in a place as I was in Beijing – soulless buildings, luxurious hotels and crushed like a sardine in the metro. Cultural adjustment is not a problem for me – evidence the 7 years in various countries of central Asia which I found fascinating
But I knew that the scale of the city would be difficult to adjust to - particularly after the months I had spent in rural bliss. A lot of ex-pats were enjoying their lives there – but it is essentially for young people. We older people like our creature comforts! But my visit has at least aroused my interest in the fate and role of this country - and books such as Daniel Bell's China's New Confucianiasm vie for my attention me on the shelves.
I’m going through Perry Anderson’s The New Old World – which contains some stunning analyses of France, Germany, Italy and Turkey and good overviews of the European Union literature

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

back to basics

Back to basics in recent days – scything the grass at the back of the house (but only in the early morning when it is cooler) and organising at last the covering of the wooden schitza rooftiles with motor oil to ensure its properly sealed. We popped in last week to see Gabi who built and installed our drainpiping last autumn – and was happy to come and finish off the roof. The tiles were laid last September (see blog) and have since experienced several months of snow and then of sun. So the first coat of oil was quickly absorbed. And today is cooler – better for the 2 lads up on the roof. I prepared one of my special vegetable soups for them.
Between supplying them with nails, hammer, axe, wood etc, I continue the David Marquand book.

Monday, August 16, 2010

has the public lost trust in government?

A good post in the open Democracy blog about the widespread belief of a secular decline in public trust of government. Apparently in the US, there may be some evidence of that – but, in Europe, evidence of a continuous erosion in citizens’ satisfaction with the democratic process is absent altogether. Rather than a continuous a decline, the European Commission’s Eurobarometer surveys reveal only trendless fluctuation, and, if anything, even upward tendencies, notably in the Benelux, France, and Italy (see Figure 2 of paper). As the author argues –
Interestingly, some outliers do exhibit persistently lower average levels of satisfaction relative to other countries, suggesting that national political cultures may result in some systematic differences, yet even this didn’t stop satisfaction from rising to historically high levels (see Italy). And, while big drops have occurred, to be sure, as in Denmark in 1985 and Belgium in 1996, these have been temporary and equally punctuated by big increases when satisfaction returned to its previous levels.
Certainly, there are times when politicians and political institutions lose the trust of the public - the parliamentary expense scandals in the UK have, no doubt, had a deleterious effect on public confidence, just as the Italian ‘Tengentopoli’ scandals did in the early 1990s, as well as the skullduggery surrounding Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Such marked fluctuations of public trust over the years show that citizens can become deeply critical of their governments. But there is little evidence that such periodic loses of public trust have led, cumulatively, to a long-term erosion of confidence in politicians, political institutions, or our democratic political systems. Rather than the decline, therefore, political scientists should concentrate on explaining the fluctuation of public trust, its ebb and flow - not just why it falls, but why it rises again. However imperfectly, citizens seem to recognize when institutional improvements take place, and trust can be renewed once the incumbents that violated it are thrown out, and that, in many respects, is what democracy is all about

Sunday, August 15, 2010

more on UK coalition government

The tectonic plates begin to move in the UK. Three months into the new coalition government, there is apparently an announcement brewing that the very powerful Audit Commission (with some 2,000 staff) is to be phased out. New Labour’s regime of targets (criticised in this blog and website) was immediately abolished by the new government – thereby making thousands of civil servants redundant to purpose (I’m not yet sure what is actually happening to them). The Audit Commission became part of this command and control regime of Gordon Brown - although it was actually set up by Conservative (and technocratic) Minister Michael Heseltine in 1983.
And there is some horror that some ex-Labour Ministers and MPs are acceptiong jobs in the new coalition government – the awkwardly independent (and highly esteemed) Frank Field as poverty adviser; and one of the previously tipped contenders for Labour leadership (Alan Milburn) who was brought back by Brown as an advisor on social mobility is being tipped to take a similar role in the coalition government. A third Labour ex-Minister who developed some expertise in pension reform (Purnell) is also apparently being brought into the coalition fold to continue that input. Frankly I don’t know what the fuss is about. New Labour continued the neo-liberal agenda under both Blair and Brown. And noone can claim to real expertise in the fields of poverty, social mobility and pensions – so thank god those who had shown some interest and commitment are being encouraged to stay around! Of course “two jags, two shags and two bogs” Prescott is dutifully fulminating labour tribalism – but who listens any more to such crap?
I’m now well into David Marquand’s Britain since 1918 – the strange career of British Democracy which gives a superb perspective on these latest manoeuvrings.
Temperatures in Bucharest are 38 – and here in the mountains a lovely cool breeze is blowing as I salute the Bulgarian Khan Khrum’s Chardonnay!
The Inquisition Painting is Ilyas Phaizulline's

Friday, August 13, 2010


In the last few days, Sozopol has become a name to conjure with. We visited this charming 3,000 year old Bulgaria village clinging to a rocky prominotory on the Black Sea last month and found it more authentic than the better-known but now commercialised and tawdry Nessbur up the coast.

Last week an archeologist, Kazimir Popkonstantinov, staged in Sozopol’s museum a public opening of a box he had excavated during a dig at the ancient monastery of St. John, on the Black Sea island of St. Ivan, a kilometre off the Sozopol coast – and found relics. His career has been marked by extraordinary findings, acknowledgment outside Bulgaria, and a Herder Prize for cultural and scientific achievement. Bulgaria does have a fascinating ancient history – and considerable romantic attachments – as this article reminds us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

travelling curiously

Yesterday I mentioned Wilkinson and Picket book on Equality. It’s called The Spirit Level and has caused such a stir that, when I saw it on offer on Amazon for 5 pounds, I decided it was time to buy it. The authors have also set up an Equality Trust website to promote its ideas. From which I take the following snippet. A couple of young guys have been so inspired by the book that they have organised a bike ride to Sweden to explore at a human level what it means to be living in a more equal society. They will chat with people they meet – recording and blogging about the interviews. Their journey has just begun and their blog can be followed at exploring equality
In this idea of combining travel and talk with treatise, they follow an honourable tradition – for example, William Cobbett’s Rural Rides in the 1820s; George Orwell’s 1937 Road to Wigan Pier and, in 1996, Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy

I have been stuck too long in the laptop and books. The weather has been steadily improving in the last few days here in the mountains and I must now get out, exercise the muscles and breathe the marvellous air into my lungs. But one last snippet – this time a reading list which one of the UK’s new Foreign Ministers apparently has for the summer!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

limits of expertise

A scrappy blog today – I was still trying to make sense of William Davies’s intriguing paper from which I quoted yesterday which has, as its title, The Limits of Expertise. I have never tried to explain (even to myself) why I chose the Saul quotation for my masthead on the right - We've spent half a century arguing over management methods. If there are solutions to our confusions over government, they lie in democratic not management processes. It is a reflection, I suppose, of the ambivalence within me about political and managerial roles. For the first 20 years of my adult life. I was a (technocratic) politician; for the last 20 years I have been an apolitical adviser
But in 1974 or so – based on my experience of working with community groups and trying to reform a small municipal bureaucracy – I wrote a pamphlet called From Corporate Management to Community action which reflected my disillusionment with the technocratic fashions of the time.
New Labour was a social engineering government with a vengeance – with Brown given the time and opportunity to invent a giant machine for minute tweaking of socio-economic processes acroess the board. His budgets (companies), tax credits (households) and PSA (public service agreements setting targets for Departments) were infamous for their detail and optimistic assumptions about the link between technical means and social outcomes. It was not just the sheer arrogance – it was downright ignorance of the literature on the perversity of social interventions – which amazes.
Davies’s The Limits of Expertise tries to look at the philosophical underpinnings of what we might call the "policy bent" – by which I mean the incredible growth in the past 20 years of Think Tanks and of interest in policy analysis. That reflects, of course, the huge expansion in universities of social science, paramount amongst which has been economics – with its weird but (until recently) unquestioned assumptions about human nature. He has an interesting argument -
Unforeseen by the policy architects who designed the New Labour platform, the defining problem of the past decade has turned out to be an ethical-political one: antisocial behaviour. Utilitarian calculations can only conceive of the world in economic terms (‘economic’ in the sense of weighing up profit and loss), and as such are entirely ill-equipped to deal with this problem. It can be bracketed as an aspect of poverty or even biology; it can be tackled through an extension of police and surveillance technologies; or it can be swept under the carpet through mystical references to ‘communities’ and the voluntary sector. All the while, it looks set to rise in the future, thwarting all our expert analyses of the psychology and economics that supposedly determine it.
For the foreseeable future, our politicians will treat it like crime or unemployment: quantitative phenomena that rise and fall as outcomes of policy and/or the economic weather. In time, however, it may have to be treated as an ethical and political issue. At an ethical level, Richard Reeves points out that there is a growing need to revive respect for 'character’. He point to three dimensions of this: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one’s own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification.
That reminded me of David Cameron’s address in November which articulated his Big Society idea.
It reads very well – it is quite something for a Conservative Prime Minister to be committed to deal with poverty and inequality. He actually quotes from the recent Wilkinson and Picket book which strongly argues that healthy societies are equal ones.
Having proven (to at least his own satisfaction) that big government (spending) has not dealt with the problem of poverty, Cameron then suggests that the main reason for this is the neglect of the moral dimension, refers to various community enterprises, entrepreneurs and goes on -
Our alternative to big government is not no government - some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire. Nor is it just smarter government. Because we believe that a strong society will solve our problems more effectively than big government has or ever will, we want the state to act as an instrument for helping to create a strong society. Our alternative to big government is the big society.
But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society.
The first step is to redistribute power and control from the central state and its agencies to individuals and local communities. That way, we can create the opportunity for people to take responsibility. This is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age - the post-bureaucratic age. In commerce, the Professor of Technological Innovation at MIT, Eric von Hippel, has shown how individuals and small companies, flexible and able to take advantage of technologies and information once only available to major multinational corporations, are responding with the innovations that best suit the needs of consumers.
This year's Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, has shown through her life's work how non- state collective action is more effective than centralised state solutions in solving community problems.
Our plans for decentralisation are based on a simple human insight: if you give people more responsibility, they behave more responsibly.
So we will take power from the central state and give it to individuals where possible - as with our school reforms that will put power directly in the hands of parents.
Where it doesn't make sense to give power directly to individuals, for example where there is a function that is collective in nature, then we will transfer power to neighbourhoods. So our new Local Housing Trusts will enable communities to come together, agree on the number and type of homes they want, and provide themselves with permission to expand and lead that development.
Where neighbourhood empowerment is not practical we will redistribute power to the lowest possible tier of government, and the removal of bureaucratic controls on councils will enable them to offer local people whatever services they want, in whatever way they want, with new mayors in our big cities acting as a focus for civic pride and responsibility.
This decentralisation of power from the central to the local will not just increase responsibility, it will lead to innovation, as people have the freedom to try new approaches to solving social problems, and the freedom to copy what works elsewhere.

It is sad that I never found Blair or Brown singing a song like this. Of course one can make various criticisms – one of the best is in a TUC blog
But the fact remains that community enterprise (pity he didn’t mention cooperatives! is worth supporting. I was very heartened to read in another blog about the continuing success of the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain which has increased its enployment in the last 20 years from 20,000 to 90,000.
I remember visiting Mondragon in 1990 in an endeavour to bring its lessons back to Scotland.

Monday, August 9, 2010

power sharing

I have now finished the 679 pages Andrew Rawnsley produced on the last 5 years of the Labour Government. It was indeed a gripping – and enlightening – read. One can just imagine Brown’s pain and frustration as he plummets from the height of a highly successful management of an historic G20 Conference about the global financial meltdown to the shame 2 days later of the publicity about one of his aide’s malicious E-mails about opposition figures. Studies of the individual topics governments wrestle with – Northern Ireland, financial crises etc – tend to miss (or add as an afterthought) this critical dimension of the interaction of politicians.
The book has been marketed as a study of what is seen as the toxic relationship between Blair and Brown – but one commentator has put a more positive slant on that -
Under Blair, Brown was insulated from all the aspects of governing that proved so uncomfortable for him – offering a story, controlling the news agenda, communicating to swing voters, asserting clear medium-term ambitions. Freed from the obligation to deal with these issues or foreign policy, Brown was privileged to focus exclusively on domestic policy formation.
Looking back, the dual leadership of Blair and Brown was, inadvertently, a political master-stroke, converting weaknesses into strengths. Compared to the number-crunching Brown, Blair was able to appear ‘Presidential’, even if that quality eventually did for him; compared to Blair, Brown was able to appear authentic and expert at policy-formation. It was the unglamorous, numbers-heavy Chancellor that was wheeled out during the 2005 election campaign to convince voters that Labour had real substance. It was this same unglamorous, numbers-heavy man that voters became so dissatisfied with.
One lesson that emerges from the Brown premiership is that there never was a contradiction between ‘spin’ and ‘substance’, but that the two are interdependent. It is precisely because naked policy does not result in a coherent political narrative that spin becomes necessary. At the same time, political positioning and story-telling is of little use inside the machinery of Whitehall bureaucracies, which makes policy-formation an indispensable part of politic (William Davies).

On the basis that we need first to understand the context before we move to prescription, I wanted to finish this book before reading the various texts which have appeared recently on how a progressive UK government might deal with the massive problems of social, political and economic breakdown which that country now faces. One of the most tantalising of these is Red Tory – how the Left and Right have broken Britain and how we can fix it which now stands on my to-read bookshelf.
According to its author, Phillip Blond, there has been "a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief". It has led to " increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family break-up, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents... seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy". Most of this analysis sounds right-wing – but the book does apparently contain a withering indictment of neo-liberal economic policies, a deep concern about inequality and a commitment to social enterprise. Its author was a priest, worked for a period at the left-of-centre Think Tank Demos and then moved recently to set up his own think-tank Respublica.
Thanks to the omnivore website which I have just discovered, you can get a sense of the book’s contents from the various reviews which the site collects. I would particularly recommend the Barnett and Raban reviews. Barnett puts the book in the context of the unsuccessful Third Way of Blair and Clinton.

David Marquand’s Britain since 1918 – the strange career of British democracy is, however, now tempting me.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

changing the system of greed and incompetence

First a tribute to Tony Judt, the British writer, historian and professor who has just died at age 62 after a two-year struggle with motor neurone disease. Yesterday’s blog coincidentally contained a link to one of his New York Review of Books essays which he had expanded into his last, short but powerful book – Ill Fares the Land. Today's link gives the background to (and purpose of) that essay and book. Such courage and determination he showed in his last year to try to summarise the messages he felt he had learned for younger generations. What an example he sets! I will return in future blogs to the inspiring man and his works.
Before I learned the news, I had been planning to say more about the Rawnsley and Mortensen books I covered yesterday. Unlike a lot of other (abstract) books I read - both of these books focus on individuals. In the first case - the damage and disappointments politicians bring. In the second case, the tremendous good an individual can do.
Leaders are having a bad time of it at the moment - whether bankers, business or political executives. The message most of us is that they are greedy and incompetent (of course, there are exceptions, such as Richard Semler about whom I have blogged). Why is this so - and what can we do about it? Systems and procedures of democracy and corporate governance were supposed to subject leaders to scrutiny and prevent the Enron, banking and other disasters we have seen in the last decade. Patently they don't work - complacency and group think are alive and well. More than 20 years ago, Alaister Mant wrote a book Leader We Deserve which remains for me one of the best attempts to answer the first of the questions. However, his book focussed on the psychological aspects and there are 2 other levels to be considered - the organisational and societal/systemic. A book such as Clegg’s Power and organisations deals with with these 2 levels
But how does this translate into a reasonable strategy for making politicians and business executives more accountable? We know that regulatory bodies (such as the UK’s Financial Service Agency)end up as useless captives of the interests they are supposed to be controlling; and the UK reacted strongly a few years back when it was realised just how many officials and bodies there were supposed to be auditing performance (Howard Davis). Accountability is probably not the term to use – since it leads down the dreadful path of targets and counterproductive control. Business writers are feeling their way to a different model (William Davis) – but it is governments who set the legislative framework. We therefore face 2 basic questions – how do we get more open and responsive politicians and goverments – to ensure relevant actions are taken? And what should these actions be?
Unlike new Labour, the new British coalition government seems actually to be exploring these questions.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

moral choices

Since I arrived in the mountains on Thursday afternoon, my nose has been stuck in 3 of the 17 or so new books which were waiting for me. The first a political blockbuster about the last half of New Labour rule in the UK which has gripped me for reasons well captured in these quotations from 3 reviews -
The End of the Party is a civil-war epic, at the close of which the house is on fire, the crops are laid waste, and the cast of characters is either dead or dispersed. The fratricidal conflict described here is between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and their respective armies of followers and, for as long as these two are both centre stage and slugging it out (ie, for approximately 450 pages), Rawnsley’s narrative has a theme and a drive that give it a compulsive readability (Robert Harris)
But it is only through appreciating the sheer perversity of his decision needlessly to write what Rawnsley calls "an emotional blank cheque" to two very different men – Gordon Brown and George W Bush – that you begin to realise how dramatically skewed his period as prime minister became. In both cases, he made bargains that turned out entirely in the other man's favour. In trying to explain his disastrous inability to confront Bush, a man possessed, as Rawnsley says, with considerable "peasant cunning", it has always been the conventional wisdom to say that Blair was a sort of head prefect with a fatal weakness for sucking up to headmasterly power. For that reason, it is said, he ignored Bill Clinton's stark warning "He's using you". But in these pages it is not so much power as mere activity which drives Blair. What on earth are we to make of a man who, on the day he left No 10, had already inked in 500 appointments for his first 12 months out of office? What are we to make of a government which came up with 3,600 new criminal offences in 10 years?
Any psychiatrist who began to question the behaviour of a leader permanently surrounded by half-eaten bananas would already have noted that images of insanity haunt the whole volume. Blair's closest confidant, Alastair Campbell, was a manic depressive who bears out Booth Tarkington's observation that arrogant people are the most over-sensitive. At one point, Campbell admits to liking nobody in the world but his partner and his children. Brown's corresponding best friends were significantly known as Mad Dog McBride and Shriti the Shriek. Most interestingly, Blair kept quiet about his private beliefs because he worried that voters might think of him as a "nutter" who communed with "the man upstairs". His principal reason for leaving No 10, after his suicidal refusal to call for a ceasefire during the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, appears to have been his fear of being taken out through the door as unhinged as Margaret Thatcher. "I don't want to leave like her."

Chris Patten cuts through the infighting to pose the basic question about the achievements of the 13 years of New Labour rule -
So here we are. What has it all been about? A devolved administration in Edinburgh, half of one in Cardiff, a hard-won settlement in Belfast, no advance in Brussels, a splurge of public spending, a mountain of debt, Brown's very own "boom and bust", the stuttering beginnings of reform to our education system, the mother and father of all scandals in the mother of parliaments. But there has not been what Tony Judt recently called for, a redefinition of social democracy, an end to economism, the restoration of values to political debate. All that we got was the Third Way, described by Judt as "opportunism with a human face".
For more reviews of the book see the omnivore book review site -
The second book Three Cups of tea - one man's mission to propote peace one school at a time could not be a greater contrast. The story of how a young and peniless American climber repayed a debt to people in a remote Pakistan village.
A vivid account of what one determined person can achieve.

The third book is Jonathan Watt's When a billion Chinese jump - how China will save mankind - or destroy it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

water shortages

Yesterday was my birthday – celebrated with (a) a couple of hours pleasant browsing in the downtown Carturesti bookshop I’ve blogged about before (where I picked up some CDs and volume 7 of the collected works of my favourite central European poet – Marin Sorescu) and (b) having a late lunch with Daniela at a new place just round the corner from the flat.
The heat on the plains and overdeveloped seasides here in Romania and Bulgaria got me thinking about water scarcity and policy (35 is forecast for today). I come across a reference to Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers run dry and know that there is currently a debate in Scotland about the privatisation of water. Scotland has so far steadfastly resisted this policy to which England (and much of central Europe) fell prey in the 1990s. In the late 1980s I was fortunate enough to be part of a small European network led by Riccardo Petrella – then an EC official but who has since become an anti-globalisation activist. I remember him raising the subject of water with me 20 years ago – and in 2006 he apparently published a book about the dangers of the commodification of water. If ever there was an example of a resource which must remain a public utility, this is it. Instead, bodies like the World Bank and WTB have bypassed national parliaments and conspired to force countries to privatise water – with devastating results.
An interesting resource on this subject can be found on a website I found immediately I used google search on water privatisation (as distinct from yahoo whose early pages are very poor on the subject. The site is an impressive personal endeavour on a range of issues - global issues
The Scottish Government should not just be issuing reassuring noises about keeping the resource in public hands – but leading a global campaign for a change to WTB rules and the removal of water from global commercial companies. On a more personal note, the local municipality at last installed a water meter in the mountain house a month ago and have built an additional pump facility in the village - it will be interesting to see how that affects the water supply which was reduced to a trickle last summer because of the scale of building nearby (but not in our village). One of my other reads at the Black Sea was Garton Ash's latest collection of essays - one of which rang bells with me. One of the pieces was on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. He disputed the common perception (about class influences on the slow reaction time) - and argued instead that its main lesson was how quickly our veneer of civilisation slips when basic facilities are removed.

One of the appalling things for me in my visit to Beijing was the massive scale of the construction which was continuing there and in cities generally - and the evil way municipal officials were dispossessing people of their property to join in the rush to richness (collective and personal). Der Spiegel carries today stories both about this - and a warning that the bubble in the Chinese property market is about to burst (in Beijing people are borrowing 20 times their income to buy)

An interesting discussion is also underway in Britain about inequality . I'll come back to that soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

patrimony in Bulgaria and Romania

One of my links is with Valentin Mandache's website which is a glorious one-man campaign celebrating and trying to protect Romanian's architectural heritage. A recent posting was of the typical fate of a 100 year old paddle steamer - sold for 7,000 euros to a local butcher and mafia company rather than be restored by public authorities (ideally using local labour and helping retain traditional skills) and made accessible to the public as happens in Scotland and most European countries.

Bulgaria has a better understanding of its architectural heritage - with at least 6 specially protected villages. And I have to pay tribute to some of the Brits whose individual restoration of buidlings has also helped (Brits are not interested in the Romanian housing market).
But even the Bulgarians are in danger of undervaluing their painting heritage. One of my dream projects is to help edit a proper book in English which would make the Bulgarian painters of the twentieth century better known to the English speaking world. Thanks to my various friends in the Sofia art galleries, I’m now able to reel off enough names on visits to new galleries to make people’s jaws drop – and I do have examples of well-known painters such as Zhekov, Vassilev and Mechkuevska . However, going by the paintings available on the websites of Victoria gallery and Domino Gallery, I know only about ten per cent of those who worked then.
I thought I was on to something when I encountered the latter since it is entitled Bulgarian Art Galleries – but discovered that only 2 galleries are subscribed (Shumen and Tyrgoviste) although the site does give about 100 of Mario Zhekov’s paintings as against Victoria’s 41. I remember the delight of the Smolyan Art Gallery in the Rhodope mountains – and yet, 2 years ago, they didn’t have enough money for proper maintenance of the paintings let alone for setting up a website or printing a proper catalogue or postcards. I offered to help set up a website or produce a gallery - but their budgetary system couldn't apparently cope with such a donation! Our visit to Varna's art gallery on Saturday was disappointing - with none of their 20th century work on display. Instead there was a special tribute to one of their local artists - Alexander Kaprichev - who suffered from depression and died all too early in 2008.
In Brussels recently, I found an interesting booklet (in French) on modern Bulgarian art - produced by the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture in 1947. And I did notice that Ruhmen had quite a formidable collection of art books in his langauge - including a superb one on the painters from who were born in Stara Zagora (including Mario Zhekov). Next visit I should spend some time with such books!
The painting above is by Denyo Chokanov (1901-1982)a couple of whose paintings I am very happy to have in my collection

a powerful autobiography

One of the Sofia Booktrader books I had casually picked up was Amos Oz's - A Tale of Love and Darkness - which turned out to be an autobiography and a really stunning one. All I knew about this Israeli writer was that he has played an important reconciliation role with Palestinians. The annals of a website Complete Review gave me these paras
Oz grew up in an incredibly bookish household, with two very bookish parents, and this reading-passion grabbed hold of him as well (and wouldn't let him go, no matter how hard he tried). The focus of the book is his childhood, leading up to the decisive moment in his life, when his mother committed suicide, Amos not yet even a teenager. That it happened is revealed early on, and mentioned repeatedly, but for most of the long book Oz only takes jabs at it: it's only at the very end that he can describe in any detail what happened.
The suicide led also to his break with his father, as Oz moved to a kibbutz (and changed his name; he was born Amos Klausner), while his father soon remarried. There's some description of Oz kibbutz years, but it is the earlier years that Oz sees as the formative ones.
Books were a central feature in the Klausner household, and Amos' early ambition was not to become a writer but rather a book: books, he saw, seemed to stand a much better chance of survival than people. Taking to reading early on, books always played a central role in Amos' life. Already as a six year-old, it was a great day for him when his father set aside some bookshelf space for his books:
"It was an initiation rite, a coming of age.: anyone whose books are standing upright is no longer a child, he is a man".
Amos' childhood is typical of the hyper-literate: an only child, with no real friends, stuck in a gloomy urban setting with few opportunities for playing outside the home, -- and parents who constantly lost themselves in books as well (and who "had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century") -- so:
What surrounded me did not count. All that counted was made of words.
There's lots of talking around him, but often little listening -- as well as many secrets. Amos' parents switch languages when there are things they don't want him to understand, and there is a good deal that passes in silence too. The significance of Amos' mother's suicide is truly made clear when he admits:
"From the day of my mother's death to the day of my father's death, twenty years later, we did not talk about her once. Not a word. As if she had never lived. As if her life was just a censured page torn from a Soviet encyclopedia".
This memoir rectifies that situation somewhat, a coming to terms by Oz with his parents. Loving but difficult, they gave him a great deal -- but also both let him down, his mother by her illness and suicide, his father by having the affair that he saw as contributing to his mother's problem, and by failing to be able to communicate and explain so much to his son, despite being such a word-person..
His father was a polyglot scholar, but one who never achieved true academic success, his career complicated and overshadowed by a famous and important uncle. Amos seemed clearly destined to follow on this bookish path, but his adolescent rebellion was an attempt to go in a different direction. As he learned immediately, it wasn't that easy:
"I had tried to turn my back once and for all on the world of scholarship and debate from which I had come, and I had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire"
It turned out that even the kibbutz was filled with those who read a great deal and constantly debated and even wrote. And true to his roots, Oz couldn't let be either, inevitably becoming if not a scholar at least a writer.
A Tale of Love and Darkness ambles along, wordy -- but necessarily so, gaining from its easy pace and bulk. Oz circles around topics, gets apparently sidetracked in detailed descriptions of small (and large) events, slowly opens up in a very introspective work that also tries to constantly relate to the world around him. From small memories -- the feel of a pebble in his mouth -- to his meetings with the famous (Agnon, Ben-Gurion), it's a mix of the everyday and the extraordinary. That constant shadow of all the dead relatives, and the lost world the generations before him had left behind, and the contrast to the new, often ugly world being shaped around him as he grew up is well presented

This book mourns the death of the socialist-Zionist dream of a just society and a strange new nationalism, predicated on research universities and string quartets, on comparative literature and experimental agriculture, that turned instead into an acid reflux of checkpoints, demolitions, transit camps, penal colonies and strategic hamlets.
And yet, determined to remember every minute leading up to his mother's suicide, he also sees through a child's eye the prelude to statehood in a Promised Land: the gabby idealisms, vatic visions and rich, combustible mix of poet-worker-revolutionaries, vegetarian world reformers, pioneer readers of Marx, Freud and Jabotinsky, nihilists, Yemenites, Frenchified Levantines and Kurds; the dusty cypresses, pale geraniums and pickled gherkins; the lace curtains, boiled fish, Lysol and paraffin; the youth movements, curfews and Stern Gang; the scorpions, witches and snails, Shakespeare and Chopin, the blunt razor blades, cheap sardines, smelly cigarettes, barbed wire and snipers; leopards in a garden on a Sabbath afternoon and mosques turning gold when the sun sets.

His language (and the translation by Nicholas de Lange) evokes the smells and characters so powerfully. This is a book to savour slowly - and to comeback to again and again. And, already, I have ordered some of his novels.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

2 weeks in Bulgaria

Arrived back in Bucharest Saturday night after a pleasant day visiting Varna whose vast gardens right next both to its centre and the sea offers great opportunities for walking, cycling and swimming to its residents.
The 10 days at Syvlie’s flat at Manaster, Svety Vlas in the southern part of the Black Sea was very enjoyable and relaxing – the flat was cool, very well-appointed with a superb vista of the sea and Nessbr. The complex had a garden and pool which benefitted from a light cooling breeze and the beach was only 3 minutes walk.
The area of Sunny Beach which Svety Vlas adjoins is a bit underwhelming – tackiness of the highest degree. It suffers now from over-development – we had three nights without electricity and vast unfinished blocks stride up the hillside. The Manaster complex was the first on site and is the jewel of the areae - very up-market and adjoining a marina with sleek, glossy and improbably shaped power boats awaiting their mutri mafia owners.
Our first port of call on Sunday 18 July had been Sofia – where we arrived in early afternoon, visited the city art gallery and then discovered that the National Art Gallery across the road had just opened an exhibition of Nikola Tanev’s paintings! So we arrived at Sylvie’s house in a very good mood – and were treated to a great meal. Monday was wandering around old haunts eg the great music shop off Hristov Botev, but discovering that three of the galleries were no more; and Neron closed for some repairs – but Vihra still there at Astry Gallery with a welcome drink and chat. In the evening we had the great pleasure of dinner with Mirela and Dobre at the Architect’s Club.
Tuesday was the day of serious painting visits and purchases – with a visit first to Victoria Gallery and then to one of my favourites at the square near the University library where I bought a Saby Ivanov and a painting which reminded me of Dobre Dobrov by one Veneta Atanossova (who painted pre-war). And at my other favourite gallery - Neron - I bought at last a Stoian Vassilev (along with a charming small one of VK by one Maria Francova). The owner – Ruhmen Manov – presented us with a book he had put together of Kyundstil in the period 1878-1940. This is one of the towns (just west of Sofia near the borders with Serbia and Macedonia) I had momentarily contemplated buying a house a couple of years ago - and Ruhmen's well selected and annotated collection of old postcards gives an excellent sense of its travails and development.
Finally a visit to another gallery friend - Yassen Gallev of Konus Gallery in Khan Asparuh St - to whom I showed my purchases. He focuses on more modern work - but did once give me a helpful list of artists of my favoured period and showed me paintings by one of the great seascape artists, Boris Stefchev one of whose paintings is shown above.