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, January 9, 2012

Taking Stock

A new year is a  good time for taking stock of one’s life and work  – so I’ve been looking at the 2011 posts on this blog which has become a new focus of work in the last 3 years (since I’ve eased off on my foreign assignments). How do they compare with my original intentions ? And are these, in fact, still useful – for me and/or my readers ? Underneath Labels and Quotes on the right hand side you will find what I originally wrote About the blog -
My generation believed that political activity could improve things - but that belief is now dead and cynicism threatens civilisation. This blog will try to make sense of the organisational endeavours I've been involved in; to see if there are any lessons which can be passed on; to restore a bit of institutional memory and social history (let alone hope).
I also read a lot and wanted to pass on the results of this to those who have neither the time nor inclination -as well as my love of painting, particularly the realist 20th century schools of Bulgaria and Belgium.
A final motive for the blog is more complicated - and has to do with life and family. What have we done with our life? What is important to us? Not just professional knowledge – but cultural and everyday passions.
On this last, I remember the disappointment when I went through my father’s papers after his death. He was a very well-read and travelled man who composed his weekly sermons with care; gave his time unstintingly to people with problems – and gave illustrated lectures throughout the country on his travels in the 1970s to off-beat places in countries such as Spain, Austria and Greece. Surely he would have left some diaries or comments behind to give a sense of his inner thoughts? But there was little beyond his jottings about some books (for some lectures he gave) and a diary about a camping holiday in the 1930s with his father. The same silence when I looked at the papers of a charismatic political colleague who was struck down in his prime.
I couldn’t hold a candle to these two men – but we are all distinctive in our way. I have been very lucky in the positions I have occupied, the places I’ve been, the people met, the range and number of books read – and, not least, gifted with a reasonable facility with and love for words and language. The least I could do was try to mix together these ingredients of experiences and insights and create a new stew which might be attractive even to those not normally inclined to eat stew?
So has the blog - with its 500 posts - so far realised its threefold intention – lessons from 40 years’ of public management interventions; sharing of the insights of others; life’s meaning and passions? Let me look at each.

Lessons from my own institutional endeavours
The early part of the blog covered the Scottish policy initiatives with which I was associated between 1970-90 such as social dialogue, open-policy-making and social inclusion – which were excerpted from a long paper available on my website.
More recently, the blog has focussed on my concerns about the technical assistance and institutional building work I have been involved with in transition countries in the past 20 years – which are captured in the paper I gave at last year’s Varna Conference of NISPAcee.
In the autumn, I had a string of 15 or so posts trying to make sense of the training work which has been the focus of recent assignment.
However my more ambitious venture to bring all of this together in one paper is not yet realised. A very early draft can be seen on my website
Sharing the insights of others
In the din of communications, many sane voices are drowned out. And there are also a range of linguistic, professional, academic, commercial and technical filters which get in the way of even the most conscientious efforts to seek truth(s). We have slowly realised how the google search engine has an element of “mirror image” in its search – giving us more of what it thinks we want rather than what is actually available. And the specialisation of university and professional education also cuts us off from valuable sources. I’ve been lucky – in having had both the (academic) position and (political) incentive for more than 15 years to read across intellectual disciplines in the pursuit of tools to help the various ventures in which I’ve been engaged. I belong to a generation and time which valued sharing of knowledge – rather than secreting or mystifying it which has become the trend in recent decades. And I am lucky again in now having gained acess to the technical facility which allows sharing (with a copy and paste) the website references of useful papers.
Most of the blogposts contain several such links – in a single year probably 1,000 links. That’s not bad!
Indeed I have realised that this feature of my writing makes it more convenient to have my papers in electronic rather than paper form.

Life’s passions
Clearly the blog has shared several of my passions – eg painting, places, reading and wine – and has given a good sense of the enjoyment from simple activities such as wandering.
Originally the Carpathian reference in the title was to location only – it did not promise any particular insights into this part of the world. But, in the past year, my musings have broadened to give some insights into life in this part of the world…

So far, so good. But perhaps the blog objectives are no longer relevant? Or a blog no longer the appropriate format? The first two blog objectives are rather altruistic – a reasonable question might be what I get out of the effort involved in drafting a significant post. The answer is – more than might think! Writing is (or should be) a great discipline. The recent Nobel prize-winner, Herta Mueller, expressed this very well in an encounter she had a year or so ago in Bucharest It is only when I start a sentence that I find out what it has to say. I realise as I go along. So I have to somehow make words help me and I have to keep searching until I think I have found something acceptable. Writing has its own logic and it imposes the logic of language on you. There is no more "day" and "night", "outside" and "inside". There is subject, verb, metaphor, a certain way of constructing a phrase so as to give it rhythm – these are the laws that are imposed on you. On the one hand, language is something which tortures me, doesn't give me peace, forces me to rack my brains until I can't do it any longer; and on the other hand, when I do this, it actually helps me. It is an inexplicable vicious circle.
A daily blog makes you focus more. I’ve made the point several times that the absence of newspapers cluttering the house and (for the most part) of television over the past 20 years has been a great boon for me. It has created the quiet and space for reflection. And the requirement to put a thought or two in writing on the blog makes me think more clearly.
A second benefit is archival – I can retrieve thoughts and references so easily. I just have to punch a key word into the search engine on the blog and I retrieve everything.
But there’s the rub! That you have to use the search engine – and be confident that you know the correct word to punch. I haven’t been using the “label” feature properly in my blogs. I’ve gone over some of them and then created a cloud label, as you will have noticed, which I find has interesting results.

I have perhaps reached the point of needing to put the more worthwhile blogs in a book format? I suspect that most readers are like me – and are more drawn to text which is personal rather than abstract.
But published autobiographies are, by definition, by famous people – and highly suspect for that very reason. Eric Hobsbawn’s was deeply disappointing. The various books published by Arthur Koestler were vastly more satisfying.
Biographies, although more objective, are also about famous people; focus on their achievements; and rarely, for me, give insights into the doubts, confusions and uncertainties ordinary people have.
I know, on the other hand, of only three highly personal life accounts from un-famous people – and they all made a big impact on me. First a fairly short series of snapshots of a political activist’s life . Then a deeply moving book written by a Scottish writer and poet in the weeks before he carried out his planned suicide. Finally a much longer (875 pages !) and more rigorous set of musings from an ex-academic 

And few books do proper justice to the aesthetics of publishing - whether font, format, spacing, diagrams, pictures and poems. There, then, is a possible project for the future?

One of the appropriate pieces BBC's Through the Night programmes offered me as I was writing this was Shostakovitch's chamber symphony 110

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