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!
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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Looking Back

I will be on the road for the rest of the month and have only intermittent access to the internet. So please use this break as an opportunity to look at some of the 600 posts on the blog. Most relate to perennial issues rather than to the transient subjects which newspapers and many blogs waste their (and our) time with. For example, quite a few of the posts in May last year were concerned with issues of public administration praxis. One post excerpted from a very useful, critical assessment of international university league tables; another mused about a European network of schools of public administration; and perhaps the most interesting asked some critical questions about what public admin scholars were actually up to these days.

As someone who had high hopes in my youth for social science, this issue of the role and contribution of social science work remains a fascinating subject for me. Queen Elisabeth of Britain is not the only one to have wondered why the economists had not seen the global financial crisis coming. There has been a running debate about the value of academic work in at least some places. And American politicians have recently focused their weapons on political science.
Political arguments for “relevance” in education are always dangerous. The results are to be seen in the horrific growth in mindless courses in business studies which teach only obedience to the received wisdom. Education should endow powers of critical assessment. And professors should (and often do) practice this themselves – but not at the costs (as so often happens) of inculcating a suspicion of if not outright cynicism of the world of action. Oh that the spirit of C Wright Mills were alive still in the hallowed halls of academia!
Here are three examples I’ve come across recently of good academic practice – one which shows the important contribution of one of the guys behind the Limits to Growth publications; another which subjects “knowledge management” to critical analysis (following my own remarks on the subject in February);
and a recent spate of books on “debt”. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Don't believe a word you read!

An important article in Transitions Online about the politicisation of the Romanian media by Marius Dragomir
 - A week after the old government collapsed, the new one put the squeeze on the public service broadcaster, TVR. The station’s governors voted 3 May to sack the director of editorial production and programming, Dan Radu. The move was made at the request of Claudiu Branzan, a member of the governing council nominated by the Social Democrats, who said Radu should go because programming changes he advocated were bringing down TVR’s ratings.TVR journalists told me Branzan’s move was in retaliation for the refusal of General Director Alexandru Lazescu to hire the Social Democrats’ candidate as head of information and sports programming.The attack is nothing new in the post-1990 history of the public service broadcaster. Run by a politically appointed council, TVR has seen managers come and go during changes in power, and over the years its independence and fairness have been seriously questioned. The main problem for TVR is not the performance of a certain employee. The public broadcaster and the media in general are neck-deep in a serious politicization crisis. For years, independent voices pushed for new laws to bar each new crop of politicians from sticking their fingers into TVR management. But parliament dropped the matter in 2005 without any action. Newly elected Prime Minister Victor Ponta pledged that his government wouldn’t sack TVR’s staff on political grounds. But that is exactly what is happening. Many signs of things to come are in the air. Days after taking over, the new government picked Andrei Zaharescu as its spokesman. Zaharescu is a news anchor at Antena 1, one of the biggest private stations in Romania and part of a media group controlled indirectly by Dan Voiculescu, a politician-businessman who supports the new government.
At the local level, smaller broadcasters are underfunded and remain under the thumb of city halls and politicians.With three elections – local, national, and presidential – coming up in early June, the use of media as a proxy for political fights is likely to take unexpected turns.
It's not only the media which is under political pressure and guidance. Two days after the Education Minister resigned, the National Committee of Ethics in Research was fired for 'incompetence' reasons by the acting E&R Minister Liviu Pop (a mathematics high-school teacher). The new Ethics Committee has been accused of being composed mainly of personnel closely related to the prominent SDP member and former Minister Prof. Ecaterina Andronescu.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Long Descent

I’ve been quiet because I’ve been reading two books which, in different ways, expose the fragility of the world around us; and the theories and images so many people use to sustain their belief that, ultimately, the world is a benign place which can be controlled to ensure the continuation of the way of life portrayed in advertisements.
The first was The Long Descent – a user’s guide to the end of the industrial world which appeared in 2008. The book positions itself in the tradition of the 1972 Club of Rome's "Limits to Growth" and argues that the window of opportunity we had then to take action is closed; that. as fossil fuel production dwindles, the Industrial Age will gradually unravel, leaving humanity where it was about 200 years ago. The "gradual" part is one of the author’s distinctive arguments. As supplies contract, he argues, we'll scale back. Prices then go down, and we begin to use more...resources run low and prices spike...so we scale back again, over and over until we are finally, hundreds of years from now, de-Industrialized. We will then rebuild society in a sustainable fashion. As he rightly observes
Most people in the developed world have never had to feed, clothe, house, or protect themselves with their own hands, and have only the vaguest notions about how to do so. They rely for every necessity of life on the industrial economy. Even the most basic requirements of life are tied to the industrial system; how many people nowadays can light a fire without matches or a butane lighter from some distant factory? The skills necessary to get by in a non-industrial society, skills that were still common knowledge a century ago, have been all but lost throughout the developed world.This disastrous situation results from the modern obsession with progress. When a new technology is introduced, the older technology it replaces ends up in the trash heap. Since new technologies almost always demand more resources, use more energy, and include more complexity than their older equivalents, each step on the path of progress has made people more dependent on the industrial system and more vulnerable to its collapse
You can see him presenting his ideas here (don't be put off by his appearance - his arguments are more sound than any in the mainstream) and read his weekly essays on his blog. One of his posts has an interesting reading list. The book complements Orlov's which I wrote about last September here and here.
I remember, forty years ago, being impressed with EJ Mishan's powerful attack on the worship of "growth" which seemed to have become Europe's new religion - The Costs of Economic growth (1967). The books's emphasis was on the social costs of wealth. Then came the environmental critique - the damage we were doing to ecological balance - with a lot of talk about (but little support for) "renewables". Latterly have come the peak-oil arguments which, at last, are recognised and clearly speak more loudly than the first two sets of arguments. The new wave of books such as Greer and Orlov basically argue that it is now too late for political action (as well as being unrealistic to expect it); that "renewables" have been over-hyped; and that we need to prepare individually and at a local level for a new type of living.

The second book was McMafia – crime without frontiers which destroys the illusion that anyone may have had that the mob, triad and Mafia-type operations are a thing of the past. It demonstrates that they are stronger than ever and traces the modern spread of transnational crime to the combination of the break-up of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc in the late Eighties and early Nineties and the simultaneous deregulation of global markets. The link I have given above is a 20 minute presentation Misha Glenny (an expert on the Balkans) gave in 2009 about the book. There are longer presentations here and here 
The Soviet bloc incubated such favourable conditions for the development of criminal motivation and expertise. In Bulgaria, for example, the secret service played a key role in arms and drugs smuggling during the communist period. According to Glenny, 80 per cent of western Europe's heroin went through the sticky hands of the Bulgarian DS (equivalent of the KGB). At the same time, the communist system created a management class steeped in corrupt practices. When communism fell, there were suddenly thousands of unemployed cops and spooks in Bulgaria with first-hand experience of international crime. And there were also a great many wrestlers and weightlifters, pumped-up on state-issued steroids, who would make for ideal muscle in the protection rackets that quickly sprung up. Drugs, prostitution, car theft, money laundering and extortion followed on an industrial scale.
The book starts with 2 assassinations – one in a London suburb in 1994 of an innocent woman, the other in central Sofia in 2003 of a gang boss, Ilya Pavlov, one of many characters profiled in the book, revealing the intertwining of crime, government and security in a growing number of countries. Another review explains
- a former wrestler who married the daughter of a high-ranking secret police officer, Pavlov began his career as a small-time thug. In the 1990s, the combination of a collapsing state, unregulated markets, and lawlessness created enormous opportunities, which he exploited with entrepreneurial zest and murderous violence. Misha Glenny explains that in less than a decade, Pavlov had created a conglomerate that spanned many sectors (extortion, prostitution, smuggling, drug trafficking, car theft, and money laundering) and many countries, including the United States, where his subsidiary Multigroup U.S. owned two casinos in Paraguay, then the Latin American epicentre of the illicit trades (since displaced by Venezuela). By describing the thousands of mourners who attended Pavlov's funeral in 2003, Glenny conveys how deeply entangled his criminal enterprise was with Bulgaria's power elite. Everyone who mattered in business, politics, government, trade unions, sports, religion, the media, or the military seemed to be there.
Neal Ascherson’s review brings out well one of Glenny’s underlying points - “Mobs, mafias and global rackets are often performing useful and occasionally vital social functions that no other institution – governments, legal systems, the police, the economy itself – is capable of providing”.
The state had almost given up law enforcement, and organised crime stepped into the gap. In Russia, criminal outfits like the mighty Solntsevo Brotherhood, led by the ex-wrestler Mikhailov, not only provided bodyguards but also took on the enforcement of commercial contracts.In the courtyard of Steam Baths Number Four, on Astashkina Street in Odessa, there are two marble plaques with bunches of flowers laid on the ground beneath them. The first is engraved with the image of a man in his mid-forties, sporting cropped hair and looking sleek in a suit over a T-shirt; the second has on it a poem written by his closest friends after he, Viktor Kulivar ‘Karabas’, was felled on this spot by 19 bullets from an unknown assassin’s semi-automatic: ‘The sacred clay holds the remains/Of Viktor Pavlovich, our dear Karabas’.Karabas was gunned down in 1997. He and his mob had taken over the port city of Odessa as law and order disintegrated in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. One might call his reign a comprehensive protection racket. But, looked at in another way, Karabas became the only reliable source of authority and social discipline. He arbitrated the city’s commercial disputes (10 per cent of net profits was his price); he kept the drug peddlers to one area of Odessa, and prevented the horrific people-smuggling in the harbour district from infecting the rest of the town. Using a bare minimum of thuggery, he kept the peace. Karabas seldom carried a gun. Everyone looked up to him, and levels of violence stayed lower in Odessa than in other Russian and Ukrainian cities. His murderers were probably Chechens hired to break Odessa’s grip on the local oil industry, a grip coveted by Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, who ‘during his ten years in power . . . presided over the total criminalisation of the Ukrainian government and civil service’.
Glenny is particularly strong on the bizarre economic liberalisation that took place under Boris Yeltsin and which produced the bloody reign of the oligarchs in the early Nineties. All price restrictions were removed by government, except those of Russia's natural resources: oil, gas, diamonds and metals. Overnight, a vast number of Russians were impoverished, while a tiny minority was able to buy up vital commodities at up to 40 times less than their global market price. 'This process of enrichment,' Glenny writes, 'was quite simply the grandest larceny in history and stands no historical comparison.' In turn the oligarchs required protection, and jailbirds and former KGB agents alike moved into the lucrative if deadly business of the 'kryshy' protection rackets, or 'armed entrepreneurs'.
Nowadays, Glenny quotes a US official as saying, a Russian businessman is as likely to be a member of the intelligence services as a criminal cartel, and quite possibly to be part of both.
The effects of the Russian organised crime boom have been experienced as far afield as Tel Aviv and New York, and all parts of Europe (although Nigeria, Japan, Colombia and China and others all have their distinctive mobs). In this reading, the East is little more than an opportunistic supplier to the West's insatiable demand. 'Organised crime is such a rewarding industry,' writes Glenny scathingly, ' ... because ordinary Western Europeans spend an ever burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; sticking €50 notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labour on subsistence wages; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; or purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world.'

The painting is by Zlatyu Boiadjiev (1903-1976) - often known as the Bulgarian Breughel

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In Praise of Fault Lines

I used to boast that the border of Transylvania ran through my back garden since Arges county to the south belongs to Wallachia and Brasov County to Transylvania - two of the original countries before the creation of Romania, with Wallachia being a (fairly autonomous) part of the Ottoman Empire and Transylvania part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
Thanks to the Brasov City website, I now realise that I sit on an even more important dividing line – that of Samuel Huntington’s (in)famous fault line between western and the eastern civilization.
I don’t visit Brasov as often as I should, given that it is only 40 spectacular kilometres’ drive from the mountain house. I am too caught up in the delights of the house - its library, music and scenery; and in reading and blogging. But, to my shame, perform all too little of the hard practical work carried out by my old neighbours – although I have just helped Viciu secure some of the fence with a heavy mallet.  He tells me another Amazon packet has arrived – so this post must be finished before I am seduced by its latest offerings! 
Normal post always gets here; it’s the DHL delivery (which Amazon occasionally chooses for no apparent reason) which I fear since they don’t have the flexibility to deal with my absence. The good old post system is part of the community network and knows to deliver all packages to my old neighbours down the hill. DHL aren’t and don’t – and the package is returned in my absence par avion to whence it came. This local knowledge is what James Scott called “metis” in his famous book Seeing Like a State. It is a counterweight to the type of technical or theoretical knowledge held by bureaucrats and scientists. Most such practical knowledge held by those in the field cannot be reduced to simple formulae and rules - and much of it remains implicit. 

The heart of Brasov is a medieval Saxon town – slowly (oh so slowly) being restored.  In the 14th century Brasov became one of the most economical and political strongholds in the Southeast of Europe and, in the 16th century, also a cultural centre. Johannes Honterus, a great German humanist, worked most of the time in Brasov; and Deaconu Coresi printed the first Romanian book in Brasov
When I first visited the town in 1991 (in an ambulance since I was a WHO representative then), I heard German spoken in the street; and could buy 2 German language newspapers. My lodgings overlooked the huge and famous Black Church (with its ancient hanging kilims) – so called because of the soot which coated it after the fire of April 1689 which destroyed most houses and killed 3,000 inhabitants.
Most of the German-speakers left Transylvania in the early 1990s – as a result of increased German government financial blandishments (which had existed even in Ceaucescu’s time). Spacious, sturdy and superbly maintained houses fell subsequently into disrepair – not least because they were quickly occupied by gypsies.
Compared with Bulgaria, Romanian citizens and leaders do not seem to respect the past and tradition. They have bought the American dream – and it is the purchase and consumption of material products. Old houses are left to rot – or their old features and charm destroyed in modernisation. 
I was, therefore, glad to see in the Carteresti bookshop in the heart of old Brasov (itself in a sensitively restored old house) a great book on the restoration of old Romanian houses. The link shows many of the pictures in the book. 
For some reason, being on the edge of cultures appeals to me. I was, a few years back, vaguely interested in buying somewhere at the corner of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. And here I am on this significant faultline. Perhaps it's all due to my Greenock upbringing - still then a significant shipbuilding town. I lived in the church manse in the town's munificent Victorian West End - but had most of my being, both as a schoolboy and politician, in the town's east end (except for my cricket and rugby!). I didn't belong to either west or east - but I understood both. And I seem to have developed a niche in encouraging and helping different cultures (whether of class, professional group, party or country) to come together and talk! 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The New Oligarchy

Woke up at 01.30 to check the French Presidential results (and the supermoon) – and delighted with what I saw - on both counts. Only the second soi-disant socialist President in the 60 years of the 5th French Republic
Although the commentaries all mention the political and financial constraints in which Hollande will be operating, I see no mention of how quickly Francois Mitterand had in 1981 to reverse his radical strategy in response to speculative pressures. Nor of the role which Jacques Delors played as his Finance Minister in those days in capitulating to such pressures.  
Significant that I can’t even find a google reference to these traumatic events. 
Proof again of the pitiful lack of even recent history our political and financial commentators have. 
I alighted a few days ago on a wonderful term about this - neophilia 

Drove at midday to Brasov in order to book myself a plane to Glasgow ( I refuse to put my credit card details online) and found a great one-way deal for only 190 euros which gives me the flexibility on return date which I had wanted. Had a notion to buy a lightweight netbook to take with me – but a bit put off by the small keyboard still costing 300 euros - and decided to deny myself ( and my readers!!) the pleasure of instantaneous web access for the last 2weeks of the month. 
Found a powerful article on the  currentinequities by an arch-conservative – Frederic Mount (who was, for a time, Head of Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit. By virtue of its source, the argument (and book  - "The New Few" -  of which it is effectively a summary) should have a larger impact on the apolitical citizen than similar points made by a leftist - 
Wealth is not trickling down to anywhere near the bottom. The rowing boats are stuck on the mud. Many of the worst off are sinking into a demoralised and detached underclass, just as the top earners are congealing into a super-class who hardly belong to the society which they flit through. What is so dispiriting is that the gap appears to be widening all the time, regardless of whether we are going through a boom or a slump, and certainly regardless of which party is in power. As a result, we begin to sense that we are living in a dislocated society. It's much the same story with the other disquieting trend that we cannot help noticing: the trend towards centralisation.
Power in Britain used to be spread around in a rather casual fashion that had grown up over the years. We rather looked down on continental countries such as France, which had inherited a highly centralised state from Napoleon and Louis XIV. General de Gaulle once said that centralisation was the one thing that France would never be able to get rid of. But now the roles are reversed. While many other European nations, not least the French, have been busily decentralising their arrangements, power in Britain has drained away from private individuals and local communities up to central boards and bureaucracies and government agencies and ministries. Central control is our orthodoxy, in private and public sector alike. And for the men and women at the centre, the salaries and bonuses go zooming up, for hospital administrators and university vice-chancellors and the director-general of the BBC and the head of the Post Office just as fast as they have for bank chiefs, retail tycoons and the bosses of privatised utilities. 
Again, we lament the change without having much clue about its causes. Why in one area of life after another has centralisation become the default solution, the irresistible option? What or who is driving this apparently inexorable trend? How come local government was so effortlessly stripped of its old powers? Why have political parties become hollowed-out shells, relegated to impotence and contemptuous manipulation by their leaders? Is it possible that centralisation and inequality are related, that the one trend enables the other, and that both are facets and consequences of oligarchy? Is it possible that, as well as sheltering the oligarchs of other nations, we have been hatching our own? It is oligarchy – the rule of the few – that appears to be the common denominator of the system. So perhaps we need to ask what are the factors that make oligarchy possible. Certainly you can blame Margaret Thatcher for the careless liberation of financial services in the big bang of 1986, but then you must also blame Bill Clinton for making exactly the same mistake in 1999. The roots of our shared illusions lie deeper and further back in modern history. After all, George Orwell said in 1946 that "for quite 50 years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy." He detected then "the ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power and the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder". In their classic, The Modern Corporation and Private Property , published in the depths of the Great Depression, Berle and Means pointed out that the powers of shareholders to control runaway executives had already become an illusion. The concentration of power had brought forth "princes of industry", or as Tom Wolfe called them half a century later, "masters of the universe". The princes dazzled us. We lost our bearings.
Worse still, we lost the will to defend our institutions. Two centuries ago, Adam Smith warned us about the dangers of merchants conspiring together and of ownerless corporations. The trouble is not that our policy-makers had read too much Adam Smith, but too little. So they let corporate governance go slack, and believed everything the bankers told them. For our part, we watched the big political parties wither away with indifference if not pleasure – who needed those gangs of outdated obsessives? We let local government, so unglamorous, so drearily provincial, fall under the total control of Whitehall. We watched Parliament decay into near-irrelevance – or rather we didn't watch, for BBC Parliament was reserved for the anoraks and the bedridden. And now at last, at a cripplingly slow pace, we might be waking up to what we have allowed to happen.
 I remember making myself very unpopular in the mid 1980s at a political rally in Liverpool warning the protestors against the Thatcher attack on local government that we would never get popular support as long as we, on our part, continued to allow the salaries of senior local government officials to escalate. 
Now – almost 30 years on – some municipal Chief Executives get paid more than the Prime Minister!

And, for those waiting breathlessly. here is the latest version of my booklet on Bulgarian Realist painting

Sunday, May 6, 2012


I  learned only this morning that the moon was special last night - but I had spotted its brightness from my verandah and snapped this at 21.00.

My upbringing in a Scottish manse imbued me with a strong Protestant ethic. I have, as a result, always driven myself hard. “The devil finds work for idle hands” did not need to be uttered at home simply because it was an unspoken adage. Rather than loafing around as a teenager, I was busy organising and getting up at 05.30 to do my rowing training on the choppy Clyde waterfront. And I was soon trying to hold down 2 jobs – academic and political. However ironic Weber’s thesis about Protestantism being the cause of capitalism might seem, it always had a certain plausibility for me.  
The German sociologist Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1914. The Protestant Ethics is variously defined as - 
a feeling of obligation in one's calling (a sense of vocation), hard work, self-discipline, frugality (thrift), sobriety, efficiency in one's calling (stewardship), rational and systematic behaviour, high ethics, earthly rewards as signs of grace and salvation.
Not surprising, therefore, that I had (in my younger days at any rate) a rather furtive attitude to novels – could I really justify such an indulgence when so much needed to be sorted out in the world?

The article is in a rather annoying format so I have excerpted its key argument here - 
Is fiction good for us? We spend huge chunks of our lives immersed in novels, films, TV shows, and other forms of fiction. Some see this as a positive thing, arguing that made-up stories cultivate our mental and moral development. But others have argued that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive. It’s an ancient question: Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?
This controversy has been flaring upsometimes literally, in the form of book burningsever since Plato tried to ban fiction from his ideal republic. In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minow famously said that television was not working in “the public interest” because its “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons” amounted to a “vast wasteland.” And what he said of TV programming has also been said, over the centuries, of novels, theater, comic books, and films: They are not in the public interest.
Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.This research consistently shows that fiction does muold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and sceptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for societyand it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Back in the Carpathians

Monday and Tuesday were the last days in Sofia until September. The last cycle rides – in quiet streets since May Day is taken seriously in this part of the world and many people had decamped in the warm weather.  
Loaded the car Tuesday – except for about 12 paintings which were loaded early Wednesday. 
Two new paintings which Yassen had produced for me were left in his tender care – one of which is this great Dobri Dobrev.
Then a leisurely 3 hour drive to Veliko Tarnovo to visit the Boris Denev Art Gallery there – in a superb location. 

The walk across a footbridge over the River Yantra offers the perspective of the ancient town given by the painting I posted last Tuesday

The Gallery was originally built in the 1970s as an Art School but actually opened as a police station! Very symbolic! 
It was eventually opened as an Art Gallery in the mid 1980s. 
The Director showed me round a great collection – 2 Tanevs on display and a room and a corridor devoted entirely to Boris Denev’s work – the room with about 7 large oil paintings of the town and the corridor with aquarelles mainly of Italian scenes. 
For this post, I have selected this moving portrayal of his mother.

Then another leisurely 3 hour drive to Bucharest where, once again, the car conked out while sitting outside the Vodaphone shop in the heat. But started and drove fine after a wait of 20 minutes or so. 
I’m writing this a few days later – after a visit to the great Bosch garage at Zarnesti in the Carpathian mountains whose boss (Sorin) tried to diagnose the problem on Friday afternoon after my drive to my mountain house Thursday. 
Some further work is needed on the old car on Wednesday – and has made me question the notion of my 7,000 kilometre round-trip to Scotland next week for my daughter’s wedding. I've done the drive several times and know the road well and driving this time seemed a good idea since I could take the 30 litres of Bulgarian wine I have to the wedding plus the Slovak, Austrian and German I could buy on the trip - and bring back books from the second-hand bookshops I intend to visit in the UK. But it is about three times more expensive than the plane (with about 6 overnights plus 450 euros for the Zeebrugge- Hull ferry) AND the stress on the old body and car!!   

This morning I had the bath taps and boiler replaced and water therefore restored in the house. For the last couple of days I have borrowed water from a neighbour in large plastic bottles. There are actually ecological advantages in operating this way. You waste less water!
For those interested in the vagaries and delights of the English language, have a look at this highly entertaining website and weekly post 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Bread and Circus

Glad to see a voice of common sense among all the media hype about the London Olympics - in an article the stupendous insanity boiling around the London Olympics  which focuses on the incredible money being spent on things such as the security systems to ensure there are no protests let alone terrorism. Harold McMillan - a British Prime Minister in the 1960s - was once asked to suggest the collective name for a group of Prime Ministers and famously replied "a lack of Principles"! I think of this phrase whenever I think of the Organising Committee of Olympic games - the most aloof, out-of-touch and corrupt group of people one can imagine who inflict on hapless cities a modern-day equivalent of potlatch (burning of one's possessions as a sign of wealth and conspicuous consumption) . We should remember that the Athens Olympics were probably the straw that broke the camel's back in that country.
The Olympic spectacle has always crystallised two things: first, the unrivalled power of governments to lay on such gigantic and ludicrously wasteful spectacles; and second, whatever madness is swirling around the host country. Running, jumping and swimming, by comparison, will always be an added extra.In Moscow (1980), the Olympics displayed the vanities of what might be called late communism, just as the invasion of Afghanistan revealed fatal Soviet hubris. In Los Angeles (1984), the games embodied the decisive arrival of the consumer capitalism that has since eaten the planet (my favourite bits of the opening and closing ceremonies were Lionel Richie, and the 84 grand pianos). Beijing (2008) attested to the niceness of the Chinese state by forcibly moving 1.5 million people to clear the way for Olympic buildings and installations, and allowing no opening for any noises-off about such minor matters as Tibet. And Berlin in 1936 barely needs mentioning, though it's worth bearing in mind the subsequent comments of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee: "People are worried … by the fact that the 1936 games were illuminated by Hitlerite strength and discipline. How could it have been otherwise? On the contrary, it is eminently desirable for the games to be thus clothed, with the same success, in the garment woven for them over four years by each people."
The London games will be an expression of three of the most rotten aspects of our version of modernity: surveillance and the arms trade; out-of-control consumerism; and most spectacularly, the fact that the elites who make their money out of these things have been barely touched by the crisis that is ruining lives across the planet. The fact has been barely commented on, but needs repeating: no matter that this week sees thousands of disabled people having their income cut by £100 a week, or that endless areas of public provision are being hacked down at speed: the cost to the public of an orgy of corporate hospitality, is currently put at £11bn. £11bn! Meanwhile, the distance between 99.9% of people and the Olympic elite has been beautifully demonstrated by perhaps the event's most unpleasant bit of symbolism: those "Games lanes", along which dignitaries and sponsors will be sped to east London, while the rest of us sweat our way through likely gridlock.