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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Why is public management so boring?

In the last three years I have apparently written almost 700 posts. The right-hand column indicates the most popular posts – alternately of past 7 or 30 days (less often of all time).
I wish I understood what this tells me about the interests and (internet) behaviour of my readers. And I get frustrated that what I consider good posts are rarely rated in these statistics. Democratic Discontents and A Citizen’s Bible are two good (and linked) examples. In the first (long) post two years ago I argued that, despite the number of publications on different aspects of British politics (many academic), there were extraordinarily few studies which actually dealt with the question of how well (or badly) the country is actually governed. I identified four such critical works - most written some years ago.
The second post (a year ago) was on similar lines but focused this time on the literature of public administration (or management) as its now called. There, of course, is revealed part of the problem - the compartmentalisation of knowledge and the amount of academic scribbling around narrow issues written not for the general public but to embellish academic reputations and careers.
For a proper understanding of how (well or badly) a government system is working you need to look at politicians AND officials and their interaction. Of course, you need to do more - you need to look at the interactions with the wider world - not least commercial and financial.
For those of you who haven't read my second post on the need for a rethink of the public management discipline, here it is again in full -
As both mainstream economics and psychology are undergoing major challenge and rethinks, it is time that the scholastic discipline of public management had this sort of overhaul and public examination.
The only popular book on the subject I can think of was Reinventing Government (1991) by David Osbourne and Ted Gaebler – which was, however, American and did not attempt an overview of the topic but rather proselytised for neo-liberalism.
Economics and psychology, of course, are subjects dear to the heart of everyone – and economists and psychologists figures of both power and ridicule. Poor old public administration and its experts are hardly in the same league! Not only does noone listen to them – the scholars are embarrassed to be caught even writing for a bureaucratic or political audience.
And yet the last two decades have seen ministries and governments everywhere embark on major upheavals of administrative and policy systems – the very stuff of public administration. But the role of the scholars has (unlike the 2 other disciplines) been simply to observe, calibrate and comment. No theory has been developed by scholars equivalent to the power of the "market”, "competitive equilibrium” or "the unconscious” – unless, that is, you count Weber’s "rational-legal bureaucracy” (1890s) or Robert Michels "iron law of oligarchy” (1911). Somehow Lindblom's "disjointed incrementalism" of the 1960s never caught on as a public phrase!
Those behind the marketising prescriptions of New Public Management (NPM) were not from the public admin stable – but rather from Public Choice Economics and from the OECD – and the role of PA scholars has been map its rise and apparent fall and (occasionally) to deflate its pretensions. At its best, this type of commentary and analysis is very useful – few have surpassed Chris Hood’s masterly dissection of NPM 20 years ago. This set out for the first time the basic features of (and arguments for) the disparate elements which had characterised the apparently ad-hoc series of measures seen in the previous 15 years in the UK, New Zealand and Australia – and then suggests that the underlying values of NPM (what he calls the sigma value of efficiency) are simply one of three clusters of administrative values – the other two being concerned with rectitude (theta value) and resilience (lamda value). Table 2 of the paper sets this out in more detail.
The trick (as with life) is to get the appropriate balance between these three. Any attempt to favour one at the expense of the others (NPM) will lead inevitably to reaction and is therefore unstable.
This emphasis on the importance of balance was the focus of a very good (but neglected) paper which Henry Mintzberg published in 2000 (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) about the Management of Government which starts with the assertion that it was not capitalism which won in 1989 but "the balanced model” ie a system in which there was some sort of balance between the power of commerce, the state and the citizen. Patently the balance has swung too far in the intervening 20 years!
Incidentally I see from Mintzbergs (rather disappointing) website that he is working on a book on this theme with the title Rebalancing Society; radical renewal beyond Smith and Marx. Mintzberg is a very sane voice in a mad world – ás is obvious from this article on managing quietly and his ten musings on management.
Hood elaborates on these three sets of values in the book he published at the same time with Michael Jackson - Administrative Argument (sadly out of print) - when he set out 99 (conflicting) proverbs used in organisational change.
In 2007, Russell Ackoff, the US strategic management guru, published a more folksy variant of this proverbs approach – The F Laws of management short version of which can be read here. We desperately need this sort of approach applied to the "reformitis” which has afflicted bureaucrats and politicians in the past 20 years.
One of the few claims I feel able to make with confidence about myself is that I am well-read (see the (admittedly out-of-date annotated bibliography for change agents on my website). But I know of no book written for the concerned citizen which gives a realistic sense BOTH of the forces which constrain political action AND of the possibilities of creating a more decent society.
A book is needed which –
• Is written for the general public
* is not associated with discredited political parties (which, by definition, sell their souls)
• Sets out the thinking which has dominated government practices of the past 20 years; where it has come from; and what results it has had (already well done in academia see the Pal paper on the role of the OECD in marketing the privatisation of government)
• Gives case studies – not of the academic sort but more fire in the belly stuff which comes, for example, from the pen of Kenneth Roy in the great crusading Emag he edits and eg the tale which should be shouted from the rooftops of the collusion of so many public figures with the activities of the cowboys who run privatised companies which are trying to muscle in on (and make profit from) public services.
Perhaps I should try to produce such a book? Various authors have already put in place some of the building blocks – eg Peter du Gay ("Come back bureaucracy"); Chris Pollitt (in The Essential Public Manager); some of the work on public value by Mark Moore and others; even Geoff Mulgan's Good and Bad Power (which, sadly, I found impossible to finish.
The painting is by Stanley Spencer 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What hope for democracy?

The castration of democracy by corporate power has been a recurring theme in my blogs – and I did on one occasion even suggest that the lack of fundamental policy differences between parties made us little different from Communist China
And this time 2 years ago I gave a link to a book, The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by David Shearman, without appreciating that its critique of liberal democracy and its apparent inability to challenge corporate interests has the authors arguing in considerable detail for a more authoritarian system of government. Naturally the book has been useful to those denying climate change – allowing them to claim that climate change is a plot by fascist big government.   
M Greer ( as a "peak oil" writer) seems to have been one of the few to subject the book’s argument to a more serious analysis
It’s worth glancing back over the last decade or so to get a sense of the way this book fits into the broader process by which climate change activism ran off the rails. In 2001, despite fierce opposition from business interests and right-wing parties generally, it was very much in the ascendant, and some form of regulation of carbon emissions looked like a done deal. Opposition from the White House and well-funded think tanks notwithstanding, the movement to limit CO2 emissions could have become the sort of juggernaut that extracted the Endangered Species Act and a flurry of other environmental legislation from another conservative Republican administration thirty years earlier. That it did not was, I think, the result primarily of three factors.
The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. Most of the leading figures in the climate change movement are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.
This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.
The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit.
 I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism.
I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a can of tuna and a can opener. The moment the cats smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.
That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.
For a wide-ranging discussion of the relationship of democracy to climate change see here.
And Stephen Holmes - the political scientists who focuses on post-communism - has written a very thoughtful piece on the reasons for the current disillusionment with democracy. It is quite remarkable to find an American writing in these terms -

To understand why citizens today, throughout the world, cannot easily control politicians by democratic means, we need to look at the way in which various extra-electoral forms of dependency of politicians on citizens have recently been eroded. To oversimplify, we can say that the citizen-voter has leverage over ruling groups only when he or she is also a citizen-soldier, a citizen-worker, and a citizen-consumer. The few are willing to share power and wealth with the many only when the many voluntarily cooperate with the few in their war-making and profit-making. When volunteer armies with high-tech weapons replace citizen levies, one of the main motives for elite interest in public welfare is substantially weakened. The flooding of the labour market by a low-cost Chinese workforce has also reduced the interest of the American and European capitalist class in the health and education of American and European workers. Taken together, the disappearance of the citizen-soldier and the diminished status and clout of the citizen-worker have considerably reduced the leverage which the citizen-voter can bring to bear on society's top decision-makers. This erosion has become a total destruction in the case of Russia, where the hydrocarbon bonanza (sold to foreigners) has liberated the ruling elite from citizen-consumers as well. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

The disease of managerialism

One of the reasons I blog is that I see myself very much as “a child of my times”; someone who felt in the early 1960s the power of what economics, sociology and managerialism had to offer the world and therefore switched his university studies from French and German to economics and politics; someone who got into positions of power and influence in government and advanced the mission of managerialism; who now sees not just the mistakes this new belief system have led us into but the unforgiveable hubris and arrogance of the new rationalists of the mid 20th century; and who wants to warn the younger generation of the Faustian bargain our generation struck.
My post a year ago today looked back on the grip social sciences took on our minds in the 1960s
For the past 4 years or so the discipline of economics has been under severe attack – but somehow its more powerful sibling (managerialism) has managed to evade critical popular attention. A year ago today I picked out one book which spilled the beans on the new religion. Its title was A very short,fairly interesting and reasonably cheap book about studying organisations which I view as far more explosive than The Communist Manifesto. I did my best to give a summary -
  • "imagine a world where the thing which dominated it (God; the Party) was written about in one of three ways. One was like a bible, very heavy and orthodox. The second was amusing and readable but didn’t tell you anything you couldn’t think for yourself. The third seemed to say some things you wouldn’t think yourself and suggested flaws in the Bible but you couldn’t understand it because it was so obscurely written. Such is the literature of organisations - in which we live our lives and yet are served by only Textbooks; pop management; and unreadable scholarly books or articles".
  • Writers on organisations belong to one of two schools – those who believe "there exists an observable, objective organisational reality which exists independent of organisation theory (OT). The task of OT is to uncover this reality and discover the laws by which it operates – and perhaps then to predict if not control future events. They tend to favour quantitative research. These are the positivists. Then there is a second camp which denies this scientific view – they might be called constructivists or relativists since, for them, organisational reality is constructed by people in organisations and by organisation theory”.
  • The history of organisation theory you find in textbooks generally starts with the concept of "bureaucracy” as defined by Weber and with that of "scientific management” as set out by FW Taylor - both of whom were active in a 25 year period from the late 1880s to the end of the first world war, one as a (legal) academic in Prussia, the other as an engineer and early consultant in American steel mills in Pennsylvania.
  • Weber was curious about the various motives there have been over history and societies for obedience. Why exactly have we accepted the authority of those with power? His answer gave us a typology of authority we still use today – "traditional", "charismatic" and what he called "rational-legal” which he saw developing in his time. A system of (fair) rules which made arbitrary (privileging) behaviour difficult. But this was an "ideal type” (ie a model) – not necessarily a precise description or prescription. Indeed studies from the mid 1950s showed just how much informal power there was in bureacracies.
  • Taylor worked in an industry where it was normal for workers to organise their own work; and where owners tended to be Presbyterean and workers catholic immigrants. Taylor reckoned there was a lot of slacking going on – and applied a "scientific” approach to devise standards and measures of performance (time and motion) as well as "scientific” selection of workers and a strict separation of workers and managers.
  • This caused strong reactions not only amongst workers but from many owners and only survived thanks to the production needs of the First World War
  • The "evacuation of meaning” from work was intensified by Fordism.
  • the "human resource” approach to management which followed was not the fundamental break which the textbooks portray but rather a cleverer legitimisation of management power – as was the cultural management (and TQM) of the latter part of the 20th century.
  • Although managers call the shots, their organisational fashions always fail – because of unintended effects
  • Business schools do not produce better managers – but rather  breed legitimisation; self-confidence; a shared world-view and a common (mystifying) language
  • One quote perhaps captures the author's (Chris Grey's) argument - 
For all the talk about new paradigms, contemporary organisation theory and management method remain remarkably unchanged from their classical roots….because the underlying philosophy of instrumental rationality and control remains firmly in the ascendant
In the 1970s we had people like Ivan Illich and Paolo Freire exposing the emptiness of the doctrines which sustained the power of education and health systems. We now desperately need people like this to help us tear apart the arbitrary assumptions which sustain the legitimacy of the new priests of technocracy. Daniel Dorling's recent book Injustice - why social inequality persists is exceptional because he tries to identify and then challenge the belief systems which sustain our present inequities.
There are hundreds of thousands of academics receiving public money to teach and research so-called social "sciences" in universities and public institutions. The vast majority of them, whether they realise it or not, have been part of a large brain-washing exercise. A few of them only have broken ranks - not just the economists I have mentioned but those (generally American) sociologists who, for a few years, have been advocating what they call "public sociologies". Michael Burrawoy has been one of the main protagonists. Noone, however, should be under any illusions about the difficulties of making an intellectual challenge on this field of management and organisation studies in which so many brains, reputations and careers are now entrenched

In the same month last year I also traced the history of the critique of economic growth and consumerism.

Finally this important article on Social housing in Scotland which show how even one of the last bastions of social democracy has been infected by the neo-liberalist disease.

The painting is, of course, an Honore Daumier - The Mountebank Musicians

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

wine as medicine

November seems to be the period for testing the Sofia medical systems – this time last year I blogged about an experience with the excellent Military Hospital here which resulted in a diagnosis of excessive uric acid and a savage diet for a month with no wine.
I’ve been suffering for some time from some degeneration of the knee tissue – result probably of rowing, jogging, tennis and badminton over the past 50 years (did I tell you I trained with the Azeri youth badminton team a decade ago??!!). It was in Baku I had my first treatment of the knee with electrodes (20 years earlier I had a guy with a hypnotic medallion massage the knee briefly and cure a pain which physiotherapists had not been able to shift.
Since I came off a Kyrgyzstan mountain/hill climb in 2006 the knees have been weak and no one has been able to give me a decent diagnosis – let alone treatment (despite MRS etc) In April, however, a Sofia specialist ran some doppler and other tests and reckoned it was linked to some spinal weakness – so here I am now having some excellent physiotherapy in the Military Hospital. The Doctor who supervises the treatment gave me on Monday the most thorough and professional examination which I have received in a decade – and has me now undergoing a 10 day course of magnetic, electric and manual treatment. And in a section of the hospital whose walls are adorned with paintings (for sale). Great idea! So hats off to the Bulgarians – not least because we exchange tips about Bulgarian wine as it proceeds.  Pavel Banyia is the place I had been advised to go for the best Spa experience (in the heart of the country) but it was fully booked. Her advice was Hisar - for both the thermal waters and wine (StareSel).

Speaking of which – as I walked back from the Hospital (aided by my antique vanity cane – which is great for smacking badly-parked cars!) I discovered another of the charming regional wine shops which are scattered around Sofia. So far I have come across shops selling Vidin; Magura; Karnovat wines and today I passed I tiny shop which had a huge advertisement about Belogradchik wines (like the first 2 in the North-East). I had driven through the village (Borovitsa) last year but not stopped and decided this time therefore  (blindtaste) to buy 2 litres of a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc mix – for less than 5 euros. Back home, the taste was impeccable!!  
And a lovely little wine shop with quality wines at reasonable prices has opened at the Russian monument on the corner of Makedonski and Skobelev Bvds (although its situated in the latter, its address is the former!). It's the initiative of a young man - and is typical of the attitude and spirit here. It's love of wine which has driven him - not big business connections. I wouldn't find this in Bucharest.
I'm also glad to see that one of the Bulgarian wineries - Light Castle - is supporting Astry Gallery - being one of the sponsors of Vihra's latest annual 30x30 exhibition.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bulgarian Wine - as Culture

Well I certainly learned a lot more about Bulgarian wines over the weekend – both in the biblical sense (experience) and intellectually. Particularly about the more pricey wines I would never normally buy. You can such great quality here for 2/3 euros a litre that I would never pay more than 8 euros a bottle! I discover (through a great little book "Catalogue of Bulgarian Wines 2013" (available for 15 levs probably at branches of Casavino here) that there are at least 97 independent wineries in this small country – each with several brand names with its own range of wines. And 250 of them were available for tasting over the weekend (as this was the elite, this suggest that there are more than 500 different wines in the country!)
I was more disciplined yesterday, perfecting the swill and spit – and, even then, physically not able to taste too many reds because of the semi-revulsion my body has developed to them. One exception was a fascinating anti-oxidant red wine – Alfa Vita – which adds a strong medical tone to its marketing. It certainly was smooth and tasty. The CEO I spoke to (also the driving force behind the local Academy for Wine) was kind enough to give me a bottle in exchange for a copy of my booklet on Bulgarian realist painters! And advised me to drink 50 ml or so for breakfast!! At 5 euros a bottle, it’s just what the doctor ordered!   
One of my goals yesterday was to savour the Roses on offer – I have never been a great fan of these but, as my taste for reds has declined, so the few Roses I have come across have become more interesting. And there is a great choice here!
Two stalls left the greatest impression - Villa Yustina (established only in 2006 and located in a village in the Rhodopes foothills near Plovdiv) by virtue of the enthusiastic and helpful approach of their sales guy Vencislav Lyubenov. And the stall of the well known Katarzyna Estate (located on the Greek/Turkish border) - by virtue of it being the only one whose staff (women) were encouraging feedback from their customers.  
The wine fair was so popular the second day that it was almost impossible to move from stall to stall!
As each visitor left, they were presented with free copies of the (massive glossy) DiVine magazine which sponsored the fair. Intriguingly the cover picture is of champagne bottles in a picture frame – is this a case of the wineries bidding to be included in the European Capital of Culture?

There is a serious argument to be made for eating and wine drinking as a serious cultural pursuit – perhaps the Divine magazine should consider having a few pages on Bulgarian painting (and other cultural material) in each of its future issues?  Interestingly there was a good place on Kurnigradska St (almost at the corner with Vitosha) which offered a heady mix of paintings, wines, books and musical performance. It is now not more - not at least at that address - although a new little gallery has opened in Tsar Samuil St (off Solunska) which mixes wines and aquarelles!!
The aquarelle is - of course - an......Ilyia Beshkov - from the superb 1950s book I bought from Alexander....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The vocabulary of wines

This will be a short post since I am heading out to Part II of a marathon wine-tasting which I alighted upon by accident as I was out cycling yesterday and saw large banners with images of wine bottles hanging from the building of the Central Military Club. Divino was organised for the first time last year by the leading wine magazine, called DiVino. Now comes the second edition. Wineries can participate only if invited, therefore quality is ensured. If you want to learn besides tasting, you can sit in any of the masterclasses or lectures. Bulgarian grape varieties, pearls of Burgundy and many other topics satisfy your thirst for knowledge. If you look hard enough you should see me somewhere in the picture.
It was a glorious way to spend a couple of hours and taste wines I didn’t know about – complete with a little notebook they give you when you pay your 12 levs with all the wines thoughtfully listed (in English no less). There are apparently about 200 wines available – and my notes suggest that I tasted almost 50 of them. Needless to say I have no real memory of this – but if I am to do the event justice I will have to swill and spit a good few of the remaining 150!!
It was nice talking with the various people on the stalls – and also a couple of sommelliers. I was stuck for words to describe the taste – and am basically looking for value for money – stunning taste which does not pall as you drink it for a good price. It is, obviously, the season for wines - so hardly surprising to find a  good articles here on the lexicon of wines.

Another good example of why Sofia is a great place to live!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Privatisation exposed!

Time was when Chile (under General Pinochet) was the test-bed of how far right-wingers could go in destroying a society and country. Now it’s become the turn of England – with its successive neo-liberal Governments pushing privatisation as far as it can go. Not just railway and health services – but now even policing. Thank God for Scottish Devolution which has spared my country from this madness – although, sadly, not the rail privatisation nonsenses which I blogged about a month ago.
"Railways now cost the British taxpayer some three times more (allowing for inflation) than did state ownership and costing the passenger some 4 times more (and greater inconvenience) than equivalent travel in the rest of Europe. It is a marvellous case-study of, variously, policy development (on what evidence was the policy brought in and discussed?); democratic accountability (who wanted it – and has supported it?); civil service management (skill preparation) and neo-liberalism.
It was a mad scheme from the start (in 1993) – totally against basic economic theory (or what remains of it). Rail is a natural monopoly. Services cannot run against one another. So sections of the system are put out for tender by the State for 10-15 year “franchises”. About 2,000 companies are involved in these contracts and sub-contracts – with all the bureaucracy (let alone profit-taking) this involves. And that is before we bring into play the new regulatory systems set up to monitor targets and ensure that the customers and government were not being “taken for a ride” (excuse the pun) by the private monopolies. I do not pretend to understand the complex (and ever-changing) process by which public assets were sold up, franchises awarded and regulatory systems managed. A 2004 paper by Prof Stephen Glaister seems to give a lot of the detail – if you have the patience to follow it all.
The last 13 years have seen a lot of problems – train collisions; bankruptcy of RailTrack; huge rise in complaints – but they are small beer compared with the scandal which has now erupted over the contract for the West Coast line (London to Glasgow) which has just been cancelled due to irregularities (so typical for procurement processes)"
The biggest privatisation disaster was undoubtedly the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), originally unveiled by John Major’s government but massively expanded under New Labour. Under PFI, private contractors pay for construction costs, leasing the finished project to the public sector for up to 30 years. The attraction was a financial con: PFI contracts take borrowing off the Government’s public sector balance sheet. They are expensive, not least because of the costly lawyers and consultants involved in the contracts, and because borrowing is twice as expensive for the private sector as it is for the Government.
The long-term cost to the public purse is shocking. Not long after the last election, it was reported that the NHS would end up paying £65bn to private contractors for hospital building, even though completion cost just £11.3bn. Back in May, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that “the current model of PFI is unsustainable”, because the contracting process was so expensive, and the risk was transferred to the public sector even as investors enjoyed high returns - 22 NHS trusts reportedly face bankruptcy after being saddled with PFI debts.
As the recent failure of G4S to provide security at the Olympics underlined, the “private is best” dogma is kaput. But the era of failed free-market fundamentalism will not end unless Labour rejects its own history of privatisation. A break with the past is not just necessary - it would be popular, too.
Treating hospitals as businesses…. has only got hospitals into trouble as they struggle to transform themselves into commercial enterprises, more interested in their profit margins than in their patients. It is a recipe for disaster to expect hospitals to behave like fast-food chains or clothing stores. Hospitals should be focusing every shred of their attention on improving their services for patients, here, in this country. Hospitals are not businesses; they are places that are funded by us, for us, when we become unwell.
Like the grubby men in string vests and gold sovereign rings who sit outside brothels beckoning gullible tourists, the Government is now attempting to pimp out the NHS to foreigners…..
It’s not the NHS as a product that is revolutionary and worthy of export, it’s the NHS as a concept. The main appeal of the NHS to people around the world is the fact that it is a cheap, effective and equitable way of delivering healthcare. It is the notion of a system that is free at the point of delivery, regardless of ability to pay, that makes it valuable. The great irony of all this is that if we wanted to export the real ethos of the NHS, as opposed to what might be represented by some bland, meaningless logo, then we would be going around encouraging foreign governments to reject market principles and develop a socialised model of healthcare. And this isn’t going to happen.
The reason why the NHS has not been replicated around the world is that attempts to introduce socialised medical models are strangled by corporate interest. Emerging, proto-capitalist economies are rich pickings for the multinationals that are already lining up to take over running their health systems. The idea that the NHS might become one of the circling vultures ready to swoop in before a fair, cheap model of healthcare delivery can be established makes me feel ashamed.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Who wants to be The European Capital of Culture - and why??

Bulgaria is one of the few EU member states which has not so far seen one of its cities designated as a European City (since 1999 “Capital”) of Culture - although in 2019 one Bulgarian city will play this role. 10 Bulgarian cities are bidding for the designation – with Sofia’s strong bid facing stiff competition from Plovdiv’s and other well-placed cities such as Varna, Burgas and Veliko Tarnovo. (The photo is, appropriately, of Plovdiv's Roman forum -  the "bread and circus" predecessor of the European Capital of Culture - discovered only in the 1970s when they were digging a road construction)

"I belong to Glasgow"
Glasgow was one of Europe’s first cities to have this title (in 1990) and I was a leading Regional politician during the previous 15 years of regeneration efforts which culminated in this award – and in 1990 I had the great pleasure during the opening ceremonies of a private lunch with Melina Mercouri who, when Greek Minister of Culture, invented the concept.

Historical footnote; I was in my kilt and struck (in those days) quite a fine figure. I got the eye from Melina and was invited to join the small table she had with an attractive Berlin Senator. My (Presbyterian) mother was with me and knew Melina only from her infamous film role as a prostitute. Melina and I (as Socialists) got on like a house on fire but when I back to the table where I had left my Mum in the tender care of a boring Latin scholar and asked if she would like to meet my new friend, she responded tartly - "Certainly not!"
The “Glasgow model” is still talked about in positive terms. See, for example, two slide presentations which compare the Glasgow and Liverpool (2008) experiences here and here

Some basic facts
It is all too easy for municipal leaders to get excited about the prestige of a European award – particularly when its economic impact lies so far in the future by which time it is highly unlikely the leaders will still be around. A note of scepticism is needed. The European Union is very clever with these designations which carry (directly at any rate) very little European funding. Over the 25 years of experience, the average cost of the scheme has been 35 million euros – and only 2% of this has been covered by EC funding! The cost has, of course, ranged from 5-6 million euros of the Bergen and Prague years (2000) to no less than 232 million for Thessalonika’s year in the spotlight (1997) And 99% of the funding of the latter was public. I’ve taken the figures from page 70 of the detailed Palmer report for the EC on the impact of the concept (Palmer, it should be noted was the Director of the Glasgow 1990 project – now with his own International Cultural Consultancy company)

A basic question
So the question for the Bulgarian government and city leaders is how much should they put up – with what sort of hopes for its impact? 
At a time of great austerity, are realistic calculations being made for the running costs of new infrastructure being proposed? 
Most European cities are having difficulties paying the wage and other running costs of existing libraries and swimming pools – let alone having the budget for increased staffing. Maribor (Slovenia) is just finishing its European City of Culture spell – and is already experiencing this problem - with cultural groups being set against one another as a result - and Istanbul(2010) also experienced serious problems
On the other hand the EC has also published its own (positive) spin on the experience of the past 25 years - which looks more at results than processes.

Some experience
The Glasgow authorities made their own positive assessment of impact – 17 years later. But there is another side to the story – which was set out in 2004 in a useful assessment of the Glasgow experience. It did not mince its words
In the narratives deployed by those who advocate city marketing and re-imagining, cities such as Glasgow are all too frequently reified and presented as homogeneous locales of common interests. But ‘Glasgow’ does not ‘do’ things, it is not an agent and it is not ‘Glasgow’ that ‘wins’ or ‘loses’, or that is undergoing a ‘renewal’, but particular (and if recent evidence is anything to go by, fewer) groups of its citizens living in particular parts of the City. The type of strategy adopted in Glasgow – ‘the Glasgow model’ – has contributed to the worsening levels of poverty and deprivation and to the deepening inequalities that characterise the City today. It has done this primarily by constructing Glasgow’s future – and the future for tens of thousands of Glaswegians – as a low paid, workforce grateful from the breadcrumbs from the tables of the entrepreneurs and investors upon which so much effort is spent in attracting and cosseting – and by marginalising and ruling out any alternative strategy based upon large scale public sector investment in sustainable and socially necessary facilities and services. While wishing to avoid any romanticisation of manufacturing employment, it is nonetheless notable that this now accounts for less than 10% of employment in the City (source: OECD, 2002, p. 46).
There appears to have been little effort to secure quality manufacturing employment of a type that might be attractive to many of those out of work and which might offer full-time, sustainable work of a better quality than that on offer in the ‘cappucino’ economy that is now such a pervasive feature of the city centre.
 The paper quotes from a critical 1990 article
. . the Year of Culture has more to do with power politics than culture. It has more to do with millionaire developers than art . . . In 1990, willy-nilly, everything is surrendered, once you join in the enterprise, for above all 1990 makes an unequivocal statement on behalf of corporate wealth.
So that in 1990 it is more a question of art sponsoring big business, promoting the new tourist drive and giving aid and comfort to a shallow ethos of yuppie greed. And for all this of course the people of Glasgow will be made to foot the bill. (McLay, 1990, p. 87)
Lessons - and key elements in any successful approach
If there is one lesson from the 25 years’ experience, it is that the process needs, from the outset, to involve all possible local groups – whether performing, musical, artistic, media, literary, tourist, community, ethnographic, archeological, vinocultural (!!) etc..... It is impossible to get a consensus amongst such groups –whether at strategic or implementations stages. But the effort has to be made – to build up the trust that is needed to have a sustainable and successful result. And cooperation is not easy in southern European countries such as Greece and Italy let alone ex-communist Balkan countries - where cronyism is so rampant and fair selection of contractors and beneficiaries a rare thing.
Key words, however, I would urge on those involved would be trust, transparency, inclusiveness, learning (from the experience of others), realism and modesty (in spending commitments), scepticism (of a lot of the material and claims made on the subject); and distinctiveness (don't copy - recognise and build on your distinctive characteristics).

I am, it should be noted, no great fan of mega-efforts such as Olympics. And I would also advise those involved to spend time looking at the experience not only of the many other cities who have so far been the recipient of this award but of other big events. There are some good overviews (with extensive links) available herehere; and here.

Sofia - so far
Given my various posts on Sofia and its attractions, I obviously feel that Sofia would be a worthy city. for this accolade - not least because so many of its residents seem insufficiently aware of its attractions. The reason the designation was so important to Glasgow (when it was made in 1986 or so) was that it altered the perception of the city - both for outsiders and residents.
Sofia also needs such a boost - and seems already to be going about it in the right way . And I like the contributions which some citizens are already beginning to make to the discussion about what it should be for - in this series on provocateur of the month

From the archives; a good post 3 years ago on "organisational narcissism"!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Last sanctuaries of originality

In the increasingly homoegenised world in which we sadly now exist, second-hand bookshops and private art galleries are the last sanctuaries of originality, discovery and ambience. 
My booklet on Bulgarian Realist painters lists 16 private galleries here in Sofia – focussing on those which sell the more classic painters of the last century. Almost by definition, there’s not much room to move around in such galleries – most of the paintings are in piles against the wall or in storerooms. They have a great atmosphere – compared with the more clinical aspect of some contemporary galleries. The Inter Nos Gallery – which I mentioned yesterday – is a perfect example of that atmosphere.

Valerie Filipov is an interesting example of a dealer who used to have such an Aladdin’s Cave but now operates in the more clinical setting of The Impression Art Gallery, 11 Vasil Levski Bvd which holds special exhibitions of contemporary artists. Trouble with this approach is that it takes less than 5 minutes to see the display! I vastly preferred the serendipity of his previous Cave!      

Last week I said hello to Biliana Djingova who opened the A and B gallery last year at 45, Tsar Assen St for special exhibitions of contemporaries - and was very taken with Maria Bogdanova, a few of whose works are showing (see above) - as are her husband’s. A wonderful balance of precision, colour and humour. Bulgaria is lucky at the moment in having a few artists (eg Angela Minkova, Natasha Atanassova, Nikolai Tiholov) who have this combination. This is a Tiholov of mine

And yesterday I visited the small Loran Gallery and discovered a painter from the early part of last century - Petko Zadgorski (1902-1974).
The Gallery had marked his birthday with a recent exhibition of his work. They also carried on their nice tradition of publishing a catalogue to go with the exhibition and have quite a few of his paintings for sale on their well-organised website.

Zadgorski was born in Sliven but spent most of his life at Burgas where he developed his love of the sea – as you can see from this example of his painting. And the Burgas Municipal Gallery (one of the few I have so far not been able to visit) has a nice little outline of his work

The Loran Gallery seems to be the best organised of all the private galleries I know – frequent special exhibitions, catalogues to promote the artists, a good reserve of paintings for sale, active website……Of course The Victoria Gallery, as Sofia’s only auction house, has a great website and catalogue for each of its auctions (there’s one on Thursday) when more than 200 artefacts are usually for sale.

Regular readers will know I am a great fan of Astry Gallery here in Sofia  whose owner Vihra Pesheva singlehandedly seeks out and promotes living artists – young and old – with frequent special exhibitions and materials. But the reason Astry Gallery scores is that so much is crammed into such a small space; that Vihra shares her enthusiasm so readily; and I never feel I am imposing….. This is what I said last year about the Gallery -
Astry Gallery (under Vihra's tutelage) is unique for me amongst the Sofia galleries in encouraging contemporary Bulgarian painting. Two things are unique - first the frequency of the special exhibitions; but mainly that Vihra follows her passion (not fashion). I am not an art professional - but Vihra has a real art of creating an atmosphere in which people like me can explore. I have been to a couple of other exhibition openings here and they were, sadly, full of what I call "pseuds" - people who talked loudly (mostly Embassy people) and had little interest in the paintings (except perhaps their investment value). Vihra and her Astry Gallery attract real people who share her passion and curiousity. It is always a joy to pop in there - and talk to her, visitors, artists, other collectors and her father.
And that is also the case with Yassen Gollevi of Konus Gallery who is in his own right a serious painter and teacher at the Art Academy.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

New painters - and wine

I’m not the only one casting my mind back to the murderous behaviour from which this part of the world has suffered in the past century as Empires came unstuck and national fervour gripped men’s minds. Eastern Approaches and Open Education both have postings on the Balkan Wars of a hundred years ago.
These (and other) wars were, of course, an important focus for many Bulgarian painters some of whom were official war artists.
My booklet on Bulgarian Realist painters was very much a first draft – I felt if I waited for the missing information on various painters, nothing would ever be produced. And it’s only now that I’m back in Sofia that I can think properly about its distribution – so far it has been sent only to the Sofia galleries, to Regional municipal galleries and to EC Embassies in Sofia. With encouraging responses (apart from the Embassies!) It’s a useful calling card to show how serious I am! Now I need to approach the big Hotels – and the National Gallery who (amazingly) don’t really have anything for the foreign visitor.
And, slowly I can update the entries both on artists and galleries. Yesterday was a good example. The Inter Nos Gallery (sadly its website no longer seems active) is just at the junction of Bvds Levski and Ignatieff  (just round the corner from where Alexander Bozhinov built his house in Nikolai Pavlovich St) and has I think the best collection of the Bulgarian Realist painters in the country.
This wasn’t obvious to me on my first few visits – and I got to feeling guilty about visiting more since I haven’t so far bought anything.
But when Dr Stephanov saw my booklet, he opened up and I discovered some great paintings – and promises of more since (like many other Sofia galleryists) they have more stuff stored away in inaccessible places than on display.
So, for example, one painter whose name was known to me - Constantine Mikrenski (1921-1999) – suddenly started to look very interesting (eg the one at the top of this post). My entry about him in the book is no more than his date of birth and death.
Why is it that I want to know more about the (dead) painters I like? Technically, it adds little to my appreciation - perhaps its intimations of mortality?

There are a lot of articles (and books) predicting the disappearance of the book. New Criterion has published an article with a very elegant (and passionate) defence of the book (and elegy to the death of second-hand bookshops) which I thoroughly recommend   
Once, staying overnight at an airport hotel in Los Angeles, I found myself without a book. How this happened I can no longer recall; it was most unusual, for by far the most useful lesson that life has taught me, and one that I almost always heed, is never to go anywhere without a book. (In Africa, I have found that reading a book is an excellent way of overcoming officials’ obstructionism. They obstruct in order to extract a bribe to remove the obstruction; but once they see you settled down for the long term, as it were, with a fat book, Moby-Dick, say, they eventually recognize defeat. Indeed, I owe it to African officialdom that I have read Moby-Dick; I might otherwise never have got through it.)Reduced in my Los Angeles room to a choice between television and the yellow pages—no doubt now also on the verge of extinction—I chose the yellow pages, and there discovered just how unusual my obsession with books was. I looked up bookstores, and found no more than half a page. Teeth-whitening dentists, on the other hand, who promised a completely renewed existence to their clients, a confident smile being the secret of success, and success of happiness, took up more than twenty pages. Not poets, then, but teeth-whitening dentists, are now the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Now sipping a superb new Bulgarian Chardonnay - Ethno - produced in the village of Sungurlare inland from Burgas on the Black Sea.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The 1944 communist takeover of Bulgaria

It was a throwaway phrase in the introduction to the superb Alexander Bozhinov book which I picked up earlier in the week which alerted me “Stoyan Venev pled for him before the People’s Court”. So even this Bulgarian trailblazer of satire (67 years of age when the communists swept into power in September 1944) was caught in the net of deranged and murderous suspicion (by virtue apparently of his foreign travels and bourgeois life-style) and condemned to a year in prison. He was lucky – compared to the fate of thousands of his compatriots!
As I was compiling my little book on Bulgarian Realist painters of the 20th Century I had noticed that many had had to emigrate in the immediate aftermath of the communist takeover – whether from painting (into cinema or theatre design) or from the country altogether. And that some who remained in the country (like Nikola Boiadjiev and Boris Denev) were totally banned from any artistic endeavour. But I had not understood just how savage the communist takeover in Bulgaria was in 1944 – by far and away the worst in the Soviet bloc. 
Forgive the length of this post - but we owe it to those killed in such circumstances to remember them - particularly when the nature of their demise is known by so few outside the country. A recent issue of the Vagabond journal has the clearest statement
The killings of opponents of the Soviet system started as early as 9 September 1944, the very day the Communists seized power in Bulgaria.
Nobody knows how many Bulgarians lost their lives in the first weeks of the "people's democracy," their only crime being their political opinion or their social position. However, the number of victims of the so-called People's Court, which was created to give legitimacy to the murder of politicians, artists, writers and even physicians considered "dangerous" to the new regime, is well documented. From December 1944 to April 1945 the court issued 9,550 verdicts, with 2,680 death sentences and 1,921 life terms. To understand why the Bulgarian Communists were a lot more cruel than anyone else in Europe at the time one needs to go no further than the numbers: the Nuremberg Trials against top Nazis issued just 17 death sentences.
If you are looking for a single day when the Bulgarian political class was decimated with one blow, you get 1 February 1945. On that day the People's Court sentenced to death 67 MPs and 22 ministers who had held office between 1940 and 1944, including the former prime ministers Dobri Bozhilov and Ivan Bagryanov. Also killed were the regents Prince Kiril, Bogdan Filov and General Nikola Mihov, nine secretaries to the palace, publishers and journalists of national newspapers, and 47 generals and senior military. They were shot dead on the same day, beside an unused pit left on the outskirts of the Sofia Central Cemetery after the Allied air-strikes in the winter of 1943-1944, and were buried on the spot. The mass grave was left unmarked and several years later was turned into an ordinary burial ground. In 1995, in lot 124 of the cemetery, a monument to the victims of 1 February 1945 was finally erected. The following year the Supreme Court posthumously repealed the death sentences.
The victims of the People's Court are just a fraction of the number of Bulgarians who suffered various forms of repression during Communism. Between 1944 and 1989 thousands of opponents of the regime were detained, interned or denied education or work advancement. The reasons for the repression were many and varied: accusations ‒ usually bogus ‒ of espionage and plotting against the Communist state, or opposing the forced collectivisation of agricultural land, or disagreeing with the Bulgarianisation policies toward the country's Muslims. Telling political jokes, wearing mini-skirts, having a "bourgeois" past or the "wrong" relatives could all land you in a labour camp. So could listening to Elvis Presley music. The total number of those repressed between 1944 and 1990 is estimated at about 300,000.
The date of the communist coup – 9 September 1944 – was a signal for revenge and the start of blood-drenched Bacchanalia on the territory of the entire country. The victims of the class wrath were not only politicians, businessmen, lawyers, civil servants, police and army officers. The self-proclaimed “people’s revengers” attacked the Bulgarian intellectuals with the same zealousness: teachers, priests, journalists, writers, editors, artists, professors, lecturers and all kinds of people of the pen, of culture and of the spirit perished without trial or sentence in the cities, little towns and villages. It would be logical to ask ourselves why was the country’s cultural elite branded and persecuted as the most dangerous “enemy of the people”?
The indictment produced by the Sixth Panel of the so-called “People’s Tribunal” attached the following qualifications to the cultural elite: “career-seeking intelligentsia that had lost its touch with the people”, “public evil that needs to be cut out so that it would not contaminate the public organism”, “mercenaries of the pen and of speech”, “instigators and collaborationists” of the persons responsible for the national catastrophe, etc. The answer is very well known: propped on the bayonets of the occupiers, the communist upper crust followed the example of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917-1921. Without choosing its means, it showed determination to deprive the nation of the voice of free speech, and – as it proclaimed itself – “to cut the democratic values from the public organism”, to obliterate the notions of democracy, freedom and fatherland from public space, the carrier of these notions being the patriotic intelligentsia.
Thinking people are a barrier before any dictatorship, therefore the first task of usurpers is terror and genocide on a mass scale against the intellectual class.
Outstanding representatives of Bulgarian culture perished without trial or sentence in the first wave of the red terror: Danail Krapchev – journalist, writer and editor of the Zora [Dawn] newspaper, Yordan Badev – literary critic, Nencho Iliev-Sirius – writer, Konstantin Gindev – talented young poet, Boris Roumenov – satirist, Professor Lyubomir Vladikin, Rayko Alexiev – humorist, satirist and cartoonist, publisher of the Shtourets [Cricket] newspaper, beaten to death in prison.
A second large group of writers, journalists, scholars, artists and intellectuals were thrown into the Central Prison in Sofia and were given sentences of different length, combined with confiscations and fines. Among them were the writers Zmey Goryanin, Fani Popova, Yordan Stoubel, Dimiter Simidov, Georgi Kanazirski, Boris Makovski, the cartoonists Konstantin Kamenov, Alexander Bozhinov and Alexander Dobrinov, the journalists Hristo Bruzitsov, Krustyo Velyanov, Atanas Damyanov and Stefan Damyanov, Stefan Tanev, Matey Bonchev-Brushlyan, Dr. Peter Djidrov, Dimiter Gavriyski, who wrote for the leading daily papers in Bulgaria: Zora, Utro, Dvenvik, Slovo, etc., as well as dozens of other eminent figures in the sphere of culture. That group also included Professor Stefan Konsoulov, Professor Georgi P. Genov, the literary historian Professor Mihail Arnaoudov, Minister of Education in Bagryanov’s government for two months. Their life in prison is colourfully described in the miraculously preserved notes of Zmey Goryanin, "Sketches and Stories". Even when they were at such a critical moment in their lives and their endurance was put to the test, these internationally famous scholars succeeded in preserving their dignified behaviour and continued to live with their science and with their ideas. Their example has proven that only a man of the spirit is capable of bringing light, sensibility and nobility during times of sinister arbitrariness and social cataclysms, that only man’s creative genius has the strength of withstanding the sinister downfalls of history.
A part of the intellectuals who passed through the cells of the State Security and of the Central Prison were dispatched without trial or sentence directly to concentration camps that had been established under a special law and were given the name of labour-correctional communities: Bogdanov Dol, Koutsiyan, Rossitsa, Sveti Vrach, Belene, Doupnitsa, etc., where the writers Dimiter Talev, Slavcho Krassinski, Chavdar Moutafov, Pavel Spassov, Zvezdelin Tsonev and Yordan Vulchev, as well as the artists Alexander Bozhinov, Alexander Dobrinov and Konstantin Kamenov, were sent. A new phenomenon – political-literary toponymy – emerged in the geography of the Bulgarian literature. It linked the colourful names of small villages, localities and small towns in the countryside with the saga of prominent writers and creative artists. The spiritual elite of Bulgaria were banished to mines and stone quarries, to be replaced in the cultural centres by aggressive ignorance, marginal individuals and vulgarity. The concentration camps turned into coexisting spaces accumulating the energies of violence and the suffering, amongst which the freedom-loving spirit of the Bulgarian nation waned and died.
New martyrs were added to the prisoners of the first wave shortly after 9 September 1944 in 1946-1947: together with thousands of opposition figures from the Nikola Petkov Bulgarian Agrarian People’s Union and the Bulgarian Social-Democratic Party, emblematic names of the legal opposition became victims of terror, having stood up against the hegemony of the camouflage Fatherland Front: Trifon Kounev and Tsveti Ivanov – Editors-in-Chief of the newspapers Narodno Zemedelsko Zname [People’s Agrarian Banner] and Svoboden Narod[Free People], and also writers, journalists, public figures and freedom fighters. Standing at the crucial historic dividing line, they were condemned to suffer both for their political and moral compromises, and for their dignified and valiant fight to defend the democratic ideals and the independence of Bulgaria. Together with political leaders like Nikola Petkov and Krustyu Pastouhov, the writers carried on their shoulders the heavy cross of their re-enslaved nation and proved that the real artist is ready for self-sacrifice to defend his national dignity.
During the autumn of 1944, more than 30 thousand peaceful Bulgarian citizens were killed: slaughtered with axes, bludgeoned to death, shot at point blank, thrown off cliffs into precipices, burned, hanged or buried alive. The sense of impunity and arbitrariness, encouraged openly or behind the scenes by the leaders of the ruling Communist Party, notably Georgi Dimitrov, Traycho Kostov, Tsola Dragoycheva and Anton Yugov, made the public atmosphere fraught with aggressiveness of the reactions and with frenetic hatred. Mass paranoia, thirst for blood and vindictiveness flared. Frenetic mobs shouting death slogans attacked homes and offices, lynched, stampeded and clubbed to death innocent people in the streets merely because a finger had been pointed at them as “enemies of the people.” That was not a nationwide revolution, nor an uprising, nor a civil war, because there were no two fighting armed groups, as in 1923 during the insurgence. That was a political slaughterhouse. Life and the individual had lost their value, humanity was trampled and forgotten in the gigantic social and geopolitical collision. After World War II, when Bulgaria did not have even one casualty at the frontline, instead of peace and a spirit of constructivism on the basis of the protected status quo, the country was involved in a catastrophic psychological situation of self-extermination and moral genocide. The land of Bulgaria was covered with thousands of secret graves, its tolerant people were desecrated by fratricide and were stained with the blood of its own worthiest and most talented sons. The mass act of insanity reveals how it is possible with the mechanisms of ideology and politics to bring to extremes the mentality of the community so as to be directed in the service of party, power and imperialist goals. The unabated wartime aggression of the masses was easy to manipulate and to transform into political revenge-seeking by ideological profiteers and central offices of the party. The normal behavioural thresholds of the extremist individual were deliberately undermined in the direction of regression and barbarianisation so as to serve hidden power goals. And again, literature anticipated, caught and depicted the shadows of horror, fear and death in the spiritual space of Bulgaria. The writer Yana Yazova, a contemporary and witness of the events, recreated both concrete events and the frenzied rhythm of historical time, revealing its paranoid symbols and states. In her political and psychological novel "War", which was published in 2001, i.e., 25 years after her death and 55 years after the actual events, Yana Yazova documented the social, political and existential psychological motivations of terror and hatred, depicting the traumatically distorted mentality and the images of the “revengers” susceptible to manipulation, as well as the sufferings of the defenceless victims. 
Bulgaria had apparently about 100 concentration camps in the post-war period to deal with its various “dissidents” – in most cases those whose dress or joke sense was not acceptable.
Voices from the Gulag – life and death in communist Bulgaria(1999) looks in harrowing detail at this.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Private collections

A mixed experience at the recently re-opened National Gallery of Art here in Sofia. It had been closed for refurbishment for almost a year (still is according to its website) and, frankly, is worse than it was before – with one major room still under repair and a small and inferior exhibition of the Bulgarian classics. Only the first few paintings by Mitov, Murkvichka and Vesin stood out from the collection.
Sadly they also have a really stupid display of contemporary “art” taking up some of the restricted space. Hardly surprisingly, they could offer me no book on their permanent collection – although I was able to buy a very nicely presented book about Alexander Bozhinov which the Gallery had produced in 1999. It's amazing the number of such books about its artists which Bulgaria has produced over the years. I've built up a nice little library collection!
The saving grace was the superb temporary exhibition they have of Hungarian works from the Gabor Kovacs collection
Gábor Kovács has been purchasing works of art for fifteen years, with the intention of creating a collection that offers a worthy representation of the history of modern Hungarian painting. Covering the period from the early 18th century to the present, the collection is comprised of more than 250 masterpieces.
The collection offers an almost complete account of the development that began with the Romantic and Realistic landscape representations of the 19th century, continued with the plein air painting of the Nagybánya school (now Baie Mare in Romania) and ended with the ”isms” of the first decades of the 20th century. Continuously enlarged, the Gábor Kovács Collection is one of the most prestigious private art collections in Hungary.
János Vaszary was one artist who caught my eye.

This is the first time I have seen an exhibition of a private collector – and follows hard on my spotting a stunning new book in the Humanitas bookshop in Bucharest about Romanian art collectors. It was in Romanian – but profusely illustrated and showing that we are not alone in our walls being crammed with paintings. In trying to find reference to it online, I came across this interesting site about private art collections in central Europe which contains this useful entry on Bulgaria’s first collectors

Two more paintings were added to my own collection yesterday – another Nikolai Tiholov

and a small Toni Todorov from Vihra’s current exhibition of that artist.

That brings my collection of Bulgarian paintings to about 120 – 100 of them by known artists, the others anonymous   

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Does it really matter?

I had a premonition Obama wouldn’t make it – the sites which I was accessing wanted him to win and, I suspect, put a particular spin on the polls. In 2008 three points of Obama's putative lead in 2008 apparently vanished because people didn't like telling the pollsters they would be voting against him. And he didn’t have such a lead this time.
Of course, it was all down to swing states – in some of which the Republican power system has been disenfranchising voters. 
Obama seems a decent (if ineffective) guy. Romney also comes across in some ways as decent but, basically, he has disowned so many of the policy positions he has taken over the years that I would not know what I was voting for (except for the loony tea-party stuff his VP brings). 
In so many ways the election no longer matters – corporate power rules OK.
But we all want a good guy there – and we haven’t entirely given up hope on the community activist I almost met when I was placed in the Chicago mayor’s Office for a week in 1987 as part of the German Marshall Fellowship.  

Three years ago I had a post about making sense of public sector reform and, last year, I called in the clowns
Finally a great story about a Scottish guy trying to restore a Romanian palace

The painting is a wonderful Stanley Spencer - adoration of elderly men

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Artist's studio in Sofia

I left Bucharest in mild fog at 08.00 on Saturday but, once across the Danube, Bulgaria welcomed me with blue skies and a superb display of autumnal colours - and also a typical culinary experience from Sylvie, starting with pumpkin soup. And great help from her two sons in transferring my belongings to the new flat.
Being given a foreign friend’s flat is a great cultural experience - as well as privilege. By definition there are shared interests – and therefore new books and objets d’art to explore and appreciate. My new flat here in Sofia is a bit of an artist’s studio – on the top floor of a 1960s 10 storey building with two huge, heavy rectangular windows in the slanted roof.  And the flat is liberally endowed with paintings, sculptures and books – with many of the books being on painting. So I am in my element – already having discovered a beautifully designed book on Bulgarian paintings in the 1920s – published in 1996 by Ruzha Marinska.  
For the last 5 years, my base in Sofia has been in the reasonably fashionable Lajos Kossuth St just off Xristo Botev. The new flat may only be 10 minutes’ walk from my old one but it is in the quartier of brutal socialist modernism and post-modern capitalistic brutalism – with one of the early huge Shopping Malls which are now slowly strangling the lifeblood of the vibrant Sofia which first attracted me cheek by jowl with the 10 and 20 story blocks of the 1960s. Fortunately I am still within the same easy walking distance of the swimming and keep-fit facility of Rodina Hotel.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Pork sausages, Marmite and....Romanian politics

One of the many pleasures I’m looking forward when I (Insallah!) get to Sofia at the weekend is at last visiting the shop of the guy who has sold me my haggi in the last few Januaries. Up until now, these small bags of succulence have been exchanged like quality drugs on quick encounters on Sofia corners. But Andy’s foods offers, amongst other British delicacies, pork sausages and also a strange dark jar with a yeast-based product (loved and hated equally by the world) whose name I now always forget – so forgive me as I use my usual technique of rattling through the alphabet to trigger off the old memory- that’s it MARMITE!!
I wonder if Andy has seen this article on this sausage event in the UK - and whether any of its products will show up in his Sofia shop?

The painting is a Stanley Spencer - "the sausage shop" - who is vastly underrated by the British cultural afficiandi.....And I know of it only because of Barbara's It's About Time site

Here in Bucharest, I can't begin to recount the latest nonsenses - apparently parliamentarians are now (for the third time!!) contemplating impeaching the President. This time they seem to have some merit on their side. But this place really has become Ruritania!!!