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

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Romanian secrets

For several years I have been very puzzled by the apparent banality of Romanian paintings - at least those available in private galleries and most museums in Bucharest. This year I have discovered the secret – the real glories have all been hiding somewhere else. 
I got a hint of this a few weeks back when I first ventured into the newly-opened Museum of Art Collections (housing what were - until the Communists got to them - more than 20 private collections); then when I came across a massive volume which brazenly showed off one modern collector’s prizes.
On Friday after the visit to the Aman Museum, we also happened to wander by accident into a small gallery across from the Athenium (Rotenburg and Uzunov) open only 6 months apparently – which displays Romanian aesthetic gems of the early part of the last century. This painting by Marius Bunescu (1881-1971) is one of their current exhibits

And today I really struck gold when I came across a mysterious site which gives about 70 key Romanian painters and many of their paintings. Its My heart to your heart and is the best site on Romanian painting I have so far come across - although the artindex site has been very useful to me as I have slowly accumulated what is now a very fat file of 350 pages on the Romanian painters who appeal to me.

And, to complete a full August, have a look at these etchings/paintings by Vladimir Kus which are on every page of a literary journal funded by the municipality of Iasi. Iasi is well known as Romania's intellectual capital - but it is quite something for a municipality to be editing such a 100 page cultural journal in these days!! It's been produced every 2 months since 2010 and the website gives us access to every copy - past copies have included great reproductions of Georg Grosz (black and white) and Rene Magritte (colour)
I take my hat off to the editors - pity I don't understand the contents but the quality of this production really deserves greater recognition.
By the way, the old shop which sells these (and about a hundred other literary journals) is an amazing sight - with tall bundles of the papers and journals piled high all around the hapless seller. Living proof of how intellectual Romania has been. You can find it on Bvd Dacia beside the House of Romanian Writers (with an exhibition of Nichita Stanescu's poetry) which itself has a nice garden pub at its back. This takes you into a charming area of old Bucharest houses

A new and hidden gem in Bucharest - the Theodor Aman Museum

For several years we have been leaving nasty notes on the gates of the small Aman museum in Rosetti street asking when the “renovations” would ever end and the public be admitted. 
And lo – ever so quietly – the gates seem to have creaked open 3 months ago! 
Only yesterday did we venture in – and what gems were waiting!

Theodor Aman (1831-1891) was the father of Romanian painting - whose works blend Romanticism and Academicism, as well as bearing characteristics of early/Pre-Impressionism. He took drawing lessons in Craiova and studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris from 1850 under the supervision of Michel Martin Drolling and François Edouard Picot. 

He returned to Romania in 1857, already established as a painter. His workshop was one of the most popular meeting places of high society. 

He established the first Fine Arts School in Bucharest (1864), where he was both the first teacher and the director. 
The museum is in that original building whose original features - not least doors and windows but also carved desk and other items of furniture - have all been lovingly restored. 

Many of the paintings are so small, they are impossible to capture on my camera.

The themes used by Theodor Aman in his works - historical painting, Oriental scenes, scenery, still nature - are all distinctly represented in the exhibition. The techniques he employed range from easel painting to engraving and drawing. Moreover, his works range from large scale painting (particularly heroic representations of the past and historical portraits) to small scale works (contemporary or daily life projects).

Entry was free - so was use of the camera (very rare!) and the generous time which the guide gave us. A real find - to return to........

Friday, August 30, 2013

The origins of the First World War - the how rather than why

Coincidentally, the historian who has written the new, detailed study of the origins of the First World War which I mentioned yesterday (Christopher Clark) has just reviewed a couple of other books on the same subject. It starts the same way as the book itself (which kept me captivated for five full days).  Its appeal lies, for me, in showing how a few players seem to have tipped the balance in the declaration of war - particularly Poincare. In the opening pages we learn of the scale and significance of French loans to Serbia in the period preceding and during the 2 Balkan wars; and, later, how Poincare buttered up the Russians and helped push them to full and final mobilisation. 
The book suggests (rightly or not I can't say) that the Balkans itself has tended to be relegated in most serious accounts of the causes of the war and his book certainly puts it back in central place. It also has an interesting section emphasising that his account is more concerned with the "how" of events, rather than the "why"......      
The debate over the origins of the First World War is older than the war itself. Even before the first shots were fired, Europe’s statesmen constructed narratives depicting themselves as innocents and their opponents as predators and breachers of the peace. Since then, the debate has spawned a historical literature of unrivalled size, sophistication and moral intensity. In 1991, a survey by the American historian John Langdon counted 25,000 relevant books and articles in English alone.
The debate is still going strong today, for several reasons. First, the war unleashed the demons of political disorder, extremism and cruelty that disfigured the 20th century. It destroyed four multiethnic empires (the Russian, the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman). It killed at least ten million young men and wounded at least twenty million more. It disorganised the international system in immensely destructive ways. Without this conflict it is difficult to imagine the October Revolution of 1917, the rise of Stalinism, the ascendancy of Italian Fascism, the Nazi seizure of power or the Holocaust. It was, as the historian Fritz Stern put it, ‘the first calamity of the 20th century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. It is hard to imagine a worse initial condition for the modern era of which we are the inheritors.
A second reason is the exceptionally intricate character of the crisis that brought war to Europe in 1914. The Cuban Missile Crisis was complex enough, yet it involved just two principal protagonists plus a range of proxies and subordinate players. By contrast, the story of how the First World War came about must make sense of the multilateral interactions among five autonomous players of equal importance – Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Russia and Britain – or six if we add Italy, plus various other strategically significant autonomous sovereign actors, such as the Ottoman Empire and the states of the Balkan peninsula, a region of high political tension and instability in the years before the outbreak of war.
To make matters worse, the executives of these states were anything but unified. There was uncertainty (and has been ever since among historians) about where exactly the power to shape policy was located within the respective governments. The chaos of competing voices is crucial to understanding the periodic agitations of the European system during the years leading up to the war. It also helps explain why the July Crisis of 1914 became the most opaque political crisis of modern times. There is virtually no viewpoint on its origins that can’t be supported by selecting among the available sources. Some accounts have focused on the culpability of one bad-apple state (Germany has been most popular, but none of the great powers has escaped the ascription of chief responsibility); others have shared the blame around or have looked for faults in ‘the system’. There has always been enough complexity to keep the argument going.
The debate is old, but the issues it raises are still fresh. One might even say that the political crisis of July 1914 seems less remote – less illegible – now than it did thirty or forty years ago……………. What must strike any 21st-century reader who follows the course of the crisis is its raw modernity. It began with a cavalcade of automobiles and a squad of suicide bombers: the young men who gathered in Sarajevo with bombs on 28 June 1914 had been told by their handlers to take their own lives after carrying out their mission, and received phials of potassium cyanide to do it with. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organisation with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge: extra-territorial, secretive, scattered in cells across political borders, its links to any sovereign government were oblique.
Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has given way to a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.
It is less clear now that we should dismiss the assassination at Sarajevo as a mishap incapable of carrying real causal weight. The attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 is an example of the way in which a single symbolic event – however deeply it may be enmeshed in larger historical processes – can change politics irrevocably, rendering old options obsolete and endowing new ones with an unforeseen urgency. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s reminded us of the potentially lethal nature of Balkan nationalism. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe in 1914. This doesn’t mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present. Rather, it means acknowledging those features of the past where our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.
The impact of these changes can be discerned in recent writing on the origins of the war. There has been a globalisation of the field of vision. The prewar polarisation of Europe into opposed alliance blocs now looks less like a purely continental European story and more like the European consequence of world-historical realignments driven by conflicts along a range of imperial peripheries in China, Africa and Central Asia. Rather than searching for the antecedents of the actual war that broke out in 1914, recent studies have tended to stress the open-endedness of international relations in a world in which nearly all the key players had more than one potential enemy. The European alliances, it has been argued, didn’t necessarily make war more likely: they could have the opposite effect if one ally refused to back the adventurism of another, as happened on several occasions in the decade before the war. Anglo-German naval rivalry may not have predestined an armed conflict between Britain and Germany: a number of recent monographs have shown how decisively Britain saw off the German naval challenge and have questioned how much impact the matter had on British geopolitical thinking. Periods of détente before 1914 were not deceptive moments of respite from mutual hostility but represented a genuine potentiality of the international system. On the eve of the July Crisis, as a recent article by T.G. Otte has shown, the British Foreign Office was on the verge of dropping the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 and seeking a rapprochement with Germany. Far from being inevitable, in other words, this war may actually have been improbable. On this reading, it was not the consequence of long-run historical ‘forces’, but of short-term realignments and shocks to the international system.
The Financial Times has another excellent review of some books on the causes of the First World War - as does the excellent Dublin Review of Books

The painting is a Popescu - but a Constantin Isache (1888-1967) not Stefan (1872-1948)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Balkan journeys

Despite the name of this blog, I’m actually on the periphery of the Balkans and do not even begin to try to understand its history. I’ve travelled (very briefly) in Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia; spent several years in Bulgaria and have known Romania for 20 odd years but have read few books about the countries in the Region. Lucian Boia is the only serious history historian of the last country with a book currently available (Romania – Borderland of Europe 2001 (although I noticed that the Frost English bookshop has a couple of slim histories in English); if you look really hard you may unearth in Sofia a copy of Richard Crampton’s A Short History of Modern Bulgaria (1987).
Otherwise I’ve read only Mark Mazower’s very brief The Balkans; and Dervla Murphy’s typically punchy description of her cycles through the disintegrating Yugoslavia of the early 1990s Through the Embers of Chaos – Balkan journeys.

However, Christopher Clark’s recent The sleepwalkers – how Europe went to war in 1914 is the first book which really helps me make sense of the region. It is a stunning and gripping read which has also altered my understanding of the respective roles of France, Germany, Russia and England in letting loose  murderous and senseless violence on the peoples of Europe -  
We are introduced to a shadowy world of fanatical terrorist cells engaged in plots that range across state borders, funded and armed by secret organizations that are connected, with carefully constructed plausible deniability, to official government ministries. The fanatics in this case are Serbian nationalists rather than Islamic fundamentalists (though it should be said that Serbian nationalism has long had strong religious overtones), but their outlook and methodology seem startlingly modern. So too are the polarizing pressures and media attention their activities generate, especially in terms of a positive feedback loop in which even presumably moderate figures feel compelled to emphasize their militancy for fear of appearing weak. When, after a series of botched attempts, one youthful member of an organization known as the Black Hand finally succeeds in murdering the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it triggers a war in which many of the participants have only a peripheral relationship to its proximate cause. Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly don't seem so far away from the Balkans.
The second part of The Sleepwalkers is a traditional diplomatic history reminiscent of A.J.P. Taylor's classic 1954 study The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914. Clark reconstructs the realignment of European great-power politics in the four decades preceding the outbreak of the First World War. The hallmark of his approach is pluralism: he demonstrates that for every national player in this drama, decision-making power was decentralized. In parliamentary societies, there were considerations of party politics, as well as the relationships between the military, the diplomatic corps, and a nation's political leadership. But even in presumably autocratic societies like Russia, policymaking was hardly straightforward; figures like Tsar Nicholas II or Kaiser Wilhelm were often managed by their ministers rather than leading their countries, and public opinion could influence strategic considerations no less than it did in France or England.
The final segment of The Sleepwalkers returns to Sarajevo in 1914, opening with a depiction of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that spools with cinematic clarity. Clark then proceeds to chart the sequence of decisions -- more like miscalculations -- that culminated in catastrophe. In light of his preceding analysis, it's clear that he rejects the notion of an overriding cause or a principal villain. As he explains in his conclusion, "The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over the corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol.And yet the weight of his own analysis makes clear that Clark blames some figures more than others. Serbian nationalists were not only irresponsible in the intensity of their fervour, but in their insistence on the legitimacy of territorial claims flatly denied the realities of history and the presence of non-Serbs in places like Albania and Bosnia. (Serbian conquests in the Balkans in 1912-13 were followed by atrocities strongly reminiscent of ethnic cleansing.)
Russia's support of the Serbs was part of a larger pan-Slavic strategy that had less to do with mystic chords of memory than trying to realize a long-term goal of succeeding Ottoman Turkey as the master of the Straits of Bosphorus, one that led the Russians to take dangerous risks. And French desperation for a strong partner to counter Germany virtually goaded the Russians to take those risks.
Conversely, Clark rejects the view that Austria-Hungary was an empty husk of an empire lurching toward collapse -- indeed, Franz Ferdinand had a plausible scenario for a reformed and federalized polity that reduced the disproportionate influence of Hungary and gave more representation for Slavs, including Serbians (one reason why radicals wishing to see the empire break up were so intent on killing him). Vienna's demands in the aftermath of the assassination were not unrealistic, though its delay in issuing them -- here again the baleful influence of internal divisions, one of which were foot-dragging Hungarians -- led rivals to mobilize their opposition. Germany is often portrayed as ratcheting up the pressure by giving the Austrians the notorious "blank check," but Clark depicts Berlin as believing the crisis could be resolved locally long after everyone else had concluded otherwise. British Conservatives welcomed war as a means of preventing Irish Home Rule, since fighting Germany would deprive Liberals of the military tools to implement a policy that had vocal, and possibly violent, opponents
Those wanting a brief overview of the origins of the war can do worse than the Authentic History reference. And the masochists who want to explore the representation of the Balkans in various writings can attempt these two academic pieces Imagining the Balkans and Balkanism in political context

update; here's a long and critical Serbian review of the book - http://www.balcanica.rs/balcanica/uploaded/balcanica/balcanica_44/18%204%20M%20Vojinovic%20The%20Slipwalkers.pdf

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Be very afraid!

I’m pleased that my readers have chosen, without any encouragement from me, to elevate a 2 year old post about the financial crisis to top of today’s pops. Perhaps you had, telepathically picked up my study last week of FT journalist Gillian Tett’s 2009 book Fool’s Gold about how the toxic new financial instruments were invented in the 1990s and how they subverted our social systems. One of the LRB reviewers summarises her book very well here (apologies if this is behind a firewall)
One of my favourite (rather manic) bloggers has a typically caustic description of this period - and then moves to some prescriptions -
The new movements we need now (and I’m increasingly drifting away from anything ‘political’) should be underpinned by these five very simple ideas:
1. Small, creative and vulnerable must triumph against big, monied and powerful
2. The co-operative side of our species nature must be given a larger role in the shape of mutuality
3. The centralised, bureaucratic State must have its influence reduced in favour of communitarian entrepreneurial ideas
4. Globalist mercantilism must be abandoned in favour of self-sufficiency and limited trade
5. Education must teach more civics, offer more personal challenge, and give an equal role to socio-cultural subjects
Despite the rhetoric of the past 5 years, the excesses of the banking class continue – indeed intensify. And point to a new phase of collapse - with eurocrats leading the way in setting the scene for wholesale robbery of what’s left of middle-class people like me. Shades of Weimar! Who said history never repeats itself??

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Theft of a nation

As I was writing yesterday’s post, I realised how little I knew about how the restitution of Romanian property (seized by the communists a half-century ago) had actually been attempted in recent years.
It seems I am not alone! The assessments seem to be subjective, confused and out-of-date. I was particularly disappointed by the 2008 study Property Restitution - What went wrong in Romania? by the Romanian Academic Society which promised to tell all but from which I emerged little the wiser - but at least knowing that the Romanian process was indeed distinctive (in central Europe) in its laggardly and utter confusing approach
A very short article in a recent issue of Journal of Property Rights in Transition updates a substantial and enlightening 2006 academic article on the subject entitled The Roof over Our Heads: Property Restitution in Romania; by Lavinia Stan - in The Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol.22, No.2, June 2006, pp.180–205 (which can be accessed and downloaded from www.academia.edu
Until 2005 successive Romanian governments blocked attempts by owners to recover their dwellings, siding with the tenants who were using the dwellings (well connected political, business, and cultural luminaries) against the owners (elderly persons or residents of foreign countries). Only 5 percent of all owners received their homes back. In 2005, a Property Fund (Fondul Proprietatea) started to compensate owners whose properties could not be returned because they had been demolished, bought by the tenants living in them, or (abusively) retained by the government offices (mayoralties and ministry departments) using them. The Property Fund relied on shares in large state-owned companies.
Because it was constituted over 15 years after the privatization process was launched, during which most such companies had been transferred into private hands, the Fund controlled few assets effectively. As such, many owners continued to receive neither property, nor compensation. Executive interference in the activity of the judiciary meant that many courts disregarded procedure and infringed both the Romanian Constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights when hearing restitution cases, thus prompting an increasing number of owners to approach the ECHR. This is why in 2010 the Court asked the government to revamp its property restitution scheme.
From October 2010 to April 2013 Romania did nothing to comply with the ECHR request. The vested interests of powerful political elite members in retaining ownership of the nationalized dwellings by disregarding the rights of the owners explain why the authorities did not consult with the owners, although consultations were recommended by the Court and would have involved little effort.
Political instability was also at play. There were no fewer than four cabinets during that time period (headed by Prime Ministers Emil Boc, Mihai Razvan Ungureanu, and Vasile Ponta), the first three of which were weak cabinets delegitimized by scandals, frequent replacements of ministers, and an unclear policy direction. Instead of solving the restitution cases, by providing the Property Fund with the means needed to compensate owners, punishing Fund leaders for mismanagement and waste, and protecting owners from undue pressure to renounce their property rights, these governments perpetuated an untenable system.
According to some reports, 1,000 intermediaries well connected to the Fund cashed in 1.5 billion Euros for property claims they brought from disillusioned initial owners, who simply gave up the fight. These intermediaries received compensation at higher rates and faster than thousands of owners whose claims the Fund refused to consider promptly and honestly.
All of this serves to prove just how right Tom Gallagher got it with the subtitle for his 2005 book Romania – theft of a nation. And his 2006 article for Open Democracy is perhaps as pithy a summary as you will get anywhere of this kleptomania and how it has been sustained.

And I see that this book by Lavinia Stan has just been published Transitional Justice in post-communist Romania – the politics of memory

Friday, August 16, 2013

Romanian "elites" shameless in theft

The restitution of property nationalised by the Romanian communist regime has been a long saga – with only 10,000 homes apparently restored and 200,000 cases outstanding at April 2013. Many glorious fin de siècle buildings have crumbled to dust under the combination of neglect, uncertainty, squatting, anticipated costs of rehab and illegal demolitions. Curiously every Romanian city has a clutch of grand palaces waving the flags of political parties which seem to have escaped what has passed as the restitution process.
The aftermath of the sudden Romanian revolution of December 1989 allowed a variety of political parties to assert their rights to an amazing array of places in all the major cities of Romania. God knows what goes on there – the windows are open in the summer but there is absolutely no sign of activity. The properties are worth billions…giving the parties (let alone the individuals who control them at various points of time) access to limitless bank credit. For more on this saga see this May 2013 piece from the Property Rights in Transition Journal
And what about the art collections which I referred to in a recent post? That post mentioned ever so casually that I had come across a very heavy and fascinating 380 page volume (from 2005) which itemises 500 or so paintings in an incredible collection of 60 year-old business-man Tiberiu Postelnica.
In my innocence I wanted to contact him, congratulate him on his taste and, who knows, perhaps even have a viewing. Curiously, however, even the Romanian version of google unearths very few references to either the man or his collection.
But I do discover that he is apparently the nephew of Ceaucescu's last Minister of the Interior and Head of the Securitate, Tudor Postelnica – and worth at least 10 million euros. You can imagine the process by which he came to accumulate the collection he now has and so shamelessly boasts about in this 380 page volume!!!
"There were two works of Baba, small, two Patrascus, two Palladys, a Lucian Grigorescu, a small Tonitza, two works by Ciucurencu a larger; some Catargi paintings on cardboard; and quite a few drawings by Ressu, "said the President of the Union of Artists. He also explained that he preferred direct selling because it was the quickest way to get money: "It was a public sale but not a public auction. Had I made ​​a public auction, then the Ministry of Culture would have had the first right of refusal. Under these circumstances, I had to do a letter to wait three months for them to come and classify the assets if works or part of the Treasury, and other months in which I address or MCC museum, to ask them if they want to buy these papers etc. they probably would have responded and only then was allowed to come to auction. After these six months, I should have apply to an auction house for the Union circulated, to auction only work of its members, those in life. We have no right to do auction with works of deceased artists. would be delayed so that a half-year auction 
I had started today wanting to blog about my great find – Romanian painter Constantin Artachino who was born on 7 November 1870 of a Turkish family living at the Marmara Sea which came to Bucharest in 1877. His colours are glorious and several of the paintings redolent of some of my Bulgarian painters such as Dobre Dobrev. The example which heads the post - from the Danube - is typical. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Good bookshops can (and do) beat Amazon - Let the word go out

I feel totally vindicated in my Amazon boycott. The prices I am getting are more than 10% better than Amazon’s deliveries to my Romanian base.
And the relationship I have developed with the very knowledgeable bookshop owner is priceless.

My next step is probably to buy good first editions from online second-hand bookshops – although too many of them seem to have an exclusive tie-in with Amazon which charges about 10 euros for delivering an 8 euros book.
Come on independent bookshops, you can do better than this!!

The cartoon is one of several which Ethical Consumer is now using in their very welcome campaign to boycott Amazon - which also includes this guide on alternatives to the giant.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


I am trying to identify writers who give us a sense of life at a particular place and time… a zeitgeist. And to understand what exact skills that requires. Marcus Aurelius and Montaigne perhaps abstract too much from their context to qualify; Pepys and Boswell, as diarists, focus perhaps just a bit too narrowly on the London quotidian. Marcel Proust is simply too incestuous.
I am left with names such as George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Vasily Grossman and Hans Fallada but also people such as Richard Cobb, Tony Judt, Timothy Garton Ash and Geert Mak
What do they have in common (apart from all being male!)? Orwell, Grossman and Mak were/are journalists; Koestler and Fallada writers; Cobb, Judt and Garton Ash academics. 
The terms, of course, are arbitrary – indeed my distinctions seem to imply that journalists and academics do not also write! In using these terms, I was simply referring to the main source of income. 
Half of those on the list wrote novels – some (Orwell and Fallada) famously so but that is not quite how we remember them. The sort of writing I am talking about seems to exclude the “suspension of disbelief” required by novelists…..Clearly many good European novels do give a sense of “zeitgeist” (Voltaire’s Candide; Flaubert's Madame Bovary; Zola; Thomas Mann) - but, compared with the writers on my list, they seem to lack a certain “voice”.  

Initially I thought I had identified three features of these writers – range of experience; breadth of insight; and literary capacity. The first group of names all had the harrowing experiences of war; the last group the privileges of access to academic sources about 20th century European savagery and, in Garton Ash’s case, more direct sources about post-war European change and conflicts. Some writers not on my list (such as Norman Lewis, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dervla Murphy and Jan Morris) of course give a terrific sense of place and time - Naples; central Europe in the 1930s and 90s. And Diane Athill is one of several European women I wrote about recently whose diaries give an excellent sense of zeitgeist (Simone de Beauvoir is perhaps the supreme example). Diaries and travelogues, however, always run the risk of self-centredness. In that sense I have a preference for the more detailed analysis which Clive James gives in Cultural Amnesia.

At what point do individual memories become part of social – if not political - history? 
The painting is Max Ernst's Europe After the Rain II (1940-42)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some great blogs

One of the things I look for in analytical writing is generous crediting of the ideas of others. It gives me more confidence in the writer and the article/book when I see such attributions. And I’m not talking of copious footnotes or these silly, academic referencing to entire books. Rather a sense that the writer is familiar with a body of literature and points us to that which (s)he finds most pertinent. Of course I realise that those who write and produce books need to pretend to originality but, for me, this comes as much from style, voice and clarity as from forced insights. One of the things which this blog tries to do is to identify and disseminate quality writing wherever I find it.
Few of us may need daily insights about political life in Hungary – but, if you want a sense of what is going on in contemporary Central Europe then the occasional dip into the Hungarian Spectrum blog is an absolute must. I know of no other blog in the English language (about any country) which paints such large and detailed canvasses.
And A Patriot’s Guide to Romania offers, every week or so, architectural and historical gems of…… Romania. A year ago I offered a guide to blogs about Romania in the English language.
And here’s the latest in the strangely-neglected story about how the Eurocrats are moving to steal our savings from us all.
The painting is by Hans Holbein

Sunday, August 11, 2013

European perspectives

Brits are famed for their “pragmatism” - which basically means their inability to take the world (or ideas) very seriously. Our easy-going flexibility does, however, mean that we are out of our comfort zone when we face unreasonable people and/or cataclysmic events such as the current financial crisis and the political pygmies who pass for world leaders. Two articles in one of this year’s issues of New Left Review have brought home to me our insularity – first is a wonderful interview – Words from Budapest - with a Transylvanian Romanian - GM Tamas – born in 1948 After a stint as an assistant editor of a literary weekly in his native Transylvania, he got into political difficulties with the authorities of the time and emigrated to Hungary in the late 1970s where he taught at the University of Budapest. Sacked for political reasons again, he became known as a dissident intellectual and published only in the underground or abroad. In the late 1980s he supported and was a founding member of the Liberal Party in Hungary, and was elected to parliament as a liberal member of the Hungarian Parliament in 1989.
He quit professional politics in 1994; became an acadenic again; was sacked (?)... and is now...... a revolutionary socialist (!!). What a life! Someone I would very much like to meet......
The interview covers these very different phases of his incredible life - and his honesty in admitting his blindness to what was going on around him after the collapse of communism-
I was born in 1948, in what Hungarians call Kolozsvár and Romanians, Cluj. The principal city of Transylvania, it had been transferred from Hungary to Romania in 1920 by the Treaty of Trianon, awarded back to Horthy’s Hungary by Hitler in 1940, and was under direct Nazi occupation from early 1944 until the arrival of Soviet forces, when it was incorporated into Romania again. Both my parents were Communists. They had come back from the War broken and bitter. My father, a Hungarian writer, was dispatched from prison to the front, where he was seriously wounded—he walked on crutches, later with a sturdy walking-stick, which I still have—by those whom he considered his comrades: the Red Army. My mother, ironically, escaped being deported to Auschwitz because she was in jail as a seditious Bolshevik. But her mother and her favourite elder brother were killed. My father’s family belonged to the petty nobility, or rather yeomanry, in the mountainous Szekler region of East Transylvania; his father was a tailor in a small town. The movement—they never spoke of the Party—meant mostly suffering and persecution: arrest, prison, beatings.
Later, when my father was thoroughly disenchanted with the system, I asked him why he still called himself a Communist. He showed me a little plastic—well, I suppose, bakelite—cube, with six little photos glued on its sides: the portraits of some of the best friends of his youth, tortured to death by the royal Hungarian and Romanian secret services, or by the Gestapo in that awful year, 1944. ‘Because I cannot explain it to them’, he said. It was the perfect Christian idea: bearing witness, martyrdom as the theological guarantee of truth. They were justified by heroic death, and so was the cause. He could not escape it. Keeping faith in the teeth of adverse political experience, the rotting away of the movement, was the only course. Anything else would have been treason. Duplex veritas also: he never denied that ‘state socialism’ was a failure. His identity and his principles were at loggerheads. Some of his comrades, back from the concentration camps, had been rearrested by the Communist authorities, ‘disappeared’ without a sound. This destroyed him as an intellectual.
In the absence of revolution, he suddenly found himself with time on his hands, so he had the leisure to be a wonderful parent. He showed me historical Transylvania, limping on mountain paths, propped on his stick before some redoubt or castle, or another ruined medieval church. There aren’t many intellectuals today who have working-class friends, but we did. Some of our family were peasants, in the poorest regions of Europe. I was taught, without great success, to do things in the fields and the garden. 
Then two harrowing experiences of communist harassment and dissidence; one highly-charged political phase as a liberal member of parliament and then, in past 20 years.... 
......... I decided to throw out my whole so-called oeuvre, break with my entire life so far, and go to school again. This has of course liberated my passionate repudiation of the state of affairs we wrought, my sympathy and compassion for people impoverished and made illiterate again by the market turn. I was obliged to recognize that our naive liberalism had delivered a nascent democracy into the hands of irresponsible and hate-filled right-wing politicos, and contributed to the re-establishment of a provincial, deferential and resentful social world, harking back to before 1945. The break was naturally quite painful, as it excluded me from the circle of people I was associated with for decades—the dissidents—so that my friends at the moment are mostly generations younger than I am; wonderful people, but without the shared memories so necessary for true friendships. At the same time, young Romanian leftists made it possible for me to have a consoling shadow existence in Transylvania, and to get rid finally of the feeling that poisoned my youth—the sense that ethnic conflict was irremediable. After a thirty-year absence, for the first time in my life when I give talks and sometimes write for journals in Romanian, I am made to feel welcome in my own land: a source of great delight and maybe undeserved justification.
The second article (in the same issue of NLR) is a tour de force from one of Francois Mitterand’s eminence gris - Regis Debray – entitled Decline of the West? - of which this is a typical excerpt -
The West guarantees and shapes the formation of international elites through its universities, business schools, financial institutions, officer-training colleges, commercial organizations, philanthropic foundations and major corporations. No empire has ever ruled by force alone. It needs relays among native ruling circles, and this centrifugal incubator produces a global class of managers who incorporate its language, its references and revulsions, its organizational models (rule of law and ‘good governance’) and economic norms (Washington Consensus). It is this moulding of managerial cadres from an already globalized middle class that transforms domination into hegemony, dependence into acceptance. Beyond the internships for young leaders—3,000 per year, organized by American embassies—this digital brain drain engenders a shared collective unconscious. China’s ‘red princes’ send their boys to be educated in the US, whence they return well-equipped for the pursuit of wealth. In Europe, the young find it not just natural but indispensable to obtain a qualification from one of these ‘centres of excellence’.
There is no far-flung land, minority or sect that does not have its suction pump of more or less well-implanted representatives in the US, with their connections in Congress and in the Administration, whose best-placed elements can, if they wish, return to their country of origin, making it their second home. They are the Afghano-ricans, Albano-ricans, Mexico-ricans, Afro-ricans (the Jean Monnet-style Gallo-rican was merely a prototype). This planetary HR department can pull a Karzai out of its pocket in an instant. A Palestinian from the World Bank, an Italian from Goldman Sachs, a re-cast Libyan or Georgian: the ease with which America is able to install a captain at every helm is the reward for its generous embrace of foreigners, an opening of national identity that the British Empire never risked, but which has earned its successor hundreds of thousands of adoptive children, of every nationality—and the possibility of filling its ambassadorships with people originating from their countries of residence.
China, India, Egypt, even little states like Israel or Armenia, benefit from loyal diasporas as channels of influence. The function of the 30 million Chinese expatriates in Southeast Asia is well known. America, which is no more a land of emigration than are the Nordic countries, does better: it has 42 million immigrants at home, the diasporas from every continent—Hispanics, Asians, Africans. Only the Western states—and the US first and foremost—have so many gangways to distant countries. We might periodize as follows: from 1850–1950, the West sweats the natives, inoculates, opens schools. From 1950–2000, the natives who have survived and learned the language come as immigrants to the West. From 2000–2050, the West educates the most talented and sends them back to top jobs in their country of origin, to propagate the West’s ideas and defend its interests. Win–win?
 Whatever we think of French intellectuals, they can always be relied upon to stick it to the Americans! Please read the whole article – it is a real thought-provoker

I’ve always had a soft spot for the New Left Review which first appeared as I was starting University in 1960 and trying to make sense of the world. On its 50th anniversary, it received the following glowing tribute from an observer -
When so much of even the so-called "serious" media is given over to celebrity-fuelled ephemera and the recycling of press releases and in-house gossip; and when the academic world is struggling to mitigate the worst effects of careerist modishness; and when national and international politics seem to consist of bowing to the imperatives of "the market" while avoiding public relations gaffes; then we need more than ever a "forum" like NLR. It is up to date without being merely journalistic; it is scholarly but unscarred by citation-compulsion; and it is analytical about the long-term forces at work in politics rather than obsessed by the spume of the latest wavelet of manoeuvring and posturing. Despite its self-description in its guidelines for contributors, the journal is not in any obvious sense "lively". It is downright difficult (but none the worse for that), because what it tries to analyse is complex and its preferred intellectual tools are often conceptually sophisticated. It is difficult where being easy would be no virtue, difficult where aiming to be "accessible" would mean patronising its readers, difficult where ideas need to be chewed rather than simply swallowed. That's what I admire above all about NLR: its intellectual seriousness – its magnificently strenuous attempt to understand, to analyse, to theorise.
I am grateful to Wikipedia for its entry which runs as follows -
New Left Review was launched in January 1960 when the editors of The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review merged their boards. The founders of the new journal hoped that it would provide the motive force for a new round of political organisation in Britain, inspiring the creation of "New Left Clubs" and helping to reinvent socialism as a viable force in British politics.
From 1962, with Perry Anderson as editor, it has had a book-like format with long articles, footnotes, and more than 100 pages per issue.
The NLR — as it came to be known — drew on debates within Western Marxism. It published work by Walter BenjaminJacques LacanEl LissitskyHans Magnus EnzensbergerHerbert MarcuseTheodor AdornoAntonio Gramsci, and Louis Althusser, and interviewed Jean-Paul SartreGeorg Lukács, and Lucio Colletti.
A distinctive feature of the journal was a series of 'country studies' with Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn supplying an account of the peculiar formation of capitalism and the state in Britain. The journal has also specialized in sweeping global surveys. In 1966 the journal published Juliet Mitchell's essay 'Women, the Longest Revolution', a founding text of second wave feminism. Nearly every issue from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s carried an account by a worker of their experience at work.
Texts of the aesthetic avant-garde were published and a series of articles on film by Peter Wollen. The journal covered third world anti-imperial movements. It reflected the concerns of the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s and documented the crises of the Communist regimes in Russia and eastern Europe. Isaac DeutscherRaymond WilliamsRaphael Samuel, and Ralph Miliband published in the journal and their work gave rise to important exchanges.
In the 1970s and 1980s a debate between Ernest MandelAlec Nove and Diane Elson focussed on the respective weight of plan, market and worker or community control in socialist economics.
In the 1990s and after the journal published major studies of the growing evidence of global capitalist disorder by Robert BrennerGiovanni ArrighiDavid HarveyPeter Gowan and Andrew GlynBenedict AndersonMike DavisFredric JamesonTerry EagletonEllen WoodTariq Ali and Nancy Fraser published some of their most important texts in the review. Notable studies included Robert Brenner on the origins of capitalism, Erik Olin Wright on class, Göran Therborn on the advent of democracy
The implications of the Soviet collapse were extensively covered. Post-modernism, post-Marxism, the fate of feminism and the real configurations of the "New World Order" were plotted and assessed. In every decade since the mid-1970s the journal has wrestled with the historical meaning of nationalism with essays by Tom NairnEric HobsbawmMiroslav HrochBenedict AndersonStuart HallErnest Gellner,Ronald SunyRégis DebrayMichael Lowy, and Gopal Balakrishnan.
In its new form, NLR has led with controversial editorials on the direction of world politics and major articles on the United StatesJapanTurkeyEurope, Britain, CubaIraqMexicoIndia and Palestine. It has published work by Alain BadiouSlavoj ŽižekDavid Graeber and Michael Hardt and featured analysis of global imbalances, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the credit crunch, the Egyptian Revolution and Arab Spring, prospects for nuclear disarmament, the scope of anti-corporate activism, the prospect of a "planet of slums," and discussions of world literature and cinema, cultural criticism and the continuing exploits of the avant-garde.

Since 2008, the Review has followed the economic crisis as well as its global political repercussions, with in-depth country studies of Iceland, Ireland, Spain and Greece, an ongoing debate on US-China economic imbalances (and their political consequences), as well as on the crisis's toll on California and the US health-care debate. An essay by Wolfgang Streeck in NLR 71 was called "most powerful description of what has gone wrong in western societies" by the Financial Times's columnist Christopher Caldwell

Friday, August 9, 2013

The biggest bank heist in history

Slogger has a very worrying post today about the money we thought was safe in our savings accounts. Under this draft proposal – which many expect to be applied to the entire EU – no depositor big or small will in future be able to feel safe with money deposited in a bank.
The German site (German Economic News) reports that all bets are off as far as the ‘guarantee of all funds under €100,000′ pledge is concerned.
  • the proposal as drafted – and almost entirely ignored by the Western media – states that small account holders will have to wait up to four weeks to get their money….’depending on how serious the insolvency is’. During that time, there will be a maximum withdrawal of €100-200 per day – again, perhaps less depending on the seriousness of the failure. (Based on the Cyprus experience, the haircut in the end will be at least 60%).
  • The EU Parliament – allegedly – is demanding that deposits of €100,000+ euros should be confiscated within five days. (So much for MEPs offering us some kind of protection from the Sprouts).
  • In the event of a banking collapse, all previous government commitments are null and void.  The force majeur of “exceptional circumstances” can lead to ways round such pledges. Part of the new plan suggests savers could also be subject to a ‘penalty tax’ if they have less than € 100,000 in the bank. 
The scheme is based on the following insane principles:
1. Putting money in a bank makes every citizen a creditor of that bank, equally prone to confiscation in order to repay….who exactly? The answer is, other banks it owed money. So it’s not really our money after all, it’s the banking sector’s money. After it’s been taxed by the Government, despite the fact that we earned it…it’s really all bankers’ money after all. Unbelievable.
2. If we are prudent enough to keep money in smaller amounts in lots of accounts, we will have to pay a ‘penalty tax’ – well of course we will: I mean, given it’s never our money really – we’re just borrowing it, or something – then quite right too. And because it isn’t really our money, we shall be given strictly limited spending money per day. The brass neck is beyond belief.
3. If you have been seditious enough in your life to actually make quite a lot of money legally, then within five days the money that was never really yours will be taken back by its rightful owners…the bankers….or the Government rescuing the bankers but without doing it in our taxes. Why five days – why not five seconds? I mean, it’s their money: we were just earning it for safe keeping, right? Of course we were.
4. Anything is an exceptional circumstance if they say it is. Even the Nazis in 1933 had to burn down the bloody Reichstag to declare a State of Emergency. In 2013, it requires just one dumb, over-leveraged, f**kwitted bank to collapse under the weight of its CEO’s ego, and we’re all pauperised by Law.
I think the time has finally come when we must give our legislators and ‘leaders’ here in the UK a gigantic kick up the backside.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Romanian literature

I feel quite ashamed that I have had this lovely mountain house in the Carpathians for some 13 years to which I increasingly return and sejour - and yet do not really speak Romanian nor am properly acquainted with Romanian culture. My excuse is that my thoughts and books (from a steadily increasing library here) are in English – with occasional forays into French (the 2010 trip doubled the number of French books) and German (ditto the last 3 month’s trip). The world literature tour which The Guardian bravely attempted in 2011 gave a sense of what these two countries offer – France here and Germany here – let alone China or Poland.
With such treasures beckoning, how can I justify diverting my energies into a forbidding new field? But the past year has given me a new perspective on Romanian classical paintings, for example, which – Andreeescu, Grigorescu and Popescu apart – had until now seemed somewhat sombre. But the file I now have on Romanian realist painting of the first part of the 20th Century is now beginning to rival that of the Bulgarian painters who decorate my various homes. And the new book Romanian Writers on Writing gives me vignettes of almost 100 Romanian writers whom clearly I cannot ignore.
And, although The Guardian has not yet managed a tour of Romanian literature, it did receive these interesting suggestions. Those wishing to get a taste of what’s available can consult the New York's Romanian Cultural Institute or have a look at this list of classic writing 

I am always impressed with the number of new Romanian titles on the groaning shelves of the Humanitas and Carteresti bookshops but all does not seem well with the market according to this writer -
You do not need a PhD to grasp the implications of the simple fact that, in 2011, there were far fewer books sold in Romania (total sales of €60m) than there were in neighbouring Hungary (total sales of €180m), which has a smaller population.
You do not need to be a communist to see that illiteracy — a problem that was largely eradicated in the 1950s — is on the increase in our country, where it now affects 6 per cent of the population, and 40 per cent of teens in the under-15 age group who lack basic reading and writing skills.
You do not have to be affiliated to a political party to notice that in their neglect and denigration of Romanian national culture, Romanian governments of all political hues have been gloriously assisted by the large post-communist publishing houses, whose eagerness to earn money from translations is, in most cases, matched by their disdain for living Romanian culture. And those who are unconvinced of this fact need look no further than the percentage of editorial production in this country which is actually devoted to Romanian books.

Monday, August 5, 2013

In Praise of older women

“Old men should be explorers”, runs a TS Eliot line – and Stanley Spencer has a painting “in praise of older men”. It is time, however, we celebrated older women. Koln’s bookshops were displaying some of their books – a biography of German diarist Luise Rinser; conversations with Loki Schmidt who, apart from her pioneering environmental work, was Gerhard Schmidt’s partner for 68 years; an autobiography by Inge Jens  partner of Germany’s recently-deceased man of letters Walter Jens. An article in Die Zeit brought 90 year-old Anglo-German author of 30 (mainly childrens’) books Judith Kerr to my attention.
Diane Athill is 96 and still going strong – with several volumes of powerful memoirs written over several decades which I’ve totally missed. This says a lot not only about me – but about UK literary circles. I’ve just started her Somewhere Toward the End which is one of the clearest and most honest reflections about living I’ve ever come across. The review article puts it nicely -
Her writing has wit, bite and honesty. Such qualities are rare enough in any memoir and so are especially worthwhile in one that deals with the lives of the elderly – people we often either patronise or ignore.
The opening chapters deal very poignantly with her recollections of love - and her discovery of a neglected female Expressionist painter. Ian Jack - editor of Granta - writes very eloquently of his experiences of editing her work -
As the editor of Granta I also became the editor of her three last books. Very little needs to be said about that. The typescript arrived, a few suggestions for changes were made, she absorbed them with her quick editorial brain, and a slightly amended typescript was soon in the post. Editing her was pure pleasure because I loved reading her; it was like having someone speak into your ear, someone humane and self-amused and wise that you wanted to hear. "Good writing" is difficult to define, and definitions differ according to taste, but you know it when you see it, which is rarer than publishing companies would have you suppose. I remember my excitement when I read the first few pages of the typescript that became Somewhere Towards the End (Athill's choice of title and a good one, as her titles always are). The book arose out of a brief conversation and the exchange of a postcard or two: it seemed to me that while the memoir genre abounded in accounts of youth – the "coming-of-age narrative" is a literary cliché of our times – very few books have let us know about life at the other end of the road. In fact, other than self-help guides (take a cod-liver oil capsule every day) and apart from the late novels of Kingsley Amis and Philip Roth, I could think of none. There are, of course, books about the process of dying by victims of cruel and slow terminal disease, but writers have been shy of the subject of just being old, as if shame and indignity had replaced wisdom and experience as the best-known qualities of great age. Our conversation hardly amounted to an editorial briefing and I had no word of progress for a couple of years. Then a few early pages arrived and with them the first vivid sense of what it is like to become old, like reports from another country that we shall all, if spared earlier elimination, shortly be moving to.
In different hands, the book could have been filled with a sentimental longing for the past, brittle cheer towards the present, or the religious consolation of the future. None of those things could ever have appealed to Athill. Instead, Somewhere Towards the End is a beautifully turned series of episodes, none of them sermonic, in which the author reveals how she has come to terms (or not) with what she calls "falling away" and the unavoidable fact of death. It was, wrote the late Simon Gray – no stranger himself to intimations of mortality – both "exhilarating and comforting" in its good sense, candour and lively spirit. Every passage is rooted in specifics. On the second page, she describes her new tree fern (£18 from the Thompson & Morgan plant catalogue) and her doubts that she will live long enough to see it reach mature height: a small thought, but it immediately takes us inside the mind of someone going on for 90. She has "got it right", and continues to get it right throughout the book, in the sense that we utterly believe that this is how life is and was for her. 
Jack's concluding section is an important comment on current writing -
 we should have more of them....more people who write only when they feel they have something to tell us; more writers driven by the scrupulous need to make us see clearly and exactly what they have witnessed and felt.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

An ode to independent Bookshops

A couple of weeks ago I did something I haven’t been able to in 30 years – I ordered a batch of books from a bookshop! Sounds so simple – but my nomadic existence since 1990 has made it so difficult to be in the appropriate place when the books actually arrived. And there were so few bookshops in the countries I was working in which offered such a service. But the Anthony Frost English bookshop is something else– not for nothing called “arguably the best English-language bookshop in Eastern Europe” in this year’s Lonely Planet book on Bulgaria and Romania and voted this year Romania’s best bookshop by the Publishers’ Association of Romania.
The titles on display are, for a man of my taste, mouth-watering and seem to get better on each visit. But that did not prevent me from handing Vlad, the highly knowledgeable and friendly manager, a list of eight books – six of which duly arrived in the flash of an eye within a week! Needless to say, other books also caught my eye – eg Romanian Writers on Writing which has an interesting short video clip here – or were recommended by Vlad, eg the stunning Forbidden Photos and Personal Images which has the following blurb on the great website
It was, indeed, necessary that 18 years pass for people to want to remember what communism meant. When they were ready, it was Andrei Pandele that gave them back their lost and forgotten memories, the one witness who breaks the silence and brings out prints of individual and public history. Maybe the young, tall, slender young man, with green eyes, that paid attention to everything, got an even bigger reward for his courage then he expected. People did want to know. At 63, he is still young and full of energy, currently working on a project on the House of the People.
He now lives in the house where during communism he snuck the films that were to become his testimony, his parents’ house, which he used to leave with a briefcase where he hid the prints that could have gotten him five years of imprisonment each, had he been discovered. The kind of pictures that were not part of family albums.
Pandele’s testimony is a silent, but vibrant one, and this is what he does best, takes pictures of real life, stills time with his camera, and keeps it aside for generations to come. People have a short memory when it comes to hard times and misfortunes. Photographs help them remember and new generations understand their present through their past.
There was also another powerful book with black and white photographs of the Odbor flea market which I found just a bit too lifelike to have in my library

I am therefore thoroughly sustained in my new boycott of the Amazon behemoth. Indeed I feel cleansed! The prices of my purchases in the Anthony Frost bookshop were no higher than the bills I had been getting for the packages delivered to the house. But the human experience was priceless. I googled “in praise of independent bookshops” and am delighted to share these glowing tributes from thepenguinblog; feminspire; booksellers; and - perhaps best of all - independent booksellers

Anthony Frost are also part of the Bookcrossing network with three baskets of free books also available for the taking (providing you leave an equivalent number!) - so another book was duly added ("The Spin Doctor's Diary") about which hopefully I will have something to say soon..... 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Forty Days and Nights in Sofia

One of my Bulgarian friends who has been involved in the protests in Sofia (40 days so far) sent me this morning Ivan Krastev’s brief (and disappointingly uninformative) article on the current situation  - one the few, however, which the British media have deemed worthy to print. Transitions Online has just published this brief note from Boyko Vassilev who is producer of the Panorama programme of Bulgarian Television and writes occasional pieces on Bulgaria such as this one about the self-immolations which were a feature of the earlier phase of the Bulgarian protests (in April)
Hardly surprising that the EC technocrats have been sending broadly supportive messages to the protestors – nor that old leftists have an ambivalent attitude to protests which have the overtones of the wider “Occupy” movement but without the critique of capitalism the leftists expect.
One Bulgarian Professor (in Germany) (who is a self-confessed member of the Mont Pelerin society) offers this perspective on the events in Sofia
The various conflicting attitudes to the protests are evident in the discussion thread to the earlier article by Mariya Ivancheva whose family was apparently part of the old Communist guard.
I'm sorry not to be present at the protests some images of which are here - and wish them well.