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, November 30, 2013

The last bastion of Social democracy....???

I can see from the statistics that my readers are none too keen on my blogging about Scotland. Bear with me, however, since there is a point……
Neal Ascherson is one of many names I encountered in the late 1970s in the Glasgow HQ of a Regional government system (responsible then for half of Scotland’s citizens) of which (in my early 30s) I had a key leadership role – Felicity Kendall, Richard von Weizsaeker,  Melina Merkouri and Paul Scofield were some other visitors (an interesting melange - n'est-ce pas??). 

The Liberal leader of the time – Jo Grimond – with whom (despite our different political allegiances) I established a quiet relationship – actually benignly called me the “Gauleiter” of Strathclyde. Those were the days in which the political expediency of a Labour Government led by James Callaghan allowed a referendum on Scottish “devolution” which led to a nominal victory – but one which failed to meet (an impossible) legal precondition of 40% support of the official electorate. For my sins I had been active in the “No” campaign (with people such as Tony Benn) but – in the privacy of the polling both – had actually voted “yes”!!

Today being St Andrew’s Day gives Neal Ascherson the opportunity to comment on the Scottish Executive’s intentions for the future
Reading "Scotland's Future", I couldn't at first account for a faint twinge of melancholy, a recognition. Then it dawned on me. The Scotland being here described – or proposed – was the Britain so passionately hoped for by the millions who voted for Tony Blair, back in 1997.After 18 years of Thatcherism, the longing was for a return to fairness and a stronger regulating and redistributing role for the state.
What New Labour did with those hopes is another story. But Salmond's "what sort of Scotland" is also a moderate, statist social democracy that partners the private sector but is not afraid to – for example – renationalise the Royal Mail.The yes camp is wider than the official yes campaign.
Around Scotland in recent months, I keep meeting people who would never vote SNP or trust Salmond, but who are painfully admitting that they may have to vote yes. This is because they are appalled at the way the British state is heading, under Tory or Labour: the downward plunge into the barbarism of neoliberal politics, the contempt for public service, the almost monthly advance of privatisation.
Wrestling with old loyalties, they may vote for what Ian Jack called "the lifeboat option" – an independent Scotland as the only way to escape that fate.It's a lifeboat the SNP government has already launched, using devolution to keep out English "reforms" to the NHS or higher education.
Gordon Brown himself used to argue that the health service and the postwar welfare state were the supreme achievement of Great Britain's history. And yet it's only the SNP that has embarked on this astonishing attempt to preserve and grow what's left of that achievement in one part of old Ukania. It hurts to laugh at some of history's jokes, but here's one: in spite of itself, the SNP is the most truly British party in these islands.

Bulgarian Whites

Perhaps understandably, I failed to mention the annual 2 day Bulgarian wine fair I attended 2 weekends ago here in Sofia. 
It was hard work – and required a rest afterwards! For 10 euros I had a 2-day pass and more than 200 wines to taste. 
I did my best on the Saturday – the white and rose day - but found red Sunday a bit of a slog – with my pallet and tongue fairly quickly getting badly coated!

For some reason, I decided to score the wines out of 6.0 and the white wines I appreciated came out as follows -
  • Lovica - Chardonnay (6 levs!) 4.5 out of 6.0
  • LV - Colombard (5 levs! and 4.5 score) and Sauvignon Blanc (SB)
  • Black Sea Gold - Muscat El Mar (6 levs) - find of the day! Salty Hills Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (15 levs) - one of the best (Silver medal)
  • Minkov - Rheinriesling 
  • Katarzyna - SB (4.2)
  • Marvin - Viognier and Chardonnay and Viognier - both 4.5s in my scoring
  • Villa Yustina - Blanc Cuvee (8 levs)
  • Zagreus - white Mavrud - 4.5 on my scoring
  • Medi Valley - Chardonnay Incanto (4.9!!) 18 levs and Chardonnay and Viognier
  • No Man's Land 600 SB  12 levs
  • Kapatovo - Chardonnay and Viognier 4.5 (18 levs) 
On Sunday, the only wine which impressed me was the Ethno range of wines. They are from the Sungurlare valley near Burgas on the Black Sea and the Chardonnay I am now drinking (3 euros) got a silver medal (in the 2013 "Chardonnays of the World" somewhere). How do they do it??

Tomorrow I will try to find some specimens of all these wines in the CaseVino chain - the Bulgarian version of Oddbins – and subject them in the next week to some tough tasting and testing. 
No rest for the conscientious!!

The photo is of the wine museum in Sungurlare village - the wine area very near Burgas

Danube Divides

The Danube may be a busy river but it has also acted as a barrier between Bulgaria and Romania who have had, over the years, a rather strained relationship – not helped by the open conflict during the two Balkan Wars a hundred years ago and the absorption by Romania in 1918 for 22 years of a significant section of Bulgarian territory on the southern banks of the Danube (the Dobrogea area of the North-East).
Although I have visited the city of Dobrich in the heart of that area - and Balcik on the Black Sea which was a famous art colony then for the Bucharest glitterati, I have not yet managed the various settlements which scatter along the eastern Danube banks particularly Silistra (this is one of the paintings in my collection of that city – by one Hristo Danev from 1910)
I was therefore delighted to come across just now a post from a Romanian blogger I admire about Tutrakan and the museum and monument there which mark the battles; the role played by such outsiders as the Germans; and the eventual liberation of the area in 1940. What I particularly appreciated about the post (apart from the photographs and history) was the recognition of the dubious nature of the encroachment in the first place – the author admitting that the visit made him appreciate that this was a bit of Romanian imperialism
Although a lot of Romanians make the journey by road to Varna in the summer, there is, it seems to me, still little love lost between the nations. I do occasionally worry about my Romanian numberplates here!!
I was looking these days at some text about the characteristics of Bulgarians and those who are their neighbours. I was told (by When Cultures Collide) that -
Bulgarians differ considerably from other Slavs in their values and communication style, probably because of their origins. In general they are cooler and more pragmatic than many Slavs, particularly when compared with Serbs. Quiet and soberness are valued; you will see little of the hotheaded discussion or noisy public disputes that are only too common in Belgrade.They do, however, share with other Slavs a widespread feeling of pessimism about national helplessness. In general, Bulgarian values tend to be rural, with homespun virtues, as one might expect from people living in a predominantly agricultural society. Basic values are disciplined/sober; pragmatic/cautious; persistent/stubborn; good organizers; industrious/determined; steady/suspicious but tolerant of foreigners; inventive; highly literate/thorough
Before giving full expression to their feelings or opinions, Bulgarians engage in a series of preliminary encounters, during which they sound out and size up (albeit in a friendly manner) their conversation partners. During this period they are decidedly less flowery or rhetorical in their speech than the Yugoslavs, Romanians or Hungarians. At this stage, it is very difficult to extract opinions oreventual attitudes from them. When this exploratory period has passed, Bulgarians open up to display a modicum of quiet charm and make their requests in a circuitous manner, avoiding confrontation whenever they can. They enjoy conversation—an art for them—but are less prone to exaggeration than South Slavs or other Mediterranean people.
And here's an interesting report which makes the case for a different sort of leadership than that which the modern (and post-modern) world has inflicted on us. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

When Money Rules

Noone documents the Kafka-esque world of contemporary Russian life better than Peter Pomerantsev -  a television producer whose life has spanned Moscow and London and whose writing I first came across earlier this year in Eurozine. His position and linguistic abilities allow him to give detailed exposes of the make-believe world of politics, judiciary, business and bureaucracy and reveal the Hobbesian world that is now apparently Russia.
His current Diary piece in the London Review of Books reveals a frightening picture -   
A year of national service is in theory mandatory for males between 18 and 27 (with some exceptions), but anyone who can avoids it. The most common way out is a medical certificate. Some people play mad and spend a month at a psychiatric clinic. Their mothers bring them in. ‘My son is psychologically disturbed,’ they say, even though they know the doctors know they are pretending. Several weeks in a loonie bin will set you back in the region of five to ten thousand dollars. You will never be called up again – the mad are not trusted with guns – but you will have a certificate of mental illness hanging over you for the rest of your career. Other medical solutions are more short-term: a week in hospital with an injured hand or back, but this will have to be repeated every year as April and October approach because this is when the drafts take place, leaving hospitals full of pimply youths simulating back trouble. The medical route takes months of preparation and research, finding the right doctor and settling on the appropriate ailment. The ailments that can exempt you change all the time. You turn up at the military centre with the little stamped registration that your mother has spent months organising and saving for, only to be told by the local recruitment commission that this year flat feet or short sight is no longer a legal excuse – which may be the truth and may be an attempt to extract another bribe.If you’re at university you can avoid military service (or take part in tame drills at the faculty instead): there is no greater incentive for young men to explore the world of higher education. And if you’re not good enough to make it to college? Then you must bribe your way into an institution: there are dozens of new universities which have opened to service draft-avoiders. For poorer people, it’s a matter of hide and seek. During the spring and autumn drafts soldiers will grab anyone off the street who looks the right age, demand to see their documents and their letters of exemption, and if they don’t have them, march them off to the local recruitment centre. So the young devote their energy to staying clear of metro stations, or hiding behind columns and darting past when they spot a cop flirting with girls or scrounging cigarettes off passers-by. You often see teenagers sprinting through the long, dark, marble corridors of the underground with figures in blue giving chase (they could of course be looking for drugs). When soldiers come by apartment blocks potential conscripts barricade themselves behind the door, holding their breath until the visitors go away. But by now they are in trouble: every time their documents are checked by the police, they tremble; every time they go into the underground, every time they cross a main road, or meet friends near a cinema, or even leave their little yard, they will be in a state of high anxiety. As a draft-dodger, you live semi-legally until you are 27.
This is the genius of sistema: even if you manage to avoid the draft, you, your mother and your family have become part of the network of bribery, fear, simulation and dissimulation. You have learned to become an actor playing different roles in relation to the state, the great intruder you wish to avoid or outwit or simply buy off. You are already semi-legal, a transgressor, but that’s fine for sistema: as long as you only simulate, you will never do anything real, you will always look for compromise and you will feel just the right amount of discomfort. You are now part of the system. If a year in the army is the overt process that binds young Russians to the nation, a far more powerful induction comes with the rituals of avoiding military service.
Another film he was working on was about a successful young businesswoman called Yana Yakovleva, who had founded a pharmaceuticals company that imported and sold industrial cleaning agents to factories and military bases. 
One morning she woke up to find herself under arrest: the Federal Drugs Control Service had reclassified her cleaning agent, diethyl ether, as a narcotic. She was now a drug dealer behind bars, awaiting trial. She assumed it was a case of reiderstvo, the most common form of corporate takeover in Russia with hundreds of reported, and probably tens of thousands of unreported cases a year, earning an estimated four billion dollars in profit. Business rivals or bureaucrats – long since interchangeable – pay for the security services to have the head of a company arrested; while they are in prison their documents and registrations are seized, the company is re-registered under different owners, and by the time the original owners are released the company has been bought, sold and split up by new owners. The usual way out is a bribe and there is a whole industry of pay-offs. Good ‘lawyers’ are not the ones who can defend you in court – the verdicts are pre-determined – but those who have the right connections and know who to pay off in the judiciary and the relevant ministry. It’s a complex game: pay off the wrong person and you’ve just wasted your money. Soon enough an array of middlemen appear, trying to persuade you that they, and only they, know how to pay the right person off. Yakovleva knew her parents were looking for that person on the outside. They had found a ‘lawyer’ who said he could help: he suggested she admit to the charges and then he could get everything sorted. The bribe would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yakovleva smelled a rat. Her company had done nothing wrong, shouldn’t she stick to her story? And what exactly was she meant to own up to? That she’d traded what she traded? Face up to absurdity? If she started to negotiate, she told me, it would be like relinquishing a part of her sanity, letting the sistema dictate the terms – at which point everything starts to slip.
A year ago today, I posted some detail on my working methods for a good project trying to build the capacity of local government in Kyrgyzstan. One of the things I enjoyed about my decade of working in Central Asia was the freedom I was given to develop activities which seemed to suit the particular circumstances of the place and time. In Bishkek I asked a simple question which seems all too rarely to be asked - what can a small temporary project do that is distinctive and will leave a useful legacy?
One of the reasons I now turn down all projects is that such creativity is now absolutely forbidden. The logframe rules all.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Another new nation?

As befits a blog called “Balkan and Carpathian Musings”, I’ve been writing a lot in recent weeks about the Balkans – but I am a Scot (through and through) even if I haven’t lived in that country for 23 years and have these days to draw attention to the large (670 pages in my pdf version) and probably unique document which was published yesterday by the current “Scottish Executive” on the subject of Scottish Independence – or, more literally and prosaically, “Scotland’s Future”. 200 of the pages deal with more than 600 questions which have been raised about the issue of independence over the past few years.
Ours may be a small nation (5 million) – but there is a large diaspora throughout the world (including me) which takes an intense interest in its affairs and development. The Guardian site gave good coverage to the publication of the document yesterday   
The PM (Salmond) says the white paper is the most detailed blueprint any people have been offered anywhere in the world as a basis for becoming independent.
Scotland would become independent in better circumstances than almost any other country in the world.
This reflects Scotland's "vast potential". It has an outstanding natural heritage, and skilled and inventive people.
With independence, it could build a fairer nation, he says.
But, to maximise its potential, Scotland needs to be able to take decisions for itself.
It needs to be able to develop its productivity and competitive advantage. And it needs to create a fair society.
Salmond says the white paper answers 650 questions.
But there really is only one question: should Scotland take decisions for itself?
He says he wants a positive debate (before the referendum in September 2014).
The referendum won't be decided by him, or by the media. It will be decided by the people.
Scotland's future is now in the hands of the Scottish people.
The Deputy PM (Sturgeon) says the white paper also sets out the "seamless" process by which Scotland could stay in the EU.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kruchma and chibouk

I have to confess to a taste for cigars – indulged in private. About one a day. Even worse, I admire the remnants of the tobacco culture one finds here in Bulgaria – the brazenness with which the owners of the tiny shops which line the narrow streets of Sofia city centre squat on their doorsteps and smoke the weed and drink their coffee. I have become an avid collector of the aquarelles of Grigor Naidenov who celebrated the café culture here of the inter-war and post-war years.

Balkan smoke – tobacco and the making of modern Bulgaria paints a fascinating picture of the role of tobacco in the social, economic and political life of modern Bulgaria. It's by Mary Neuburger
It was not until the nineteenth century that Bulgarians began to enter the Muslim coffeehouse, where they conducted commerce and local administration, read newspapers, and engaged in debate. It was then that they learned to smoke, as they came of age politically and culturally, and as their national movement gained momentum. Indeed, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, smoking, like the tobacco industry itself, drove social change, accompanying and even propelling a certain “coming of age” for social groups who joined the ranks of passionate smokers.
As Bulgarians entered the coffeehouse at home, they also began to frequent European cafes and discover themselves as “Bulgarians” abroad, amidst the intellectual ferment of Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. Soon Bulgarians began to establish coffeehouses at home that took on increasingly European characteristics, mainly aesthetically. For example, the traditional hookah was replaced by the newly minted cigarette. Coffeehouses became places of intellectual and cultural activity, and tobacco became a muse for generations of the Bulgarian elite. In the interwar period, in particular, the coffeehouse was at the heart of intellectual life, though other kinds of smoke-filled venues mushroomed in the Bulgarian capital and elsewhere in Bulgaria.
Smoking became the quintessential modern habit, a necessary accoutrement for the modern man and eventually woman, in both the sober coffeehouse and the drunken tavern.  Women and youth slowly entered this world of public smoking in the course of twentieth century, a fact that impelled anti-smoking impulses (however meagre).
In some respects this is a familiar story, with obvious global parallels, yet the Bulgarian context continually reveals it own particular nuances. In pre-1945 Bulgaria, for example, anti-smoking impulses flowed from two rather disparate sources, American (and Bulgarian convert) Protestants and the communist left. Both had a radical vision for “moral uplift” and social reform and utopian visions of the future. But both were also, in a sense, foreign, and so faced local and official hostility in the period before 1945. Most Bulgarians simply did not want to give up their new found pleasures, and the state was an important beneficiary of tobacco industry revenues and consumption taxes.
In the post World War II period, the dramatic change to a communist form of government brought an entirely new set of practical and theoretical quandaries. The Bulgarian tobacco industry took off, producing ever greater numbers of increasingly luxurious cigarettes for the enormous “captive” Soviet and Bloc market.
 There was also a veritable explosion of state built and run restaurants, cafes, hotels and sea-side resorts in the later decades of period, as the state sought legitimacy by providing the “good life” to its workers. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, communist state-directed abstinence efforts emerged, along with heightened concerns over the growing numbers of smoking women and youth. The Bulgarian communists continually connected smoking to “western” moral profligacy and “remnants” of a capitalist past, as well as “Oriental” degeneracy—or Bulgaria’s backwards, Ottoman past. Yet the state continued to provide cheap cigarettes and places to smoke them as never before. Bulgarian smoking rates skyrocketed under communism and the period generated a society of smokers for whom the voice of abstinence was just another form of state propaganda.
A reference in the text to the famous Bulgarian writer Ivan Vazov’s Under the Yoke has encouraged me to read this classic novel about life under the Ottomans in the late 19th century.

NB Kruchma was a village tavern where long pipes (Chibouks) were smoked before being replaced by cigarettes. The same bakal (shop) in villages would be a kafene during the day and kruchma in the evening – with rakia replacing the coffee and cigarettes the chibouks of an earlier age.

A year ago today I had an interesting post about "the disease of managerialism
And a nice post about an Austrian painter who was once the toast of Vienna

Monday, November 25, 2013

How the European powers created and destroyed the Balkans

Andrew Hammond’s literary romp through the Balkans is a real insight – his mix of diary collage, historical context and deconstruction a very illuminating commentary on British perspectives of the late 19th and 20th Century perceptions of Balkans
I’m looking forward to getting a copy of the anthology – Through Another Europe - which he published in 2009 based on his work and findings
Few (if any) of these travellers’ tales bothered to attempt to put the scenes they saw in a wider political perspective but it is this which Hammond occasionally offers us -
At the end of the nineteenth century, once their ties with the Porte finally loosened, the Great Powers had advanced loans to Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria and, with much of that money being spent amongst the western arms manufacturers (strong national armies being deemed as useful an obstacle to Russian advance as a strong Ottoman Empire), bankruptcy and western control over domestic economies began to prevail throughout the region.' (p83)…..
 Clearly, with the Dual Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire now ranged on the enemy side, and the former's `Drang nach Osten' assuming more sinister prospect since its alliance with Germany, the only means by which to protect Allied interests in the region, both during and after the war, was to carve out strong, resilient independent territories, moulding them into nation-states through all the signs, images, tropes and evaluations of a nationalist discourse, and reassigning them the value of national ally rather than cultural other (p163)…..
But, as Hammond shows, British writers’ generally sympathetic treatment of the area changed once again very dramatically after the Second World War
And as I shall go on to explore, the economic difficulties of the period, the political relations between the West and the authoritarian regimes of south-east Europe, the redrawing of boundaries after the two world wars, all showed that the West was not about to be a benevolent master, a point the war generation often exemplified personally. The traces in their work of a lingering authority, and readiness to condemn the locals when they failed to obey that authority, both indicate that a very British attitude to abroad was still at work (p165)…….
Misha Glenny has given us quite a few (historical) books on the Balkans and offered a good angle in a London Review of Books piece on 2 other books which detail and critiques how outsiders have created images of the Balkans - Inventing Ruritania by Vesna Goldsworthy and Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova - 
The First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 are widely believed - writes Glenny - to offer definitive proof of ‘medieval’ behaviour on the part of Balkan warriors. But the Balkan nationalism and militarism expressed in these wars were much more closely related to the practices and morality of Great Power imperialism than to local traditions. The Balkan armies were largely funded by Western loans, Western firms supplied them with weapons and other technology, their officers were schooled and organised by Frenchmen, Germans, Russians and Britons. The armies were staffed, and in the case of Turkey commanded, by Westerners. Representatives of Krupp, Skoda, Schneider-Creusot and Vickers participated in the wars as observers and wrote reports on the effectiveness of their weaponry which were used to advertise the superiority of their products over those of their competitors.
Anything anyone in the West knows about the Balkan Wars has been learned from the report published in early 1914 by the Carnegie Endowment’s Commission of Inquiry into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars. It is an important document and the Commission’s members were serious and well-intentioned. This is a passage from the introduction:
"What finally succeeds in bringing armed peace into disrepute, is that today the Great Powers are manifestly unwilling to make war. Each one of them, Germany, England, France and the United States, to name a few, has discovered the obvious truth that the richest country has the most to lose by war, and each country wishes for peace above all things. This is so true that these two Balkan wars have wrought us a new miracle, – we must not forget it, – namely, the active and sincere agreement of the Great Powers who, changing their tactics, have done everything to localise the hostilities in the Balkans and have become the defenders of the peace that they themselves threatened thirty-five years ago, at the time of the Congress of Berlin.
Five months later, despite the Commission’s belief in the inherent wisdom of the Great Powers, imperialist rivalry reached its zenith, persuading the club’s senior members to divert their enormous economic and technological resources into one vast industrial conglomerate of death".
The vast massacres of the First World War relegated the ruinous social and economic impact of the Balkan Wars to the background. But those who witnessed or participated in them were afforded a unique insight into what the 20th century had in store. Several battles pitted forces larger than Napoleon’s mightiest army against one another. This despite Serbia, for example, having a population of less than three million. The Bulgarians mobilised 25 per cent of their male population, just under half a million men. The fighting was characterised by trench warfare and merciless sieges; and by pitiless artillery assaults on unprotected infantry and civilians. All sides, except Montenegro and Romania, deployed aeroplanes against the enemy, mainly for reconnaissance or dropping leaflets but also for the occasional bombing raid. For the first time, technology enabled fighting to last 24 hours a day, as huge searchlights illuminated enemy defences. This was not Balkan warfare – this was Western warfare.
The violent capriciousness of the Balkans was used as an alibi by the Great Powers for covering up their own role in various crimes and for pointing the finger at countries who were acting as unwilling or unwitting proxies in a broader Great Power struggle.
The Balkans was never the powder-keg but just one of a number of devices which might have acted as detonator. The powder-keg was Europe itself.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Romance of the Balkans

For the past 23 years I have wandered in central Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia and the Caucasus – spending an average of 2 years in some eleven countries and having about 30 different homes. Verily I am a nomad  - although, for the past 5 years, with bases in the Carpathian Mountains, Bucharest and Sofia. Hardly surprising therefore that I am drawn to travel literature – the scribbles of those who seek to give us a sense of life in other places. 
Jan Morris is one of my favourites (the link gives a marvellous interview with her by the indominatable Paris Review) – but I have been overwhelmed in recent days by a post-modernist account of this genre which I found on the internet – about British travel in the Balkans in the last century - complete with about 500 bibliographical references……The version I have is a PhD thesis - The Debated Lands which looks first at the motifs of discord, savagery, backwardness and obfuscation which characterise the 19th century books on the area. In the approach to the First World War all of at changed; specific countries were embraced by economic and military alliances and some countries acquired what has been called a "pet state" status -
Todorova sums up as the pet state approach to south-east Europe: the choosing from amongst the Balkan states a people whose predicaments to abhor, whose history and indigenous leaders to commend, whose political grievances to air, and whose national aspirations to advocate. Along with challenging the discourse's imperialist tendencies, national advocacy would undercut both the denigratory format of dominant balkanism and its racialist codifications of the Balkan peninsula as a homogenised zone of misfortune and degeneracy with writers retaining the denigratory approach even as they delineated - without any awareness of the paradox -a people that apparently broke with the imputed essence. In this way, Trevor's valorisation of the Montenegrins, Vivian's romanticisation of the Serbs, Upward's endorsement of the Greeks, or Peacock's and Durham’s clear preference for the Albanians, are all based on contrasting the positive attributes of their chosen peoples with the thoroughly negative qualities of the Balkan ethnicities surrounding them; a source of genuine confusion for the general reader, no doubt, who might find the Serbians, say, lauded against the Bulgarians in one text, and then the very opposite in the next…….
Until reading the book, I had not realised, for example, how many British women volunteered for duty in the Serbian field hospitals and how media and literary coverage of this phenomenon brought that country into the British consciousness - and how positively. That was followed by a strand of writing in the late 1920s which took the romanticisation into deeper territory – with a revolt against western modernity and mass society -
By the 1920s, Foster Fraser's misgivings about western society had not only become a prevailing feature of British travel writing on the Balkans, but gained widespread expression within intellectual circles of the day. The pace of modernisation had already been alarming such influential commentators as Arnold, Ruskin and Tennyson in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The economic rate of growth of Britain, France and Germany had reached unprecedented levels, industrial development and exports were greater than ever, producing via rapidly burgeoning empires, a global network of commercial and financial influence. Urbanisation had been radically altering the forms and values of national life, as well as eroding England's enduringly pastoral self-image and technology was achieving bewildering levels of progress.
In the place of Victorian certainty came a sudden surge in scepticism, as Freud and Bergson challenged rationality and objectivity, feminism challenged patriarchal assumptions, working class radicalism increasingly threatened middle class security, and science asked ever more pertinent questions of Christianity. During the second decade of that century, even those who had put their faith in science and progress were to find that faith severely tested.

From the end of the First World War until the outbreak of the Second, travellers were finding in this previously depraved corner of Europe…. " a peace, harmony, vivacity and pastoral beauty in utmost contrast to the perceived barrenness of the West, and which produced benefits for those weary of modernity that ranged from personal rejuvenation to outright revelation. According to this alternative balkanism, violence had disappeared from the region, savagery became tamed, obfuscation turned to honesty and clarity, and the extreme backwardness that had formerly been the gauge of Balkan shortcoming was now the very measure by which it was extolled. For many travellers, any mystery that did remain around the geographical object became less the marker of a befuddled and dishonest culture than a vital indication of spiritual depth…….
When placed in the context of the extreme denigration of earlier periods, the speed with which an established representational paradigm, its accumulated motifs and evaluations becoming rapidly outmoded, could be rejected, dismantled, and utterly brushed aside in written record was remarkable in the extreme
Trickling out in 1915, and reaching a flood by 1916, the textual sources of knowledge on Serbia elevated it into a complex, reliant, independent, `plucky little nation'' far more germane to the modern requirements of power. ……

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Retribution and Reconciliation.....an ongoing process

What do we – what can we – really know about one another? We all exist in worlds defined by strongly-protected boundaries of nation, gender, age, class, education and a variety of more deliberative affiliations (of friendships, clubs, channels of viewing and readership etc) which help create and sustain our particular “world view” – be that optimistic or pessimistic, authoritarian or libertarian., about ourselves or about others
The world is so complex that we seem to need “simplifying devices” which help cocoon us from uncomfortable realities. Age and experience should, however, let us see these devices as crutches – which can and should be thrown away.
I often think that the greatest service a writer can do is to challenge these preconceptions we have of other systems and countries and their ways of thinking and behaving.
I have blogged before about the rarity of authors who offer real insight into the culture and societies of individual European countries – such as Theodor Zeldin for France; Simon Winder and (more at the ideas level) Peter Watson for Germany.
I am currently reading a 1996 book - Dinner with Persephone - by a young American woman poet with an undefined background in Greek (there is a nice classification for you) who immersed herself in Greece for a year and has produced a scintillating "historologue" - my word for an account of conversations, myths and impresssions based on an impressive grasp of words and meanings. Having been reading recently (as a Scot!) about historical Bulgarian attitudes to the Greeks, I find this account from the other side doubly satisfying - particularly on the vexed issue of Macedonia.
The Balkans have been a killing field over the past century and more (used arguably in the Balkan Wars of a hundred years ago as a surrogate field for the jostling which was going on amongst developed economies of north- west Europe) and the imagined communities of this area still need therapy.......

Conventional academic histories focus too much on political events – but social histories of the British sort I referred to recently can be too detailed and miss the essence. Historian Jeremy Treglow has just published Franco’s Crypt – Spanish culture and memory since 1936 which seems to offer a wonderful prism with which to view events which are still (just) within living memory - vengeance and retribution.
In a 2007 article in the Dublin Review of Books, the author puts it very succinctly
Given the sheer volume, then, as well as the quality of narratives – historical, fictional, cinematic – examining Francoism which appeared either during the caudillo’s lifetime or in the decade following his death, why should ‘historical memory’ be an issue in Spain, all these decades on?
It’s a global phenomenon, of course: one which the American social scientist John Torpey argues is a substitute for the utopian politics in which we have lost faith. No longer able to dream of a better future, we put such moral energy as we have into trying to repair the past. The historian Roy Foster has written with valuable firmness about the inadequacy, as well as the selectiveness, of reparations politics in the case of Ireland, situating the topic both in its historiographical context (the influence of Pierre Nora’s workLieux de Mémoire, 1984) and its current cultural one: Christians in Jerusalem in 1999 apologizing for the Crusades, Queen Elizabeth II apologizing to the Maoris, and so on. Like Santos Juliá, Foster sees the impulse as essentially psychological, an attempt to assuage guilt. ‘After the oversimplifications and illogical pieties that surround the business of “memory” these days,’ he writes, ‘it is hard to disagree with a suggestion from the Irish literary critic Edna Longley …: “for politicians, the next step should be to erect a monument to Amnesia and forget where they put it”.’

Monday, November 18, 2013

IN memory of Rayko Aleksiev

On this day in 1944 Rayko Nikolov Aleksiev- a  Bulgarian painter and caricaturist who established Shturets, a hugely successful satirical newspaper in 1932. - was battered to death in a Bulgarian prison after his arrest by communists in their 1944 putsch.
Known for his uncompromising satire, Aleksiev was especially unloved by Bulgarian  communists due to his famous caricatures of Joseph Stalin. After the Bulgarian coup d'état of 1944 he was, like many other intellectuals, arrested by the newly formed people's militia. While under arrest, he was severely beaten over the course of several days, resulting in his death. 

Alekseiv studied literature at Sofia University and painting at the Art Academy in Sofia. With the release of his first landscape in the "Exhibition of Young" in 1913 Bulgarian Queen Eleanor became one of his biggest fans. The same year, the artist had five solo exhibitions.

In 1932, he founded the weekly newspaper "Cricket", painting all the cartoons, writing articles and humorous miniatures and handled the distribution. "Cricket" was written in the artist's home - the last issue being that of September 8, 1944. Its circulation of 50,000 made it the forefront native print media. Cartoonists Ilyia Beshkov and S toyan Venev were regular contributors. 
As a longtime chairman of the Union of Artists Associations Rayko Alexiev organized help for destitute colleagues left homeless after the bombing of the cit in 1944. He managed to get from the Treasury the sum of 2 million levs for the starving families of the many freelance artists evacuated to various villages of the country.

With his success Rayko Alexiev made many enemies. In the last days before the Ninth of September coup,he was repeatedly warned by his family to leave the country and was indeed supplied with diplomatic passports. Alexiev refused to believe he was in danger and said:

I am not a politician. I have shown the errors of politicians, I toiled with my cartoons to deride what they do and that some politicians are bad. I have no money abroad. I paid regular taxes. I lend to anyone and I have given with both hands. I'm not a rat, leaving a sinking ship. 
In 2002 the National Literary Award for humour and satire was started by the Municipality of Pazardzhik. It is awarded every three years, on March 7 to Bulgarian writers for their contribution in the field of humour and satire. The award may also be given to foreign authors for special contributions to Bulgarian studies popularization, personal creativity in the field of humour and satire, analysis and publications thematically related to Bulgaria. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sticks and stones; wine and water

I love these “European etymology maps” which show you how countries divide on lines of ….basic words such as water or onion. “Wine” is one of the few words which is fairly similar throughout Europe – with, interestingly, Hungary and Greece being the 2 outriders, using instead the terms “bor” and “krasi” respectively. They seem at the moment to share two other (rather uglier) features at well – something on which it’s not quite so easy to pin a term. I deleted “inclination to fascism “as meaningless - and resisted the temptation to write the banal “populism” for the same reason. But something nasty has been stirring in these two countries for the past few years which the European media coverage does not adequately cover with its headlines of “unconstitutionality” in the former’s case and “neo-nazist thugs” in the Greek case.
Take the case of a Hungarian writer, 80 year-old Akos Kertesz, who has just received political asylum in Canada - being driven out by a hate campaign launched against him not only in the City Council of Budapest but also in Parliament. I learn this from an amazing blog - Hungarian Spectrum - written by a Hungarian now a retired American academic.
At the insistence of Jobbik, the anti-Semite Hungarian Nazi party, the City Council’s pro-government majority deprived him of his Freedom of Budapest award. The pro-government media openly incited the extremists against him. As a result he was exposed to constant physical harassment and threats. He was physically attacked in public. He felt that his life was in danger.
He was born in 1932 and finished high school in 1950 but because of his “bourgeois” origin couldn’t enter university. So, he worked on the bodies of Ikarus buses for twelve solid years. On the side he managed to finish university at night. Between 1966 and 1992 he worked at Mafilm where he was a screenplay writer. On the side he wrote several novels which were translated into multiple languages. Between 1994 and 1997 he was editor-in-chief of Élet és Irodalom. He received several prestigious prizes, including the much coveted Kossuth Prize. He was also given the freedom of Budapest
bitter words about Hungarians who don’t seem to be yearning for freedom and dignity but who let themselves be enslaved by a party and a government Kertész finds abhorrent, 
Bulgaria and Romania seem untouched so far by this sort of vindictiveness. The Bulgarian protests continue and the Romanian bloodsucking elites remain untroubled.........

A year ago I was writing about..... Privatisation

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Lessons from Somewhere

The Brits pride themselves on being “pragmatic” if not insular – impervious to how they do things in other countries – but there is a strong case for suggesting that the British system of government has in fact, in the past 50 years or so, been swamped by the copying of (largely American) models and theorising - while inattentive to (if not insolent about) the experience of European countries such as France, Germany or Scandinavia. The entire English health system, for example, has been “re-engineered” thanks basically to a long article in The Economist in the mid-1980s by an American economist.
And the care taken by US Foundations to develop policy and social networks with Europeans but particularly the Brits is a much neglected feature of social and political history.
We are, of course, as George Bernard Shaw memorably put it, “two nations separated by a common language” – as I realised when I made presentations, all of 26 years ago in places such as Washington, Pittsburgh and Denver, of the essential features of our regional system of (big) government. Our conceptions (let alone expectations) when we used words such as "community" and "government" were just so fundamentally different.
My work in central Europe (and Asia) of the past 22 years has made me even more painfully aware of how words and phrases carry such different meanings. With English now being the lingua franca, the wonder is that we are not all at one another’s throats – as this wonderful bit of British-EU translation shows 

Despite (or perhaps because of) that, the field of “policy learning” or “policy transfer” has become in the last 20 years very influential. I can claim to have been in at the beginning since Richard Rose –the doyen of the field at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow (and still going strong at 80) – interviewed me immediately after my trip to the States in 1987 as part of the major venture he was then getting underway - with his first publication on the subject I think in 1991. A recent book documents the field.
Despite my interest in it all at the time, I can't help thinking now that it is all a lot of verbiage......and that the never-ending apparent policy changes don't amount to a row of beans - and benefit only the scribblers and those who seek new reputations. Our political system is even more short-term oriented now than ever before and has no patience with the need for systems to bed down......"Action" has become a substitute for thought.....and is sexier anyway!

I had gone to the States in 1987 with some scepticism – while recognising that, in my 40s, it was a neglected part of my education. Martin Amis’ then recently published The Moronic Inferno was one of the main bits of preparatory reading I did! 
In the places I visited, I was impressed with the energy and openness. For the record, I identified nine features of the American system and community economic development process "worthy of study and replication" -
  • more pluralistic sources of Local Funding (the scale of corporate and tax-free grants to Foundations)
  • networking of people from the private and public sectors (eg Community Leadership scheme)
  • scanning for strategic work : the active, participative role played by the private sector in the process of setting the regional agenda in places like Chicago was impressive
  • coaching : the way community economic development skills were encouraged
  • marketing : of voluntary organisations
  • affirming : affirmative action in Chicago Council was handled very systematically in areas such as hiring and sub-contracting
  • negotiating : the flexibility of the planning system allowed local councils to strike deals with developers to the direct advantage of poorer areas.
  • persevering : the realism about timescale of change
  • parcelling into manageable units of action: the British mentality seemed to prefer administrative neatness to permit a "coordinated" approach. American "messiness" seemed to produce more dynamism.
Looking back, I am intrigued by the way I selected and emphasised these terms. A few years ago I did a small guide to the vocabulary so-called experts used in the consultancy field. I entitled it Just Words - a Sceptic's Guide and discovered there was an entire book devoted to this sort of debunking - which we need even more than ever.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

POSSLQs - now and then

25 years ago or so, I made my first (of three) trip(s) to the United States – the initial purpose being to explore what lessons their experience of community economic development (particularly in the traditional industrial areas of Pittsburgh and Chicago) might offer for us in West Central Scotland. For that first 6 week trip I was indebted to the German Marshall Foundation in general – and Willie Roe in particular.
Sadly the subsequent report I did detailing the various organisations I visited (including the South Shore Chicago Bank where Obama was active as a community lawyer) is no longer available although I do have a record of the key lessons I took from the visit – which I will share in my next post

I have three vivid recollections of those visits – first the sheer incredulity I encountered when I tried to present our government system in Scotland to the people in places such as Washington and Denver (Colorado) “Wow – you are BIG” was the main reaction (we did, after all, then employ 100,000 professional staff – mainly teachers, police, firemen and social workers). I slaved over a powerful slide presentation in Denver of the Glasgow efforts to transform the city and will never forget the response that “your accent is so beautiful you could have read the telephone book!” So much for content!
The second recollection is the sheer theatre of New York streets (on a later visit as I undertook a mission in the early 1990s at the United Nations) where I rented an amazing flat (with saluting commissar!) right on Central Park.

The final memory is at a Pittsburgh academic party – at which I came across (in 1987) the acronym POSSLQ – "persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters" for use to describe one's "partner" or "bidie-in" as we Scots used to say!. Those were the days when marriage was just beginning to go off the boil.
I had been toying for some time with the idea of a post on the modern phenomenon of single living and an article on Open Democracy about the reaction of Turkish officialdom to some male and female students sharing their living quarters has given me the cue
On 3 November 2013, in his address to his deputies at an annual meeting closed to the public, the Turkish Prime Minister hinted at his ambition to take legal measures against unmarried male and female students sharing houses. He made the following statement:
“Nobody knows what takes places in those houses [where male and female students live together]. All kinds of dubious things may happen [in those houses]. ... Anything can happen. Then, parents cry out, saying, ‘Where is the state?' These steps are being taken in order to show that the state is there. As a conservative, democratic government, we need to intervene.”
Although the full extent of Erdoğan’s surveillance ambitions is yet to be defined, one thing is clear in his follow up on the issue: opposite sexes sharing housing is disapproved of. Not only does such house-sharing grate against the “conservative democrat” [muhafazakar demokrat] values of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but it also contradicts the AKP’s strong stance on many other claims with regards to how social life needs to be ordered and governed in line with a conservative vision of public morality.
The following conversation took place between the Prime Minister and a journalist during a press conference en route to Finland. The excerpt reveals the kinds of boundaries that the Prime Minister draws on in conceptualizing social life.
Journalist: Sir, what power do the mayors have in supervising this [new regulation on house sharing/cohabitation]…
PM Erdoğan: They’ll be given the necessary authority after the new regulation.
Journalist: These are private houses right?
PM Erdoğan: Yes.
Journalist: People’s private houses?
PM Erdoğan: Yes… How appropriate is it for a young man and woman to stay in one’s private home?
Journalist: It depends on the person.
PM Erdoğan: Would you be fine with/would you tolerate your daughter or son undertaking such an act… When you’re a Mum one day, or maybe you already are, I do not know… if you find something like this appropriate for your daughter or son, well then good for you! [hayırlı olsun]
So the Prime Minister has assigned himself the sober task of ensuring that in these “houses”, citizens live “in accordance to” conservative (and one could argue, Islamic) values that the government holds dear. But cohabitation in Turkey is not a habitual practice. Nor is it widely accepted. And although the nature of the practice is in flux, only a small minority within Turkish society share housing. So, why all this debate, all of a sudden over the state of the living arrangements in Turkey? 
Persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters is now becoming distinctly unpopular in Western Europe. Single households, I was stunned to learn about Paris, accounted in the late 1990s for almost half of all households.
Single living was not a social aberration but an inevitable outgrowth of mainstream liberal values. Women’s liberation, widespread urbanization, communications technology, and increased longevity—these four trends lend our era its cultural contours, and each gives rise to solo living. Women facing less pressure to stick to child care and housework can pursue careers, marry and conceive when they please, and divorce if they’re unhappy. The “communications revolution” that began with the telephone and continues with Facebook helps dissolve the boundary between social life and isolation. Urban culture caters heavily to autonomous singles, both in its social diversity and in its amenities: gyms, coffee shops, food deliveries, laundromats, and the like ease solo subsistence. Age, thanks to the uneven advances of modern medicine, makes loners of people who have not previously lived by themselves. By 2000, sixty-two per cent of the widowed elderly were living by themselves, a figure that’s unlikely to fall anytime soon. Most people who were brought up in the past half century have been taught to live this way, by their own rules, building the world they want. That belief—Klinenberg calls it “the cult of the individual”—may be the closest thing American culture has to a common ideal, and it’s the premise on which a lot of single people base their lives. If you’re ambitious and you’ve had to navigate a tough job market, alone can seem the best way to approach adulthood. Those who live by themselves are light on their feet (they’re able to move as the work demands) and flexible with their time (they have no meals to come home for). They tend to be financially resilient, too, since no one else is relying on their income. They are free to climb.
The single life is inherently self-interested: it calls for vigilance on matters of self-preservation both large (financial autonomy) and small (dish detergent), and, in many cases, it frees the solitary from the sorts of daily interaction that help craft a sense of shared responsibility.
For one person, that may be a good deal. But, multiplied across a population, it becomes problematic. In a landmark study, “Bowling Alone” (2000), the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam noted a puzzling three-decade decline in what he called “social capital”: the networks of support and reciprocity that bind people together and help things get done collectively. His work considered the waning of everything from P.T.A. enrollment to dinner parties and card games, but the core of his argument was declining civic participation. Between 1973 and 1994, the number of people who held a leadership role in any local organization fell by more than half. Newspaper readership among people under thirty-five dropped during a similar period, as did voting rates. Why? Putnam pointed to cultural shifts among the post-Second World War generation; the privatization of leisure (for example, TV); and, to a smaller extent, the growth of a commuting culture and the time constraints of two-career, or single-parent, family life. “Older strands of social connection were being abraded—even destroyed—by technological and economic and social change,” he wrote.
Putnam, in other words, saw public institutions as a casualty of the same forces of individuation driving modern aloneness. And, unlike Klinenberg, who’s optimistic about solo life largely because he’s optimistic about the socializing effects of technology, Putnam believed that digital communication offers too weak a connection to reverse the loss of community skills. Good socialization is a prerequisite for life online, not an effect of it, he pointed out; without a real-world counterpart—the possibility of running into Web friends “at the grocery store”—Internet contact gets ranty, dishonest, and weird. What’s more, “real-world interactions often force us to deal with diversity, whereas the virtual world may be more homogeneous.” People lose the habit of reaching out to build bridges when they’re most needed. Technology may help us to feel less lonely, but it doesn’t really make us any less alone.
“Bowling Alone” appeared more than a decade ago—an eternity in technology years. And yet the intervening time has, if anything, intensified Putnam’s concerns. A couple of recent books re-articulate them for the Facebook age. One of these, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2011), by the M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle, takes issue with the basic promises of digital connection. She thinks that togetherness, far from being strengthened by technology, has been crowded out by “the half-light of virtual community.”

1970s Bulgaria

It was apt that my last post was about the current British intellectual craze for recent decades of social history - since I visited last night the opening of an exhibition – spread over three large floors of the Bulgarian Union of Artists’ building on Shipka St – focusing on Bulgarian Art of the 1970s and marking the 50th anniversary of the Art Gallery in Dobrich with works from the 1970s held by the gallery and a few from the City Art Gallery in Sofia.
Bulgarian art has been celebrating 120 years – on the basis of the first general art exhibition here having apparently taken place in 1892 and the first Association of Bulgarian artists being founded in 1893. I referred recently to a marvellous book which the Union of Artists published last year to mark the period.
There is an agit prop air to this particular exhibition – with the huge posters of text and black and white photographs hanging from the ceilings and gigantic, generally sombre if not brutalist, paintings on the walls. There are also drawings and sculpture and the aim is to restore the appearance of the exhibition as it was in 1972 – with no concessions to present-day judgements or tastes. Thus, for example, Svetlin Russev, the doyen of Bulgarian art who still graces exhibitions here, is simply described on one of the posters as “People’s Artist”. I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of the Dobrich gallery last year from its Director and recorded then my conversation with her

The exhibition gives a vivid snapshot picture of one part of life 50 years ago here in Bulgaria and deserves support and comment. I, for one, felt it powerfully gloomy – and find it interesting that a large book I have of Bulgarian art of the 1980s (from an exhibition at the National Gallery in Sofia in 2002) shows a completely different zest and colour, Does this, I wonder, reflect differences in those decades – I shall have to ask my older Bulgarian friends…..

As I left the Union building, I was excited to notice a poster for a nearby exhibition of a painter Slavi Genev – born 120 years ago - one of whose Samokov works has pride of place in my collection (alongside Dobre Dobrev, Alex Moutafov, Alexandra Mechkuevska, Gregor Naidenov and Kolyo Kolev)

Monday, November 11, 2013

The British 20th Century under the social historians' microscope

There is almost a surfeit, these days, of British social historians combing over the ashes of the second half of the century. Dominic Sandbrook’s (rather controversial) work now extends to four volumes, covering the period from Suez in 1956 to the election of Margaret Thatche in 1979r.
Chroniclers of the 1970s include Andy Beckett (When The Lights Went Out), Francis Wheen (Strange Days Indeed) and Alwyn W Turner (Crisis? What Crisis?), to name just the most celebrated handful.

Moving on to the 1980s, we have Alwyn Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! , Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain, Jackson and Saunder’s Making Thatcher’s Britain, Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society and, most recently, Graham Stewart’s Bang! 

For the 1990s there are Alwyn Turner’s books Things can only get Bitter and A Classless Society; Britain in the Nineties

But one social historian surpasses all that – David Kynaston sequence entitled Tales of a New Jerusalem: 1945-1979, whose mission is to document the story of “ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the monumental”. Austerity Britain: 1945-51 was his first 700-page in the series and makes for gripping reading (in 2 days I am at page 426). His notes and references cover every published source you can imagine - including the comments of ordinary people as captured in the publications of Mass Observation. 
Kynaston accomplishes this in his first volume with a prose style that balances entertainment with erudition and in-depth historical assessment with gorgeous, fact-laden word pictures, all fused together in an exemplary narrative of a fascinating period. On a particular Bank Holiday Monday in 1945, for example, he records that thirty-five extra trains had been added at Liverpool Street to make the London-to-seaside rounds and yet station queues still snaked around the block; 30,000 people were at London Zoo and only 4,500 at the V&A; and 100,000 people tried to gain entry (only half-managed) to an athletics meet at the White City stadium to see British pre-war champion Sydney Wooderson best the Swedes.
What elevate Kynaston’s Austerity Britain out of the encyclopaedic and dryly academic and into the transfixing is a potent blend of the seismic and the banal. Its breadth of geographical and socio-economic perspective distinguishes it from the wealth of other social histories written about the mid- and postwar periods: The legacy of Beveridge’s report gets expert treatment … as do postwar marital trends, cricket and racing preferences, the rise of Aneurin Bevan, the reception of David Lean’s Brief Encounter by working class audiences (hearty guffaws), the fabrics available to seamstresses and the Liverpool race riots.
Kynaston’s sources are equally diverse, ranging from government publications to industry manuals and from unpublished journals to the ubiquitous Mass Observation diarists (although he is scrupulous in drawing attention to their middle class biases).
Prospect Magazing looked at the second Kynaston blockbuster in the series  and asks how we might explain this obsession with raking over the ashes of the recent past
Does it signify anything, however, apart from the fact that they are good writers with a knack for traversing recent history in a likeable, accessible way? Can we infer anything more interesting from their success, something which is peculiar to the times we are living through now?
I can think of a couple of plausible interpretations. One is that these histories offer us an unexpected kind of consolation. Marooned as we are in a state of great political and economic uncertainty, we have become prey to a habitual sense of unease. However often we are told that history repeats itself, we never really believe it: we live in the moment, convinced that the problems we face are new and unprecedented. Modernity Britain gives the lie to this belief. It’s not just that it transports us back to an era when the cabinet was stuffed full of old Etonians comically unfamilar with the everyday anxieties of most British men and women. It shows us that in the very texture of life, in the moral temperature of the country as a whole, things were not so different back then. Here is Kynaston, for instance, quoting a BBC report on the attitude of late-1950s teenagers towards the political establishment: “Teenagers are bored by politics,” it claimed. “This is rather a bald statement, but it does seem to be true of an astonishingly large proportion of them… ‘It’s sort of corrupt.’ ‘They’re too dogmatic.’ ‘It’s all fixed.’ ‘They’re just keeping to the party line.’ At the back of it seemed to be the feeling that… they didn’t honestly believe what they [the politicians] said… and that discussion between, say, Labour and Conservative was pointless since neither was open to persuasion by the other.”
Does this not equally, and exactly, encapsulate our conviction that young voters today have become detached from mainstream politics, and are already numbed by a weary cynicism about political discourse? Again and again, reading Modernity Britain, you come upon these spectral echoes of the present day: the sense of “’twas ever thus” grows inescapable, and helps to dismantle, piece by piece, one of the most pervasive and misleading fictions about our current situation: that it is somehow unique.
For the other, more deep-rooted explanation of why this new breed of historian has struck such a resonant chord, we need only look at one recent, much-reported event: the death of Thatcher, and the barrage of contradictory responses it provoked in print and online. The election of Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 provides either the fulcrum around which these books revolve, or (in the case of Kynaston) their future climax. Thatcher, so divisive while in office, remains such a contentious, polarising figure in British mythology that even now, more than 30 years later, there remains a profound fracture running through the body politic. Cameron’s line to the effect that “we are all Thatcherites now” will either strike you as a joyful affirmation or will send a shudder coursing through every fibre of your being: either way, you have to recognise that it has a certain chilling truth.
However strong most of us are, individually, in our convictions on this subject, the country as a whole has still not, and cannot, make up its mind about 1979: still can’t decide whether it was the moment which saved the nation, or whether it marked a disastrously wrong turn. And, as a nation, we will probably never be “at ease with ourselves” (to use perhaps the only memorable phrase which Thatcher’s successor ever came up with) until we begin to understand that moment clearly and see it for precisely what it was. If Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem helps us to do that—if it succeeds in its objective of showing us, on a scale both panoramic and intimate, exactly what the postwar governments struggled to build, and which Thatcher, just as determinedly, sought to dismantle—then it will surely come to be seen not just as one of the present era’s most important histories, but as one of its most illuminating works of literature.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Czeslaw Milosz

Every now and then, an author’s words hit you with the force of nature – no matter how quiet and reasonable they seem. The opening pages of Milosz’s Selected essays – To Begin Where I Am - about exile and his return as an 80 year-old to the landscape of his childhood Lithuania have had this effect on me. I don’t really know Milosz and bought the book simply because a blurb told me they represented a very powerful example of the essay form – which is one I love.
Some reminiscences I found on the internet suggest that he is an “unfashionable poet”. To go by the Amazon lists, he is certainly a neglected writer – with only the one set of essays (Proud to be a Mammal issued recently by Penguin Central European Classics is apparently the same book as To Begin where I am!), his poetry and The Captive Mind in print. That needs to be changed – since the man has more than 20 books to his credit – let alone his poetry. The reviewer in the Dublin Review of Books tells it well -
Czesław Miłosz, the centenary of whose birth was in 2011, had a long and productive life. After his spell in Paris, he emigrated to the United States, where he taught at the University of Berkeley in California. While he appreciated the opportunities the United States gave him (and loved its great outdoors), he remained, over the decades he spent there, rather hostile to its commercial culture and continued to note how savagely American capitalism treated those at the bottom of the heap. In his final decade, following the collapse of communism, he returned to live part of each year in Poland.
In his early adulthood Miłosz saw the world plunge into evil, but unlike many of his friends and contemporaries he survived that evil and even outlived the repressive political system he had once believed to be an inescapable destiny for his nation.
Miłosz’s fullest treatment of the part of his childhood he spent with his grandparents in the depths of the Polish (now Lithuanian) countryside (three full years, from age seven to ten) is in the autobiographical novel The Issa Valley, but there is also this lyrical passage in the sparkling miscellany Miłosz’s ABC under the heading “Szetejnie, Gineity, and Peiksva” (three hamlets close to his grandparents’ farm): The Niewiaża Valley is like a crevice cut into the plateau, from which neither the parks nor the remains of manor houses can be seen. A traveler journeying across that plateau today will not be able to intuit what was once on it. Smoke from the hamlets has vanished, along with the creak of the well pumps, the crowing of roosters, barking of dogs, people’s voices. There is no longer the green of orchards embracing the roofs of the cottages – apple trees, pear trees, plum trees in every farmyard, between house, barn, and granary, so that the village streets were framed in trees.

As a child, Miłosz writes, “I was primarily a discoverer of the world, not as suffering but as beauty ... Happiness experienced in childhood does not pass without a trace: the memory of ecstasy dwells in our body and possesses a strong curative power.” Returning to visit this landscape at the age of eighty, Miłosz feels no particular regret, or anger, or even sadness. The orchards are gone of course, but so too is the communism which could find no place for them, vanished after less than fifty years: “Among the many definitions of Communism,” he writes, “perhaps one would be the most apt: enemy of orchards.” Now, in spite of the changes in the landscape, he can see that in all his wanderings and exile he had searched in vain for such a combination of leaves and flowers as was here. “Or, to be precise, I understood this after a huge wave of emotion had overwhelmed me, and the only name I can give it now would be – bliss.”………

Perhaps the central point of Miłosz’s philosophy, certainly the key problematic to which he returns again and again, is man’s war with nature. Nature here is not to be understood as the beauty of trees, woods, rivers and flowers but as necessity, “the way things are”, “the kingdom of inertia, senseless birth, and senseless death”. Refusing to bow down before this necessity, we assert our “anti-natural freedom”, through our creation of religion and culture, politics and ideology:

We are unable to live nakedly. We must constantly wrap ourselves in a cocoon of mental constructs, our changing styles of philosophy, poetry, art. We must invest meaning in that which is opposed to meaning; that ceaseless labour, that spinning is the most purely human of our activities. For the threads spun by our ancestors do not perish, they are preserved; we alone among living creatures have a history, we move in a gigantic labyrinth where the present and the past are interwoven. That labyrinth protects and consoles us ... Death is a humiliation, because it tears us away from words, the sounds of music, configurations of line and colour ...
A couple of nice tributes are here and here.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How Economics forgot History

I used to devour critiques of the World Bank with great glee - but got fed up with the ease with which it seemed able to deflect the devastating exposes with slippery new phrases and concepts such as “transparency”, “social capital”….. Some 20 years ago Susan George subjected the Bank to a marvellous attack in Faith and Credit - comparing the Bank to the Catholic Church. It is an apt comparison – with priests and Cardinals having unshakeable beliefs in their own wisdom and the wider congregation suffering from the effects of their arrogance, myopia and abuse of power.  

A brief review of a couple of recent books on the subject directed me to some great downloads which should keep me occupied to Christmas – The Debt Crisis – from Europe to where? (2012); and the 400 page From Political Economy to Freakonomics (2009)
economics was once rich, diverse, multidimensional and pluralistic. The book details how political economy became economics through the separation of economics from other social sciences, especially economic history and sociology. It ranges over the shifting role of the historical and the social in economic theory, the shifting boundaries between the economic and the non-economic and puts the case for political economy back on the agenda. This is done by treating economics as a social science once again. It involves transcending the boundaries of the social sciences through the reintroduction and full incorporation of the social and the historical into the main corpus of political economy, by drawing on the rich traditions of the past
From this I was led to the work of Geoffrey Hodgson - a thoughtful political economist who has long been out of tune with his fellow economists as you can see in this table and longer interview 
Amazingly I was able, thanks to scribd, to download a couple of his complete books – eg the rather daunting How Economics Forgot History (2001) as well as one of Susan George’s more recent (and typically accessible) contributions - Another world is possible (2004)