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

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Hard Day's Night

Bulgaria is famous for its red wines – I remember first coming across them in the Glasgow Oddbins in the 1970s and, lo indeed, 40 out of the 50 best wines recommended in the Bulgaria’s magic little annual “Divino Guide” are red.
But it was their white wines which were the great discovery for me when I first motored through Bulgaria in 2002 on the way to Turkey. I was quite stunned by first the crispness of the vastly underrated Targovishte Muscat (which rightly won a bronze medal in a Paris fair a couple of years back) and then by the sheer variety I was encountering.

Now my palate (and body) reject red wines – apart from those from the Melnik area and the Struma valley which crosses the border with Greece
But there were still more than 100 varieties of white on offer at the 2015 tasting of Bulgarian wines which took place a week ago at the Narodni Dom Kulturna (I always confuse it with NKD – which my young Bulgarian friends tell me is proof that I was a spy!).

That’s quite a slog for one day – so it was very early to bed that evening. Sunday was for the roses (the liquid variety) – fewer in number so I was able to emerge after a couple of hours with a clear head and an even greater commitment to their whites….  I had missed last year’s tasting but had been sober enough in 2013 to keep some notes of how I marked the whites

To prepare for the 2015 tasting I had pulled out and checked the scribbles on my copy of the great little Catalogue of Bulgarian Wine (by T Tanovska and K Iontcheva - annual) which I use to record my impressions. The Wine Routes of Bulgaria (Vina Zona 2014) is also a nice little – if less technical – profile of 64 of the good Bulgaria vineyards. No fewer than 66 vineyards were presenting on 20-22 November – which means about 400 bottles were waiting to be tasted!!

Six wineries battled it out for my palate’s favour this year
Marvin’s Traminer (6 euros) is from a vineyard in the Sliven area (in the centre of the country) - an area whose wines were the first to make an impression on me some years ago
Boi and AR Pomorie  had a great Chardonnay and Viognier (6 euros). Pomorie at the Black Sea has some of the best white wines - but this particular winery was new to me….
Domaine Menada –  had a winner (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay) for only 3.50 euros! A long established winery – near Stara Zagora in the middle of the country
Edoardo Miroglio – (a Chardonnay Barrique) – Sliven area again….
Villa Yustina is in the foothills of the Rhodope mountains near Plovdiv  and had a lovelyTraminer for 3 euros
Santa Maria at the moment is my favourite winery – in the south of the country near the Greek border – and offers two white wines (Sauvignon Blanc; and a Chardonnay - 4 euros) which won great applause at my own home wine tasting earlier in the month

Seven jostled closely behind -
Chateau Bourgozone - a favourite of mine on the western part of the Danube stretch – actually had 2 wines which caught my fancy – a Sauvigon Blanc; and a Chardonnay Barrique.
Levent – also on the Danube – had a wonderful Traminer/Miskat from the Russe wine house
Eolis - from the southern borderregion - had a lovely Gewurztraminer
Alexandra EstateVermentino (Sakar Region). a new grape for me
Four Friends vineyard is in the central region, near Stara Zagora and had a great Sauvignon Blanc (6 euros)
Neragora is a new organic vineyard in the Plovdiv area (receiving Italian help). Their Chardonnay and Misket was very acceptable
Todoroff – two of their wines pleased me - Rainbow Green (Muscat and Aligote); and Rainbow Silver (Cuve – SB and Chardonnay with some Viognier). Todoroff are in the amazing village of Brestovitsa (boasting 7 vineyards) very near Plovdiv

And, finally, four which didn’t score quite so high but which deserve a mention -
LeventRiesling (5 euros)
ZelanosPino Gris (7 euros)
Saedinenie – Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier
Villa YambolChardonnay (2.5 euros!)

Favourite Vineyards in south-east - Bratanov; Milidare; Medi Valley; Katarzyna;
Favourite Vineyards in south - Strymon; Villa Melnik
Favourite Vineyards at Black Sea Black Sea Gold; Ethno – in a village near Burgas on the Black Sea near the border with Turkey; and Slavyansti - ditto

The things I do for science!!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Identity Politics and the Human Rights "Industry"

The unease about “multiculturalism” that has been festering in many Europeans for the past two decades seems to have exploded into full open view - as a result, first, of the sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees on the move from the slow train-wreck that Syria has become and now, this month, of the Paris massacre.

This post may seem to wander – but please bear with me as I try to clear my head from the obfuscated language used nowadays to talk about issues of “identity”…..

An article by Nick Cohen attacking what he called “progressive liberalism” struck a nerve with me this week – although I realized from reading his What’s Left? – how the left lost its way. How Liberals lost their way (2007) some years back that you do not get from him a balanced treatment…..  But the book did make me aware of just how different my Scottish experience was. We may have had some ripples of immigration from India, Italy and Pakistan but their entrepreneurial skills gave them a certain status. Somehow the rain and cold have conspired to keep most immigrants away from Scotland - it is telling that the most significant immigration to Scotland came a century ago - across the narrow stretch of water which separates the country from Northern Ireland…  These were not only poor - but Roman Catholic and therefore marginalized in the labour and housing markets.

As a youngster I was attracted to the language of “equality” used by people such as RH Tawney, Aneurin Bevan and Richard Titmuss and therefore became active in my town’s Labour Party in the late 1950s. As a “son of the manse” I was a bit of an oddity in the predominantly Catholic local party who aroused the strong prejudices in the protestants who were the mainstay of the town’s professional class. Their disapproval of my activities was strongly conveyed to my poor father (who never remonstrated with me). In 1968 I found myself a councillor representing a (religiously) “mixed” area but with my sympathies strongly for those “disadvantaged” – not least by the fickleness of the hiring habits of the shipbuilding owners.

That’s when I first saw the downside of democracy and the need for some “positive discrimination” – a concept just beginning to trickle across from the States……I spent the subsequent 20 years of my life on this “mission”. So I have “form” as an active “leftist” pushing such an agenda.

But I have never felt comfortable with the language of “human rights” - nor those using it…I well remember the impatience I had in the 1980s with the new language of “equal opportunities” which came largely from middle-class women with an understandable agenda of getting better jobs – when we were trying in Strathclyde to create better conditions for 300,000 people affected by long-terms unemployment, addiction and mental health.

And don’t even talk to me about my attitude toward the young international professionals I began to encounter in the 2000s using the language and holy scriptures of “human rights”. To me rights are something you have to struggle for – not text you bow down to because it’s enshrined in the documents of international bodies…..

It was at this point I started to question the motives and integrity of the people associated with what was becoming a huge industry…….and felt that my record gave me the right to challenge what I have seen as excessive “political correctness…” which has now reached the level of utter stupidity..     
Francis Fox Piven is one of the American left’s most distinguished activists and had this to say in 1995 about the rise of identity politics. Robin Blackburn is an independent-minded British Marxist who brought an eagle eye to human rights a few years back in this article - Reclaiming Human Rights

There are many individuals – particularly those suffering from sexual discrimination - who have gained from the assertion of rights but, from being one of a small minority of the left who dared question the assertion of “human rights” I suspect I am becoming more mainstream….. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Passion and Dedication

I sometimes think that Newspeak has taken over. For years, for example, the journals have been full of talk of “innovation” and yet we live and breathe in ever more (globally) homogenised societies where “innovation” is, as often as not, simply what we used to call “product differentiation” – ie minute tinkering in design.

One of the reasons I am fond of Sofia is that I am constantly coming across here the quiet assertion of real (as distinct from pseudo) individuality and creativity…..Its art galleries and bookshops have been described in these posts as “the last sanctuaries of originality” – with the Astry Gallery as the leading example. It’s not just the way interesting (young and old) Bulgarian artists are cultivated and presented in her small gallery - it’s the friendly almost family atmosphere.
And the tastefully-designed bookmarks which mark every exhibition – real collectors’ items – are a simple gesture of that aesthetic commitment. They are produced by a young couple who have also become a great help to me eg in the production of my booklet on Bulgarian art (just about to go into a second edition) and in setting up my new website. Danail in particular has an exemplary “Can-Do” attitude as a result of which his little company has won more custom not only from me but from at least one other foreigner who found not only the quotes and deadlines unbeatable but the professionalism of the work deeply impressive. 

Let me give some other examples - last Saturday, returning from the tribute to the Paris dead at the nearby French Embassy, I stumbled across an incredible little pub (intriguingly named “Sterling Club”) just round the corner from my flat…It looks old but has in fact been operating for only three years….my next visit (with friends) I hope to get the story…..

Last year I was struck with two beautiful and highly original books about aspects of Bulgarian history and culture by two Bulgarians I now count as friends – Ivan Daraktchiev, with his amazing Bulgaria: Terra Europeansis Incognita; and Rumen Manov with his 700-page celebration of some 2000 cultural artefacts and photographs from his own personal collection - in A Fairy Tale about Bulgaria. Each was a labour of love – paid for by the author….  

And this Wednesday I shall be at a winetasting in a small shop at the Russian Monument which I have been cultivating almost since its start 4 years ago. Vinoorenda is run by a young man, Asen, and his father and, to judge by the cards and references at last weekend’s Annual Wine-tasting, has already built up an impressive reputation amongst particularly the smaller, craft vineyards in the country…. 

The blog has previously noted the proliferation in central Sofia of tiny shops run by both young and old……..a powerful expression of individuality which is repressed by the large stores which are the feature of most downtowns in European cities.
Is this just an accident of the narrow streets? ……I have a feeling it reflects something more cultural. Bulgarians, for example, don’t seem to have adopted the debt life-style of other nations……. They’re not taken in by fashions. They have a respect for healthy foods and vegetables (and for their country’s history and culture)…..
They are a small, relatively isolated country, surrounded by indifferent if not unfriendly neighbours – perhaps this has developed an awareness of being on their own and needing to work at something about which they’re passionate?

Coincidentally I’m reading one of Robert Greene’s recent books called Mastery. Guardian readers, as you will see from this review, turn their nose up at Greene but I confess I enjoy his books – not least for their layout and charming tales of emperors and great men.
Mastery is a celebration of the life of the “vocation” and the dedication which goes with it….In these times of shallow showmanship and deceit, we desperately need such celebrations…..Of course, those wanting a more serious read should go to Howard Gardner’s Creating Minds

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Is our Moral Outrage Relative and Selective??

It’s been more than a week since the horrific massacre in Paris – whose death toll could have been at least tripled but for the effective work of security guards at the Stade de France where a friendly match had just commenced between France and Germany….The lockdown this weekend of central Brussels may seem heavy-handed but obviously warranted given the disaffection clearly embedded in at least one of the Brussels neighbourhoods……

Given the long battle which raged around a flat in the St Dennis neighbourhood of Paris on Wednesday before some of the apparent perpetrators were brought down, it is quite amazing that only three deaths seem to have resulted (more so in Mali) but, sadly, many more innocent people in Syria have died as France has stepped up its bombing of ISIS targets in that country…..

Like most people I have not only followed these fast-moving events but have tried to understand the motives of those concerned….For me there are 3 basic questions –
- Who are these people, prepared to blow up people amongst whom they have lived?
 -  Why are they doing it?
- What does it take to get them to stop?

Although I have 7 years of living in muslim societies, the Russian cultural influence (for which read vodka) was still strong in Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan – although ebbing particularly fast in the last country… where indeed there was a lockdown in the Pamir mountains just outside Tashkent in 2000 because of terrorist activities…

I have, since that time, had a certain interest in Islam – to the extent, for example, of reading both Among the Believers – an Islamic journey by VS Naipul (1981); and Desperately Seeking Paradise – journeys of a sceptical muslim by Ziauddin Sardar (2004)

Curiously, few of the articles I have read seem to deal with the first question. One exception is Scott Atran and Nafeeds Hamid’s highly detailed profiling  in The New York Review of Books 
that 90 percent of French citizens who have radical Islamist beliefs have French grandparents and 80 percent come from non-religious families. In fact, most Europeans who are drawn into jihad are “born again” into radical religion by their social peers.
In France, and in Europe more generally, more than three of every four recruits join the Islamic State together with friends, while only one in five do so with family members and very few through direct recruitment by strangers. Many of these young people identify with neither the country their parents come from nor the country in which they live. Other identities are weak and non-motivating.
One woman in the Paris suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois described her conversion as being like that of a transgender person who opts out of the gender assigned at birth: “I was like a Muslim trapped in a Christian body,” she said. She believed she was only able to live fully as a Muslim with dignity in the Islamic State. For others who have struggled to find meaning in their lives, ISIS is a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that many of them will never live to enjoy.
 A July 2014 poll by ICM Research suggested that more than one in four French youth of all creeds between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four have a favorable or very favorable opinion of ISIS.
Even if these estimates are high, in our own interviews with young people in the vast and soulless housing projects of the Paris banlieues we found surprisingly wide tolerance or support for ISIS among young people who want to be rebels with a cause—who want, as they see it, to defend the oppressed.

In another blog in the same journal a well-known Pakistani journalist (with a decade of personal experience as a guerrilla) looks at the divergent pattern of attacks on civilian targets by terrorist groups of the past decade and offers the obvious explanation for the attacks in the European heartland -     
ISIS is now determined to launch attacks against those states that are waging war against it. Turkey has just given the US government permission to use some of its airbases for strikes against ISIS; Hezbollah is helping Bashar al-Assad fight ISIS.
The Russians are now bombing ISIS and other groups, while the French are crucial partners in the anti-ISIS coalition.
French warplanes bombing ISIS from runways in the Gulf states are about to get a fresh boost as the French government sends its only aircraft carrier to the Gulf. 
ISIS’s message is thus clear—the group is waging an all-out deliberate war against all those countries that are lining up to fight it. Again, this is not an attempt to take down the Western order, in the way that al-Qaeda was trying to do, nor is it a reaction to the evils of Western heathens. It is a direct reaction to what is being done to ISIS by coalition forces. 

The background for this sad state of affairs is common knowledge. The emergence of a unipolar world system in the early 1990s has induced Western governments to push for unrestricted market dominance at home and abroad. Also, triumphalism has become the norm of foreign policy, which embraced military interventions aimed at regime change in contravention to international law and massive public opposition. 
One component of the ‘regime-change’ strategy was to support and collaborate with non-state armed groups. The first pilot exercise was the direct and indirect (through the ISI of Pakistan) support that the American administration provided to the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s. The support took an ‘unintended’ form during the 2000s, when the Taliban were slicing off US aid to the failed state that the US intervention had left behind.
Then came the Iraq War, which created a large number of Sunni armed groups, including Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The latter joined other Sunni insurgency groups in 2006 to form ISIS. The recruitment ground for these groups consisted of Sunnis who lost jobs and livelihoods as a result of Western military intervention in Iraq. The link between Western interventions and the strengthening of terrorist groups was also evident after the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya.
Under the nose of Western surveillance, Libyan arms depots were looted and weapons sent to Syria through a NATO ally – Turkey. The Times reported on an arms shipment on 14 September 2012. This is unlikely to have been the only shipment.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh wrote an article in April 2014, in which he exposed a classified agreement between the CIA, Turkey and the Syrian rebels to create the “rat line” – the covert network used to channel weapons and ammunition from Libya to Syria through Turkey.
 The funding was provided by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with full knowledge of the US authorities.

My third question does beg some further questions – not least the obvious one of why I haven’t raised this question before in my blog…..I'm forced to recognise that our sense of moral outrage is relative and selective. Indeed even to pose the question is, for many, a concession to terrorism……..

Translate it to more everyday behaviour….confronted by a bully, do we concede? Surely not! That's the "lesson" we've drawn from appeasement...Not surprisingly therefore it is the basis of most of the pundits’ commentary…… 

I think, however, we need to go back to the first question and be willing to explore more the nature of the people we are dealing with….it is certainly not the German friend Camus was writing to in 1944…
And the scale of games being played by our so-called allies in the Middle East (if not Russia) should certainly make us think ten times before sustaining or strengthening some of our strange alliances

update; by a pure coincidence, I have just started to watch this 1985 film "Brazil" which, despite its opening humour, sends shivers down my spine. We've been at it for 30 years??????

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Death in Paris

The death by gunshot of one innocent is murder – of 130 a massacre - regardless of where it takes place…it could have been any of us in those cafes and halls of Paris……And anger was my first response – at the preachers of hatred in the mosques dotted around the cities of Europe. I felt sympathy for those who would lock them all up……

But then I found myself asking why I seemed to have had a different response to 130 innocent deaths in places such as Afghanistan and Syria. More than a hundred innocent deaths every day - from American, British, French and Russian missiles in these two countries and so many thousands in Iraq and Libya not so long ago….. I can, of course, blame the corporate media since we view the world through its’ lenses and they simply don’t rate such “incidents” or deaths from “accidental” or “friendly” fire. In that respect, we use the same defence mechanism as so many Germans in Hitler’s time who screened unpleasant or unacceptable “truths” from their consciousness……

True, more than a million British people marched against the Iraq war a decade ago – and some foresaw the radicalization that would come from Western “interventions”.
Even George Bush Senior has spoken openly (at last) about his son’s stupidity in letting his advisers take America (and many in the West) to war…… 

Four years ago, a Romanian journal asked me to reflect on how the world had changed since September 2001. This was the opening of my initial response - 
The attack on the Twin Towers certainly provided the opportunity for the security interests in leading States (adrift after the collapse of communism) to regroup and increase their budgets and power. "Counter-terrorism” became the slogan behind which the State increased various surveillance and control measures over its own citizens. Defence (aggression) budgets and actions boomed; powers of detention without legal redress were increased; a generation of young muslims radicalised; and cultural tensions increased.

But the 2011 attack was by no means the only significant event over the decade. Arguably, indeed, governments and media have used the threat of terrorism to distract us all from vastly greater threats to our security and social harmony which have developed as neo-liberalism has grown apace and threatened to destroy the democratic model which was so painfully constructed in the 20th century.

Earlier that day I had read of the death of one of France’s last remaining intellectuals  - Andre Glucksmann who  was apparently the guy who had suggested to Sarkozy the appointment as Foreign Minister of socialist Bernard Kouchner (warning – the link’s writer is a self-avowed neo-Con) although Kouchner typified a Blairite “moral activism” - and it is his legacy which looks to have come back like a boomerang to hit France…......

France – despite its hostility to the American line on Iraq – has turned out to be more hawkish in Syria…..where even  the UK hesitates….A French book published only last week questioned this......That led me onto another assessment – by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker 
… when asked to distill Glucksmann’s contribution to French thought,  his friend and younger writer the writer Pascal Bruckner said that it was to put an end to any romance about Communism, but, more important, to reset the tuning of French understanding: he made it clear that building a more ideal world was a less important task than mending the evil in this one.
 I cannot tell you what to be for. But I know what to be against,” was one of Glucksmann’s favorite locutions. It was hard to know how to make a better world. But it was easy to see what was making a horrible one. Designing the ideal order was impossible work. Saving the victims from those engaged in designing ideal orders was not, in truth, as hard as our laziness let us pretend it was.

I suddenly remembered Albert Camus’ 5 letters to a German friend in the book Resistance, Rebellion and Death (1960) which made a big impact on me at University……Written originally in 1943/44 the letters offer a powerful argument against the nihilism of those who practice violence – or rather
I have never believed in the power of truth itself – but it is at least worth knowing that, when expressed forcefully, truth wins out over falsehood
His third letter contains an important message for those of now contemplating Fortress Europe – 
You say “Europe” but you think in terms of potential soldiers, granaries, industries brought to heel, intelligence under control…you cannot keep yourself from thinking of a cohort of docile nations led by a lordly Germany   …....
for us Europe is a home of the spirit…. Don’t worry I shall not fall back on the argument of Christian tradition….that is something you have talked of too much….Europe has another tradition…my tradition, that of a few great individuals and of an inexhaustible mass….two aristocracies - that of the intelligence and that of courage

It is difficult to imagine these days such a dialogue (however imaginary) between a Frenchman and a representative of ISIS and, if it did, the Frenchman would not be expressing philosophical confidence but rather anger and bewilderment….

We need cool heads these days - our elites (British, French or American) have become too polarised in their attitudes...........and seem incapable of exploring Middle East  issues  (in all their admittedly fiendish complexity)in a balanced way. We need Fred Halliday back amongst us…..some of his thoughts on terrorism here

Here is one balanced assessment – another here and a final one from "Salon" whose analysis needs to be absorbed by the hotheads amongst us


the painting is one of a Paris series by Maria Raicheva, a young Bulgarian artist, which hangs on the wall in front of me and always attracts admirers 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

All in a day's "work"

One of my favourite bloggers - Duncan Green – makes the important point that –  
regular blogging builds up a handy, time-saving archive. I’ve been blogging daily since 2008. OK, that’s a little excessive, but what that means is that essentially I have a download of my brain activity over the last 7 years – almost every book and papers I’ve read, conversations and debates. Whenever anyone wants to consult me, I have a set of links I can send (which saves huge amounts of time). And raw material for the next presentation, paper or book.

Green is spot on about the help a blog like mine offers in finding a reference you know you have but can’t remember…....you just type in the keyword – and, hey presto, the relevant post with its quotes and hyperlinks generally appears immediately – a record of your (and others’) brain activity that particular day. 

I also have a file of more than 100 pages for each year with raw text and  thousands of hyperlinks which didn’t make it to the blog……an amazing archive of months of brain activity which, of course, needs a bit more time to access…… 

As I’m being more parsimonious in my blogging these days, I thought it would be amusing  simply to copy and paste one of these pages.....links which have so far not been incorporated into any post.......
It gives an even better record of my “saves” and brain activity…

Like all blogs, it starts with the most recent……sometimes the subject of the link is clear, sometimes it is a "lucky dip"......

English poets -
Kingsley Amis

Philip Larkin

WH Auden

Helmut Schmidt Obituary 

a couple of years ago  we got a glimpse of Helmut Schmidt’s long love affair with painting - http://www.zeit.de/2013/20/kunstsammler-helmut-schmidt/komplettansicht - not least those of the German Expressionists. 
See also this video
and, for those, not familiar with Germany this little E-book of mine - “German Musings
In autumn 2008, shortly before his 90th birthday, he gave an extraordinary, 70-minute television interview, publicising his new book, Ausser Dienst (Out of Service), a reflection on a long life. The programme revealed as never before a man who not only had no religious convictions but blamed clerics – Catholic, Protestant, Islamic – for the mutual intolerance he identified between Christianity and Islam.
 He admitted that he was not “a seeker after truth” but he took an interest in all manner of philosophies and was a particular admirer of Confucius. He developed a friendship with Hans K√ľng, the progressive Catholic theologian whose views antagonised the Vatican. In a masterly analysis of the world financial and economic crisis, he regretted that none of those responsible for the credit crunch would be brought to book. As an experienced economist, he dismissed the generality of contemporary politicians, including George W Bush, as economic “dilettantes”.
 He revealed that his political hero was Anwar Sadat, the assassinated Egyptian president, who had been a close colleague and friend.One of his watchwords (and another of his English puns) was: “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” This could have served as Schmidt’s political epitaph when his eight-year chancellorship ran down to its frustrating end.
 He was not a “conviction” politician and his heart never got the better of his head, but a democratic leader needs a party, and in both Hamburg politics and his own family tradition, the SPD was the only place to be. In exchange for a power-base, Schmidt gave the party eight more years of power in Bonn and two federal election victories before the inevitable falling-out between the ideological left and the centrist master of realpolitik. But in the constrained art of government in difficult times, there was never a safer pair of hands.


 “There is no question that the prevailing temper of the Democratic party is populist: strongly sceptical of what we like to call capitalism and angry about the perceived power of the monied elite in politics,” said PPI president and founder Will Marshall.“But inequality is not the biggest problem we face: it is symptomatic of the biggest problem we face, which is slow growth.”

tony hancock’s half hour

About God 
another 50 academics speak about god

Friday, November 6, 2015

Despairing of the World - how artists cope

I wrote in April about my experience of having my bust sculpted by one of Bulgaria’s best-known sculptors - Spartak Dermendjiev (also known as “Paris”). His uncle was a partisan in the second-world war and Spartak was baptized in his honour with his nom de guerre   
Last night I unveiled the completed bust for a few friends (inc Spartak) - painfully aware of the conceit involved but still grateful for the opportunity to have "sat"/"stood" for such a great artist.....
Like most gifted people perhaps, he displays his contradictions more openly than the rest of us….His charming manner and superb studies conceal a despair about the world which finds expression in that part of his work he calls “cynical  art” – artifacts which, for me, are more appropriately described as “erotic art”, focusing for the most part on pudenda and vulvae.

The theme of Don Quixote is, for some reason, a beloved one in the work of Bulgarian sculptors and  also figures in Spartak’s work – in 2003 indeed he had an exhibition entitled “Don Quixote dies” which for him -
reveals the Way of Despair - from the lunacy of Idealism, through the rude awakening of living, to Despair and Death.Art creates Idealists, life kills them…Don Quixote did not die from the sword of the Evil, rather from the poison of Despair…. 
There is no place in life for Don Quixote, and he left… .Outside Temples, beyond the cover pages of books, beyond the frames of paintings, the Faith in Good and Justice dies…
Don Quixote died, but left his ghost to remind us that without Faith in the Good - the human in us dies…

Recently he also staged an event whose title also reflects on his outlook - "Fin Du Monde". The video of the event is worth watching although you have to wait until about the 7th minute to get the denouement (I'm the guy in the blue anorak who wanders across the scene at the end of the 2nd minute and pretends to ignore the painting!) And here is his tribute to Georgi Markov the Bulgarian writer whose ultimate dissidence brought his famous murder on a London street, pierced with a poisoned umbrella tip..... 

I must confess that I am drawn to the work of artists who have a sense of outrage about the world – summed up in German poet Bert Brecht’s memorable challenge – “So ist die Welt – und musst nicht so sein” . I was drawn immediately to Hieronymous Bosch, the original inspiration for scenes of horror; to Kathe Kollwitzs powerful depictions of poverty and war in her graphics and sculpture of the first couple of decades of the 20th century; to George Groszs savage portrayals of Weimar life and the Pillars of  German Society (which I use as illustrations for   some of my posts); to Frans Masereels woodcuts (ditto); to Goya’s series on the victims of war. 

And British cartoonist Ralph Steadman has been a hero since the 1970s.
When, however, I hear the phrase “cynical art” I think not of such people but of Damian Hirst – who has cynically milked stupid rich people of their money – and duped many galleries into showing his offensive rubbish. Or of the work of Tracey Emin

Spartak talks of “sin” and I wondered at one stage whether his use of the phrase “cynical” art was a pun on the word sin……..Since we have become friends, we discuss and explore the phrase in various ways – indeed he invites me to help improve the English translation of the titles he gives his various pudenda!
I have googled “cynical art” and get references only to some modern Chinese movements….it simply is not a phrase that has caught on…I tried “Nihilistic art” and got Dada references.

But it is the work of the German artists of the first quarter of the 20th century which best caught the “Angst” or despair of that period… Although I like their work I don’t see it as nihilistic

Paul Celan memorably said that “After Auschwitz, it is impossible to write poetry”.  

Googling brought me this interesting quote -   
Until now nihilism has been a theory, an abstraction... the dark muse of poetry, philosophy and art. But now we are confronted with a nihilistic moment that neither Turgenev nor Nietzsche could have prophesied: a global meltdown wrought by wars – on terror, on planet, on self.
 We are confronted with the moment when this experiment of ours on Planet Earth meets its spectacular and terrifying end, when civilization reaches its summit and begins to tumble into permanent decline. This new breed of nihilismcall it eco-nihilism, psycho-nihilism, apocalypto-nihilismfalls far beyond the bounds of the deeply personal loss of meaning Nietzsche warned of.
This new kind of nihilism degrades our very cosmic fiber, consuming not only our psyche, but the planet itself. And for this new, collective brand of nihilism, no philosophy has ever been written, no remedy ever prescribed.

Coincidentally I came across a couple of reviews of Michel Houllebecq’s novels. Karl Ove Knaussgard – the title of whose multi-volume My Struggle (ie another “Meinr Kampf”!!) hints at the bleakness of his own vision - pays tribute to Houllebecq’s work in this review. Another long review puts it bluntly -   
callow, cynical and sex-obsessed, openly racist and misogynistic in turn, rife with B-grade porn writing, full of contempt for art and intellectuals, and operate on a kind of low masculine anger at the indignities of being beta-chimp. Houllebecq’s novels …. owe their reputation to artistic achievement as much as any naughty thrill they elicit.

I’ve read a couple of his books and this quotation from “Elementary Particles” seems to sum up his world view – 
His effort at self-analysis emerges: “But I don’t understand, basically, how people manage to go on living. I get the impression everybody must be unhappy; we live in such a simple world you understand. There’s a system based on domination, money and fear … there’s a … system based on seduction and sex. And that’s it. Is it really possible to live and to believe that there’s nothing else

I can understand nihilism but, despite my recognition of the truth of such an analysis, I can’t support it. I still believe in goodness. I see many reasons for despair about our collective future - but feel that, at a personal level, it would help if we cultivated a more “fatalistic” (Buddhist?) approach – “his too will pass”……… And that’s also why I find it difficult to deal with cynicism. 

Woody Allen expressed it well when he suggested that The artist's job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bucharest Flames

Romanian politicians don’t do resignations. When, a few years back,  one of their previous Ministers who had migrated to Brussels as a Euro MP was one of three Euro MPs to be caught in a sting, the other two quickly resigned but not Adrian Severin…..When Victor Ponta became Romania’s Prime Minister some 3 years ago, he was almost immediately discovered by a global scientific journal to have committed extensive plagiarism for his PhD. He shrugged that off – although it had immediately led to resignations of German and other national Ministers guilty of such transgressions. But not in Romania…..Even being indicted a few months ago by the country’s powerful anti-corruption brigade (DNA) didn’t seem to rattle him – only one of the charges would have been liable to remove him.

But Ponta duly went (pushed it appears) this week as public anger at political shamelessness reached boiling point - first from the death of a police outrider escorting a the Ministry of Interior’s car which had no right for such protection but then, at the weekend, from almost 50 deaths in a night-club which, like all such places in the country, had absolutely no fire or safety precautions…… The “Sarah in Romania” blog can always be relied upon for a caustic comment on such matters – and her latest comment doesn’t disappoint..….

This time their seems some focus for policy change to the anger….the country now has a President who has used at least the language of radical change (although the jury must remain out on whether he has the capacity to deliver); and the street protests which were normally led by a party political element look this time to have a slightly more hopeful base in the citizens……but so-called “civil society” (about which one does not hear so much these days) has never really taken off in Romania – despite the extensive funding it got from external sources…..

There simply is no moral authority in the country – the Orthodox Church is one of the richest organisations (as in Greece) taking tithes from poor people; running money-spinning projects (such as TV and Radio); priests are civil servants their salaries paid by the state; and the Church is now vying with Ceaucescu’s construction megalomania with the scale of the new Cathedral it is starting to build in Bucharest – whose grounds already groan under the number of churches….. 

I had a little soiree at my flat in Sofia this evening (coincidentally the night the Brits celebrate the night of Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up Parliament in 1605!) at which I discovered that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church enjoys no such advantages here….Why the difference, I wonder – although the two neighbouring countries – as I’ve frequently noted in the blog - are SO different (in all respects) that I shouldn’t have been surprised….

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

"What am I good at/for?" - a SWOT approach

Readers know that one of the few blogs I regularly check is the contrarian one of another Scot who worked in Uzbekistan (as British Ambassador) just after I had left my 3 –year assignment there in 2001 -  the blog of Craig Murray. He has been a thorn in the flesh of not only the British, Uzbek and American Governments - for his early revelations of Uzbek torture condoned by the Brits and continued by the Yanks. These cost him his position but he was subsequently vindicated (by no less a body than the US Senate Intelligence Committee - a misnomer if ever there was one!!!).
But his beloved Scottish Nationalist party then lacked the guts (and intelligence) to accept him as an official candidate for the 2015 General election – despite his sterling (!) work for them………

He poses on today’s post the most critical question any man can ask -
I am confused as to what I might usefully do with my life. I suppose the question I have been pondering is, what good am I?
Anyone who reaches his/her late 50s and has had the sort of rich work experience enjoyed by many born in the immediate post-war period; good health; and reasonable and accessible capital should have been asking Craig’s question for the past decade…..

Fifteen years ago, in a similar mood, I posed not one but five questions in a short paper called A Draft Guide for the Perplexed -
- why I was pessimistic about the future and so unhappy with what the French then  called “La Pensee Unique”, the post 1989 “Washington consensus”
- who were the organisations and people I felt were fighting for a better world
- what they were achieving - and what not
- how these gaps could be reduced
- how with my resources I could help that process

The paper has been updated every few years until its latest version

Craig asks the blunt question of What good he is - which is a slightly disparaging way of putting things. A more useful question is “What am I good FOR?” In other words, to what purpose should someone of my age, experience and resources (time, networks, money etc) turn this latter stage of his life?
We all admire older people who have resisted the temptation to rest on their laurels and have turned their experience and energies to serve a larger purpose – eg Stephane Hessel,

- Initially I thought I might leave some money to a Trust Fund to honour my father’s memory as a West of Scotland public man; or to celebrate the sort of community enterprise I’ve been associated with. But my family has no claim to fame – and such ventures tend to peter out after the initial years of enthusiasm. 
- So, in 2009, I started this blog and also a website with some of my papers with no less a purpose than leaving behind a record of how one 20th century man thought of the world he had been lucky enough to experience…… 
- Then, with a newfound passion for Bulgarian painting (and one foot now in Romania and another in Bulgaria), I briefly entertained the notion of organising a summer painting retreat to help break down the barrier of indifference which seems to exist between these two nations.   
- At one stage I became so desperate about the rise of corporate greed that I actually contemplated launching the idea of a geriatric kamikaze mission to target the financial class - on the Mintzberg argument that the vanishing "people power" of trade unions and voters needed some strengthening to ensure the "rebalancing of society". But I quickly realised that this would merely further strengthen the repressive power of the "security state" which has replaced our mixed economies and liberal democracies....
- Last year I launched a second, specially designed, website with a larger capacity – Mapping the Common Ground - as a resource for those who share my concerns and want to do some sharing…...On to it I uploaded not only my own books and essays but more than a hundred books which I thought would be helpful to others struggling with my questions…… But, after six years of the blog and one year of the website, I have to confess there’s not been much response.

Craig’s question is a good one since it forces us to do a SWOT analysis – and to try to craft a strategy for this phase of our life on its results. I know that when I first did the Belbin test about team roles about 15 years ago, I had expected to come out as a “leader”. But I was not altogether surprised to discover that I was more of a “resource person”. There’s not much point setting out to build an orphanage if you don’t like children!

I’ve been lucky enough to have been “my own man” for most of my life – an academic of a sort for 17 years but able to devote more time to a role as an (influential) elected official; maintaining a senior position for 22 years through a dozen  elections by colleagues; since 1990 a maverick consultant who has challenged the conventional wisdom.

What good am I? Bluntly expressed - just reading, writing and looking/exploring!
What do I offer the world?
- The results of broad and deep reading over 50 years about social science matters 
- The practice of thinking out aloud since 1970 - in short papers about the work in which I was involved (see “lessons learned” on the new website for those from the past 20 years; “E-books” for almost a dozen of that genre)
- More than 1000 mini-essays with almost 10,000 hyperlinks – on the blog Balkan and Carpathian Musings
- the results of pretty intensive net-surfing for relevant writing over the past decade -available in Mapping the Common Ground’s library

Of course that still doesn’t answer the question which has been nagging me for the past 15 years – of where I should be putting my experience and resources…….!!