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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why the natives are revolting

Only those wishing to see Britain destroyed could have wished for the events now playing out in the country in which I spent my first fifty years -
Take back control” was the slogan of those wanting out of Europe – instead of which everything seems to be spiralling out of control. Owen Jones is the author of a book The Establishment – and how they get away with it which excoriated the British power structure and has given us perhaps the pithiest view of the past week’s events - 
- The Brexiteers have no plan; they began backtracking on their promises within hours, which may well produce a firestorm of fury in the coming months;
- the Prime Minister is resigning (and the Leader of the Opposition has massively lost a vote of confidence from his parliamentary colleagues) 
- the economy faces turmoil, as do jobs and people’s living standards
- The country is more bitterly divided (and in so many different ways) than it has been for generations; Scotland is on course to leave and precipitate the break-up of the country, and who can blame them; xenophobia and racism have been given renewed legitimacy; the Northern Ireland peace process is under threat.
- The hard right of the Tory Party is on the cusp of power; 
- and the EUfearful of its future survivalis preparing to offer punitive terms to Britain.
 We may well be at the beginning of the biggest calamity to befall this country since the end of the war.

This A-Z of Brexit was apparently written the day after the vote to leave and is a rather longer and emotional commentary….
The Current Moment is an interesting collective blog which draws attention today to the blow which the referendum seems to have struck to progressives’ beliefs in democracy -  
every self-described leftist – even those who openly recognised the EU’s undemocratic nature and brutal record in southern Europe – supported Remain.
Fundamentally, leftists doubted their capacity to lead the British public towards a progressive Brexit. Instead, they warned, Boris Johnson would sweep to power and dismantle what was left of social democracy – apparently with popular consent.
They backed continued EU membership to maintain policies and institutions that they feared the population would not support in a fully democratic system. Lacking any real belief in the EU, the left was unable to offer a positive vision of EU membership and fell back on elite-led scare tactics.
The issues of democracy and self-determination were given up to the political right, as was leadership on both sides of the debate, allowing conservatives to define the debate over the future. Ducking the issue of principle in the name of strategic nous, the vote was lost anyway, creating the outcome the left had feared all along: Brexit, led by the right. 
After the vote, this defeatist orientation of the left has resulted in a social media spasm of vitriol directed against the old, the poor and the uneducated. 

This piece on “Why elections are bad for democracy” seems to catch the mood well - although the book from which it is excerpted is part of a much older argument about representative democracy.......

But it is perhaps Glenn Greenwald’s “Intercept” column which gives the most sustained analysis of the reasons for the profound rejection of the political class we have been seeing in recent years His argument basically is that......
a sizable portion of the establishment liberal commentariat in the West has completely lost the ability to engage with any sort of dissent from its orthodoxies or even understand those who disagree. They are capable of nothing beyond adopting the smuggest, most self-satisfied posture, then spouting clich├ęs to dismiss their critics as ignorant, benighted bigots.
Like the people of the West who bomb Muslim countries and then express confusion that anyone wants to attack them back, the most simple-minded of these establishment media liberals are constantly enraged that the people they endlessly malign as ignorant haters refuse to vest them with the respect and credibility to which they are naturally entitled. 

 The referendum, of course, only seemed to be about Europe - in reality it was probably more about identity and fear of "the other"...what Europeans actually make of the referendum and its result is of little interest to the English electorate.....but, for what it's worth, the inestimable Eurozine site offers some feedback

The newspapers and journalists who are the subject of Glenn Greenwald’s vitriol do, of course, contain exceptions – John Harris and Gary Younge being the two who try to keep the reputation of The Guardian intact.  Younge’s “long read” today packs eloquence and insight ……
Lying has consequences that last far longer than individual acts of deception: it ruins the liar’s ability to convince people when it really matters. The source of the mistrust between the establishment and the country isn’t difficult to fathom.
Next week the Chilcot inquiry will publish its findings into the Iraq war. After Iraq, we faced an economic crisis that few experts saw coming until it was too late. Then followed austerity; now the experts said this was precisely the wrong response to the crisis, but it happened anyway. 
When leaders choose the facts that suit them, ignore the facts that don’t and, in the absence of suitable facts, simply make things up, people don’t stop believing in facts – they stop believing in leaders. They do so not because they are over-emotional, under-educated, bigoted or hard-headed, but because trust has been eroded to such a point that the message has been so tainted by the messenger as to render it worthless…………..
 It may seem a minor matter in the wake of this referendum to say that our political parties are failing in their historic mission, but we would not have arrived here were they not doing so.
 The party set up by trade unions to represent the interests of workers in parliament no longer commands the allegiance of those people. True, almost two-thirds of Labour voters did vote remain – but an overwhelming number of the working-class, the poor, and the left-behind put their faith in leave.
Meanwhile, the party of capital and nation has presided over a painful blow to the City and the Union.
 Neither party is fit for purpose………….

I generally have no time for Twitter - but feel that this blow-by-blow analysis by one of the Economist analysts says it all 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Europe's Fateful Day

My last post predicted (on 14 June) that those voting to leave would significantly outnumber the others but, as one Prime Minister of the 1970s famously said, "a week is a long time in politics"
I was, like most people, shocked by the killing of a young English Labour MP last week, this being the main reason why the promised summary of Barnett's book has not yet appeared. The murder may or may not be the factor which has apparently seen a significant swing toward "remain" (and the betting money is certainly on that result).
What people actually do when they reach the privacy of the polling booth (if they actually do) is always the imponderable as I well know from personal experience. In 1979, I was a very active public campaigner for a "no" vote in the referendum about creating a Scottish Parliament (I felt then it was the slippery path to independence); I appeared on public platforms with prominent MPs – but- when it came to vote - I actually found myself putting a cross in the "yes" box!!    

So now, as British voters trek to the polls, the feeling is that "remain" might just make it.......

Here are two thoughtful pieces on the implications of the campaign from one of my favourite journals – this one which focuses on the fact that Britain has always had a “semi-detached” view of Europe  and a short magisterial piece which refers to a writer (JB Priestley) from the area in which the young MP was born -   
who is remembered mostly for a single play, which he wrote towards the end of the second world war but which he set two years before the start of the first. It covers a single evening in the life of a smug, prosperous Midlands family, the Birleys, who are enjoying a celebratory dinner. It is interrupted by an unexpected caller, an inspector of police. A young woman is dead.
 It emerges in the course of his interrogation that every member of the Birley family contributed in some way to Eva Smith’s suicide. It’s all a bit schematic; at times it creaks. Yet this standby of tatty rep – with its old-fashioned Christian Socialist values, its whiff of the supernatural, its overhanging presentiment of mass slaughter, its mysterious denouement – somehow moves and provokes modern audiences. It has become one of the classics of our age. Young people love it. 
Now, why might that be? It’s a question worth asking at the end of this vicious campaign, as we look with foreboding to a denouement of our own making in the early hours of Friday. I suspect what appeals to young people about this play, what gives it meaning in their own lives, is that it preaches – and it does preach – the importance of moral responsibility.
Read the inspector’s closing speech. I’ve retained the name of the original character, Eva Smith, but it might be interesting if you substituted the name of a young woman from an ethnic minority. 

But just remember this. One Eva Smith has gone – but there are millions and millions of Eva Smiths and John Smiths left with us, with their lives, their hopes and their fears, their suffering and a choice of happiness, all intertwined with our lives and what we think and say and do. We don’t live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.
 In the end, the early summer of 2016 was never about money, about a balance of economic advantage, about notions of sovereignty, about the parrot cries of 'freedom for Britain’ or 'Britain first’.
It was not even about immigration. It was about a shocking want of kindness, an absence of love, a grievous loss of humanity. The inspector is calling. Again he’s calling. This time, he’s calling on us.

Der Spiegel has a longer article here. And the Dublin Review of Books does a good summary of the debate as it took place in the columns of the Guardian newspaper

If the vote is for "leave", this piece will be worth studying in detail   

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Making sense of the Referendum (and UK politics)

The mood in England (less so in the other 3 parts of the UK – particularly Scotland) seems this past week to be consolidating around withdrawal from the European Union. We have known that a significant section of the British population has never found involvement in Europe to their liking but -  
that Brexit is holding at around 45% support according to the polls; that it has two ruling party politicians (the cabinet’s most able thinker and one time confidant of the prime minister, and the Tory's most popular star) as its leaders; that they are supported by around half of the party's MPs and a clear majority of Conservative voters; that they might even win!............ This should not be remotely credible.

My blogposts this past week have been trying to shed some light on how on earth the country has got to this point.
But I discovered this morning that someone has, in the past few months, been writing and publishing the definitive explanation …..and that is Anthony Barnett of the Open Democracy website whose Blimey – it could be BREXIT ! has been serialising on a weekly basis on that site for the past 3 months.

It is, quite simply, one of the most stunning things I have read for many years – written by someone who has had a unique position at the heart of key debates about political power since the early 1970s and whose independence from any employer or ideology allows him to write with a unique balance of coherence and intellectual depth. 

As Barnett explains in his introduction - 
“Blimey!” is not 'about' the referendum or reporting its ups and downs week by week. My aim is to explain its 'meta-politics': what to make of why it is occurring, where it comes from, what forces are contained within this strange event, what the consequences may be for all of us in the UK and in Europe over the longer term.

I have not yet finished my reading of the 12 sections (at least 200 pages) but what impresses me is the clarity of expression; the width of his reading; and the generosity of his quotations and attributions. 

Conscious that about 75% of my readers are not native English speakers, I will try to summarise the points which particularly impressed me and post this asap .....

In the meantime, just click and dip in.....see for yourself

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why immigration is the only issue in this referendum

One issue has dominated the British referendum debate of the past few months - and that is immigration.
Those wanting Britain to remain in Europe have talked in vain about the economic aspects – people no longer trust economic arguments and forecasts or those who use them. Even references to “European bureaucracy” - which for so long has been the staple fare of the overwhelmingly negative British media coverage of European affairs – have been put aside in favour of a focus on immigration.

And it didn’t need last year’s pictures of the hordes of Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean or smashing Balkan border fences to make this the number one issue in the campaign. Four million English citizens had in Britain’s 2015 General Election given their vote to UKiP – the nationalist party – four times as many as had voted for the Scottish Nationalists (who had as a result gained 50 Westminster seats).  
Such, however, is the nature of the British electoral system (“first past the post”) that UKiP won only one seat!!! 

The electoral support should have been a wake-up call but one solitary figure on the parliamentary benches has given the political elite the excuse to ignore the increasing alienation of the (mainly) the English citizen from the democratic process….The media attention given during the decade to parliamentary expenses (and business corruption) was certainly one factor in this but the two main factors in this alienation have been -
- the continuing economic decline in so many parts of the country; and 
- the awareness since 2000 of a growing number of immigrants - even in these areas - with the low-paid being nudged out of jobs by those prepared to accept less; and pressure on public services already being starved of resources

Just three weeks ago, a short House of Commons Briefing Paper on Migration Statistics set out (in chart 5) the facts very starkly – net annual immigration to Britain was a tiny blip from 1930-1960; actually negative from 1960-80 and less than a few thousand in the 1980s….
Only from the mid 1990s did it start to rise – 50,000 in 1998. But in the next decade it shot up – to almost 250,000   

The 2004 enlargement of the European Union (EU) to eight Eastern European countries (EU8) generated fears of large flows of low-skill immigrants from Eastern to Western Europe. For this reason most Western European countries (EU15) imposed temporary restrictions to the free movement of people from Eastern Europe. But the UK (along with Ireland and Sweden) did not impose any such restrictions – as a result “the Polish plumber” became a bone of contention in the country….
Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were the key players at the time – and it is therefore odd to see them popping up this week to argue the case for “Remain”. Blair knows he lost all credibility during the Iraq war - but Brown does not seem to realise that his role in the final week of the Scottish referendum of 2014 finished him as a figure of influence   

Very few British journalists operate outside the “Westminster bubble”. John Harris is a rarity..... Some five years ago he started to go round the country and use video for carrying out sharp interviews with the public…to get a sense of their concerns......all of which carried clear warnings for the political elite. This article from February this year was a great summary of what he was finding…Just a few weeks ago, he ran with this warning…Today saw his final post - from the Labour stronghold of Stoke-on-Trent - where those canvassing what they considered to be Labour voters could find only an angry determination to leave the EU
Rather belatedly, a few politicians have been trying to address the concerns. But it is too late – the scale of disgust and anger of the public is simply irresistible….

update - a further development here - with an important figure conceding that Europe needs to change tack on free movement of labour...but such a change is totally impossible.....

Two weeks ago pundits were saying that "it would be OK on the night" - that voters would, in the privacy of the polling booth, vote remain. It is now obvious that the opposite is happening....My prediction is of a LEAVE VOTE winning margin of 7-8%. I may not be in the country - or been so for a few years - but the few reporters I trust have been on the doorsteps and in the (Labour) party rooms and have a very good sense of the mood........
Frank Field has long been a maverick voice in the Labour party but he has been one of the few to articulate grass-roots concerns….

update April 2017; and here's a great chart!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Referenda or Neverenda??

Richard Dawkins is a name to conjure with – Professor of Evolutionary Biology, author of numerous books and a great sceptic….. He has just entered the debate on British membership of Europe by challenging the very idea of a referendum - 
My own answer to the question is, “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me?”
I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them......... 
I am indeed a true democrat, but we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy. To call a referendum on any subject should be a decision not taken lightly...... But to call a referendum on a matter as important and fraught with complicated and intricate detail as EU membership was an act of monstrous irresponsibility: the desperate throw of a short-term chancer, running scared before the Ukip tendency within his own party. He may reap the whirlwind.

The 1975 Referendum broke new constitutional ground – it had never been used before….and was, in most people’s minds, associated with dodgy regimes…..Vernon Bogdanon (to whose analysis of the 1975 Referendum I referred yesterday) is Emeritus Professor of Government and author, amongst much else, of The New British ConstitutionThe grounds he gives for the support of such constitutional referenda do, therefore, deserve our attention. 
His analysis of the 1975 referendum gave two arguments – namely
all parties supported membership in the 1970s - but public opinion was divided. A significant section of society had therefore no voice…
the issue was so fundamental that the legitimacy of government was being threatened

But that’s not actually why or how the first ever British referendum came about……
In the 1970 Election, the Labour Party was defeated. Heath was returned to office. At the end of 1970, Tony Benn raised the possibility of the Labour Party committing itself to a referendum on joining Europe at Labour’s National Executive, but he could not find a seconder for the motion.
From 1971 onwards, the very complicated European Communities Bill made its way through Parliament, and in March 1972, a Conservative backbencher who was opposed to Europe, called Neil Martin, proposed an amendment calling for a referendum, and this meant the Shadow Cabinet had to decide what to do about it, and they decided to oppose this motion. 
But the very day after this happened, President Pompidou in France said he was going to have a referendum in France on whether the French people approved of British entry into Europe…and he was doing this for internal party political reasons, to weaken his opponents on the left, who were split on the issue. …. But there were going to be four new members of the European Community: Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Norway. In the end, Norway did not join. The other three countries were all having referendums. France was having a referendum on whether Britain should enter, but Britain was not. One cynic wrote to the newspapers that when Heath has spoken of full-hearted consent of Parliament and people, he meant full-hearted consent of the French Parliament and people…
After this, Labour’s National Executive voted narrowly in favour of the Benn proposal. Then, a couple of days later, pure coincidence, the Heath Government announced there was going to be a referendum, though they called it a plebiscite, in Northern Ireland, on the border, on whether people wished to remain in the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic. At this point, the Labour Shadow Cabinet agreed to the referendum.
 So, it came about through a series of really unforeseen contingencies and vicissitudes, completely unplanned, this very fundamental change in the British system.
But there were, in my opinion, good arguments for it, and the first, I have already given, that the party system could not resolve the issue properly because all three parties were in favour of membership, so there was no way in which the democratic party machinery could work.
 But the second argument, I think, is even more important, that even if the party system had been working efficiently, there are some issues that are so fundamental that a decision by Parliament alone will not be accepted as legitimate. This point of view was put forward by the Labour Leader of the House of Commons, Edward Short, in March 1975. He said: “The issue continues to divide the country. The decision to go in has not been accepted. That is the essence of the case for having a referendum.”  

The referendum is one of several major constitutional changes which Bogdanon’s book assesses and which are superbly critiqued in this LRB reviewBut, Dawkins asks, is that a reason to abstain from voting? 
Certainly not. We are where we are, and there’s no use wishing we were somewhere else. I shall vote. And I shall vote to stay in Europe, exercising the Precautionary Principle which is appropriate to anyone lacking the confidence to push for a radical change in the status quo. Better the devil you know, or at least the devil that seems to be working adequately.
Moreover, as I listen to advocates from both sides I notice that, for all my lack of expertise, I am qualified to judge that most of the arguments for leaving are emotional. The evidence-based arguments tend to be the ones for remaining in Europe, whether they come from professional economists, historians, business leaders or powerful foreign politicians.

1. Bogdanor’s presentation correctly reminds us that the 1975 referendum was supposed to settle the issue of Europe for ever - but that it was only a few years later that the Labour Party officially committed itself in the 1982 Manifesto to withdrawal…..and a few years after that that the Conservative Party started to tear itself apart on the issue. Somehow the issue never went away….hence the term which came into use during the Scottish debate on Independence “neverendum” – never-ending discussion….

2. Yesterday’s post emphasises the loss of trust there has been in the past decade in the political elite. But it more than that – it is a new lack of respect for arguments from people such as Dawkins and those whose opinion people like him respect….There is now a dangerous divide between professionals and the public

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Britain Set to Leave Europe - what's it all about?

The UK referendum about membership of the European Union takes place in 12 days – and the latest poll has those intending to vote to leave the European Union a full ten points ahead.
If this is translated on 23 June into actual votes, the knock-on political effects in Europe will be profound – let alone the economic effects globally……

I therefore want to devote the next few posts to the question of how we got to this point – drawing on personal experience first in the 1960s of trying to understand what we then called “The Common Market”, then in the early 1970s on some recollections of the terms of the debate which took place as successive British governments first negotiated entry (Conservative) and then (under Labour in 1975) managed the referendum which resulted in a resounding support for British membership. 

I remember listening on the radio to Hugh Gaitskell’s  speech to the 1962 Labour Party Conference in which he strongly rejected the idea of joining the “European Economic Community” - claiming that Britain's participation would mean 
"the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!" He added: "You may say, all right! Let it end! But, my goodness, it's a decision that needs a little care and thought."

Vernon Bogdanor did us a great service earlier in the year by taking us back to that period more than 50 years ago when key British figures were articulating their responses to the early stages of European integration – in  the early 1970s it was the Conservative Party (including Margaret Thatcher) which was most enthusiastic about entry – the Labour party the most antagonistic…the reverse of the present situation.....
In the past few weeks I’ve been following the discussions and have selected one article as offering the best insights - 
If Brexit happens, with all the chaotic and uncoordinated consequences it will have for both Europe and Britain, it won’t be because the leave campaign has the better arguments: it absolutely hasn’t. Or because the weight of evidence is on its side: it emphatically isn’t. Or because it is clear what Brexit actually means: it’s a complete leap in the dark. Or because it is masterfully led: that’s not true either. 
If Brexit wins, it will be because a majority of British voters have simply lost confidence in the way they are governed and the people they are governed by.
 That loss of confidence is part bloody-mindedness, part frivolity, part panic, part bad temper, part prejudice. But it is occurring – if it is – in a nation that has always prided itself, perhaps too complacently, on having very different qualities: good sense, practicality, balanced judgment, and a sure instinct for not lurching to the right or left.Why is it so hard to persuade the British electorate that a corner of the globe in which such quantities of blood have been spilled for centuries, and where life is mostly incredibly secure, is better off together not apart? 
We can all write about a Brexit vote being part of a wider trend in modern politics. It’s about globalisation, the crisis of capitalism, widening inequality, fear of the other, rejection of political elites, and the empowerment of the web. Up to a point, these things are all present in the Brexit campaign.And there is no question either that the EU is far from perfect, not working in fundamental ways, failed in some particulars, too easily beguiled by the head-in-the-sand centralising notion of “more Europe”, and scandalously passive about the needs of its people.
The EU certainly has to change. And yet if Britain walks away, it will be an act of immense political impulsiveness by one of the last countries in Europe that many would expect to behave that way. France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Hungary maybe, according to the old stereotypes. But Britain? How come?
We need to be far more honest and questioning about the specifically British things that underlie such an irrational and irresponsible impulse. British opinion is where it is on Europe because it is paying the price of past and present bad political habits.
 ·         There has been no British prime minister, not even Tony Blair, who thought of Europe as “us” rather than “them”. Margaret Thatcher set the template in her campaign for the budget rebate. Ever since British ministers have gone to Brussels to stop things, get opt-outs, cut budgets and scupper common projects. We have never had the confidence to be a team player rather than act the diva. David Cameron’s EU reform package is merely the latest example. Even Blair, who was certainly more comfortable in Europe, preferred to talk about Britain leading rather than playing its part. And we are reaping what they all sowed.
 ·         We are paying the price of our media. British journalism thinks of itself as uniquely excellent. It is more illuminating to think of it as uniquely awful. Few European countries have newspapers that are as partisan, misleading and confrontational as some of the overmighty titles in this country. The possibility of Brexit could only have happened because of the British press – if there were no other good reason for voting to remain, the hope of denying the press their long-craved triumph on Europe would suffice for me. But Brexit may also happen because of the infantilised and destructively coarse level of debate on social media too.
 ·         It’s payback time too for our failure to modernise and regenerate our politics. Modern Britain is ensnared by a complacent view of the past. We are not a democratic republic, with shared values, rights and institutions, a common culture and an appropriate modesty about our place in our region and the world. Ours remains a post-feudal state on to which various democratic constraints have been bolted through history. We therefore lack a shared culture, a settled civic sense, a proper second chamber, symmetrical devolution, effective local democracy and, until the human rights act, a clear and enforceable code of citizens’ rights – which of course the anti-Europeans wish to abolish.
 Maybe remain will win in the end. I still just about trust the people to get it right on the night. But unless, and until, this country stops being so passive about these tenacious bad political habits, a remain win won’t make as much difference as it should, and we will continue to sneer and snigger our way towards becoming a broken Britain in a broken Europe.

 Ps The Dublin Review of Books had a useful overview of the debate which had been conducted in the pages of The Guardian......  
Here’s Boffy’s take - https://boffyblog.blogspot.ro/2016/06/the-core-vote-will-win-it-for-brexit.html - part of a series of posts he's been writing giving a marxist slant on the issue of UK membership of the European Union

The cartoon which heads the post is a wonderful one from 1900 whose text is also worth reading - showing the assumptions being made in UK about the motives and attitudes of the various political players

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Wood, Wine and....Canetti

Sofia detained us for a week and we decided to have a leisurely return (to Bucharest) taking the middle of the three routes which sprout east from Sofia – the quietest and probably most scenic which skirts the edge of the Stara Planina (otherwise known as Blue Mountains).

I had forgotten that this is the road which offers access to the beautiful 19th century village of Koprovichitsa (which played such an important role in the 1870s uprising against the Turks) and had no hesitation in veering right to see it again…..my third visit in the past few years….(the first had been in winter; the second in autumn 2013) .The wood carvings on the doors and ceilings remind me of what an art form wood can be......RIP Bogdan......and I realise, rather belatedly, that the superbly carved pulpit is an unusual feature of these older Bulgarian churches – features which are not normally seen in Orthodox churches. The friendly priest who waved us (inc the cat) into the church stressed the ecumenical nature of the congregation in those days….….
Dare I wonder that the sermons possibly played a role in the 19th century liberation??????

Karlovo and Kazanluk were on the schedule – the first to check whether any traces were left of the peaceful courtyards of the 1930s which Nicola Tanev painted so evocatively; Kazanluk, the heart of the rose valley, for possibly another visit to the municipal gallery which keeps the heart of the Bulgarian painting beating. More than 100 well-known artists grew up in this small town……

We spotted only a couple of remnants of former architectural splendours in Karlovo - and a sign for the Chateau Copsa winery soon had me distracted from thoughts of art galleries…..
Standing alone in the vineyards stretching to the horizon with the Blue Mountains towering above, the Chateau is a tastefully-created and designed modern building which offers not only wine-tasting and meals but accommodation and sauna….Two superb whites and two great roses were soon trickling down our throats – tempered with chunks of cheeses, walnuts and dried plums…..all for 6 euros apiece……one of the most delightful lunches we’ve had in some time………

And there was still a couple of hundred kilometres to go before we reached our evening destination – Russe – over the mountains to Veliko Tarnovo and then the final 100 kms….most of it by now thoroughly familiar.

We pulled in just after 18.00 to the fascinating Luliaka Hotel plum on the Danube but just within Russe’s boundaries. 
It’s rare for a hotel to attract my loyalty but I so loved the layout, atmosphere and quiet beauty of the site that I quickly booked a second night…… Their meals and house rose (from their own winery) were an added attraction which will draw me whenever I feel I need a restover on my way back from Sofia…..

And Russe has so many attractions – particularly, for us, the early 20th century buildings….I had been looking for the Canetti family house – which the Nobel prizewinner describes in the first part of his memoirs and came across it completely by accident…..pausing to photo parts of the facade and only realising when I was inside that what seemed to be an arts complex was in fact the Canetti Foundation… hosting these days something called a “Process-Space Art Festival” (this is the statue the municipality recently erected to him at the entrance to his street)
Canetti actually lived in Russe for only a few years before his family migrated to Austria and he subsequently spent most of his life in London and Zurich.
His “Crowds and Power” was one of many books written by central Europeans which made an impact on me at University and I recently enjoyed his “kiss and tell” Party in the Blitz which complements his more famous trilogy of memoirs. Clive James does a demolition job on the man here.

A more sympathetic treatment of someone who typified that genre of central European polymath we have sadly lost is The Worlds of Elias Canetti – centenary essays (2005)

Our second evening we were treated to one of the most spectacular thunderstorms….