what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections 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, May 18, 2017

Cultural Amnesia; and Common Endeavour

For the past ten years I’ve been lucky enough to have a foot in both Bulgaria and Romania, spending most summers in my Carpathian mountain redoubt and winters in Sofia; with occasional forays to Bucharest. One of the delights of my semi-nomadic existence has been the rediscovery each year of my libraries in these places – particularly the extensive one in my village home near Bran in Translyvania where I have been since Monday. At 1,400 metres, the barometer registers only 10 degrees - despite the sun!

I have, for example, just opened the Introduction to Clive James’ 876 page Cultural Amnesia– notes in the Margin of My Time (2007) – copies of which I keep in both the Bucharest and the mountain house and which must be considered one of the most original tributes to cultural figures ever published (including entries on Coco Channel, Charlie Chaplin, Louis Armstrong and 4 Manns!). You can get a sense of the book in this Slate journal review and it is further discussed on his amazing website
He has been a voracious reader (of far more novels than I) and, indeed, annotator of books – reading many of the European books (including Russian) in their original language, His book is a tribute to the spirit of liberty which so many of the writers celebrated in the book kept alive.

And his introduction made me realize that my blog is at least partly a tribute to those writers who have kept me company at one time or another on my journey of the past half century or more. A couple of years ago I listed the 50 or so books which have made an impact on me here – and here. In what I call the “restless search for the new”, we would do well to pause every now and then and cast our minds back to such books and try to identify the “perennial wisdom” embodied therein…. 

The one frustrating thing about a blog is that it gives a reverse image of reality – with the most recent post coming first and the reader then required to scroll down several times to see older posts……Noone these days has that sort of patience…..whereas a book format allows you to begin at…….…the beginning.

I’ve therefore begun to upload the 2017 posts in book form – with the tentative title Common Endeavour. This includes an updated version of my Sceptic’s Glossary as an annex – being my provocative definition of some 100 plus terms used in the questionable discourse of our elites. I’ve set this in the context of texts (and images) which I’ve found useful in the puncturing of their pretensions…..

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Commons

It was some months ago that I first mentioned the P2P Foundation which sends me at least a couple of interesting posts daily eg here and here
Their posts have also made me aware of the potential of what they call “platform cooperativism” with reservations which are well reflected in another of their postsOne of the problems I have is their language – and the feeling that they are unaware of the wider experience of “mutuality” expressed in the work, for example, of Paul Hirst.
But they have led me on to other interesting sites such as Commons Transition (eg http://commonstransition.org/from-platform-to-open-cooperativism) and On the Commons from which I retrieved a fascinating booklet Celebrating the Commons (71pp). David Bollier is one of the key names and has a book – Wealth of the Commons which gives good insights…..

Grassroots Economic Organising (GEO) is another good site from which I got yesterday’s diagram and article about solidarity economics and which has a nice explanation of the commons movement
Share the World’s Resources is another relevant site which offers offerings such as this -

A lot of material relating to “the commons”, however, delicately tiptoes round the topic of “common ownership” – see this excellent overview The Commons as a new/old paradigm for governance – with a second section here
But I think I have to revise my opinion about writers not standing on the shoulders of giants…

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Solidarity Economy

Some time ago I shared an excellent couple of diagrams about the ills of our present socio-economic system and how it might be changed.
I had some issues with aspects of the presentation and have just come across this diagram which, for me, offers a clearer outline of the features of a better system – one called a “solidarity economy
Yes I realise that you can't read the small print! For that, just click the diagram.

The author has a short paper which superbly situates the concept in the wider context of an emerging global movement of the past two decades in which even yours truly became involved as far back as 1978 - when I launched a community-based project designed to help the long-term unemployed access jobs which would contribute missing local services in poor areas.
Within a decade, it had become a well-resourced Community Business in the West of Scotland – part of a wider social enterprise effort within Scotland and Europe which continues to this day.

My effort at making sense of this concept can be seen at p 124 of In Transit – some notes on Good Governance (1999). Interesting to compare it with the amazing richness of the diagram which adorns this post!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Journals worth Reading?

A few weeks back I made a nasty crack about the superficiality of newspaper coverage. Some personal exchanges I’ve had since have raised the question of which (English language) journals would pass a test which included such criteria as –
- Depth of treatment
- Breadth of coverage (not just political)
- Cosmopolitan in taste (not just anglo-saxon)
- clarity of writing
- skeptical in tone

My own regular favourite reading includes The Guardian Long Reads and book reviews, London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books – and the occasional glance at the New Yorker; New Statesman; and Spiked.
This choice betrays a certain “patrician” position – not too “tribal”…….although my initial google search limited itself to such epithets as “left”, “progressive”, “green”;; “radical” and “humanist”. 
It threw up a couple of lists – one with “progressive” titles, the other with “secular” . 
From these, I have extracted the other titles which might lay some claims to satisfying the stringent criteria set above…..
Aeon; an interesting new cultural journal
Book Forum; an amazing daily service which gives you about a dozen links from mainly academic journals –  a good idea but just far too US centred for my taste…..
Brain Pickings; a superb personal endeavour which gives extended excerpts from classic texts about creativity etc. One of the best
Dissent; a US leftist stalwart 
Jacobin; a new leftist E-mag with a poor literary style
Lettre International; a fascinating quarterly published in German, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian and Romanian (where it has just celebrated its 100th edition), it makes available translated articles with superb etchings..
Literary Hub; a literary site with original selections and frequent posts – ONE OF MY HOT FAVOURITES
Los Angeles Review of Books;great new journal 
Monthly Review; an old US stalwart with good solid analysis
Mother Jones; more journalistic US progressive
N+1; one of the new and smoother leftist mags
New Humanist; an important strand of UK thoughtNew Left Review; THE UK leftist journal - running on a quarterly basis since 1960 
New Republic; solid US monthly
Prospect (UK); rather too smooth UK monthly
The American Prospect (US); ditto US
Public Books – an impressive recent website (2012) to encourage open intellectual debate
Quillette; a "free-thinkng" contrarian and libertarian journal 
Resurgence and Ecologist; ditto UK Greens
Sceptic; celebration of important strand of UK scepticism
Slate; more right wing
Social Europe; a european social democratic E-journal whose short articles are a bit too predictable for my taste
The Atlantic; one of my favourite US mags
The Conversation; a rare venture which uses academics as journalists 
The Nation; America's oldest weekly, for the "progressive" community
The New Yorker; very impressive US writing
Washington Independent Review; a new website borne of the frustration about the disappearance of so many book review columns
World Socialist Website; good on critical global journalism

After due consideration, I would now add Book Forum, Brain PickingsLiterary Hub and Public Books to the small list of my current regular reads – although I wish there were an English version of Lettre International or even Courrier International

Academic journals
I would not normally deign academic journals with a second glance since theirs is an incestuous breed – with arcane language and specialized focus which breaches at least two of the above five tests. But Political Quarterly stands apart with the superbly written (social democratic) analyses which have been briefing us for almost a century.
Parliamentary Affairs; West European Politics and Governance run it close with more global coverage.

Self-styled “Radical“ journals 
seem, curiously, to be gaining strength at precisely the moment the left is collapsing everywhere  and got a not unfair treatment here ….
Beyond the small grove of explicitly revolutionary titles lies a vast forest of critical publications. From “Action Research” to “Anarchist Studies”, from “Race and Class” to “Review of Radical Political Economics”, an impressive array of dissident ventures appears to be thriving. As Western capitalism jabs repeatedly at the auto-destruct button, it may seem only logical that rebel voices are getting louder. But logic has nothing to do it with it. Out in the real world, the Left is moribund. Socialism has become a heritage item. Public institutions, including UK universities, are ever more marketised. Alternatives seem in short supply.
So, far from being obvious, the success of radical journals is a bit of a puzzle. And they have proved they have staying power. The past few years have seen a clutch of titles entering late middle age, including those in the Marxist tradition, such as “New Left Review” (founded 1960), “Critique” (1973) and “Capital and Class” (1977), as well as more broadly critical ventures, such as “Transition” (1961) and “Critical Inquiry” (1974). Numerous other titles have emerged in the intervening years. And they are still coming.
 Recent titles include “Power and Education”, “Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies” and “Human Geography: A New Radical Journal”. Of course, some disciplines provide more fertile soil for such ventures than others. In cultural studies, politics, geography and sociology, radicalism has entered the mainstream. But even the more stony ground of economics nurtures a wide assortment of dissident titles.

A concept with unrealized potential, I feel, is that of the “global roundup” ” with selections of representative writing from around the globe. Courrier international is a good, physical, Francophone example – the others being “virtual” or E-journals eg Arts and Letters Daily a good literary, anglo-saxon exemplar; The Intercept a political one; with Eurozine taking the main award for its selection of the most interesting articles from Europe’s 80 plus cultural journals

I learn one main thing from this review - how tribal most journals are. Most seem to cater for a niche political market. Only N+1 (and the New Yorker) makes an effort to cover the world of ideas from a broader standpoint...The lead articles which Eurozine gives us from different parts of Europe makes it an interesting read; and Political Quarterly is a model for clear writing - even if it is a bit too British in its scope.  

But I give away both my age and agnostic tendencies when I say that my favourite journal remains "Encounter" which was shockingly revealed in the late 80s to have been partially funded by the CIA and which therefore shut up shop in 1990....
The entire set of 1953-1990 issues are archived here – and the range and quality of the authors given space can be admired. European notebooks – new societies and old politics 1954-1985; is a book devoted to one of its most regular writers, the Swiss Francois Bondy (2005) 
A generation of outstanding European thinkers emerged out of the rubble of World War II. It was a group unparalleled in their probing of an age that had produced totalitarianism as a political norm, and the Holocaust as its supreme nightmarish achievement. Figures ranging from George Lichtheim, Ignazio Silone, Raymond Aron, Andrei Amalrik, among many others, found a home in Encounter. None stood taller or saw further than Francois Bondy of Zurich.
European Notebooks contains most of the articles that Bondy (1915-2003) wrote for Encounter under the stewardship of Stephen Spender, Irving Kristol, and then for the thirty years that Melvin Lasky served as editor. Bondy was that rare unattached intellectual, "free of every totalitarian temptation" and, as Lasky notes, unfailing in his devotion to the liberties and civilities of a humane social order. European Notebooks offers a window into a civilization that came to maturity during the period in which these essays were written.
Bondy's essays themselves represent a broad sweep of major figures and events in the second half of the twentieth century. His spatial outreach went from Budapest to Tokyo and Paris. His political essays extended from George Kennan to Benito Mussolini. And his prime metier, the cultural figures of Europe, covered Sartre, Kafka, Heidegger and Milosz. The analysis was uniformly fair minded but unstinting in its insights. Taken together, the variegated themes he raised in his work as a Zurich journalist, a Paris editor, and a European homme de lettres sketch guidelines for an entrancing portrait of the intellectual as cosmopolitan.
Update; Current Affairs is a fairly new American radical journal which looks to be very well-written eg this take-down of The Economist mag

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Some Landmarks for the blog

Blog traffic has been increasing here – hitting 10,000 last month for the first time (a 3-fold increase since last year) and now totaling 200,000 for the entire period since 2010. 
Native English speakers account for only one third of that (almost 30% comes from the US alone) – with Russian and Ukraine readers coming in (in the past year) at a strong 15% share. 
It’s not idle speculation to feel that part of this latter interest may be a reflection of official Russian oversights of western blogs and accounts – although I don’t get any comments on posts from that source - perhaps because it’s not been my policy to comment on Russian politics and Putin’s intentions?
But why the strong interest from Ukrainian readers? After all, recent posts have, if anything been even more “reflective” than usual, trying to put recent events in a fifty-year timescale…..  And it's not easy for those used to cyrillic to cope with the roman alphabet....

Readers in France, Germany, Bulgaria and Romania account for some 20% of the traffic – the latter two for obvious reasons. I’ve blogged quite a bit on Germany (indeed put a little E-book up on the list at the top-right corner of the blog) and am pleased to find readers from that source.
I often moan about the insularity of the Brits and was therefore delighted recently to get this rare perspective from someone testifying to a German parliamentary committee. And, amongst the current coverage of British local and General elections, at least The Guardian was prepared to give some space to the debate about German values (or Leitkultur) which has broken out there (for more see this piece from Deutsche Welle).

Which leaves the two questions of what has happened to the British Labour Party – and the French Left? As it is news from Paris which will dominate the next news cycle, I should refer you all to my favourite French blog - French Politics – an American observer who recently put me on to another excellent blog on France. They will certainly give you insights I can’t. 
And Tom Gallagher has a good post here....

It’s a dreadful reflection on how British insularity has grown that the last English-language book which gave a really detailed insight into French society (in all its regional variety) was John Ardagh’s France in the New Century (1999). Theodor Zeldin’s History of French Passions and “The French” (published in the early 90s) gave an additional quasi-philosophical dimension. But these books first came out some 20 years ago.
Yes I know about cyclist Graham Robb’s “Discovery of France” (2007) – and, of course, some journalists and historians have produced great books eg journalist Jonathan Fenby’s France on the Brink (first edition 2000); La Vie en Bleu – France and the French since 1900 by academic Rod Kedward (2006); and the more recent How the French Think – an affectionate portrait of an intellectual people by Sudhir Hazareesingh (2015) - but only Ardagh and Zeldin tried to cover all the key aspects….

The French, of course, are the ideologues par excellence not least the French left – with Jean Jaures perhaps being its most inspirational figure. But I remember being trapped in a church in Lille when Francois Mitterand came visiting in the 1980s - and being decidedly unimpressed with the atmosphere of obsequity! Despite the decentralization policy of that period, the country has remained centralized – and its periphery ignored….until now..

The Brits are the pragmatic shopkeepers – and its left had, post-war, real moral strength from the likes of RH Tawney, Keir Hardie and Aneurin Bevan; the Cooperative and union movements; its various (liberal and New Left) intellectual dissenters. But they could never get their act together – and then the Bliar spin doctors took over and blew everything up….

Macron has “reengineered” French politics. Jeremy Corbyn has tried to take Labour back to the 1980s. 
I hate reengineering and everything it stands for (remember Skvorecky’s Engineer of Human Souls?) but it seems that a substantial bit of reengineering may now be needed for the UK left!!

Friday, May 5, 2017

An Ode to the Palate

After 10 years (this September) of living in Bulgaria (alternately with Romania), I thought I knew my Bulgarian wines – at least the whites to which my metabolism still allows me access.
I had, after all, spent full weekends at the last three of Sofia’s most recent annual wine fairs (which take place in November) – and duly swilled, spat and carefully awarded my scores (out of 5.0) in the little note books with which they supply you….
Last year, indeed, I had posted the results of this courageous endeavor…..  making the distinction between my basic favourites (at just over 3 euros) and the new (slightly more expensive) vintages

But that was before I stumbled on the superb new little wine-shop Tempus Vini here in Sofia since last autumn. Kallin’s in his thirties and will shortly qualify as a sommelier – which shows, since he is the first person I’ve met in more than five decades of appreciating wine who has actually helped me understand why I get the variable impressions I do on my palate and throat when I swill, view, smell and then first hold the liquid on my tongue and then lei it trickle down the back of my teeth…..and into my throat….Quietly, with no pretensions, he offers his various explanations – which have deeply enriched my wine experience..

I’ve been able to visit his k(Aladd)in’s cave every few days since February – each time tasting about three whites, discussing the effects and then moving on to get reasons - and directions for future tastings…..all the while updating my copy of the little Catalogue of Bulgarian Wines which the KA and TA team produces annually in time for the Sofia wine fair and which carries the details of more than 150 wineries in the country…... Kallin’s policy is not to stock the wines found in the supermarkets – but he will happily find and deliver a crate for you – which he did when I recently found an amazing  Riesling/Varnenski Misket from Varna Winery (at 5 euros)

The result has been a delightful educational experience – with the drawback that each year’s harvests are always different… (last year’s wines began to come into the shop in April) and that I am becoming more daring in buying bottles at 6 euros!!
Remember that Sofia boasts quite a few of these enticing shops where you can buy regional wine in barrels and caskets – for 2 euros a litre! My favourite is one (near the Eagle Bridge) that stocks Karlovo wines – including the famous Chateau Copsa and its Karlovski Misket

At the beginning of the year I was particularly impressed with the Miskets (particularly Sandanski and Karlovski); then moved on to Muscat; Viognier; Tramin; and Dimiat; discovered the amazing Macedonian Stobi range; moved back to Moscato Bianco; and cuvees such as Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc. Last week Kallin gave us a presentation of wines from Malketa Zvezda – the Enigma range
Last night I tried a bottle with a rare blend of Chardonnay (85%) and Tamianka in the Symbiose range produced by Bratanov winery – from the same (southern) part of the country
Little wonder that when I visited my dentist yesterday, she commented on how happy I looked!

Again - it proves that independent shops offer so much more value than supermarkets! 

Thursday, May 4, 2017


I had a welcome visit last week from one of my daughters – the reason for my blog silence. A round trip to Koprivshitsa, the old town of Plovdiv and Rila Monastery ensued – with a lovely night spent at the Old Plovdiv Hostel right in the heart of the cobbled old town and a superb meal at the Hebros restaurant just round the corner.
The highlight however (apart from wine-tasting in Sofia) was our discovery of an amazing junk yard on the road back from Rila – with powerful relics of Bulgaria’s recent history….  

In March the post on Mood Music subjected readers to a bibliographical tsunami of texts - which plotted (chronologically) perceptions since the 1950s of the western system of political economy….

Inevitably I missed some important books, the most important of which was probably Economics and Utopia – why the learning economy is not the end of history; by Geoff Hodgson (1999) – the link accesses the complete text……
It’s a clear and tough analysis by a top-class economic historian of why socialism lost its way – and exploration of what it will take for it to restore its energies. If you want to get a sense of the range of arguments which have convulsed economists and activists over the past century, this is the book for you.