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!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Some contemporary Bulgarian artists

My Bulgarian artist friends are remarkably patient about my passion for the work of their dead compatriots. And I should feel guilty that my purchases, for the most part, do not help existing painters survive or nurture new talent. I say “for the most part” since my collection does include about 30 contemporary works – mainly realist. Three artists in particular caught my eye early on – 
Juliana Sotirova, an incredibly talented, productive and versatile young woman from whom I have bought some 12 paintings. These include a specially-commissioned one of my father which she did from a black and white photograph I gave her. I was stunned with the uncanny likeness when she revealed it to me.
She has a variety of favourite themes - old houses; African scenes; still-lives. I will try in future posts to lead with some of her paintings I love looking at.  
Milcho Kostadinov’s more impressionistic take on run-down Sofia and Plovdiv buildings charmed me from the beginning – with their soft greys and small bursts of colour.

Recently he has moved to boats, nudes and the sea.










Angela Minkova is the last of the trio whose work has always attracted me – with its creativity and humour.

She concentrates on aquarelles (a lot on the theme of Queen Mary at Balcik) and on fantastic small sculptures made from a variety of materials eg bone and feather.



Two people in Sofia are responsible for what (little) I know about the contemporary scene - Yassen Golev of Konus Gallery (reference in previous post) and Vihra Pesheva of Astry Gallery. They are lovely people – full of passion and integrity. Yassen is also an artist – a couple of whose works I have already shown on this blog.
Vihra organises special exhibitions in her tiny gallery – and it is there I was first introduced to the work of the trio I have spoken about above.
And also where I purchased my first “non-realist” works from two Veliko Tarnovo artists Natasha Atanassova 











and her partner Nikolai Tiholov. 

Both produce such joyful works!

It was also in the Astry Gallery that I met Tony Todorov who does amazing pieces which are growing on me. I particularly like the painting 3 minutes 16 seconds into the video.


And it was in Astry too that I was privileged to meet an old giant of Bulgarian painting Vassil Vulev – in his 80s - and it was three of his 1980s aquarelles I bought.





Finally I have to confess that this is one of the first Bulgarian paintings I bought (way back in 2008) - at the open-air market at Alexander Nevsky Church. By Violetta Stanoeva. Interesting that it was symbolic! And with all the appropriate symbols. But more than a touch of kitsch


How one’s tastes change!

Nature's Bounty - Preparing for winter

I like this time of year – although, in this part of the world, it does presage grim months ahead - last winter, my old neighbours had difficulty opening their door at one point because of the packed snow lying against it – and temperatures fell to minus 30 in the area for a week or so.  Spring, obviously, is a more optimistic time of year – despite TS Eliot’s line about “April is the cruellest month”. But my vivid memories are of late Septembers, as a child, of the long table between my father’s pulpit and the congregation groaning with vegetables and fruits as the Presbyterian Church in Scotland celebrated HarvestThanksgiving.

The weather is still balmy here in the mountains but, from my balcony overlooking the village road, I can see the village prepare for winter – tractors towing carriers full of cut wood for the stoves; livestock changing their pasture; work on the houses stepping up a pace to ensure it’s finished before the snow strikes - and stays (for several months). And patterns in my own work reflect this – arranging at last for the cracked boiler of the (wood-fired) central heating to be repaired and the system tested for the winter; today shifting the summer shirts to another section of the wardrobe, bringing out the winter shirts, washing some and exposing all of them to the warm, strong wind which sweeps along the balcony.  

The link I’ve given to TS Eliot above is a great reading by three very good British actors (interposed with Eliot himself - very dry) of The Waste Land – not a favourite of mine. I am, however, very fond of his FourQuartets - giving an excerpt of my favourite section this time last year. Here is a useful commentary

I'm very happy to show, at the top of the post, my Yassen Golev aquarelle. He is a friend, the owner of Konus gallery in Sofia and helped me a lot with my booklet on Bulgarian realist painters. He does great surrealist oils - and these highly detailed still-life aquarelles.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Plutocracy at work

 As someone who has fought 20 successful elections over a 22 year-period - 8 of them public elections; and 12 internal "political group" elections for leadership positions, I am now remarkably indifferent to (if not cynical about) elections. Particularly American elections whose "policy-makers" are so much in thrall to commercial interests - not least because their (very expensive) campaigns are funded by these same interests.
Radicals like myself, of course, often run the danger of underestimating the importance of voting for "least worst" candidates to avoid the worst excesses of the rampant neo-liberal characters who are everywhere these days in elections. A "what if" approach to history has become quite popular these days - what if Gore or McCain had been elected??
A good solid analysis here on the financial and tactical aspects of the current Presidential elections in the USA shows the extent to which big money thinks it can buy elections. Two and half billion dollars spent so far by the various campaigns to put one man in the White House. The article also suggests that the Obama campaign tactics have been well-researched and successful -     
Romney's outside fundraising body or "Super Pac", called Restore Our Future, has no fewer than 25 billionaires on its list of donors. Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino magnate, has alone injected almost $40m into this election cycle in favour of Republican candidates and may approach $100m before it's done. Emboldened by the two court rulings in 2010 (Citizens United v Federal Election Commission andSpeechnow.org v Federal Election Commission) that removed any barriers from the investment of corporate, union or private money into elections, Adelson and other mega-wealthy donors will have pumped in close to $500m come November. That in turn will bring the total cost of putting one man into the White House to a dizzying total of $2.5bn.
"Wealthy donors are injecting money into the electoral process at a level we have never seen before," said Bob Biersack, who tracks the influence of cash in politics at the Centre for Responsive Politics. "The danger is that this will swing the balance of power, effectively disenfranchising the majority of Americans."
Obama has fought off the march of Big Money partly by transmitting a positive message to voters of who he is and where he stands. His convention was a master-class in political communications, replete with a lecture from the master himself, Bill Clinton. With his help, Obama made the case that the continuing hardship felt by many Americans was not a reflection of his own failed policies, as the Republicans contest, but rather a sign that he needs more time to get the job finished. "It will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades," he said.
The 2012 election was always going to be about the economy, and it remains Obama's most vulnerable point. But in this crucial area the Obama re-election campaign has coolly refused to be cowed by the Republican assault and calmly turned the argument back against them: the economic meltdown happened on the Republicans' watch; Romney opposed the bailout of the car manufacturers; though the economy still falters, the stock exchange is robust; and house prices are beginning to recover. Those arguments have played well in battlegrounds like Ohio, where Obama's role in having saved the auto industry resonates among its thousands of car parts and distribution outlets. The state has a jobless rate of 7.2%, notably below the national average.
Across the country, the anxious electorate appear to have been listening. This week's Quinnipiac poll records that for the first time since it began following the Obama-Romney race, the president has come out on top on the economy. Some 51% of likely voters said that Obama would do a better job on the economy to Romney's 46%.
While Romney and his conservative rivals were slugging it out with each other for the Republican nomination, the Obama team were quietly working behind the scenes to define Romney's biography. In a series of attack ads aired remorselessly in the swing states, they painted him as a rich kid born with a silver spoon in his mouth who had no affinity with the daily trials of the middle classes, destroyed ordinary people's lives as head of Bain Capital, and was so arrogant that he wouldn't declare his taxes.
Quinnipiac's Peter Brown, who as a polling analyst sides with neither of the two main parties, says he has never witnessed such a successful character assassination in a presidential race. "They have turned Romney into a wealthy, out-of-touch elitist, who is just not someone the average voter wants to have a beer with."
The cartoon is a James Gillray
Here's a good piece on a new book on pluocracy

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The greatest art form?

Yesterday’s post on the Azeri satirical journal of the 1920s reflected my admiration of graphic arts as a whole - let alone those who do caricature – which has been defined as “moral satire – making some point about the nature of man rather than a specific individual”. I would amend that slightly to replace “rather than” with “as much as” since some of the most famous caricatures have savaged individuals. The classic caricaturists for me are Goya and Daumier – with the Germans (Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz and Max Beckmann) making a powerful contribution in the early part of the 20th century before the later British caricaturists such as Gerald Scarfe.

A retired British politician who has such a great passion for political caricatures that he was instrumental in opening a London museum devoted to the art suggests on this interesting video on the history of British caricature that “graphic satire is an art form (the only one) which Britain created” – starting with William Hogarth. In his steps followed James Gillray (the work above is his - an ambassador presenting his "credentials" to the King - more here), George Cruikshank and Max Beerbohm 

And, during my researches for this post, I was delighted to find this glorious output from some Glasgow artists in the 1820s giving incredible insights into the lives of Glasgow people in those times.

I had been aware that it was not easy to find books (in English) about this art form (however defined) or even its best practitioner such as Daumier. A very useful 1980s article on the genre (the only one I could find on the internet) tells me that it has been viewed down the ages as inferior. For the life of me I can’t understand why – since its exaggerations and social scenes are far more inclusive and tell us so much more than what passed for portrait painting.
A recent exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum reminded us of the greats. For those who want to know more, here is a two hour video with three presenters. And there is a great website on Daumier which not only gives all his works but actually explains the background of each!

The Bulgarian tradition of caricaturists is a very strong one – starting (I think) with Alexander Bozhinov a hundred years ago and including people such as Ilyia Beshkov, Marco Behar, Boris Angeloushev and Jules Pascin  whose main efforts were in the pre-war period.
One of my prize possessions is a copy of a 1954 magazine called New Bulgaria with each of its 18 pages covered with 3-4 amazing pencil caricatures almost certainly doodled by Bulgaria’ most loved graphic artist – Ilyia Beshkov.
I was happy to pay 250 euros for the journal – after all I got 50 sketches for about the same price as the going rate for one (admittedly larger) caricature of his! 

And delightful, comprehensive volumes have been published (in Bulgarian of course) on the first three of these individuals – Beshkov and Behar in the pre 1989 period; Angeloushev more recently.
Bulgaria at least honours its graphic artists properly.
Here's one blogger's introduction to eight old Bulgarian illustrators - a more general word, perhaps, than "caricature", "satire", "comic"........
How artists coped during communist repression is a fascinating subject - some (like Boris Denev and Nikolai Boiadjiev) refused to toe the official line on painting and almost stopped painting; many other moved into theatre design and cinema; others had to emigrate. One of them, Rayko Aleksiev, so annoyed the communists that he was arrested on their coming to power and died in prison under suspicious circumstances. An important Gallery is named after him – on Rakorski St. Things eased only in the 1980s largely due to the influence of PM Zhivkov's daughter who was a great art afficiando!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

View of another world

Although I blog frequently about Bulgaria and Romania (between which countries I have been dividing my life in these last 5 years), I should say more about the other countries in which I have spent significant time – Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgzstan, for example. A New York Review of Books blogpost and a review in The Nation of a forgotten Azeri satirical magazine of a century ago gives me an opportunity to rectify this oversight. To give an easy introduction to the various actors, I borrow from the review in the Nation - adding in, where appropriate, links one of which is to a recent book on the magazine containing many of the caricatures with powerful line drawing and colours.
The backstreets of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, have a certain, winding magic. They house former caravanserai, once flophouses offered to travellers throughout central Asia, that have today been polished up into candlelit restaurants. Tall, grey blocks mingle with flourishes of Persian architecture - a symbol of Baku's straddling geography between Russia and Iran. But there are dozens of bookshops tucked away in these streets, shelves stacked with first editions and Soviet periodicals from the city's communist era, which ended in 1991.
It was in one of these booksellers near Maiden Tower that Slavs and Tatars, a collective of artists and writers, discovered a true bibliophile's dream: editions of one of the region's most daring yet overlooked satirical publications - Molla Nasreddin. Stating their sphere of interest as everything east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China, Slavs and Tatars make this loosely defined area of Eurasia their patch. Starting as a reading group that shared translations of books from this region (what they call "an arcane version of the Oprah Winfrey book club"), they've since exhibited sculptures and installation work in museums internationally, and been part of group shows at The Third Line gallery in Dubai.
"The illustrations drew us to Molla Nasreddin," says Slavs and Tatars. "They're reminiscent of Honore Daumier or Toulouse Lautrec." Molla Nasreddin was founded in 1906 by editor-in-chief Jalil Mammadguluzadeh and satirist-poet Mirza Sabir, both proud Azeris yet champions of a "modern" and markedly western system of values. It espoused this worldview via beautifully wrought yet withering cartoons and editorials that remain biting today.
Few were spared the editorial wrath: suffocating and outmoded fanatics, meddling European and Russian imperial powers, the position of women in society at that time and the hypocritical elite. Education, equality and regional independence, through a lens of secularism, was Mammadguluzadeh and Sabir's vision for central Asia's future. It was penned in Azeri Turkish in three different scripts - Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets - showing the three forms that the language went through as Azerbaijan passed into Soviet hands. This made translation into English difficult when Slavs and Tatars set out to publish a reader in 2011, titled "Molla Nasreddin: The Magazine That Would've, Could've, Should've". Here's another good review which gives a sense of the treasures the book holds
The book features their selections from 3,000 illustrations, curated into the different avenues of critique that the magazine took - such as Education, Colonialism and Women.
One illustration, for instance, shows two Azeri women wrapped from head to toe in fabric, and pointing in envy at the barred windows of a prison. The caption alongside reads: "Sister, look how lucky they are: they have windows!"
In another, five beaten-down Azeri men carry bespectacled donkeys on their back; plumes of smoke rise from long cigarette holders in the mouths of these remarkably aristocratic looking beasts.
Despite moving offices to and from Georgia and Iran, intermittent bans, and 10 years of the Soviets increasingly shoving editorial directives down the throats of the magazine's staff, Molla Nasreddin survived until 1931. Simultaneously, a cloud of obscurity seemed to settle over a region that, says Slavs and Tatars, had been one of the most intellectually and politically important places in the past 2,000 years.
"If anybody even takes notice of this region, they think of it as obscure, especially the more west you go - you talk to people about Kyrgyzstan, and you might as well be talking about Star Wars," says Slavs and Tatars. "But Baku was producing half of the world's oil until the first half of the 20th century," noting as well that Azerbaijan was one of the first countries in which women could vote (well before the UK), and publications such as Molla Nasreddin demonstrate an intellectual, progressive rigour from this part of the world that has been so far overlooked.
"That's why we're called Slavs and Tatars and not by our real names: it's not the work of a group of artists but the work of a region that has many nationalities, and had a shared heritage at some point. "From the point of view of the West, with this nonsense that passes as conventional wisdom that the West and Islam are on a collision course; you have to look at a part of the world where they have long coexisted." Namely, Eurasia.
The collective say, however, that Molla Nasreddin is also their antithesis in that it took modernity to mean westernisation. "We don't believe that at all, in fact we believe in quite the opposite - more of an indigenous or hybridised form of modernity."  But they still acknowledge its historical significance: "It's a shame that it came down to us as artists and writers in the early 21st century to rediscover one of the most important publications of the Muslim world," they continue. "That's testament to how overlooked this part of the world is.
"Very few people would spend two years of their life working on something they disagree with, but we are living in an increasingly insular world intellectually - less and less are we embracing the things that we disagree with."
I’ve been wanting for some time to do a post (if not a booklet!) about beautiful publications - which bring together layout; font; illustrations; paper quality; binding; and writing. It's a challenging combination which some cookery books almost manage (with the exception of font and writing) 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Optimism, realism and scepticism


First, a welcome to my new readers from the Ukraine – northern neighbours who, my statistics show, have been my most faithful readers over the past week.

I wanted to return to the issue of what has been learned from all the reforms which Britain has attempted in the running of its public services and machinery of government in the past 40 years (raised in a recent blogpost) but have been distracted by the glorious weather which followed the few days of cold and mist. 
First snow of the autumn was on the Bucegi mountains opposite on 22 September (see shot above) but the afternoon sun on the terrace has soon had me stripping off. Today is the third in a row of such superb weather and makes me even less inclined to pop down to Bucharest for its current festival of radio orchestra music. Bucharest inspires very different feelings in me from Sofia – and indeed from some other ex-pats who love the place.
For me Bucharest is only a stopover for better places – but don’t let me discourage those who want to taste its “blowsy charms”. The Sarah in Romania blog is one of the most sympathetic to (if also angry about) the city and marked Bucharest’s birthday with an appropriate post -
This is not a post to list the hundreds of dreadful, illegal demolitions. It is not a post to slag off Mayor Oprescu and the architecture commission, nor the Chief Architect of Bucharest. I have written many of those and it's neither the time nor the place. I say only that after 553 years, while everyone else is trying to improve their cities, renovate rather than rebuild wherever possible, underline the beauty of their architecture and highlight their history whether it be joyous or tragic and syphon traffic away from the centre in order to make things so much more pleasant for citizens, Bucharest is attacked and disfigured by greedy, corrupt, lousy parasites right from the top down to the very bottom.
Those who move a finger are few and far between. I know they exist, that tiny 10%. There are associations, NGOs and individuals who care VERY much. But it seems like a flea up against a tsunami...This was a city where beauty stood on every turn, where every corner was a photo opportunity and where history, patrimony and heritage mattered.  A city (and a country for that matter) which valued education and promoted learning, where the university was renowned and the doctors admired. A city (and country) whose musicians exuded incredible poetry through symphonies and suites and whose concert halls were filled with names that would wow any 'mélomane'. Yes, times were hard, of course they were. But, on the whole there was respect and far more pride than we find today. There was elegance. 
Of course, one can still find beauty in Bucharest - that quiet, shy, almost reticent loveliness that brings a lump to one's throat every time one is confronted with it. You only have to read further back on this blog (and so many others besides) for examples. Perhaps, for the visitors as well as for many Bucharest residents, one must be told where to look - the splendid streets around Dorobanti, the hidden villas behind Unirii, the oldy-worldiness of Tineretului, the charm of what's left around Cismigiu on all sides, the elegance of Cotroceni and Icoanei - and that's just for starters. Bucharest demands to be loved. Few of us actually do. Indeed, there IS beauty.
I have also been rereading some books – eg Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich
Promoting the idea that happiness is within your grasp is in the interests of corporations trying to bamboozle an overworked and underpaid workforce. It's also favoured by churches trying to get rich quick off the American dream. Ehrenreich traces the fad from Calvinist self-control through Christian Science to blatant assumptions of the holiness of cash. Informing the uneducated and unmedicated that their plight is all their own fault is followed up by instructions for making anything you desire – from a new TV screen to a trip to Mexico – "materialise" through mind control. The censorship of negative opinion combines perfectly with the American policy of each man for himself in the best of all possible worlds.This is the philosophy that gave us the smart bomb, the space programme, sub-prime mortgages, plenty of psychopaths and Sarah Palin. Ehrenreich writes that America is unsurpassed in one area: "the reflexive capacity for dismissing disturbing news". .
Even right-wing newspapers reviewed the book positively.   
Ehrenreich savages the instigator of Positive Psychology and finishes on an important note about the importance of realism if not scepticism – an important theme in this blog. I hadn’t until now realised the possible significance of my latest little publication – on Bulgarian realist painting

The USA, as a reassessment of a 1960s classic reminds us, has a long tradition of what the book's title calls anti-intellectualism - 
there arose an ethos, a romantic conviction, that a popular democracy should favor "the superiority of inborn, intuitive, folkish wisdom over the cultivated, oversophisticated, and self-interested knowledge of the literati and the well-to-do." Practical experience mattered more than imaginative thinking, and vital emotion trumped anemic rationality. "Just as the evangelicals repudiated a learned religion and formally constituted clergy in favor of the wisdom of the heart and direct access to God, so did advocates of egalitarian politics propose to dispense with trained leadership in favor of the native practical sense of the ordinary man with its direct access to truth. This preference for the wisdom of the common man flowered in the most extreme statements of the democratic creed, into a kind of militant popular anti-intellectualism."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Deep writing

I often bemoan the quality of writing available in journals – dumbed down by marketing pressures or unreadable from the perversions of academic specialisation. A fine exception, I’ve just noticed, is the New Yorker which uses academics who can actually write coherently and gracefully. The current issue has a long and fascinating piece by Prof Jill Lepore on the origins in the 1930s of US political consulting which has removed policy content from politics in that country. The story starts with a marvellous story of the famous writer Upton Sinclair standing for the Californian Governorship under the slogan “End poverty in California" (EPIC) at a time when the Republicans held a total monopoly of power – and how he was defeated by the lies spun by the world’s first political spinners who simply planted in a major newspaper each day a phrase from one of his novels as if it was his policy. The couple behind this went on to run the campaigns against a state health system which President Truman tried to introduce.
For the latest techniques on political campaigning, see here

I realise now how ill-informed my comment about the The New Yorker was when I picked up a copy of Julian Barnes' Letters from London 1990-1995 and read the  Preface which explains the rigour of editing carried out by the TNY which he experienced personally when for those 5 years he was its London correspondent!
You can also access in the New Yorker a full analysis done by Louis Menand earlier in the year of the sort of work Mitt Romney actually did for Bain Capital and what this (and his campaign book) implies about his view of the world and leadership style. 
Romney’s program is logical (which doesn’t mean that it’s practical). He believes that if freedom is to be fostered and preserved around the world the United States needs a stronger military. For the United States to have a stronger military, it has to grow economically. For the nation to grow economically, American companies must become more productive. And, for American companies to become more productive, business has to be allowed to do business.
This means that Americans have to tolerate, to appreciate, even to encourage what Romney calls (using a phrase borrowed from Joseph Schumpeter) “creative destruction.”It’s a strange slogan for a politician to adopt at a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty, but Romney invokes it in his book and he uses it in interviews, because it’s precisely what he means by business. To make the future, we have to be willing to destroy some of the present. “It takes a leap of faith for governments to stand aside and allow the creative destruction inherent in a free economy,” as Romney puts it. We can’t be sentimental. And everything can be thought of in this way, from the production of microchips to the education of children. If we want cheaper chips or better schools, we have to be willing to pay the transaction costs. The unwillingness to do so is what’s holding us back. (A famous saying about omelettes might come to mind here.)
Who or what stands in the way of restoring American productivity and American greatness? Romney lists some of the usual suspects, including multiculturalism (a “fraud”) and “the self-loathing of Western intellectuals” (an odd expression, since all the Western intellectuals I know think rather well of themselves). But readers of “No Apology” are likely to come away with the impression that the chief internal enemy the United States faces today is labor unions. Romney thinks that unions can sometimes work constructively with management but that, fundamentally, they are protectors of the status quo. They make it harder for the destroying part to work.This is why Romney opposed George Bush’s efforts to protect the American steel industry by imposing a tariff on imports, and it’s why he opposed the Detroit bailout (embarrassingly for him. highly successful). Actions like those interfere with the natural business process in the name of saving American jobs. And it’s why Romney’s well-known infelicities—“I like being able to fire people,” “For an economy to thrive . . . a lot of people . . . will suffer,” “Corporations are people,” “I’m not concerned about the very poor”—are not really gaffes, even in the unfair, out-of-context form in which his opponents circulate them. They express something true to the way that Romney sees the world.
Romney’s record at Bain Capital holds obvious interest for his political opponents. Private-equity firms and leveraged buyouts, which is one of the ways Bain pursued its business, are, after all, pretty much capitalism parading around in its most naked state. Romney developed his view of the world during his earlier, nine-year experience, with B.C.G. and Bain & Company, as a management consultant. There are several strains running through the history of management theory, and which paradigms are dominant, and at which consulting firms, depends on the economic times and the nature of the competition. At B.C.G. and Bain & Company between 1975 and 1984, data crunching seems to have been the main engine of analysis. Virtually everyone agrees that Romney was extremely good at this, and he operates his political campaigns in the same way.“He’s not a very notional leader,” Romney’s campaign spokesman told an Iowa newspaper in 2007. “He is more interested in data, and what the data mean.”
But it’s not just that Romney doesn’t have good political instincts. It’s that he was trained to distrust instinct altogether. In management consulting, gut feelings are what you work hard to take out of the equation. That’s the justification for all that painstaking analysis: the consultant who crunches a mountain of numbers to come up with an idea that the C.E.O. already has will not get far. It’s the counter-intuitiveness of the advice that justifies the fee.
It must be difficult being Mitt Romney – with a great progressive father to look up to; a sickening record of bean-counting and employment destruction (at arms’ length it must be said); a reasonably progressive record in his 5 years as Governor (although he hardly spoke to Congressmen) most of which he has had to disavow in the fight for the right-wing votes of the Republican nomination. I don’t doubt that he is a caring neighbour but he must be one sick man in his soul.

Let’s return, however, to the issue of good writing – by which I mean the ability to take a complex issue and make it enjoyable to read about (which I last discussed in mid-June). Until recently, the New York Review of Books has been my favourite journal – although the London Review of Books has been coming up fast on the inside lane. Take, for example, this magnificent bit of writing about (of all things) the British experience of electricity privatisation by the Scottish writer James Meek. Or, in the current issue, a great piece of sceptical reportage on the recent Republican Convention.

America has some great journals – I discovered Harpers when I was there in the late 1980s and also Wilson’s Quarterly. I like the latter's mission statement - 
THE WILSON QUARTERLY is a window on the world of ideas for general readers. Historical perspective and a commitment to consider all sides are the hallmarks of its articles on foreign affairs, politics, culture, science, and other subjects.By making new knowledge accessible to all, it aims to foster more informed public debate.
I don't like the fact that the current issue is the last print issue - from now on it will be available only online. I find this tragic - for all the reasons covered in the numerous articles which attack the notion of the end of books.

America has had some highly original and passionate writers and essayist – not a few of British origin! Sadly two of them died recently – everyone had heard of Chris Hitchens but not so many of Alexander Cockburn of whom Robin Blackburn writes eloquently in the current issue of New Left Review.

And, appropriately, from the superb website, It's about Time - great paintings of women reading
But pride of place - at the top of this post - is a Turner which has "turned up" (forgive the pun) after more than 100 years. I like to think this sort of painting inspired Bulgaria's Alexander Moutafov in the early part of the 20th century

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Creative contract management - A question to my readers

Puzzle - why is a boring post of 22 February 2011 far and away my most popular post  - not only today (30 hits); this week (124); but of all time (1338)??? That particular post was a mixed bag -
  • referring in its first sentence to Sofia and then giving a link to a great Bulgarian bed and breakfast book; 
  • then some comments about another British Government push to marketise if not privatise basic public services such as health (no mention of which took place in their manifesto of the year before); 
  • and, finally, the subject which gave the post its title "creative contract management" - an initial assessment of the EC's 2009 Backbone Strategy which I had missed at the time. This was a response to the Court of Auditors' criticisms of how the EC manages its work in the institution-building field I have been working in as an independent consultant for the past 20 years. I would like to think that this is what has attracted - and continues to attract - so many readers to the post. But the post closes by referring to the follow-up posts the next day (and weeks) on the same subject  - and a mere handful showed interest in these.
It would be great to get some feedback from people about their reasons for reading this 18-month old post. Was it just the title (originally "creative contract management" - with its promise of cutting corners); or the reference to Sofia in the first few words???? I've now amended the title of this post - I was just a bit pissed only 5 people have accessed it - and none commented!! Let's seem how many more hits it now gets - particularly now that I've given the original post a more boring title??

The sad truth, however, is that it gets the hits simply because it is the top of the "most popular" list on the right hand side of the blog - and there is no way I can remove it!!

All fall down

Think-tanks enjoy a mixed reputation – originating in the USA where, for the most part, they have become little more than lobbyists for big money and being increasingly seen in the UK as part of an unrepresentative social elite which exercises too much influence over current policy debates and supplies too many of the country’s politicians. Far from bridging the gap between academia and government, they are often seen in the UK as undermining democracy. A good (and more objective) paper on the patterns and traditions in various countries was recently published as part of an exchange with China.
For those, however, like myself in the international consultancy business, British think-tanks and their reports have been a god-send in the past decade or so. Well-written and comprehensive in their analyses and data (increasingly comparative), they have allowed us to pontificate with authority in places such as Baku, Bishkek, Sofia and Tashkent about the latest experiences with improving public management. Academic texts are so boring and out-of-date compared with the endless flow of pamphlets from the Think-Tanks.  
Look for example at this 2007 report on Innovations in Government – an international perspective on civil service reform produced by the Institute for Public Policy Research – a centrist British think tank. Or this 2009 review of the state of the British Civil Service produced by the independent British Institute for Government which also recently published a fascinating case-study of the failure of the UK’s Centre for Management and Policy Studies 1999-2005 which had been (for about 20 years) the Civil Service College and which transmogrified after 2005 into the National School of Government – before itself being abolished this year. The failure of the shortly-lived CMPS is attributable , in the report, to –
  • confusion about the main role of the Centre – policy or management focus
  • inappropriate (academic) leadership
  • loss of Prime Ministerial interest
  • the number of other parallel initiatives
British government has, of course, become notorious for its non-stop programmatic,policy and institutional changes. New Labour launched a blitzkrieg on the administrative machine with its Modernising Government programmeof 1999 – an official output of which you can find here. 
Right now I’m not sure where you can find the coolest assessment of the lessons from a decade’s frenetic energy of targets, increased choice, organisational and personnel change. 
But one thing is clear – political discontent with civil service performance is as great as it ever was – and in June the UK government announced its reform plan for the civil service accompanied by a powerpoint presentation. A useful independent website on the British Civil Service has provided a useful summary. The plan was the subject of a fairly positive Institute of Government assessment

And this week the Government has also announced a short study into lessons from other civil service systems

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strategies for living?

“Reading someone like a book” is supposed to denote an easy penetration of someone’s motives and thinking. But in fact reading is an interactive process which depends not only on the reader but on the context and timing. I find that I get different things from rereading a book. Two years ago (almost to the day) I enjoyed the wry humour and scope of Michael Foley’ s The Age of Absurdity - why modern life makes it hard to be happy which mocks contemporary anguishes and values (an early chapter has the great title of “the righteousness of entitlement”). By coincidence I came across this US stand-up comedian who deals with the same issues.
But rereading Foley in the last few days showed me a depth I had missed the first time round. He criticises the generality of the six convergent values identified by Martin Seligman (the founder of the positive psychology movement) in his trawl of religions – justice, humaneness, temperance, wisdom, courage and transcendence. 
Do the classic texts , he asks, not give us more practical strategies for living ?” 
“The good news (he tells us on page 68) is that there are indeed such strategies. The bad news is that all of them are discouraged by contemporary Western culture”
The "strategies" are personal responsibility; autonomy; detachment; acceptance of difficulty; understanding; mindfulness; ceaseless striving; and constant awareness of mortality.
Drawing on philosophy, religion, history, psychology and neuroscience, Foley then explores the things that modern culture is either rejecting or driving us away from:
  • Responsibility – we are entitled to succeed and be happy, so someone/thing else must be to blame when we are not
  • Difficulty – we believe we deserve an easy life, and worship the effortless and anything that avoids struggle (as Foley points out, this extends even to eating oranges: sales are falling as peeling them is now seen as too demanding and just so, you know, yesterday …)
  • Understanding – a related point, as understanding requires effort, but where we once expected decision-making to involve rationality, we moved through emotion to intuition (usually reliable) and – more worryingly – impulse (usually unreliable), a tendency that Foley sees as explaining the appeal of fundamentalism (“which sheds the burden of freedom and eliminates the struggle to establish truth and meaning and all the anxiety of doubt. There is no solution as satisfactory and reassuring as God.”)
  • Detachment – we benefit from concentration, autonomy and privacy, but life demands immersion, distraction, collaboration and company; by confusing self-esteem (essentially external and concerned with our image to others) with self-respect (essentially internal and concerned with our self-image), we further fuel our sense of entitlement – and our depression, frustration and rage when we don’t get what we ‘deserve’
  • Experience – captivated by the heightened colour, speed, and drama of an edited on-screen life, our attention span is falling and ‘attention’ (at least in the West) is something we pay passively rather than actively and mindfully:

From a recent blog discussion, I noted this interesting perspective -
 I think we need to address the question with our own actions, the things we do that make life worth living. Verbs, not nouns. When I think of how I would answer the question, the following behaviors come to mind:
Creating: Writing, drawing, painting (though I’m not good at it), playing music (though I’m not especially good at that, either). For others, it might be inventing something, building a business, coming up with a clever marketing campaign, forming a non-profit.
Relating: It’s not “family” that makes life worth living, I think, but the relationships we create with members of our family, and the way we maintain and build those relationships. Same goes for friends, lovers, business partners, students, and everyone else.
Helping: Being able to lend a hand to people in need – however drastic or trivial that need may be – strikes me as an important part of life.
Realizing: Making, working towards, and achieving goals, no matter what those goals are.
Playing: Maybe this is a kind of “relating”, but then, play can be a solo affair as well. Letting go of restraints, imagining new possibilities, testing yourself against others or against yourself, finding humour and joy.
GrowingLearning new things, improving my knowledge and ability in the things I’ve already learned.
Those seem like more satisfying answers to me – they strike deeper into what it is I want for myself, what makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning.
The Guardian is currently trying to give its readers some understanding of the nation which is now in the driving seat of the "European project" and indeed of our futures - Germany. I have several times on this blog remarked on how seldom this effort of understanding our neighbours (their culture and history) is made in British books or journals - with most of the accessible literature being humorous accounts of setting up home in rural France or Spain (occasionally Italy). I'm not particularly impressed with the Guardian series - no mention, for example, of the two recent writers who have tried to do the country justice (Simon Winder and Peter Watson).
But this article about one region's attitudes to saving and spending is useful.   

Sunday, September 16, 2012

exposing the lies

If you are consumed with greed, enjoy a permanent sense of superiority, are incompetent, suffer from Acute Controlling Syndrome, think ethics are for wimps, or have never created anything worthwhile in your life, the chances are you hold some kind of senior position in one of these professions: politics, the media, investment banking, multinational business, management consultancy, tax accountancy, the Law, or internet service provision.You are the reason all those pursuits serve your interests rather than mine.If you have all of those features in your personal make-up, then you are a seriously big wig, engaged in running the world. You are probably a sociopath, perhaps a psychopath, and definitely delusional…to the extent that your ideal world is one in which the small community and the middle classes have been wiped out, and a few very big bananas have near-monopolies on everything.You are the reason the world is falling apart.In order to retain your position as an influential idiot dedicated to pauperising everyone except the elite, you are going to talk bollocks almost all the time. (Trans: US – horsesh*t, French – conneries, German – Bockmist). You can get away with doing so, because most of the rest of us are too thick, bored, busy or tired to bother analysing the bollocks that pour forth from your mouth in a never-ending testicular stream.
Such is the powerful raison-d'etre for A Diary of Deception and Distortion a very readable blog dedicated to the deconstruction of bollocks which I am now adding to the list of links here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Seasonal changes

I’ve been offline for more than a week – initially because my two-year old HP laptop crashed and I had to fit up a new Samsung with all the relevant software, files and websites.
But the silence is also due to the sheer amount of work involved preparing the mountain house to face new rigours and challenges – leaving little time for reading and the stimulation that offers. Not just of winter – but of the rise in rural break-ins. Last week we strengthened our back door and remounted the old shutters on the ground-floor windows. Their absence over the past 5 years caused me no anxiety – but yesterday we talked in Brasov with a home security advisor and are now installing various facilities – including perhaps a “state of the art” sprinkler system to give our extensive wooden beams and floors (if not traditional schiza wood roof) some added protection.
A digger has also gouged out a parking space from the steep front meadow – for our 15 year-old Daewoo which must shortly give way to a new car. Part of me wants to indulge myself and go for a good but economical touring car (eg the 3.5 lires per 100 kms  Skoda Octavia) – but being seen with that sort of car could create the impression of a house worth breaking into. My faithful old Daewoo strikes a usefully modest image in the Balkans! In the meantime I scour the area looking for stones with which to pave the new space.
The weather has been superb in the past week – with the clouds strung out as I remember seeing over the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of the West of Scotland; and quite a strong breeze blowing the trees in front. And the neighbour’s cow was moved this week from the higher pasture to their immediate garden area. The season visibly changes – it’s one of the great features of this part of the world that the season’s changes are still so visible.

Some videos of the area - the villages of Ciocanu and Sirnea; and again Sirnea
a mysterious road trip around the edge of the village; and another strange video by a developer showing the potential of this beautiful village for post-modern nerds

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Guide to blogs about Romania

I know of at least three other Brits who blog from a Romanian base – first a highly literate Conservative with a blog entitled A Political Refugee from the global village. He’s an “Englishman in love with Bucharest’s blowsy charms” who apparently came to live here in 1998; works as a “headhunter”; and blogs regularly. His posts in 2010 are good on various aspects of Romanian history and the disappearing charm of Bucharest. 
Then there is Dr Peter Fogarty who has apparently been blogging about life here for the past decade on pictures of romania - and has indeed collected his various comments together in several books which can be accessed on his site.
The other blogger is Andy Hockley whose blog has the catchy title Csikszreda Musings - that being the Hungarian name for Miercurea Ciuc – which, to me, always sounds like “Wednesday beer” (Ciuc being one of the big beers here). He’s been here since 2004 and some of the early entries are good – but, understandably, his blogposts have fallen off in the last 2 years. His posts about English politics suggest that he too is a Conservative – if of a more populist type than the first Bucharest guy. I can’t quite work out what he does for a living. A couple of years ago he had a good blog about the Romanian film Katalin Varga - a film which gives a very good sense of the old village life. 

So that's four of us Brits who have chosen to live here in Romania (me at least half of the year now) - and blog about it. Apart from us, I know of another 3 Brits who have settled in Romania - 2 in Brasov (with property and tourist businesses respectively) and an ex-British Council training guy who has chosen Iasi (which he calls Romania's cultural capital by virtue of its intellectual heritage).
That's 7 of us - compared with the 6,000 who settled a decade ago in Bulgaria! (although there are apparently now only 2,600) There are some French people - generally associated with food and drink (!) - and a French couple has indeed arrived in our village here and is doing a good job of restoring an old house faithfully in the old tradition.

An American in Cluj has a blog which used to be called “I’m more Romanian than you” but now seems to be called, more modestly, on Romania. He’s a more recent arrival; is more chatty; but has offered various language lessons.
Bucharest Life is a fairly typical, mundane collective ex-pat site which did, however, in the winter have some good photographs of the snow and of examples of the highly annoying habit of parking on the pavements.

There are also a handful of Romanians with great blogs in English about the beauty of landscape, buildings and art you can find in this country. Guide to Romania is a blog which gives good detail (and pics) about various famous Romanian buildings and sites. True Romania was another blog giving useful information about historical Romanians and sites - operated by a teacher and pupils at Ludus secondary school. Sadly the blog stopped posting in 2011 – but the archives go back 4 years and offer a great source. 

Historical Houses of Romania is an excellent site maintained by Valentin Mandache – who has also taken to organising walks around the architectural jewels of Bucharest. It was one of his posts which pointed me to this interesting piece about the legacies we can see of one of Bucharest’s modernist architects

There was a TV journalist here who had great entries about modern art – but his address now gives me the Artindex auctioneers in Bucharest which has, however, retained his posts. Look at this great one on the Zambaccian Museum in Bucharest.

Last but certainly not least is an external blogger. Sarah in Romania is actually based (still I think) in Paris although I understand she's American (??). Her's is the only serious external site I know. Her posts are always instructive and passionate – for example this recent one on the superb Mogosoira Palace on the outskirts of Bucharest.

postscript; I have just come across this rather unctuous American blog.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dangerous politicians

We’re used to reading powerfully-crafted descriptions of characters in novels – but, for some reason, this treatment seems to be rarely applied to politicians and others in the public eye. The current issue of London Review of Books has a short article by David Bromwich on the Republican Convention in the USA which contains as lacerating a picture of a human being as I have ever read -
His constant demeanour is cocksure; his face never registers reflection. Listening to other people is a formality, for Ryan, to be endured before he springs his answers. And how the answers pour out! There is an attractive, efficient speed in the way he works, but also a kind of deadness. And the deadness is there in his eyes – the hard eyes of the self-fulfilled and self-justified, clean of mind and clean of body, a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses.
Savour that last phrase - a whole mental mansion trip-wired against invasion by entities seeking pity and bearing excuses. It purports to describe the guy just nominated by Mitt Romney to be his Vice Presidential running mate. It could be applied to a lot of young, arrogant professionals I have met in the Balkans!
I don’t want to get into the American Presidential election – save to express my disgust at the blatant way Republican Governors have been going about the disenfranchisement of poorer voters by trying to introduce requirement for ID. Apparently, since 2000, there have been only 10 cases of voter fraud. So it is not an issue – except for those who want to prevent the supporters of opposing parties from voting. In Britain, the organisation of election lists and elections is kept out of the politicians’ hands – and that’s the way it should be