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!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Jules Pascin - man of the world from the Danube


Last year, while I was compiling my list of almost 150 20th century Bulgarian painters whose work appealed to me, I would occasionally come across the name Jules Pascin – associated with (for me) unimpressive sketches being auctioned locally.

Slowly I learned there was more to the man – and that he had in fact spent little time in Bulgaria (even schooled for 6 years in Vienna) and was more famous in France and America for his paintings of women. Barbara’s It’s About Time blog gives a great series of these -which have, for me, more than a touch of Egon Schiele to them.
I have unashamedly stolen most of the text which follows from her blogpost about him - for which many thanks!

There’s a great catalogue of his works on paper here which gives a detailed chronology. And also here.

He was born in Vidin in 1885 on the Danube as Julius Mordecai Pincas of well-off Italian-Serbian & Spanish-Jewish parents who moved first to Russe (my Bulgarian sources tell me) and then Bucharest, Romania. He was educated in Vienna from age 10-15, returning in 1901 to Bucharest, where his family had settled, working briefly in the office of his father's grain-merchandizing business.
He was, however, becoming passionately interested in drawing, for which he showed precocious talent. His early talent drew the attention of the famous Bulgarian caricaturist Alexander Bozhinov.
At the age of 16, he became the lover of a woman who ran a brothel in Bucharest; and was allowed to draw the residents.In 1902 he went back to Vienna to study painting and, in 1903, he moved to Munich, where he attended the art school run by Moritz Heymann. Some of his drawings appeared in the renowned German satirical journal Simplicissimus when he was only 19 when he got a contract with them and met Georg Grosz.
After Pascin moved to Paris in 1905, he changed his name to spare his family who were apparently ashamed of his dissolute life-style and became a central figure in the social & cultural life of the cafes & studios of Montparnasse – meeting in 1906 his future wife Hermine David (also a painter). He lived in the United States from 1914 to 1920 where he taught at the Telfair Academy in Savannah, Georgia, associated with the Telfair Art Museum. Pascin married Hermine David at City Hall in New York City and become a citizen of the United States.
He & Hermine painted in New York City as well as in Miami, New Orleans, & Cuba.
Returning to Paris in 1920, he continued to compose paintings of delicately toned, thinly painted, but poetically bitter & ironic studies of women - including his wife, his mistress, & some prostitute acquaintances. 
Although Pascin's watercolours, oils, and drawings were generally well received, a series of unfavourable reviews in 1930 left him severely depressed. Suffering from depression & alcoholism, he committed suicide on the eve of a prestigious solo show by slitting his wrists & hanging himself in his studio in Montmartre. On the wall of that studio, he left a message written in his blood saying good-bye to his love, Cecile "Lucy" Vidil Krohg. In his will, Pascin left his estate equally to his mistress, Lucy Krohg, & to his wife, Hermine David.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

winter arrives in the village

A few flakes of snow drifted gently down at 08.00 and the village (1,300 metres high) now lies with a thick covering.....and winter preparations are not quite complete.
This is my neighbour in the early afternoon preparing to recycle his cow manure on his fields.

My house is in the immediate background.

It's remarkably warm in the house with its solid rock base - although the car doors are already frozen.

Love of Words - Wry Fry

I spent a wet Saturday afternoon happily watching England’s most beloved and best performer/writer in action – namely Stephen Fry. The 50 Not Out video gives an excellent sense of Fry’s various roles over the past 4 decades – and why the British public (with very few exceptions) love him so much. I certainly do.
I would be interested to know how well his dry wit carries across cultural divides. I will never forget the incomprehending reaction of an Italian friend to a short clip I showed of the wild Scots comic – Billy Connelly. And it wasn’t so much a question of the West of Scotland accent as the subject matter, perspective and delivery!
Fry’s acclaimed role as the butler Jeeves in the televised series of the PG Wodehouse novels about the relationship between a butler and a “toff” in the 1920s might, similarly, seem a bit restricted in its appeal – delightful as it certainly is to a British audience.
His solo performance for more than hour at Sydney Royal Opera House is simply stunning – his intelligence and goodness come across so strongly even in front of such a large audience.
His Amsterdam talk to a more typical small group  is even more touching. Anyone who encourages reading and a love of words - let alone self-deprecation - is a hero in my terms.
He has been a prolific writer of essays from an early age – and has been very frank about aspects of his life which most people would rather hide. It took some time for his “manic-depressive” condition to be properly recognised – and his TV documentary on the secret life of a manic depressive must have helped a lot of people who suffer from this condition. He has even written a book about the writing of poetry.   

Talking of good and fair writing, the extended New Yorker editorial of Obama is a good exemplar.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Of conspiracy

"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public..." 

The catalyst for this post was today’s news that a Greek editor has been arrested (in mid-broadcast) for daring to publish an official list of tax evaders which the Head of the IMF (no less!) had given a year ago to a previous Greek Minister of Finance and which seemed to have disappeared - although it has led to some suicides. Here's the guy's story in his own words.
I had first come across this story of the Lagardes memory stick earlier this month in the Diary of Deception and Distortion blog whose admirable mission statement I wrote about a few weeks back and which I continue to read with a variety of emotions. At one level I admire the guy’s insights and confidence – but, at another, I have trouble with the degree of conspiracy his various stories imply.

The internet is full of conspiracy theories relating to such things as 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, World Government, the Bilderberg Group etc
But I’ve never been a great conspiracy theorist – more a naïve, cock-up man! Not that I don’t agree the world is full of scheming characters - more so in the last few decades under the malign influence of the neo-liberalist pandemic of selfishness let loose by Margaret Thatcher, The World Bank etc.
And neo-liberalism, I need to make clear, has never been a conspiracy – rather an open, full-fledged (and so far successful) war! 

Conspiracies are secret and face two major obstacles – first the lack of malleability of social and economic forces. Or, as Robert Burns put it much more eloquently in his great 1785 poem To a Mouse,   
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
The mess which governments often make of things (and the counter-productivity of much ambitious policymaking) is, of course, one of the central arguments which neo-liberals have used in their (so far) highly successful drive to strip the state of powers and to hand its functions over to private interests. In passing we should note that their theory, of course, does not allow that private organisations (particularly the huge and unwieldy companies which dominate the markets) might also share these same features of “goal displacement”, inefficiencies etc. Nor does it recognise the additional costs for the public services now being taken over of (a) the huge “transaction costs” in parcelling rail, health and educational services into the manageable pieces required for contracting; (b) the additional managerial costs and profits the new private companies need; (c) the costs of the regulatory framework which has to be put in place to ensure various standards are met; and (d) the continued financial underwriting by the taxpayer when things (as they generally do and have!!) go wrong.   

My apologies for this (rare) rant – but I am just so angry about how an intellectually fatuous and vacuous argument about government inefficiency has held sway for so long. The reality is that all human organisation is complex and difficult – regardless of whether it is private or public. Public perceptions are different largely because private enterprise has been able to buy itself a good press – both directly and indirectly (funding of a variety of intellectual activities)   

I said there were two limits on the conspiratorial scheming of elites. The second, I would suggest, is simple lack of trust – honour amongst thieves. People are more cooperative than ever imagined by economists – but not the elites (see Al Mant’s marvellous (but typically out-of-print) book on Leaders We Deserve). Three years ago I blogged about the positive aspect of trust and cooperation on which so many post-war governance systems operated (and some Scandinavian) still do) but which the neo-liberals have done their damnest to destroy. An excellent detailed history is here for those who want to know.
And the damage it has done to those who a few decades saw themselves as guardians of public integrity is vividly shown in this story of greed and hypocrisy.  

But one form of conspiracy I’ve always viewed as a "very real and present threat" as, I think, they now say – the conspiracy of silence which the Jimmy Savile story now running in Britain exemplifies very strongly. One of serial child molestation over several decades by a TV star which apparently most senior people in the media knew about but few complained of - partly because values were different from now; and partly because of calculated fear...

A year ago today, I had a post about the development of training systems in this part of the world
Finally a couple of examples of how great the art blog - It's about Time - is. Two recent posts about the English painter Stanley Spencer here and here

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Essays and images


…. I remember the impact which the essays of 18/19th century English writers such as Addison, Francis Bacon and Charles Lamb made on me at secondary school. “What is truth, said Jesting Pilot, and would not stay for an answer is apparently Bacon – although I get rather confused that the wonderfully evocative piece on burning pork is apparently by Charles Lamb – not Bacon! I start to google the various names and find a wonderful website devoted to.....essays - y compris... Lamb’s on pork. It was, of course, Michel de Montaigne who started this art form in the 16th Century in his castle near Bordeaux– and his "Complete Works" stands on a shelf above my study door. As I read Malcolm Gladwell’s essays, I suddenly hear in my mind the tones of Alaister Cooke - as he read his Letters from America (for almost 50 years). What an institution he was! Weaving a spell as he slowly moved from his opening ear-catching sentences through a charming analysis of part of the American system to a laconic conclusion. And then I thought of Tom Wolfe – whose 1970 essay “Mau-mauing the flak catchers” was such a merciless description of the funding culture which grew around the US War on Poverty. Unfortunately I couldn’t find this essay online – although (thanks to Wikipedia and New York Magazine) I could download his even more famous satire of “the radical chic”. If only someone would do a similar satire on EU funding – someone surely must have!! But it’s beyond a joking matter!
I then went on the say that Wolfe invented the marvellous phrase “shit-detector” – but I now discover that this was actually Ernest Hemingway’s phrase - 
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
When I googled the phrase I discovered this lovely blog by an Australian ceramicist which, sadly, stopped in 2011. One of my quieter passions has been for ceramics. But the blog images of the ceramicist are still archived. Nothing, however, can compare with Barbara’s It’s About Time daily blog which performs two immense public services – introduces us to American and European painters (generally of the early 20th century) few of us have ever heard of; and stuns us every day with beauty.

Tom Wolfe has not only been an amazingly creative and powerful essayist but has also - as this beautifully written essay argues -  uniquely captured sociological insights about particularly East-coast USA
The painting which adorns this post is one of a series on a recent post she gave us about a Russian painter Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962). Little wonder that her blog has had more than 2 million hits. Goncharova was a member of the Der Blaue Reiter avant-garde group from its founding in 1911.  Goncharova moved to Paris in 1921 where she designed a number of stage sets of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. She became a French citizen in 1939.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Scottish exceptionalism?

I am a Scot – although it’s interesting that I forgot to include this in the list of ways I set out in a 2010 blogpost in which I could (and had) describe myself over the years! Perhaps this reflects my ambivalence about nationalism.
Most people are proud of their nationality – I certainly am – but some are hesitant. We are told that Germans, for example, associate more easily with their Land (Province) than with the country – although Peter Watson’s recent and encyclopaedic German Genius sets out in amazing detail what German culture and science have given the world. At the other end of the scale, the Hungarian arrogance I experienced when I worked and lived there for a couple of years seemed to be a psychological defence against their feeling that Hungary had failed in everything it had attempted. Emigre Hungarians, however, have an amazing record – witness Arthur Koestler, photographic genius Andre Kertesz, and economist Thomas Balogh. 
Romanians, as I said recently, are a proud people – that is not the same thing, I suspect, as being proud of their nation. Most Romanians I have known are ashamed of how their nation’s governing elites have behaved over the years - but react violently to external criticism. They are certainly proud of the contributions which various Romanians have made to modern life eg the jet engine (Coanda) – although the guy who became Head of Romania’s Cultural Institute in a recent political coup seems to have made a bit of a fool of himself in suggesting that Romania invented the…radiator    

All this is by way of an introduction to the post I did exactly two years ago on the Scottish contribution to the world – at least as seen through the eyes of an American historian, Arthur Herman in his book The Scottish Enlightenment – the Scots invention of the modern world (200). One of our younger generation of writers summarises the story nicely
The Knoxian reformation of the 16th century had resulted in 100 years of almost uninterrupted violence and bloodshed. Three consecutive failed harvests at the end of the 17th century, against the backdrop of England's imperial growth, set the circumstances for Scotland's ruling classes to sell out its sovereignty - literally. The Earl of Roseberry was paid £12,000 from a slush fund operated by the London government to enable the merger between Scotland and England to take place. But rather than suffer the expected dilution into insignificance, Scotland became proportionately the most significant player in the union's empire. And through innovations in philosophy, education, commerce, engineering, industry, architecture, town planning, soldiering, administration, medicine and even tourism, the Scots invented the modern world of capitalist democracy. The springboard for this was the most powerful legacy of the Presbyterian revolution: a universal (or near-universal) education system.
The Presbyterians popularised the notion that political power, though ordained by God, was vested not in the monarch or even in the clergy, but in the people. Yes, Scottish Presbyterians could behave like ayatollahs and the Kirk could regularly incite public executions for spurious blasphemy or witchcraft charges. But one of the last acts of the Scottish parliament was to establish a school and salaried teacher in every parish.
The effect of this was that by 1750, with an estimated 75% level of literacy, the Scots were probably the most well-read nation on earth. The dichotomy between authoritarian repression and liberal inquiry in Scottish society was embodied in Robert Burns. At 16, the poverty-stricken Ayrshire ploughman was versed in Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Locke, the Scottish poets and the French Enlightenment philosophers. The knock-on effects of the education act were felt in universities and the book trade. By 1790 Edinburgh boasted 16 publishing houses.
I knew about Adam Smith and David Hume (although not properly appreciated the latter’s arguments eg “reason is – and ought to be – the slave of passions”). I knew about the openness of Scottish universities in medieval times and their strong links with continental universities (not least as a final stage of legal education); about the Scots role in the British Empire (and in exploiting the opium trade); and that most of the stuff with kilts is actually a Victorian invention. What, however, I hadn’t realised until I read the book were things such as 
·         The speed with which Scotland apparently changed from a backwater of Iran-like religious domination and prejudice to playing a leading role in the development of the “study of mankind”
·         just what a galaxy of stars there were in Edinburgh and Glasgow between the last 2 Scottish uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Frances Hutcheson I had vaguely heard of – but not his core argument that “all men of reflection from Socrates have sufficiently proved that the truest, most constant and lively pleasure, the happiest enjoyment in life, consists in kind affections to our fellow creatures”.
·         The role Scots politicians played in liberalising British politics in the 1830 period
·         How major a role Scots played in the American revolution – and, indeed (on the downside), in the development of its “revivalist” religious tradition!

Many people feel that Arthur Herman has gone too far in his claims - and there is a short professional piece here which takes a more balanced view and reminds us that most Scots (certainly in and around Glasgow) are renowned for a strange sense of victimhood and inferiority.
Coincidentally, another book with a similar argument has just appeared - Capital of the Mind - how Edinburgh changed the World

Thursday, October 25, 2012

True Confessions


The weather has finally broken here in the mountains. At 09.00 it is still gloomy with mist encircling the house and the neighbours’ houses just eerie blots. Even the cat chooses to lie abed! A time for surfing, thinking and writing….So, for once, let me just follow the drift of the surfing (amidst my soup-making – bean, carrot, leek and celery!).

First I updated, as I usually do, some recent blogs – not least adding to my recent blog on caricaturists this magnificent record of every single Honore Daumier print and painting he ever did 

The superb blog of a couple who are spending two weeks in about 50 countries and who have, during October, been in Scandinavia was then accessed. Great on places and sensual experiences….
And then one of my favourite blogs - glamour granny travels - whose author travels serendipitously; was until recently based in Turkey (see below); and landed yesterday (par hazard naturellement) in Genoa.

An historical overview of FBI Director relations with American Presidents over the past 50 years really brought home again  how tenuous that country’s claim to democracy really is – with parallels with that ofcontemporary Russia 

An article about Turkish PM Erdogan reminded me of my love of that country – borne first of a memorable week-long official visit I made to Istanbul in 1984 or so  (courtesy of OECD) and then of several later trips, not least a motor tour from Bucharest in summer 2002 of the Aegean. For my first trip, I arrived late at night at Pera Pelas Hotel - made famous by both Ataturk (whose room is still kept as a museum) and by Agatha Christie! And woke early in the morning to the specific smells and noises of the Orient (sadly the smells seem to have vanished in later visits). I was there –with about a score of other European municipal leaders – to share our experience of governing metropoles with the Turks. Of course my experience of a declining West of Scotland economy (of just over 2 million people) seemed to have little of relevance to a chaotic and expanding metropolis of 10 million people – but who would give up the opportunity, for example, of being ferried around the Bosphorus in the Istanbul Mayor’s personal boat?  And our institutional arrangements were interesting – with one powerful Region having 19 autonomous Districts and four Health Boards. I quickly became friendly with a Turkish journalist who had a personal network with the (still heavily repressed) democratic Turkish opposition. For a week I led a double life – during the day being part of the official power system; in the evening meeting dissidents of various sorts. 
Because of her contacts and support, Gul was treated like a princess in these latter places. Inevitably I fell in love with her – the concoction of context and high-boned beauty was just too heady. On one memorable evening she took me in a taxi across the great bridge into the Asian side for a romantic dinner in a famous fish restaurant – where we pledged allegiance after only a few platonic kisses. 
Sadly we lost contact – once in Prague a decade later I had a mysterious message which promised a reunion in that romantic city – but it never happened. So there, dear reader, you have a rare confession…..heavens…where will this lead??
Like many Brits, I have contemplated living in Turkey – particularly Istanbul – I find them the most incredibly friendly people. And hope next year to make another long, car trip there to explore the many exotic parts of the country which Glamorous Granny writes (and photos) so well

For those wanting more depth analyses, Perry Anderson’s seminal essay still remains one of the best, serious  introductions  - one of several great pieces he has done on modern states. Those wanting more reading material on the country could look at this list. And also this one. A decade ago, I came across both the interwar poems of Nazim Hikmet and the writings of Orhan Pamuk about which I was initially enthusiastic but have latterly become ambivalent

Finally a good update on the Scottish situation on which I gave a brief overview of the past few decades earlier this year.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Neglect of Bulgaria

I am puzzling over the lack of interest British writers (of any sort) seem to have shown in Bulgaria and the larger interest British writers have taken over the ages in Romania, whether from novelists such as Bram Stoker and Olivia Manning; travellers such as Sir Sach Sitwell, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Devla Murphy and William Blacker; or historians such as Robert Seton-Watson, Dennis Deletant , Keith Hitchins and Tom Gallagher (both of whom I referred to yesterday)
Romania has had a much larger and more industrial population than Bulgaria- with a highly educated and articulate intelligentsia (with strong French connections) making its mark in the inter-war period in various cultural fields. Unlike Bulgaria, it had been ruled with a light touch from Constantinople. Bulgaria’s experience of the Ottoman Empire and Turks was much harsher and its celebration of independence deeper and more lasting than Romania’s – which has had long reason to be sceptical of its governors, no matter how Romanian.

Bulgaria has seemed for the past century sleepily rural and romantic as caught in a marvellous book published in 1931 by the Balkans' correspondent for the Chrstian Science Monitor RK Markham. His Meet Bulgaria has delighful photos and can be read in its entirety in the link. And the country looked more to Russia for support – even before 1945 – although many of its painters spent formative time in France, Munich and Italy.
A Concise History of Bulgaria is the only history book I can find (although Wikipedia has a long and useful note on the various phases of its history) – and it’s significant that the Lonely Planet website could list in 2010 as books worth reading only the 1912 novel Under the Yoke; other novels on the same theme of war with the Turks and books about gypsies!
The best Guides for me are The Rough Guide to Bulgaria which does contain at page 461-64 of the link a list of English books on Bulgaria (many out of print) as well as a useful section on the country’s music; I also highly recommend a locally-produced Bulgaria Tour Guide  (Tangra 2006). A heavy, glossy 670 pager with superb small illustrations – for only 15 euros. And also this delightful little book which features some of the amazing small bed and breakfasts in the countryside you can stay at for a song
And the only decent blog I can find in English from or about the country is a young American teacher's who, in a straightforward and charming way, describes her experiences (with Sofia mainly), including a variety of photographs which indeed give a good sense of the place. It was her blog which alerted me to the reopening of the National Gallery. And her kind response to this blog has given me access to her own list of books about Bulgaria worth reading. Many thanks!

Both countries have superb landscapes – and they are both proud peoples. Somehow, the Bulgarian pride is simpler. Since Winston Churchill’s put-down in the late 1940s of the Leader of the Labour Party – “a modest man – he has a lot to be modest about”, I hesitate to use that adjective. But that is part of the attraction of the Bulgarians – they are not pretentious and have not spoiled their country. My tour last year of the regional municipal galleries (notes at the back of my booklet on Bulgarian realist painters) showed me positive officials of a sort I rarely encounter in Romania. Their small country has so many more interesting places to visit throughout the country – from historic sites and buildings to sea and ski resorts – and the style and service you get is impressive. Their lack of Romania’s elitist intellectual tradition is, I think, their saving grace.

The aquarelle is by a not very well known Bulgarian - C Ionchev

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Some good guides for the visitor to Romania

At the beginning of last month I did a roundup of blogs on/from Romania which are available in English. I omitted, however, one very significant one. It may not frequently post – but is always worth reading since it comes from Caroline Juler, the author of the excellent Blue Guide to Romania  – for my money far and away the best guide to the country.
Juler’s post of 30 August gave very useful background on how the EU farm policy affects the country
Romania has millions of small-holdings which are not considered commercially viable but which support the people who run them.  Calling them subsistence farmers implies that they are unable to support themselves in any way, which isn't necessarily the case.  A lot of 'subsistence' farms produce food for the families who work on them, and in Romania the coldly bureaucratic notion of a subsistence farm is so alien to the character of a small, working family farm that it's laughable.  Romanians use the term gospodarie, which means home, hearth, the centre of the family, a spiritual haven, a place where people grow real food rather than the processed muck that global corporations want everyone to buy, they embody self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and encompass hundreds of years of tradition and history...  If the world had more gospodarii, we might have less starvation.

Yesterday’s post raised some delicate issues about how foreigners experience modern Romanians and Bulgarians. I know this leads into some ridiculous generalisations – country folk are different from urban; young people from old; Transylvanians from those in the plains; etc etc. But those visiting other countries like to get a handle on these things – and will then proceed to make up their own minds on the basis of the places and people they find themselves with.
Alan Ogden’s books I have not, sadly, yet read. But several good books don’t figure on this list -
- The Pallas Guide to Romania edited by John Villiers is more of a cultural and historical treatment of the country as a whole than a travel guide. As with all Pallas Guides, it has superb old black and white graphics and photos – and rates in my collection of “beautiful books”. Cheap copies were easily found in Bucharest’s second-hand bookshops earlier in the year.
- Historian Lucian Boia’s Romania  can actually be downloaded in full from that link. It’s a very nicely written history – the only one which is easily available (Keith Hitchins is more detailed but covers only 1866-1947 and is older)
Tom Gallagher has written extensively and vigorously about the country’s post-communist politics. Details of his two books on the subject are in the link – and his Theft of aNation can be googled here       
Mountains of Romania is a lovely guide for the hill-walker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Worlds Apart at the Danube

Today I remember a good man who died exactly two years ago. Ion Olteanu was a friend who devoted much of his life to the youth of the country – encouraging them to get involved in their localities; to establish youth parliaments in their towns; and to make contact with their European counterparts. He was a philosopher by training and had the dry manner of the Romanian intellectual – but, unlike that class, had a passion and real commitment to make Romania a better place. And transmitted this to the teenagers he (and his wife) worked with. I saw this vividly at a couple of the events he was kind enough to ask me to perform at.
I first met him in the Prime Minister’s offices at Piata Romanie in the mid-1990s where he was responsible for the initial attempts to develop a strategy for working with non-governmental organisations. I wrote this paper for him. Faced with a reshuffle, he chose to leave the civil service and move to the hand-to-mouth world of international grants. I wasn’t all that close to him although we did pop in unannounced from time to time to his flat in the centre of Bucharest which was, with its mass of files and papers, more like an office – not least with the other visitors. Last year I dedicated a post on policy-making to him. 

Today I devote this post to his memory. It is a post written spontaneously (ie I have no idea where it will go) on yet another glorious cloudless if nippy morning in the Carpathian mountains – between the Piatra Craiului and the Bucegi ranges. And written in this lovely old house given a new life by his friend Daniela over the past 12 years. In her love of the vernacular Romanian architecture (and efforts to preserve it) she is in a tiny minority here in Romania – despite the best efforts of Valentin Mandache and Sarah in Romania

For reasons I don’t yet pretend to understand, Bulgarians seem to value their traditional village houses much more than Romania – despite (or perhaps because) the socio-economic dereliction which has overtaken so many Bulgarian settlements. After its “liberation” in 1989 Romania went for the American dream – with all the “creative destruction” and modernist eyesores that involves. I was, therefore, delighted to purchase recently a book which showcases some old restored houses here in Romania 
And also pleased to see this post on one town’s architectural heritage by one of my favourite Romanian bloggers.
The pity is that people don’t seem able to get together to cooperate properly here – the trust and respect which that requires seem for the moment to have been destroyed in this country. That’s one of the things which Olteanu was fighting to restore……

Alternating, as I have in the past 5 years, between Bulgaria and Romania has made me think a lot about cultural differences. Despite sharing the Danube as a border, the citizens of the two countries have (apart from the summer trips to the Bulgarian part of the Black Sea  - which are such good value) little contact and know very little about each other. It hasn’t helped that the Dobrogea area at the Black Sea has changed hands several times in the past few centuries – nor that the Bulgarian alphabet is Cyrillic and the Romanians so profoundly Latin  
Although Romania attracts far fewer foreign residents (partic Brits) than Bulgaria, it has a fair number of ex-pat bloggers - perhaps due to its exoticism. One of them talks feelingly in the online book he has made of his blogs about the country
A Romanian wife’s fury is as legendary as it is short. In the morning, you can have your ear chewed off – my sins generally rotate around where I leave my shoes in the hall and woe betide me if by briefcase ever touches the kitchen table! There are constant bumps like this - yet by evening, she is back to chilled and happy as if we never argued at all.
Romanian girls do seem to work much harder in the home than their British counterparts. My wife is always scrubbing and cleaning our 1 bedroom apartment (we even took on a maid to further help!)
You do need, however, to develop a skin like a rhino, as every small mistake you make in life is blown up into something significant, before floating away again into nothingness
And two books have been produced recently by Brits on the country - William Blacker' s elegant if controversial Along the Enchanted Way; and Mike Ormsby's more gritty Never Mind the Balkans, here's Romania. And here's a recent documentary on the country which suggests that Ceaucescu's baneful influence is still active.

After several years of familiarity with Romania, I suddenly found myself based in Sofia. The Bulgarians were down-to-earth, modest and….well..bourgeois! Not least in the extent of small spaces in the centre where old and young alike can set up shop themselves - whether to sell cigarettes, haircuts, coffee, paintings or clothes. I've commented on this here; here; here; and here

One of the key books on cultural values is Richard D Lewis’s When Cultures Clash – a complete version of which I have just discovered online. Some of the values he attributes to Bulgarians (on page 319) are disciplined, sober, pragmatic, cautious, stubborn, good organisers, industrious, inventive.
The terms he uses for Romanians are – pride in being a Balkan anomaly, opportunism, nepotism, volatility, self-importance, unpredictability, tendency to blame others, black humour…..
Certainly I know that my Romanian friends sometimes get impatient with what they – as tough, direct speakers – feel as the polite hypocrisy of Bulgarians! As a Scot who has felt the same about a certain type of Englishman, I know what they mean! Certainly I find it fascinating that Bulgarian paintings of the 20th century speak to me in a way which the Romanians don't.....
I feel an important project could be one focusing on Bulgarian-Romanian relations. The EU is putting a lot of money into trans-Danube projects – pity that cultural aspects don’t seem to have been addressed.
I've reached the age when I think how the money I leave behind might be used to further passions of mine - whether conceptual or sensual. One idea which occurred to me recently was to leave a small fund which could encourage Bulgarian and Romanian painters/artists to come together once a year (starting with my village here!)
It would have been great to work with Olteanu on this!

The painting is an Atanas Mihov (1879-1974) - "washing at the Danube" which can be seen at the Russe Art Gallery

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Distractions and Choices


Writing – let alone blogging – is a solitary activity. The thought which (hopefully!) precedes writing is more of a social process – requiring the stimulus of discussion or at least reading. But putting words together requires some protection from the pressures of everyday living – and the last week has seen many of these, with various technical challenges from the central heating system and my faithful 14 year-old Daewoo Cielo car.
A great dump of Amazon books and Truffaut films hasn’t helped the writing – nor the glorious weather. The books have been a mix of le Carre novels, Chinese and Scandinavian detective stories, Mackintosh-Smith travelogues, art books (Infinite Jest – caricature and satire from Leonardo to Levine and Simon Schama’s The Power of Art - whose (video) treatment of Turner you can see here) and a few serious treatises such as David Graeber’s Debt - the first 5,000 years and Why we disagree about climate change.

Anyway, back to cars. I am one of these people for whom a car is a facility for getting me from city a to cottage b with minimum fuss and cost and who, having bought it, doesn’t want to think about a car again for many years. I was almost 50 before I bought my first new car – having been well-served initially with an old French Simca; then had a series of second-hand Volvos before succumbing to my first new car in 1989 – a modest Fiat Tipo which faithfully took me around Central Europe in the early 1990s from my Copenhagen base. I've also been lucky with my Daewoo – it’s recognised that the early models assembled here in the Romanian plant were the best. I also ran a 10-year old Audi Estate in Kyrgyzstan for a couple of years and was delighted with the experience. 
Noting the high level of satisfaction from buyers of Skoda cars (and the fuel consumption of their diesels) I settled on this brand – but have been a bit put off both by three things - their prices; the complication of the choice of engine size, fuel and names; and feedback I have been getting from mechanics about the inferior nature of some of the materials in the newer models.
I cannot be bothered with all the apparent choices I am presented with. And I am downright cynical about the claims made - not least about reliability. How come the marketing international companies do doesn't throw up this basic profile?? I';m sure I'm not unique...After all Volkswagen (Skoda's parent company) gave us the Beetle. Where is today's version??? Coincidentally I came across this interesting article on the issue of consumer power.
Our economic system is based on planned obsolescence. And the four-year guarantees in this part of the world are apparently not worth the paper they are written on – an interesting test of European integration.
So I am back to thinking of a 10 year old Audi – except that four-wheel is a better bet in this part of the world! Choices, choices…… 

The superb weather continues - although I look forward now to Sofia - a great  exhibition in the Sofia City Gallery celebrating its 60th anniverary; a reopened National Gallery (which I know about thanks to a private blog - not the official site!; a Toni Todorov exhibition at Vihra's Astry Gallery from 1 November; and a Victoria Gallery auction on 15 November
And, in the meantime, I discovered today this interesting website about the Bulgarian painter Georgi Zhelezarov (1897-1982) - which gives a nice sense of the national art of the period. 

Toni Todorov is a contemporary - and the above is taken from a calendar of his work which Vihra kindly gave me. That's another feature of Bulgaria - the number of (Bulgarian) art calendars you can find - and the frequency with which hotels everywhere display original Bulgarian paintings.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Taken for a ride - UK rail privatisation

I always try to be fair on this blog – even to Sarah Palin! One subject, however, on which it is difficult for me to remain objective is the privatisation of the UK railways – now costing the British taxpayer some three times more (allowing for inflation) than did state ownership and costing the passenger some 4 times more (and greater inconvenience) than equivalent travel in the rest of Europe. It is a marvellous case-study of, variously, policy development (on what evidence was the policy brought in and discussed?); democratic accountability (who wanted it – and has supported it?);  civil service management (skill preparation) and neo-liberalism.
It was a mad scheme from the start (in 1993) – totally against basic economic theory (or what remains of it). Rail is a natural monopoly. Services cannot run against one another. So sections of the system are put out for tender by the State for 10-15 year “franchises”. About 2,000 companies are involved in these contracts and sub-contracts – with all the bureaucracy (let alone profit-taking) this involves. And that is before we bring into play the new regulatory systems set up to monitor targets and ensure that the customers and government were not being “taken for a ride” (excuse the pun) by the private monopolies. I do not pretend to understand the complex (and ever-changing) process by which public assets were sold up, franchises awarded and regulatory systems managed. A 2004 paper by Prof Stephen Glaister seems to give a lot of the detail – if you have the patience to follow it all.
The last 19 years have seen a lot of problems – train collisions; bankruptcy of RailTrack; huge rise in complaints – but they are small beer compared with the scandal which has now erupted over the contract for the West Coast line (London to Glasgow) which has just been cancelled due to irregularities (so typical for procurement processes). Three senior civil servants in the Ministry of Transport have been suspended (one intriguingly an ex-employee of a merchant bank) – and the Government seems to be using this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to shake up the civil service (again).  
Even ex-civil servants are playing the government’s game of faulting the civil servants rather than the crazy system they are forced to play in.

What I have never understood is the reluctance of the Labour Party while in power to honour the clear and detailed statement it made in 1993 to renationalise – despite the strength of public opinion against the mess of privatisation and of the intellectual argument for renationalisation

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Closer Admiration

Lists of people one admires, of course, say as much about the person making the list as those on the list – about the qualities in people we respect and look for in others if not in ourselves. Authenticity, generosity, curiousity, passion and integrity are key values for me - choosing one’s own path; and being open to others.

I admire 83-year old Viciu, my neighbour, for his resilience (tending to the livestock so cheerily); his carpenter skills; and his warm acceptance of me as an eccentric outsider.

I admire my friend Stefan in Slovakia for the way he has led the renaissance of an old Hungarian Palace which serves a mixture of a training centre, hotel and art gallery; given life to the village in which it is located; and for his passion for cultural travel and collecting artefacts.

I admire my friend Vihra in Sofia for her passionate encouragement of Bulgarian contemporary artists through the special exhibitions and vernissajs she arranges in her small gallery – and the beautiful bookmarks which accompany each exhibition.

I can think of quite a lot of “local heroes” I knew in the West of Scotland (not least my father).
Most belonged to the “old school” who had experienced poverty and the war. It is, I think, difficult for the materialistic and narcissistic post-war generation to develop real values.

I spent my formative years (26-50) as a reforming Regional politician (with an academic base) – so had an unusually wide range of contacts (political, professional, community). I consorted with senior people of all sorts – civil servants, politicians, journalists, policemen, social workers…. and felt that most were operating beyond their level of competence…..
Most people expected me to move on to national politics – but I had looked into the eyes of so many national politicians and seen so much emptiness. Tam Dalyell was a maverick Labour politician I admired – you can sense his integrity from the detailed obituary he wrote here for John Smith, the Scottish politician whose death in 1993 (?) robbed us of a better Labour PM in 1997  

Amongst the 103 councillors elected to the powerful new Strathclyde Region in 1974 with me, there were many of the time-servers you would expect to find.  But the powers of the new Region had attracted a good calibre of politician - the experienced leadership of the old counties and a good mix of younger, qualified people (despite the obvious full-time nature of the job, we were expected to do it for a daily allowance of about 15 euros. Clearly the only people who could contemplate that were the retired, the self-employed or those coming from occupations traditionally supportive of civic service - eg railwaymen or, like myself, educationalists)
With a strong sense of heading into the unknown, a dual leadership was created - with the public persona (the President and Policy Leader) being someone fairly new to politics, a Presbyterian Minister (without a church) who had made his name in "urban ministry" working with the poor. Geoff Shaw inspired great respect - particularly in the world outside normal politics - and brought a new approach. He was determined to have more open and less complacent policy-making: particularly with respect to social inequalities.
Appointed as the Leader of the Majority Group (and therefore holding the patronage powers) was an older and politically much more experienced man - an ex-miner. Dick Stewart may not have had the formal education and eloquence of Geoff but he commanded respect (and fear!) amongst both politicians and officials of the Council for his ability to get to the heart of any matter and for his honesty. He readily grasped the key elements in any issue: and would not easily deviate from policy. To persuade him to change, you had to have very strong arguments or forces on your side - and a great deal of patience. This made for policy stability: occasionally frustrating but so much more acceptable than the vacillation and fudge which passes for so much policy-making! Geoff stood for moral direction: Dick for order.
Both had a deep sense of justice: and utter integrity to their principles. And the new political structures unusually adopted for this most unusual of local authorities gave them both an equal share in policy leadership.
The difference in perspectives and styles occasionally caused problems: but both approaches were very much needed in the early years. Sadly, when 4 years later, the Convener died, the tensions led to a rethink of the concept: and all power concentrated in the hands of the Leader. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Admiring - and meeting - Remarkable People

I was once asked who I admired – and didn’t find it easy to answer. The dictionary definition (“to regard with wonder, pleasure or approval”) doesn’t seem to me to go far enough. For me, to admire is “to look up to” and has connotations not only of skill but of moral courage. I can admire someone’s eloquence or writings – but not necessarily the person (not, at least in the absence of knowing him/her). I can list some of my “heroes” – people who shone a light at an important stage in my development – and whose work is still worth reading. They would include George Orwell, Reinhardt Niebuhr, EH Carr, RH Tawney, Karl Popper, Ivan Illich……and Tony Crosland who was the only one whom I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with (briefly) when he visited my local Labour Party when I was its chairman in the early 1960s - a few years after he had written the definitive Future of Socialism.
But it was his colleague Hugh Gaitskell whom I really admired for the courage he showed in the late 1950s – as Leader of the Opposition – in standing up to fight for what he believed in. I had talked with him at his house in the late 1950s (invited with other promising young reformers) and was transfixed listening on the radio to his defiant speech at Labour's 1960 party conference where two unilateralist resolutions were carried and the official policy document on defence was rejected. Gaitskell thought these were disastrous decisions and made a passionate speech where he stressed that he would "fight and fight and fight again to save the party we love". This was at a time when I was highly ambivalent about the nuclear issue and would shortly afterwards become an active nuclear disarmer. But I had to admire his courage and oratory.

I was also lucky enough in those days to have a session fixed up for me in the late 1960s with Wilfred Brown, head of the Glacier Metal company and the man who, with the help of Elliott Jaques,  oversaw several experimental efforts in empowerment, workplace democracy, compensation, pricing and organizational design that culminated in the almost two-decade long efforts (1948-1965) led by Dr. Elliot Jaques. This unique collaboration between a CEO and a researcher — which Peter Drucker called "the most extensive study of actual worker behavior in large-scale industry" — resulted in one of the only true comprehensive systems of management and led to groundbreaking discoveries and management methods that challenged almost every area of management and organizational design. For a simplified version of Brown's practice and theory see here
Such a combination of leadership with respect for both people and organisational learning is rare indeed

These memories of remarkable people I’ve met were sparked off by an interview with Senator Bennie Saunders in the interesting Orion Magazine. He too I met (in the late 1980s) when he was the “democratic socialist” mayor of Burlington, Vermont, USA. I happened to be in Vermont, knew of him and asked to meet him (as a fellow democratic socialist politician). He has shown immense guts not only in the various fights he has taken on with corporate interests in his attempt to represent the ordinary citizen – but for the simple act of not disguising his basic values.   

Perhaps the most remarkable person I ever met was a Romanian - Cornel Coposu – then (1991) Leader of the newly re-established Christian Democratic Peasant  Party who was condemned in 1947 to spend 15 years in prison for his activities in the National Peasant Party. After his release, Coposu started work as an unskilled worker on various construction sites (given his status as a former prisoner, he was denied employment in any other field), and was subject to surveillance and regular interrogation.[]
His wife was also prosecuted in 1950 during a rigged trial and died in 1965 soon after her release, from an illness contracted in prison. Coposu managed to keep contact with PNŢ sympathisers, and re-established the party as a clandestine group during the 1980s, while imposing its affiliation to the Christian Democrat International.

I also had brief but one-to-one meetings with two great German Presidents -  Richard von Weizsacker and Johannes Rau. Weizsacker was a Christian Democract and President 1984-1994 and West Berlin Mayor 1981-84. Rau was a Social Democrat; President 1999-2004 and Head of the huge RheinWestphalen Land (Region) from 1978-98. I was lucky enough to meet both of these men informally and can therefore vouch personally for the humility they brought to their role. Weizsacker was holidying in Scotland and popped in quietly to pay his respects to the leader of the Regional Council. As the (elected) Secretary to the majority party, I had private access to the Leader’s office and stumbled in on their meeting. Rau I also stumbled across when in a Duisberg hotel on Council business. He was not then the President – but I recognised him when he came in with his wife and a couple of assistants, introduced myself ( as a fellow social democrat); gave him a gift book on my Region which I happened to be carrying and was rewarded with a chat.

And then there was Tisa von der Schulenburg - Prussian aristocrat, nun and artist in 1920s Berlin who supported her brother in the plot to assassinate Hitler whom I met a few years before her death (at 97!) – at an exhibition of the sketches she had done in the 1939s of the Durham miners.
"Tisa" Schulenburg's life was by any standard remarkable. Having grown up among the Prussian nobility and witnessed the trauma of Germany's defeat in the Great War, she frequented the salons of Weimar Berlin, shocked her family by marrying a Jewish divorce in the 1930s, fled Nazi Germany for England, worked as an artist with the Durham coal miners, and spent her later years in a convent in the Ruhr.
Her experience of the darker moments of the 20th century was reflected in her sculpture and drawing, in which the subject of human suffering and hardship was a constant theme - whether in the form of Nazi terror or the back-breaking grind of manual labour at the coal face. 

When she heard that I was a politician from Strathclyde Region - with its mining traditions in Lanarkshire and Ayrshire - she presented me with a signed portfolio of her 1930s drawings of the NE English miners for onward donation to the Scottish miners.

And I almost forgot my memorable lunch with the Greek actress Melina Mercouri!
So what do all these stories tell? All but one of the people I;ve mentioned are dead! And those I met, I met only for a few minutes - 60 at most. Does this mean we can admire only from afar? Hopefully not.

In a future post I want to say something about "closer admiration"

The painting at the top of this post is one of Tony Todorov - of whom I spoke yesterday