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!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Collected Edition

Some bloggers take Montaigne as their patron saint but John Updike deserves a place in that Parthenon. Updike was such a prolific writer that he inspired envy – “a penis with a thesaurus” was one cruel comment. Not for nothing perhaps was the male hero in his long-running series of novels about small-town America named “Rabbit”!

Like a blogger, everything he did seemed to turn into published prose – or verse.
And, in a typical pre-emptive strike on biographers, he actually published an autobiography “Self-Consciousness” so frank about, for example, his ailments that, as he put it, “it was criticised as a parading of my wounds”. But, as the first of the book reviews which formed his 2007 collection “Due Considerations” puts it, “the wounds were mine to parade and not some callow inquisitor’s”.
I know all this because I have just brought home from Bucharest’s English bookshop a lovely hardback edition of that collection - coming in at 700 pages.  

My blog’s masthead has a ringing statement that a post of several years back is as good as yesterday’s. But the architecture of blogs honours only the most recent.
In a spirit of defiance I have therefore, in the past few months, been preparing a book version of the last year’s posts – with a preface and introduction which celebrate blogging as a modern version
It will be available here in a day or so…….I thought of calling it “Chairman Ron’s Collected Thoughts” (as my own preemptive strike on sarcastic friends) – but settled instead on “In Praise of Doubt”. Of course such an endeavour smacks of egocentricity – but bear in mind that one of the purposes of the blog is to give (posterity?) a sense of what it was like to be in the skin of an engaged man of second half of the 20th century….. 

Rereading one’s posts of the past year or so is a salutary experience – the book’s Introduction gives an overview of the subjects treated over the period so I thought it would be useful here to identify the books which had engaged my interest sufficiently for me to devote a post to them during the year. I was fairly critical of five -
Why Nations Fail – by a couple of American academics 
Stand and Deliver – a rather superficial and angry analysis of how the British system of public management could be improved. In a long line of such critiques….
The Tyranny of Experts – by a World Banker who’s had enough…
Amateus Etzioni’s autobiography “My Brother’s Keeper”
How Good Can We Be? By a well-read British journalist - Will Hutton

But very positive about the others which, now that I see them listed, form a fairly formidable list -
The Capitalism Papers by Jerry Mander
Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin
The Puritan Gift – a lovely book by a couple of octogenarians about the fall of American capitalism
Cooperatives – a post about a couple of books
Our Carbon Democracy – a very thoughtful book by an anthropologist
The Confidence Trap by David Runciman
Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything about how to avoid the doomsday scenario

Some light relief was brought by -
Peeling the Onion Guenther Grass’ so poetic autobiography
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
The Hidden Pleasures of Life by Theodor Zeldin

Key Books of the Century was an important series in which I tried to identify texts which had made an impact on our thinking – many of which have echoes today….

Sunday, December 27, 2015

In Praise of Scepticism

The last week of the year is the time when we are reminded of the year’s key events and invited to think about how we might improve our behaviour….A regularly updated blog allows you to recall what was the focus of your attention at any given moment in time – in my case books, artefacts and places – with wars, refugees, election campaigns and results being noises off……  

The year began with an attempt to silence satire - so let us end it not merely with a celebration of satire but of the wider spirit of scepticism.
It’s a basic human foible to enjoy seeing the pretensions of the powerful being punctured – but the sad fact is that most of us fall prey to the illusions conjured up by rhetoricians and their masters. The agnosticism which got into my bloodstream in my teens seems to have inoculated me against all false gods…..and indeed against the “suspension of disbelief” to which drama and novels invite us…..That’s perhaps why only essays, satire and realistic art and poetry (eg Brecht, Bukowski, McCaig) have attracted me.   

Once we stop thinking about the words we use, what exactly they mean and whether they fit our purpose, the words and metaphors (and the interests behind them) take over and reduce our powers of critical thinking. One of the best essays on this topic is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language”  Written in 1947, it exposes the way certain clichés and rhetoric stifle our thinking capacity – for example how the use of the passive tense undermines the notion that it is people who take decisions and should be held accountable for them.
Fifty years before Orwell, Ambrose Bierce was another (American) journalist whose pithy and tough definitions of everyday words, in his newspaper column, attracted sufficient attention to justify a book “The Devil’s Dictionary” whose fame continues unto this day. A dentist, for example, he defined as “a magician who puts metal into your mouth and pulls coins out of your pocket”. A robust scepticism about both business and politics infused his work – but it did not amount to a coherent statement about power.

Twenty years I started to develop a glossary of some 100 words and phrases used by officials, politicians, consultants and academics in the course of government reform. Its updated version - Just Words - offers some definitions which at least will get us thinking more critically about our vocabulary – if not actually taking political actions. While working on it I came across John Saul’s A Doubter’s Companion – a dictionary of aggressive common sense issued in 1994 which talks of the 
humanist tradition of using alphabetical order as a tool of social analysis and the dictionary as a quest for understanding, a weapon against idée recues and the pretensions of power”.

Saul contrasts this approach with that “of the rationalists to the dictionary for whom it is a repository of truths and a tool to control communications”.

In 2008, I left behind a glossary in the Final Report of a project - Learning from experience; some reflections on how training can help develop administrative capacity which was fairly outrageous.

I should emphasise that Just Words is not a Cynic’s Dictionary – although I readily confess to the occasional lapse into self-indulgent delight in shocking eg my definition of “consultant” as “a con artist who behaves like a Sultan”. But the topic of politics, power and government reform is too important for cynicism. It does, however, require a strong dose of scepticism.  

Friday, December 25, 2015

Memory's Palace

A rolling stone, we are told, gathers no moss – but give a nomad a base and it is amazing what artefacts he’s able to produce from the folds of his traveller’s cloak to domesticate the place…It was 15 years ago, just after starting my years in central Asia, that I acquired the Carpathian mountain house now home to so many books, paintings and small objects (the rugs not so small). The tiny Bucharest flat had already taken the Uzbek painted lacquered cases, silk scarves and terra cotta figurines……but it took only a few months last year for the patina of the fading 1930s villa flat in Sofia to be complemented by paintings for its expansive walls, books for the bookcases which lined two walls - even sculptures and ceramics for its piano  

A few summers ago I looked round at the various artefacts in my mountain house and realized how many beautiful objects I seem to have collected – pottery, miniatures, carpets, Uzbek wall-hangings, Kyrgyz and Iranian table coverings, glassware, plates, Chinese screens, wooden carvings et al. Of very little - except sentimental - value I hasten to add!
Bookmarks – paper and silk - pens, pencils (they have to be soft!!) occupy pride of place on the desks.
At the time I had been musing about the various roles I had played in my life - Lecturer, politician, networker, maverick, leader, writer, explorer, consultant, resource person – and suddenly a new label came to me – “collector”!

All of this is by way of preface to a lovely book The memory Palace – a book of lost interiors which I came across this week at Bucharest’s superb English Bookshop – 
Taking his title from the Ciceronian rhetorical technique of memorising long speeches by means of an imaginary stroll through a series of grandiose palaces, and moving towards a depiction of the internet as a vast and ever-expanding memory palace, many of Hollis's potted histories establish a convincing relationship between the frailties of memory and the unavoidable solidity of material objects. As his grandmother’s mobility has declined, so the interior of the house has become a world in miniature…..

Another review gives a sense of the subjects covered - 
The book is organised around vignettes of his ailing grandmother, confined to her sitting room: her fireplace like an altar, her trinkets a cabinet of curiosities. The fireplace leads him back to the Roman hearth and myths about the origins of Rome: from the “Purple Room”, in which the Byzantine emperors were born, to the cave in which a she-wolf was purported to have suckled Romulus and Remus.Tea breaks with his granny aside,
Hollis proceeds chronologically, taking in the relationship between medieval furniture and British statecraft; the collector’s impulse; the commodity culture of Victorian England; and the screens and virtual rooms of the digital age.
It’s a vast span, which Hollis looks to condense thematically by dwelling on palaces. He yokes together actual historical palaces with the classical concept of memory as a type of palatial enfilade in which everything has its recorded place. It’s a tidy idea that feels tenuous by the time we enter the Big Brother house in the final section.

I love such types of books - which defy categorisation, A Scotsman review puts it nicely - 
All books have brief indicators of subject matter on the back. Hollis’s reads “History/Architecture”, to which could be added classical culture, popular culture, monarchy, politics, consumerism, memoir, art collecting and more. This is the kind of non-fiction – like the work of WG Sebald or Paul Collins or Rebecca Solnit – that makes fiction seem predictable, thin and uncurious.

The Independent also catches the atmosphere
Edward Hollis's The Memory Palace is ostensibly a selective and often forensic history of interiors. But it is, more tellingly, a kind of instruction manual about ways of thinking about these histories. It's less a descriptive route-march through physical interiors, more a treatise about the mysteries of time and place."The mind wanders from room to room," he writes, "from the cave in which we began to the [data] cloud we inherit today, each one of which represents a different mode of memory."

As I survey my various collections, it is inevitable that I wonder about its eventual break-up…..occasionally I come across a book which records the paintings collected by one person – a lovely idea which gave me the idea of adding the pics to the volume of 2015 posts. But more often artefacts are found in antique shops with no provenance….One has simply to fantasise about where they rested before – and with whom…. 

Some 30 years ago, when I was going through some difficult times, my sister-in-law tried to help me by encouraging me to explore the various roles I had – father, son, husband, politician, writer, activist etc. At the time I didn’t understand what she was driving at. Now I do! Makes me wonder what tombstone I should have carved for myself in the marvellous Sapanta cemetery in Maramures where people are remembered humourously in verse and pictures for their work or for the way they died!!

It was TS Eliot who wrote that “old men ought to be explorers” – perhaps the reason why my visiting card now says – “explorer and aesthete”!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

55 years in a couple of pages

I always like a bit of intellectual history ….and last week I alighted on a conversation with Roger Scruton around a revamp of a book which this English Conservative philosopher first issued in 1985
We have been told for several decades that the left-right spectrum no longer has any basis in reality although it remains a label very much in evidence 
Now 71, Scruton has been the bête noire of British left intellectuals for more than 30 years, and gives them another beastly mauling in his new book “Fads, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left”. It is a tour de force that, the introduction concedes, is ‘not a word-mincing book’, but rather ‘a provocation’.
In just under 300 pages he Scruton-izes a collection of stars, past and present, of the radical Western intelligentsia – the likes of Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson in Britain, JK Galbraith and Ronald Dworkin in the US, Jurgen Habermas, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan and Gilles Deleuze in Europe. An expanded and updated version of his controversial Thinkers of the New Left (1985), the book ends with a new chapter entitled ‘The kraken wakes’ dealing with the ‘mad incantations’ of Alan Badiou and the left’s marginally newer academic celebrity, the Slovenian Zizek.

A copy of the book was lying in Bucharest’s English bookshop when I popped in there on Sunday -  giving me the chance to read its opening pages which, I have to confess, made a great deal of sense even to an old lefty like me. 
Why, he asks, use a single term to cover anarchists such as Foucault, Marxist dogmatists like Althusser, exuberant nihilists like Zizek and US liberals like Dworken, Galbraith and Rorty? Two reasons – they call themselves this and they all have an “enduring outlook” – some belonging to the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and others to the post-war thinking according to which the state is or ought to be in charge of society and  empowered to distribute its goods…..”   

This - the dimension of economic ownership (monopoly through oligopoly to cooperatives/shared ownership to private owners) - is indeed one of the axis you need to make sense of world views. But it is not the only one – particularly these days when the social dimension has become so important. Class (rarely talked about now) is only one form of group identity – with race and sexuality being the new entrants. So an additional axis is needed for the strength of social norms - with totalitarianism being at one axis and anarchy at the other. There is a third – for the role of the state, for example, in welfare provision and general regulatory measures – but that’s a bit complicated for this blog.

So I will start with four quadrants which we can use, for example, to plot the old and new left and right-
- Old Left; supporting a strong state sector for infrastructure and health (inc insurance although the religious and cooperative sectors could equally have responsibility for this last)
- Old Right; recognizing the role of the state in sustaining property rights and traditional ways of doing things
- New Left; which has supported the liberation struggles of repressed groups and the onward march of post-modernism….
- New Right; which tends to divide strongly between the economic agenda of the Neo-liberals (whose eulogies for “the market” conceals support oligopolistic licence and the spread of “commodification”) and the more traditional social agenda of the American Neo-Cons.  

In Fools, Frauds and Firebrands Scruton attacks the left idea of thought for a cause, ‘politics with a GOAL’. 
Conservatives are by their nature people who are trying to defend and maintain existence without a cause’. Simply to keep things as they are? ‘We obviously all want to change things, but recognise that human life is an end in itself and not a means to replace itself with something else. And defending institutions and compromises is a very difficult and unexciting thing. But nevertheless it’s the truth.’

For Scruton, the left intellectuals’ apparent attachment to a higher cause only disguises what they really stand for: ‘Nothing.’ He writes that ‘when, in the works of Lacan, Deleuze and Althusser, the nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had “capitalism” as their target, it looked as though Nothing had at last found its voice’.
More recently, ‘the windbaggery of Zizek and the nonsemes of Badiou’ exist only ‘to espouse a single and absolute cause’, which ‘admits of no compromise’ and ‘offers redemption to all who espouse it’. The name of that cause? ‘The answer is there on every page of these fatuous writings: Nothing.
So, what is all this Nothing-ness about? ‘My view’, says Scruton, ‘is that what’s underlying all of this is a kind of nihilistic vision that masks itself as a moving toward the enlightened future, but never pauses to describe what that society will be like. It simply loses itself in negatives about the existing things – institutional relations like marriage, for instance – but never asks itself if those existing things are actually part of what human beings are. Always in Zizek there’s an assumption of the right to dismiss them as standing in the way of something else, but that something else turns out to be Nothing.’

Scruton’s is not the only book this year to explore “the culture wars”. A site I must consult more often is the Society for US Intellectual History which carried recently an interesting comparison of a couple of books which throw light on all this -
‘Ideas,’ Rodgers writes, ‘moved first in the arena of economic debate.’ Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the dominant tropes in economics had been institutional, even among conservatives. Right-wing critics of the welfare state and state-managed economies did not speak of the market; they spoke of corporations and banks and ‘championed the rights of management and the productive powers of the free enterprise “system”.’
The idea of the market that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s – ‘self-equilibrating, instantaneous in its sensitivities and global in its reach, gathering the wants of myriad individuals into its system of price signals in a perpetual plebiscite of desires’ – dispensed with these settings and constraints.
It also dismantled the ‘troubling collective presence and demands’ of social democracy, turning unions, workers and the unemployed ‘into an array of consenting, voluntarily acting individual pieces’.
Everyone became a buyer or seller, everything – kidneys, pollution – got bought and sold. The only thing holding it all together was the magnetic energy of these individual acts of exchange. Like most scholars of the free-market movement, Rodgers assigns great weight to Milton Friedman, ‘the University of Chicago’s most forceful politiciser’, and the right’s answer to J.K. Galbraith. He wrote columns for Newsweek, advised presidents (and dictators), and organised the ten-part PBS series Free to Choose as a counter to Galbraith’s 15-part BBC series on capitalism.
With his focus on the money supply as the source of economic well-being, Friedman helped popularise a ‘radically simplified model of aggregate economic behaviour’, in which ‘state, society and institutions all shrank into insignificance within a black box that translated money inputs directly into price outputs.’
Yet, as Rodgers points out, Friedman’s monetarism was also far more state-centric – the Federal Reserve played an almost heroic role in determining the direction of the economy – than most market theologians would have liked.What truly pushed the market into the culture – high and low – were the adjutants of Friedman’s revolution: the law professors and jurists, not just on the hard right (Richard Posner) but also on the squishy left (Stephen Breyer), who made economic efficiency the measure of all things and provided much of the rationale for deregulation; the second wave of free-market economists (Robert Lucas, for example, or Gary Becker), who took apart the field of macroeconomics in favour of game theory, behavioural economics, rational expectations and other individualist approaches; and journalists like George Gilder and Jude Wanniski who recast the market as a popular (and populist) vision of the good society.

For more, read –

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Artists' Haven on the Danube

I spurned the easy option of a fast exit from Sofia via the Balkan Highway which has me at the top of the mountain range within half an hour of leaving the flat and chose the direct route due north, over what I remembered as a hill. But memory was deficient and it proved to be a tortuous mountain route - but the sight of ice-tipped branches and remote villages more than compensated
There was a smattering of snow on the ground at the final metres…as I headed for Montana, realising that my road may have been 40-50 kms shorter than the main highway from Sofia but is about an hour longer! Berkovitsa offered a gallery which was closed for lunch but I did see some marvellous wood carving artefacts (eg the pulpit) in its 11th century (?) church….Memorials to the 1923 communist uprising are still to be seen in this isolated area which I had visited in 2012 on my way to workshops for municipal officials in Vratsa and Belogradchik (site of two great wines)….

The new bridge over the Danube at Vidin is only the second such link between the 2 countries (the first was built in 1956) and the container traffic already making a nuisance of itself. Noone, it seems, thought to anticipate its effects – although a pathetically small stretch of bypass is being built around Montana….      

I had forgotten how fascinating the Belogradchik crags and Serbian (?) mountain ranges are in the far distance and had to be careful both photographing on the straight stretches and negotiating the tight bends – a lorry had already come to grief and was causing a tailback…..There are no signs for the bridge as you reach Vidin – only for Belgrade and “Calafat” (a village on the Romanian side) but just follow the container traffic and you are soon on the new approach (clearly not much used by local traffic) and then on the white snake that is the long bridge…..

The Russe-Giurgiu entry to Romania is the one I know from the countless Danube crossings I have made these past eight years – and a soul-destroying entry it is with its garbage and dogs….Exiting from the Vidin bridge, by contrast, is a delight – with the villages being tidy and compact and a charming self-build idiosyncratic house style from of 1930s and before. Nowadays the only traffic are the barges which play up and down – and the odd cruise ship (eg this one which starts at Bucharest and ends at Budapest with some fascinating destinations organised en route)
Port Cetate (Port Fort) was a customs point in earlier centuries when River traffic helped connect towns such as Russe, Svishtov and Vidin to their Romanian and other neighbours further upstream  
The photograph shows the core of the complex as it has been restored in the last decade as a Writer’s House by poet and TV star Mircea Dinescu.
A warm welcome was much appreciated after what had been a 6 hour drive (but less than 250 kms) from Sofia – all the warmer with a glass of the estate-made rakiya (which it’s actually called in Oltanea). A gloriously clear liquid, it was one of the best rakias I’ve ever tasted – and I am now a bit of an expert!!
That was the start to a glorious bean soup produced by the kitchen staff (who seem well-used to people dropping in at odd hours) great home-produced bread, sausages and pickles…all with one of the white estate wines (a Pinot Gris) and good conversation. The sun was setting as we ate and talked and was nicely captured on film.

An hour or so in my room gave me the time to think more about what seem to be 2 projects – a modest “micro” one running with the first idea of bringing some of my Bulgarian artist friends together with some Romanian painters; the second the more ambitious one I hinted at in the previous post…. 

A second bottle of estate wine graced our next conversation in which we were joined amazingly by Mircea Dinescu himself who emerged out of the darkness and plumped down beside me. After some initial reserve, he was soon in great form (thanks to Sergiu’s skilful translation) but perhaps helped by realising how well I knew some of the figures of Romania’s recent past such as Josef Sava and Marin Sorescu….

The next morning I had the time to look at the material I had collected on Bulgarian strategies and projects in this part of the world; summarise them and distribute it to various friends for comment. Apparently the deadline for the next wave of bids for this Interreg programme is March which gives time for the collection of the necessary support from beneficiaries…..I duly left Port Cetate at midday heading through Craiova for Bucharest – a journey of more than four hours…… 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Border-crossing at the Danube

Two tasks have occupied me these past few days. One of my daughters had come across some letters between her mother’s parents and it had led her to wonder about aspects of my own parents and family. I duly pulled out the pages I had written about some of this way back in 1995 and set to work…….over the weekend I had about 30 pages…

At the same time, my thoughts had been running with an idea for a project in the lower reaches of the River Danube - which I have been crossing every few months these past 8 years…at Russe in the east

Later this week I am scheduled to cross it for the first time in Bulgaria's north-west corner - thanks to the new EC-funded bridge at Vidin - also near the border with Serbia….And to stay overnight at the refurbished mansion – Port Cetate – now a cultural centre owned by one of Romania’s best known personalities, poet Mircea Dinescu whose satirical sketches I remember watching on Romanian television in the 1990s…
I had sent the centre the latest draft of my new book Bulgarian Realists – updated edition – as well as the E-book Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey - and wondered whether they might not be one of the partners for a future bid for (cross-border) EC Structural Funds with a focus on art, culture and wine…

Alternating 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) little contact and know very little about each other. 
It probably 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 proudly Latin  
Indeed it would not be exaggerating to suggest that relations are characterised by a “state of studied indifference”. This is confirmed by the common perception that the two nations turn their back on one another at the Danube ….

On Sunday I invited an old friend who is one of its most experienced consultants in cross-border work to my flat here in Sofia, replete with art and library, in order to brainstorm about a possible project. With a wine from the Rila Monastery - in his case a Mavrud; in mine a Chardonnay.

I’m glad to say that he too he was enthusiastic….Of course there have been previous projects such as TourNet – Promotion of cross-border networking for development of a common Bulgarian-Romanian tourist product (EC 2012 - see linked Photo library of the Danube Region); Impact Analysis of People-to-People project in Danube area (2013) an interesting pot-pourri of projects (covering, amonst other topics, dental treatment, chess, singing); and Rafting holidays
These are just some of the projects using EU and other funding to develop cultural trails in this part of the Danube but they seem to have had limited timescales or ambition. Supply-driven approaches always fail – as do good ideas which don’t take root for not trying to generate local understanding and commitment.

Cultural Routes in the Middle and Lower Danube Region - the Roman Emperors Route and the Danube Wine Route, for example, is a German/Serbian project for the development and marketing of transnational and cross-border routes in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Croatia, launched in 2012 by the Danube Competence Center (DCC) and supported by the German consultancy GTZ.
The project runs another year and has issued a brochure and handbook - Managing visitor on thematic cultural routes

I have a deep interest in and knowledge of Bulgarian and Romanian painting (and wine) – as well as 20 years’ experience as a consultant in capacity building – and am trying to work out how I can give something to what I see as nothing less than a spirit of reconciliation which is needed between the two countries. A lot of consultancy companies have jumped into the vacuum but what is needed is something much deeper

The trick will be to find a powerful over-reaching theme…. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Losing the Plot

The plebs are stirring – and nationalist banners are flying high everywhere. Not just in Scotland, Sweden and Hungary – but now France and Turkey…
The barbarians didn’t need to clamour at the gate – they were smuggled in to the fortress via the Trojan Horse of the Human Rights industry.….Little wonder that “The Man in the High Castle” is playing so well – with its crude imagery of jackboot Japanese and German Fascists in the US of A
The political, professional, commercial and financial class – with all their underlings - are utterly adrift in a sea of moral decay with only a few outsiders able to record – in Spenglerian tones - the sad decline of the West.

Just 25 years ago politicians and intellectuals were celebrating not only the defeat of communism but “the end of history”. A few dissented from this Panglossian view, reminding us of the cyclical nature of things and warned of the arrogance, indeed hubris, involved in our assumptions about “progress” - what John Gray called recently “melioristic liberalism”

Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind. According to this view, evil, if any such thing exists, is not an inbuilt human flaw, but a product of defective social institutions, which can over time be permanently improved…………….

I don’t know exactly when the mood music began to change but I sense 2000 as the year – that’s when the Harvard Business Review ran an article from Canadian business guru Henry Mintzberg which warned that people were mistaken to believe that it was capitalism which won in 1989 - 
What triumphed in 1989 was balance. While the countries of Eastern Europe were utterly out of balance, with so much power concentrated in their public sectors, the successful countries of the West maintained a sufficient balance across their public, private, and plural sectors (usually referred to as “civil society” or the “third sector”).  But a failure to understand this has been carrying many countries—east and west, north and south—out of balance ever since, as power has concentrated increasingly in their private sectors.
Most notably in the United States, likewise in the realm of globalization, many large corporations have attained positions of entitlement, justified by the prevailing dogma of our day, from economics: that greed is good, property is sacrosanct, markets are sufficient, and governments are suspect.
We have to understand that a balanced society, like a stable stool, has to rest on three solid legs: a public sector of political forces rooted in respected governments, a private sector of economic forces based on responsible businesses, and a plural sector of social forces manifested in robust communities.

A year ago Pankaj Mishra – summonsing names such as Alexander Herzen, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Raymond Aron – told us that The Western Model was broken 
The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”. Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal  democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did.
The start of 2015 saw me in reflective mood - with a post “Will this too pass?” which referred to a paper about the global crisis I had just put online which opened with a table capturing the intellectual debates of each decade since the 1930s. The first few entries give the flavour – “the end of capitalism”, “the managerial revolution”, “meritocracy”, “the end of ideology”,” revisionism”
I suggested that .. many who look at the table will perhaps feel a shiver down their spine as they recognise how transitory many of our discussions have been. The issues don’t necessarily go away – some are simply repackaged
1990 was, as Mintzberg argues, a turning point when all restraints on greed and amorality were removed and that early January post reflected the new pessimism - 
It seems impossible to get a social or moral consensus in our societies for the sort of rebalancing which Henry Mintzberg has brilliantly argued for
- the voices are too diverse these days 
- People have grown tired and cynical
- Those in work have little time or energy to help them identify and act on an appropriate programme of change
- Those out of work are too depressed 
- Although the retired generally have the time, resources and experience to be doing more than they are 
- But they have lost trust in the capability or good intentions of governments let alone the promises of politicians
 -  Are confronted with too many disparate voices in the reform movement
- Most of the “apocalyptists” (such as William Greer and Dmitry Orlov) who have confronted the collapse of industrial civilisation counsel a Candide-like “garden cultivation”

That was hardly online than the world was stunned with the cold-blooded killings in the Hebdo offices in Paris. With images of bodies of African migrants in the waters of the Western Mediterranean giving way first to those of flotillas of small boats in the Aegean and the onward treks through the Balkans and Hungary and then to the massacres on November 13 on the streets of Paris (and the lockdown of the city of Brussels), the full consequences of the “Great Game” being played in Syria by so many powers has at last brought home to many of us…..   

The painting is of the Ottoman troups battling outside the gates of Vienna.......posted the very day Suleyman's burial chamber is reported found in southern Hungary

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Yes to Yustina Wines

Despite my 7 years’ appreciation of Bulgarian wines, I’ve only once actually visited a Bulgarian winery – and there are apparently 150 of them in this small country according to the latest issue of the small gem which is the Bulgarian wine bible - the Catalogue of Bulgarian Wine (by T Tanovska and K Iontcheva - annual).
I had almost made it to the HQ of one of the Russe vineyards but last week offered an opportunity since I was visiting Pazardzhik on the edge of some of the great wineries around Plovdiv - which stretch up to Sliven and Stara Zagora…I selected three – two in the famous wine village of Brestovitsa (site of my sole effort so far) and one in a neighbouring village of Yustina. The selection was done in consultation with my young wine merchant, Asen, who has a marvellous little shop Vinoorenda at the Russian Monument.

To reach the villages from the main Sofia highway, you take the signpost for Asenovograd at the Plovdiv roundabout and turn right when Brestovitsa is signposted. We were heading first for Villa Vinofera whose Muscat Bianco had caught my fancy – the premises looked interesting but seemed lifeless…eventually a couple responded to the bell but looked bewildered by our request for degustation and purchases…..
The atmosphere in the spa hotel of Todoroff – the village’s most famous winery – was not much more welcoming and we decided to pass the opportunity they gave us for wine tasting (at a price) – as well as what we felt would be an uninspiring lunch. I left Bulgaria’s “village of wine” in some dudgeon……

An excellent lunch in a village pub en route restored our good spirits…

And third time was lucky as we rolled through the gates of Villa Yustina into a spacious cobbled courtyard with two superbly crafted stone building complexes on two sides. One was a beautifully-designed set of open offices – with guest, storage and tasting facilities – and a friendly welcome.
A few minutes later we were being shown with great pride the modern (wine) reception, bottling and dispatching facility. It was my first glimpse of this process and, as the owner branched out in 2006 from his main business of metal containers, it’s clear that he sees this winery’s facilities as a shining marketing tool to demonstrate the superiority of that produce range – let alone the wines themselves……
Our guide did the Bulgarian education system proud…..in her early 20s, Elena had the sort of poise, enthusiasm and humour you need for such a job…Just completing her education at Plovdiv’s Food Technology College, she makes a point of visiting Bulgaria’s various wineries and therefore speaks with an obvious note of confidence when she sings the praises of the Yustina wines – which I got to taste in the coolness of a large, tastefully-designed (excuse the pun) room….I left with a box of its white Cuvee (4 euros)   
Apparently the winery also organises "food-matching" evenings.....obviously one stays over for those!!


While writing this post I came across this comment from the 2013 DiVino wine tasting in Sofia -

Two stalls left the greatest impression - Villa Yustina (established only in 2006 and located in a village in the Rhodopes foothills near Plovdiv) by virtue of the enthusiastic and helpful approach of their sales guy Vencislav Lyubenov. And the stall of the well known Katarzyna Estate (located on the Greek/Turkish border) - by virtue of it being the only one whose staff (women) were encouraging feedback from their customers.


So, full marks for consistency!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A "lion of prose" - RIP

Last May I, exceptionally, raved about the prose of a novellist, one William McIlvanney who, I have just learned, has died at the age of 79. As a tribute, I want to reproduce the post – 
These last few days I have been doing something I rarely do – I have been “savouring” a book – word by word as distinct from my usual habit of skimming. …..laughing out loud in delight at the language; marking sections every few pages with a pencil. And this is a novel – not my usual fare! A detective novel to boot – "Strange Loyalties" (1991). The book - the last of a trilogy - is written by one of the most underrated writers not only of the British Isles but perhaps in the English-speaking world - William McIlvanney

Here are a few samples of his style -
 The thought was my funeral for him. Who needs possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do….  are the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing….(p80).  
It was one of her partners who answered (the phone). When she knew it was me, her voice – always distant – more or less emigrated…..(p112)  
Attractiveness facilitates acquaintance, like a courier predisposing strangers to goodwill, and my mother had acquired early an innocent vanity that let her enjoy being who she was. But the kindness of other people towards her made her as idealistic as my father in her own way. She tended to think the way people treated her was how they treated everybody. She thought the best of them was all there was (p 128).  
Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst flourish? Maybe I had found a clue….Those who love life take risks, those who don’t take insurance. But that was all right, I decided. Life repays its lovers by letting them spend themselves on it. Those who fail to love it, it cunningly allows very carefully to accrue their own hoarded emptiness. In living, you won by losing big; you lost by winning small (p 134).    
Where I had come into what I took for manhood….meant much to me, not just as a geography but as a landscape of the heart, a quintessential Scotland where good people were my landmarks and the common currency was a mutual caring. Why did it feel so different to me today, a little seedy and withdrawn? p 183  
(Some might have thought her mad). But she wasn’t mad, just too sane to play along with the rest of us. She had awakened from her sleep-walk long enough to recognize the minefield we call normality. She had found a way to admit to herself the prolonged terror of living. Some people never do. p 206  
The invention of truth, no matter how desperately you wish it to be or how sincerely you believe in the benefits it will bring, is the denial of our nature, the first rule of which is the inevitability of doubt. We must doubt not only others but ourselves. (p 210)  
You offer him a vague perception and he takes it from you, cleans off the gunge and gives it back, having shown you how it works. He clarifies you to yourself. (p258) 

 Little wonder that in the tributes now being paid to him, this was said
His true peers were not alumni of the American hard-boiled school, such as Chandler and Hammett, but the likes of Gogol and Dostoevsky, Zola and Céline. He wrote about hard times and tough people – so-called “big men” and trauchled women – dealing with the fallout of unemployment, poverty and ignorance.“Why Willie is not better known outside his own heath has always been a mystery. In any other country that prizes the art of literature he would have been lionised.  

Generous tribute was paid to him in 2013 by another great Scottish writer - Allan Massie – a writer mainly of historical novels
McIlvanney, born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, established himself some time ago as the best Scottish novelist of his generation. Docherty (1975), a social-political family novel set in a declining mining community, won the Whitbread award for fiction. Long before any but a handful of people had heard of Alasdair Gray, and before James Kelman had published anything, McIlvanney was recognised as the man who spoke authentically for the Scottish working class, out of which he had, like so many, been educated, being a graduate of Glasgow University and then a schoolteacher. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised when another teacher, encountered in a Glasgow bar, told him he had disgraced himself by stooping to write a crime novel – namely “Laidlaw”.

The charge was ridiculous; crime is a serious matter. Of course, most crime fiction is ordinary fare, read for amusement only. It may trivialise what is not, and should not be, trivial. But crime is at the heart of many great novels. Bleak House, which is a crime novel, is not trivial; Simenon’s novels are not trivial or mere entertainment; nor are McIlvanney’s three Laidlaw books. Their subject is the ruin of the body, the distortion of the soul, and the corruption of society.McIlvanney never allows us to forget that the damage crime does is not merely physical. Murder is always a form of betrayal, a denial of the respect with which we should treat each other. It infects everything around it.  
Laidlaw, an intellectual policeman, is damaged by what he experiences. He believes in communities; interviewing an elderly, loyal, but saddened mother in "Strange Loyalties", he reflects that there is nothing he wouldn’t do for the working-class women of that generation who held families together. But he himself is driven into isolation. 
McIlvanney is an existentialist writer, like Camus, whom he admires, has learnt from, and matches.He has never been prolific. If he had taken the advice he was given – to write an annual Laidlaw novel – he might be a rich man in his old age; but he has always gone his own way. The republication of these novels now will revive interest, and perhaps lead him to write another, as he has sometimes talked of doing. But his reputation, not only as the father of tartan noir, is assured. “Docherty”, almost 40 years on, is established as a modern Scottish classic, and I have no doubt that “The Kiln” (1996), which is, in one sense, a two-generations-later sequel, is a masterpiece. It confirmed him, to my mind, as the finest Scottish novelist of our time.
 It is one of those rare books that does what Ford Madox Ford thought imaginative literature could do better than any other art, making you think and feel at the same time.The “Kiln” is a novel of a hard-won maturity. Its hero, a novelist lost in the dark wood of middle age, sits, looking out at a cemetery, in a rented flat – in Edinburgh, not Glasgow (a sign of his displacement) – and gazes back on the summer when he was 17, in limbo between school and university, a magic summer which saw his passage to adult life.
The evocation of that time is beautiful, but now, behind him, is a broken marriage, memories of erratic social behaviour, and he is perplexed, as we all must sometimes be, by the question of what he has made of his life. He broods on the problem which is perhaps central to all experience: how to reconcile his sense of what he owes to himself with his knowledge of what he owes to others. There is then a vein of melancholy in the novel, but this is relieved by the often joyous vitality with which that summer is recalled, and enlivened by the acute social observation and darting shafts of wit. It’s a novel that tells you how it is, and therefore enriches your imaginative experience.
As a novelist myself (Allan Massie), I admire its craft. As a reader I can only be grateful. Almost 2,000 years ago, the younger Pliny wrote that “a man’s life contains hidden depths and large secret areas”. The thought is common. In Faust Goethe says: “Die Menschen sind im ganzen Leben blind” – men are blind throughout their life. True enough, but the best novelists offer us a means of opening our eyes, peering into these depths, and exploring these secret places, and they do so whatever their subject. 
William McIlvanney is one of the rare novelists who help us to know both the social world and our innermost selves. He is both moralist and artist, and a writer to be cherished.
There was a great interview with him in a 2010 issue of the Scottish Review of Books