Friday, July 30, 2010

Greek news

One thing that has irritated me about the coverage of the Greek financial crisis has been the way in which much of the fault has put down to Greek character flaws. Some coverage has been borderline racist. Now Austria's far right has taken a step over that line with this poster from the FPO.

When challenged, they claimed that it wasn't a Greek stereotype but a caricature of the blond, clean shaven, pale skinned businessman, Spiros Latsis. Hmm... Nasty stuff. Full details here.

In the meantime, Piraeus municipality has gone bust, the truck drivers have ignored the government's 'civil mobilisation' order to stay on strike, leading to a fuel shortage throughout the country, and, after machine-gunning an investigative journalist on his doorstep, a tiny group of psychopaths calling themselves the Sect of Revolutionaries have issued a communique saying, "We are at war with your democracy ... tourists must learn that Greece is no longer a safe haven of capitalism. We intend to turn it into a war zone."

And, you know what, it is a lovely place. Don't be put off, come and stay. Life continues. It is more than the weather that is warm at this time of year. It is holiday time, there are festivals, people are eating out, swimming, enjoying life and, if you are in tourism, working flat out. You wouldn't guess that there is a crisis (unless you want to fill up a car, or even get a bus or a ferry if this strike continues). But, at the back of your mind, you have to question the wisdom of an economic policy, imposed by international organisations that, far from throwing riches at ordinary Greeks, is impoverishing some of them. And you have to wonder where it may lead.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The reason

Michael Gove gives the most convincing explanation yet for the composition of the government.
'Rich, thick kids' achieve much more than poor clever ones, says Gove

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sooner than expected

Well, it didn't take long for the newly elected, red tape burning, opponents of the nanny state to start using their power to hector us fatties, did it?

GPs and other health professionals should tell people they are fat rather than obese, England's public health minister says.

Anne Milton told the BBC the term fat was more likely to motivate them into losing weight.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Thanks Paulie

Revising history

Nothing much is happening here. A tremendous storm with hail and lightning has cleared the humidity, mixing sparkling sunshine with cool clear air. A strike by truck drivers is leading to acute shortages of petrol, threatening transport links, though the air traffic controllers have ended their action.

And so, with little much to post about, thoughts turn to history and this rather splendid resource debunking the historical distortions of American Religious Right as they attempt to deal with a somewhat tricky obstacle to their theocratic nationalism, the establishment of the United States as an explicitly secular republic. Instead they argue that the original intentions of the founders of the constitution were for the United States to be a Christian nation. To do so they have to engage with a range of tricks drawn from the revisionist toolbox.

The inestimable Chris Rodda has a series of nine YouTube presentations on her site that are worth watching in full, coolly pointing out the distortions, selective quotations and spurious sensationalisms that are the stock-in-trade of this type of revisionism. One of my favourite moments is when she points to a much-used quotation from a letter from John Adams that suggests that Adams thought that any government was not legitimate without the guidance of the Holy Ghost. The paragraph in which Adams declares that such a view is "all artifice and cunning" is, unsurprisingly, dispensed with, thus making the letter appear to support what it was attacking.

So, if I have any readers left, I suggest you have some fun by watching these presentations in sequence as my lax approach to posting continues. As a taster, here is the first one.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A confession

I have never really liked George Orwell's 1984. It is a clever novel, has given the English language new words and the names for two naff TV shows. It is part of our cultural heritage. It has been substantially misread as everything from a savage criticism of the post-war Labour government (which Orwell supported!) to the BBC. Orwell always claimed that all he was doing was projecting contemporary totalitarian trends into a future dystopia - the clichéd Orwellian nightmare - yet this is where my doubts begin.

There is a standard phrase about taking things to their logical conclusion, which I think is wholly misleading. It is usually used to describe taking things to their extreme conclusion, something that can happen certainly, but also something that is not necessarily logical nor even particularly likely. And this is what Orwell's dystopia does.

I have other doubts too. Each time I have read the book the characters do not come to life for me and I find the the depiction of the working classes faintly patronising. However, it is the cynicism and the bleakness of the conclusion that I really dislike. Everyone can be broken, everyone can betray everyone else, everyone can be made to love Big Brother. Power is unlimited, the future is certain - "a boot stamping on a human face - forever".

All this was brought to mind as I have just finished reading another novel, written and published a year before 1984, also the last work of a writer who died shortly after completing it. It too chronicles a story of failed resistance to totalitarianism, this time loosely based on real events and personal experience, but it offers us a completely different conclusion.

Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is currently a word of mouth best-seller. It is available in a wonderful translation (yes George, I noticed) by Michael Hofmann, allowing both the poetic language of the novel and the use of Berlin street argot to become accessible to English readers. It has the odd clunky bit of plotting and the usual awkward contrivances of the novel. At first, it reads almost as if it is a detective thriller before becoming an essay on morality and the human personality. Yet the book is compulsive, disturbing and, in its way, beautiful.

Fallada's main themes are the resistance to the Nazis by people of all classes, collaboration by people of all classes, and the enthusiastic sadism of the true believer, again drawn from all classes. Centring on the inhabitants of one apartment block in a working class district of Berlin, it deals with low life opportunists, Nazi apparatchiks, those torn between their private lives and a sense of disgust at the crimes of the regime and the all-pervading fear that keeps people quiescent. The action by the main protagonists fails, as was always utterly inevitable, but this is the crucial difference between Fallada and Orwell, they are not broken. They do not come to love Hitler.

And from the disgust of ordinary people like these, a new society can emerge after the inevitable defeat of tyranny. For where Orwell offers us a vision of perpetual power, Fallada gives us one of perpetual resistance. Resistance that will, one day, end the darkness and overcome fear.

At the end of the book he writes of,, invincible life, life always triumphing over humiliation and tears, over misery and death.
Orwell's bleak warning is countered by Fallada's bitter, painful, realistic and fully human hope.

There is one final irony. Fallada invested his hope of the rebirth of an anti-fascist Germany in the Soviet occupied East. He died in 1947 so did not see one totalitarianism morph into another. But then that too, in its turn, has fallen. I think history is on the side of Fallada. And with events elsewhere threatening a surrender to cynicism, it may be time to remember and support the resistance and hope offered by the lives ordinary people.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The heat! The flies!

Nothing much continues to happen here in its own delightful way. Last night was a panygeri for Agia Marina with music and dancing on the paraleia until around two in the morning. It was sandwiched between two minor earthquakes, one of which I slept through and didn't know about until I was told the next day. Tonight was a night for sipping wine on the patio until late. The weather has cooled slightly. At midnight the temperature had dropped below 21C, enough to trigger a state of emergency in England and get any self-respecting Greek reaching for their cardigan.

Great thoughts? There are few of those. In the drowsy heat of day the persistence of the flies in doing their best to irritate you annoys, but the abundant extravagance of life is everywhere, often with the cat chasing it until the shade of the lemon tree tempts it to rest. So, with nothing to say, here is a musical interlude.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A song

The internet may or may not be destroying your concentration span, but it retains the ability to delight. On finishing Sheila Rowbotham's biography of Edward Carpenter, I was struck by her account of how many of his friends and colleagues celebrated his life by singing the socialist anthem that he wrote, England Arise. But what did it sound like?

The words and music are available, but I can't read music and the contemporary feel would be missing. And, once again, the internet comes to the rescue, this time through the Bishopsgate Institute, an adult education centre with an extraordinary collection of radical material (even more apt as Carpenter's career as a radical started with him teaching university extension courses). It has a number of early sound recordings of radical songs including a 1925 recording of England Arise, made four years before Carpenter's death in 1929.

I find the hopeful utopianism of the period both poignant and moving. So click here and, if you like, sing along to the words below:

England, arise! The long, long night is over,
Faint in the East behold the dawn appear,
Out of your evil dream of toil and sorrow –
Arise, O England, for the day is here!
From your fields and hills,
Hark! The answer swells –
Arise, O England, for the day is here!

People of England! All your valleys call you,
High in the rising sun the lark sings clear,
Will you dream on, let shameful slumber thrall you?
Will you disown your native land so dear?
Shall it die unheard –
That sweet pleading word?
Arise, O England, for the day is here!

Over your face a web of lies is woven,
Laws that are falsehoods pin you to the ground,
Labour is mocked, its just reward is stolen,
On its bent back sits Idleness encrowned.
How long, while you sleep,
Your harvest shall it reap?
Arise, O England, for the day is here!

Forth, then, ye heroes, patriots and lovers!
Comrades of danger, poverty and scorn!
Mighty in faith of Freedom, your great Mother!
Giants refreshed in Joy’s new rising morn!
Come and swell the song,
Silent now so long;
England is risen, and the day is here!

Go slow

It is all the fault of the internet of course, it usually is. Apparently, "many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion".
According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.
So now there is a movement for slow reading to recover the lost arts of contemplation. Not that I ever lost them. I am a slow reader. Naturally and infuriatingly slow. Friends pile through a book, without speed reading techniques, in twice the time I do. They can start discussing the conclusion, whilst I am still on page 150, gazing into space or wondering whether I left the gas on. My slow reading is nothing to do with my superior powers of concentration, it is because I am a slow reader and was one long before the internet ever existed. Given my choice of career, it has not been a blessing.

I must admit that when I am on the internet I commit all the sins mentioned above. I skim and rarely finish articles. That is mainly because it rapidly becomes clear after the first few paragraphs that much of what is on there is deeply tedious, steaming ordure and I have a life. Being a slow reader makes you more intolerant of the time wasted reading rubbish. There are some gems on-line of course and those I read painfully slowly.

So now, on a perfect summer's morning, I shall sink into a chair in the shade on the patio and finish the last couple of chapters of Sheila Rowbotham's excellent biography of Edward Carpenter, a book that I have been reading for a very long time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Lot's of exciting things happen here. It's non-stop action all the time.

Like this - Iannis tried to feed his goats on a branch of a tree in the garden, but they weren't interested!

A day after that someone drove a big machine down our narrow lane to drill for water on their plot of land. Phew!

Then ... er ... something ... Oh well, whatever it was it was thrilling ...

Friday, July 09, 2010

Another fine mess

There are some things that are predictable. There was little hope that I would look at the the new coalition's emergency budget with anything other than horror. Though I do have a range of critics to call on to support my view. Over in the New York Times Paul Krugman plugs away with increasing exasperation at the new economics of austerity. David Blanchflower launches continual attacks on what he calls, "This unnecessary and dangerous budget". Liberal Keynesians both. I suppose you would expect it from them too.

Now, in measured tones, doubts come from a more orthodox source:
Most advanced economies do not need to tighten before 2011, because tightening sooner could undermine the fledgling recovery, but they should not add further stimulus.
This from the IMF. Yes, Osborne and Alexander's critics now seem to include the IMF.

And as stories begin to crop up like this:
A school which burnt to the ground seven months ago, forcing its pupils to attend lessons in portakabins, was one of hundreds that heard this week that the government had called a halt to its rebuilding plans.
And this:
Millions of pounds intended to be saved by scrapping school building projects could be spent on legal fees as the government faces a spate of litigation from contractors and local authorities.
Not to mention this and this:
The government's new tax and spending watchdog needs urgent reform to establish its independence from George Osborne's Treasury, according to a report today by one of Britain's leading thinktanks.
There is a sense that perhaps all is not as well as might be with our new political partnership. I am beginning to wonder if this is how they got in.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

It's only rock 'n roll

"...when established politics is dead and trivial, and politicians are demonstrably part of the problem not the solution, culture becomes the only democratising agent."
This from the latest in a long line of superb, angry journalism from Ed Vulliamy on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It is about the organisation, War Child, born out of the war in Bosnia, when, as Vulliamy puts it,
... the so-called "international community" responded to this carnage with carefully calculated neutrality. While civilians were raped, incarcerated, "ethnically cleansed" and mass-murdered, the diplomatic community stuck defiantly to a policy of non-intervention beyond a mandate to deliver humanitarian aid. The British were to the fore in ensuring that nothing was done:
It is well worth your time reading the whole piece, a testimony to human resilience and resistance in the face of organised cruelty and international indifference, but here are two snippets. The first from Nigel Osborne, composer and music professor and one of the earliest activists.
"Rock'n'roll, is inherently democratic, whatever is done in its name. Against third-rate politics, in Bosnia and across Europe, we pitched first-rate music. If the local fascist politicians were going to have their speaker system in the John Major government and at the UN, then we were going to have our speaker system too."
And it is not just rock music, Vulliamy recalls,
I remember on my 39th birthday in 1993, after the massacre by shelling of civilians queuing for water in a suburb called Dobrinje, going to a lunchtime concert by the Sarajevo String Quartet in the blacked-out National theatre. The Serbs would usually attack such events, and one mortar landed so close to the theatre that the building shook and the viola player's stand fell over during an especially delicate moment of Haydn's String Quartet in D Major Op. 64, No 5, "The Lark". The first violinist, Dzevad Sabanagic, waited for his colleague to replace the score, called out the number of a bar prior to the interruption, and the quartet played on.
How many divisions have the arts? More than you might imagine.

You see Will, I obeyed.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Well the 'progressive' coalition that never was, gave way to 'progressive' cuts and now 'progressive' is the word of our times and, never precise in its usage, is now utterly meaningless. But is that 'fair'? It must be because everything else is.

Every day another bit of meaningless verbiage seems to crop up. Today let's raise a cheer for the Blairite contender for the Labour Leadership, Andy Burnham:

Andy Burnham today calls for Labour to exhume its socialist roots and become the party of "aspirational socialism"...

What on earth does that mean? I suppose it is marginally better than the incoherent mess of 'Red Toryism'.

I despair at the linguistic wasteland of government by PR executives, but there is at least some compensation in the news that Vince Cable's new 'department for growth' may well be the first to shrink.