For five years (2008-2013) I had the privilege of acting as the Secretary-General of the European Economic and Social Committee. This blog, which I started in 2008, and which, it having served its purpose, I have allowed to lie dormant since I stepped down in 2013, was established to accompany me on that five-year journey. It was intended to show, in part, aspects of a Secretary-General’s professional life, but also the cultural hinterland that is such a pleasurable aspect of being a European and working in the EU institutions. I came to the Committee, from the European Commission, in 2003 and started my career there as Head of Communication. I was immediately struck by the absence of any reliable guide to the Committee – apart from the Committee’s own publications – and resolved to fill the gap, for I am convinced that the Committee deserves such a book. The job, alas, got busier and busier, and it was only once I had left altogether that I was able to devote myself properly to the task. Now, at long last, John Harper Publishing has brought out The European Economic and Social Committee – the House of European Organised Civil Society. Flatteringly, Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, has written the Foreword to the book. He kindlily writes: “I … welcome and commend this book, which sets out in a comprehensive and comprehensible way the many different activities and functions of the European Economic and Social Committee and how this venerable body works in practice. It will surely be of good use to anybody and everybody who works with the Committee.” I have also recently published a more historical research paper at the Colleges of Europe (Bruges). The paper is entitled ‘The Antecedents, Origins and Creation of the European Economic and Social Committee,’ and seeks to show from whence, in historical terms, the concept of such a consultative body came. My hope is that these publications will foster better understanding about a venerable and complex body that has contributed much to the European integration process and certainly deserves to be better understood.
So; that’s it. I confess to a sense of achievement in having kept this blog going for the five years of my mandate (almost 2,100 posts!). In the nature of things, over time it became more of a literary and cultural journal than anything else. But, still, I managed to keep it up. Now, as it is time for me to move on, I have decided to bring the blog to a close. To all of those who followed my scribblings or who occasionally dipped in, thank you, and I hope what I wrote was of some interest. To those of you who submitted comments (on or off the air), it was a pleasure. I’d thought of The Doors for a musical accompaniment, but that would be far too portentous. So, for the light-hearted, I shall leave you with Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore: Goodbye, and for my fellow opera-lovers, this little offering. And that is that; the end. (Political anoraks will know who said that!)
After my 17th September rant about mechanised potato harvesting I was heartened this morning to see a farmer harvesting his potatoes in the old style. Well, he did use a tractor and a plough to turn over the earth, but thereafter he set out his hessian sacks and worked his way slowly along the furrows, using a fork to further loosen the earth and then picking the potatoes by hand. Needless to say, there were very few rejects. But it was, quite clearly, back-breaking work – all bending and kneeling and squatting and lifting – and it was also very time-consuming. I doubt whether the farmer’s additional work made economic sense, even if his potatoes were sold as ‘bio’ production. But it all seemed more in harmony with the surroundings than the industrial behometh we had seen at work on the 17th. My father used to grow potatoes in our London garden, and nothing tasted better than ‘new’ potatoes (as he called them), carried from the earth to the table in a matter of hours and served with butter and parsley….
For some reason it has become common to assume that ‘series’, as in television series, are a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, as those of us slightly longer in the tooth know, they have been around for almost as long as television has been. One piece of sustained brilliant writing that I remember from my early teens was the Anglo-American production, Colditz, which was screened around 1972. It was consistently well-scripted, well-casted and well-acted and made a big impact on me and my fourteen year-old classmates. Tonight I rewatched one particularly noteworthy episode, Tweedle-Dum, which rightly won a series of awards. Michael Bryant (pictured) turned in a brilliant performance of desperation declining into mental ill health. But the script (by John Brason) leaves the viewer grappling with such questions as to whether there are frontiers between mental illness and good health and the basis on which those in authority make their diagnoses. I can’t spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that the success of Brason’s character’s ultimate escape is debatable.
There is a fascinating two-page article in the Life and Arts section of today’s Financial Times, entitled ‘Is the party over?’, about China and the possible end of one-party rule. The article refers to Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 The End of History and the Last Man and his central argument that western-style liberal democracy represents the final form of human government, a natural end-product of gradual liberalisation and a steady rise in prosperity and the growth of middle classes. What is fascinating about the article is that it refers to a number of contemporary Chinese thinkers in China. The question of whether single-party rule might continue and, if so, under what circumstances, is apparently being addressed by that great amorphous, enigmatic party itself. Having made two extended trips to China in 1994 and 2006 I have, in my own modest way, witnessed the extraordinary economic and social transformation of the country. It is not just the relative disappearance of uniforms on the streets, or towns transformed into huge cities, or the massive construction projects, the availability of delicious food in good restaurants in provincial cities (a sure indicator of the rise of the middle classes), the car-clogged streets where once there were only bicycles, and so on; no, China has also undeniably become more open as a society. In 1994 our ‘interpreter’ followed us everywhere, disliked it when we tried to wander around on our own and chased away people when they tried to talk to us. In 2006 our interpreters told us openly and critically about their lives: for example, the lady whose father had deliberately ignored the one-child policy and paid for it in hefty taxes with various pieces of furniture, including the bridal suite. Such a conversation and admission would have been simply unthinkable in 1994. The rise of spoken English (again, a function of the rise of those middle classes) is doubtless one reason why such conversations are now possible, particularly among the young. But the conversation that sticks most in my mind was with a friendly and earnest young man in Huangchang. He wanted to know all about democracy. I worked through the traditional conditions, including the existence of more than one political party. ‘But we have more than one party!’ he exclaimed. ‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘We do!’ he insisted. ‘We have the Democratic League, the Democratic National Construction Association, the Peasants and Workers’ Democratic Party, the Jiusan Society, the Zhi Gong Party… We even have a Green Party!’ ‘But what,’ I asked, ‘about the Communist Party?’ ‘Ah,’ he replied, without missing a beat, ‘but that’s different; that’s the government.’
We concluded our Tavernier mini-season this evening by watching his 2009 In the Electric Mist, starring a peerless Tommy Lee Jones. Like Coup de Torchon, this is also a film about a small-town policeman, played by Lee Jones. And, also like Coup de Torchon, the screenplay is based on an American novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, by James Lee Burke. But there, as they say, most of the similarities end. Lee Jones’s detective goes rogue only in the sense that he is determined to get to the bottom of a series of apparently connected murders and is aided by repeated visions of a Confederate General who may or may not be a ghost or part of a recurring dream. Just as Coup de Torchon’s dreamy colonial decadence is enhanced by its West African setting alongside a lazy, inscrutable river, so the steamy, dreamy atmosphere of In the Electric Mist is enhanced by the ever present background of the Louisiana swamplands. For some reason this film never made the big time but, just like Coup de Torchon, it definitely deserves to be better known.
We began a Bertrand Tavernier mini-season this evening by watching his 1981 Coup de Torchon. Set in a small town in French West Africa, Philippe Noiret stars as a weak, cuckolded and frequently humiliated local police constable who slowly goes rogue, killing those who have offended or humiliated him. Well acted and directed and full of comic scenes, the film has the same dry wit and chilling effect on the viewer as the much later Belgian cult hit, C’est arrivé près de chez vous. It all seems so believable and, once the killing starts, inexorable. The film brought to our attention American novelist Jim Thompson. Tavernier adapted Thompson’s 1964 novel, Pop. 1280, transposing the setting from a West Texas oil boom town. By doing this Tavernier was also able to make wry observations in passing about French colonial decline. It is a gem of a film.
Rabbits and hares are prodigious excavators and tunnel builders. But it wasn’t until I had taken the same route to walk the dog over several years that I realised how rapidly they can have an effect on their environment. On one stretch of the walk the path leads through a deeply sunken lane. A few years back the earthen banks of the lane were sheer, reinforced by exposed tree roots. But the rabbits and hares have built their warrens under the tree roots, encouraging the sandy soil to erode downwards and the trees to collapse. The result is that the lane, whilst still sunken, no longer has such sheer banks. If I were the farmer whose fields are gradually being reduced in size, I’d be a bit peeved. But he doesn’t seem to be bothered. Could it be that he thinks the erosion is worthwhile in return for an occasional saddle of hare on the dinner table? In any case, frequent visits to the countryside and observation of the way landscapes and perspectives change with the seasons and through such standard practices as crop rotation or felling and planting trees have led me to understand that any sort of impression of permanence is an illusion.
We watched John Schlesinger’s 1963 film version of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar this evening. Tom Courtenay is excellent in the title role, playing a bored undertaker’s clerk in provincial Bradford, seeking consolation in fantasies and increasingly caught out by his own petty lies. The obvious way out is to go to London, but when ultimately the seemingly irresistible opportunity presents itself, in the form of a young and beautiful Julie Christie, Billy Liar lapses back into the security of provincialism. In its day, the film was an early example of the so-called New Wave – all gritty realism, class warfare and filming in real locations (in this case Bradford itself). But now the film has a sort of elegiac feeling to it, as likely to trigger pangs of nostalgia for Yorkshire’s sturdy society as for the social and cultural revolt of the 1960s personified by Julie Christie’s scatty Liz.
We watched the potato harvesters at work out at Bertem today. A huge, sophisticated machine pulled, cleaned and graded the potatoes before depositing them in a waiting truck. The owner of the fields (more an entrepreneur than a farmer) explained that the lorries took their loads off to a nearby processing plant where, within the day still, they would have been washed, peeled, chipped, packed and frozen. Because the potatoes were grown to be transformed into chips, the machine rejected anything beneath a certain length. These were ejected onto the soil, where they would be ploughed back into the earth and recycled as biomass. We asked if we could pick up some of the potatoes. Of course, the farmer replied. One of his drivers produced a plastic bag for us and we picked about six kilos’ worth of perfectly consumable potatoes – indeed, they were cooked and eaten within days. Not for the first time, I wondered about the way we order our lives. Why could the sophisticated machine not send the reject potatoes into another container, so that they could be sold (or, better, given away) and hence consumed, rather than effectively being thrown away?