A former member of my writers’ circle, Jeremy Duns, recently landed a three-book deal with Simon and Schuster (Viking in the US), and another current member, Leila Rasheed, is about to be commissioned to write two more books (in addition to the three already either published or commissioned). Well, we’re all published authors (that’s one of the conditions for belonging to the circle). Nevertheless, when we hear such good news (which we always celebrate) we collectively joke that it is only a matter of time for the rest of us. In my case, I’m afraid that means rather a lot of time. Choosing to write a saga whilst holding down a big job was, possibly, slightly unwise. Oh well. It will keep me young, as they say. By the way, you can read extracts and the first chapter of Dun’s Free Agent on his website (link above).
Yesterday morning I listened to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first album, Are you experienced? As a sort of homage to Mitch Mitchell, the Experience’s drummer, who died on Thursday (13 November). I was too young to see Hendrix live, alas, but I certainly saw the film, back in 1973. He was a prodigy; certainly as revolutionary as Paganini in his day. Anecdote has it that, having seen Hendrix’s extraordinary talent, the great Eric Clapton thought about giving up. All this leads me on to a spurious rhetorical question: is air guitar to modern music the equivalent of pretending to conduct a non-existent orchestra to classical music?
Yesterday evening we went to the Palais des Beaux Arts to feast on Stravinsky. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of a handsome young Russian, Vladimir Jurowski, played a scherzo and the Rite of Spring with extraordinary panache. Everything was brilliant (Jurowski is delightful), but the highlight of the evening was surely Stravinsky’s violin concerto. The violinist, Kolja Blacher, was brilliant. He played on the ‘Triton’, a Stradivarius violin made in 1730. How many instruments, I wonder, would still be played at performance level almost three hundred years after they were made?
The privilege reminded me of a visit to Genoa with a parliamentary committee many moons ago. The new (Carlo Felice) opera house had just been finished and, as a special treat, we were invited in. I forget the name (apologies, whoever you were) but the then ‘curator violinist’ treated us to Paganini’s caprices but – and this was the extraordinary thing – played on Paganini’s violin, the so-called Cannone of Giuseppe Guarnerius del Gesu, the violin that Paganini had used all of his life.
Music is like a magical sweet shop, everything is free, you can eat as much as you like, free of charge, and there are only positive consequences.
The current world champions, South Africa, are living dangerously at the moment. Both Wales last Saturday and Scotland today should have beaten them and are rueing their missed chances. But both matches were excellent entertainment. Meanwhile, did I see Liverpool at the head of the Premier League for a few giddy hours this afternoon?
Last night we had a nephew and a niece, together with her boyfriend, to dinner. We are immensely fond of them. The nephew is just back from Brazil and about to head off to Algeria. He, half-Belgian, half-French, explained his motives in opting for a challenging location rather than a cushier and more financially rewarding posting in the United Arab Emirates (where he’d had a firm offer). It was precisely the challenge, together with a desire to feel that he was doing good (he will be managing a project to build a desalination plant), that had guided him. We old fogies have been led to believe that today’s more individualistic younger generations are inherently selfish but here was an excellent counter-example.
The niece and her boyfriend have just got back from a truly extraordinary nine month, 9,000 kilometres cycling trip from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia, and then back up through Chile in a big loop leading ultimately back down to Buenos Aires again. They showed us some of their pictures and talked about their experiences: the warm hospitality, the extraordinary wild life, leaping tarantulas, soaring condors, puma paw prints outside their tent in the morning, a surreal encounter with the Belgian rugby team in the back of beyond, the challenge of pedalling through snow in 4,000 metre-high mountain passes and across endless salt flats. They also took time out to scale some mountains, including a live volcano. These were places and sites that we have never heard of but that in Europe would surely be major tourist destinations and the subjects of millions of postcards. But what came across most was the almost spiritual experience they had both had in cycling through the vast emptiness of the southern tip of Latin America; indeed, the niece had to hold back her tears when she talked about it. It made me think of the mystic experiences of hermits and saints in the mythical wilderness. The question arises, though, what next? The niece is a brilliant lawyer specialised in human rights law. She has also passed an open competition to work for the European Commission. In other words, she could walk into any job she wanted and I have no doubt that, like her cousin, she will do great and good things. But both she and her boyfriend are having problems in acclimatising themselves to the idea of mere work in the modern western world. What do you do next when you have had such a profound experience?
The question reminded me of a colleague working in one of the EESC’s Groups. Like Murakami (see 31 October post) he is a marathon runner. Recently he ran a 100 kilometres race, running through the night, stopping only for water and snacks. It may not have been quite such a spiritual experience (or, at least, not in the same way), but it was nevertheless an extraordinary feat of intensive effort, endurance and a great personal achievement. Again, as he put it, ‘What do you do after you’ve done that?’
I spent most of the day in a meeting room in a hotel in Dilbeek (a Brussels suburb), where I had taken my directors for a seminar. There were two points on the agenda: my ‘vision’; and my plans to re-organise the EESC’s establishment plan (such plans are referred to universally throughout the EU institutions as ‘organigrammes’, the French administrative term). The idea of such seminars (and normally they’d be residential) is to take people away from their PCs and offices, though there’s no escaping the mobile phone and the PDA. The meeting went well. I have inherited an administration rich in talent and good intentions. The challenge is to put all of that talent and those intentions at the service of the members in as effective a way as possible. Re-jigging establishment plans isn’t enough, of course, but a rationalisation of existing structures should help. I’m determined to devolve and to delegate and, hopefully, to energise what we like to call, in best franglais, the ‘hierarchy’. As to the vision, it’s a simple one; I will measure my success by how well our members and administration feel. If they are happy and working well together in a spirit of mutual respect and confidence then all the rest – the Committee’s reputation, communicating its opinions, etc – will surely flow.
Agence Europe today published a long (one-and-a-half pages) interview with me. You can read it here. The interview’s about my vision. The original interview was in French and maybe just a few of the nuances have been lost in the translation but, well, you’ll get the basic message, I think. I genuinely believe that the EESC, because of the very special status of its members, is both unique and uniquely valuable. That’s one of the reasons why I am writing this blog; I want you to get across what it does and what its members do.
I was in a hurry to get back because my wife, Godelieve, had a vernissage for her latest work at the Maison des Arts in Schaerbeek. The house, a listed building, is some two hundred years old and once stood in its own parkland. Now it is hidden away behind rows of houses on the Chaussée de Haecht and the Rue Royale. Every year the commune invites a Schaerbeek-based artist to use the ground floor of the house. Godelieve had noticed a row of decorative Delft tiles in one of the rooms and from this came her idea to paint a series of blown-up Delft-style representations of modern Schaerbeek life. It works really well. The vernissage was a great success and good fun. The guests included plenty of our neighbours, family, friends and acquaintances, but also other Schaerbeekois. The echevin responsible for cultural affairs, Georges Verzin, made a warm speech and Leila’s boyfriend, Réné Morgensen (they are also Schaerbeek residents) entertained us on his alto sax. It was a happy occasion and I was very proud.
I was in Paris today (‘Again’ as my kids exclaimed) for a major conference, jointly organised by the EESC and the French national Economic, Environmental and Social Council on the topic of ‘The EU facing the global food challenge: the contribution of organised civil society.’ I’ll bring you more about the conference on this post in the near future. There were three excellent set´piece speeches from the French EESC President, Jacques Dermagne, Michel Barnier (this time a pre´recorded speech) and our own EESC President, Mario Sepi (picture above). The terrible underlying conclusion all speakers reached is that the world is already suffering from a major food crisis, but we are distracted at the moment by the financial crisis.