We watched the 1962 original version, based on Richard Condon’s novel, this evening. You know; the one that launched Clint Eastwood‘s career as ‘Dirty Harry’ (I’ll come back to that). The Cold War, with its obsessive paranoia, seems so far away already that the underlying politics of the plot seem as old as the massive television cameras and the wispy helicopters that appear in the film. Of course, few, if any, regret the end of the Cold War’s absurdities but I imagine more than a few authors and filmakers have regretted the disappearance of a whole locker room of plotting devices: double agents; triple agents; ‘sleepers’; brainwashing; ‘letterboxes’; and so on. Condon skilfully mixed all of these in with a basic plot about betrayal and counter-betrayal but also a daring dash of incest to set off an Oedipus complex. And what about Clint Eastwood (who doesn’t appear in the film)? Well, it was strongly rumoured in the late 1960s that Frank Sinatra (who does, playing Bennett Marco) had been lined up for the role of Harry Callahan in the first Dirty Harry movie but turned it down because he had difficulty in carrying the .44 Magnum gun that became Dirty Harry’s trademark. And why did he have difficulty? Because he broke his wrist karate chopping a table in a scene in The Manchurian Candidate - (allegedly the first-ever karate fight in a film, by the way). If the story is true, it was Eastwood’s second big stroke of luck. The first was Sergio Leone’s failure to convince a major Hollywood star to play in A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood was very much a last choice.
On 19th February I delivered the closing speech at one of the Committee’s regular ‘newcomers’ seminars’. We organise these twice a year to welcome all of the new staff who have arrived and to explain to them about the Committee and its administration. These seminars are good fun and provide the President and the Secretary General with an excellent opportunity to make a good first impression. Afterwards, in the Q & A session, somebody asked me where, out of all of the EU institutions, I would rather be. I unhesitatingly replied that the EESC had by far the best atmosphere and working conditions and obviously I was happy to be SG but… First, I would have given my eyeteeth to have been in the European Parliament back in its revolutionary days after the first direct elections. Second, I will always be proud of the work I was privileged to undertake in DG Education and Culture at the European Commission. I was reminded of this today because this week’s edition of the Commission’s inhouse newsletter, Commission en direct, carries a full page article about ‘my baby’, Erasmus Mundus. Of course, I wasn’t alone in bringing Erasmus Mundus into the world. The roll call of honour must include above all the Commissioner, Vivianne Reding and the Parliament’s rapporteur, Marielle De Sarnez, but also the (as always) unsung heroes in the Danish and Italian Presidencies who helped push ‘from the other side’, Sandro Gozi in then President Prodi’s cabinet (now an Italian MP), Greg Paulger (then the Head of Reding’s Private Office), the Director General, Klaus van der Pas, the Director, David Coyne, and my deputy Head of Unit at the time, Augusto Gonzalez, who more than anybody else held the plume and jiggled with the Excel sheets. Just listing those names shows what a genuinely European process it was. And now the second generation of Erasmus Mundus is getting under way. We had always known it would prosper and I am sure we all look upon it as a proud parent would when a child grows into handsome maturity. Through Erasmus Mundus over 6,000 students and over 1000 professors from third countries have so far come to EU universities, thus encouraging mutual understanding and academic excellence. Of one thing I am sure; when I am on my deathbed Erasmus Mundus, like the Fulbright Programme, will still be flourishing and still growing. We did that!
One of our members sent me this. Oh dear. I don’t think Sir Humphrey approves, but it is funny.
A major research institution (MRI) has recently announced the discovery of the heaviest chemical element yet known to science. The new element has been tentatively named “Govermentium.”
Govermentium has 1 neutron, 12 assistant neutrons, 75 deputy neutrons, and 225 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 313. These 313 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called peons.
Since Govermentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected as it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact. A minute amount of Govermentium causes one action to take over 4 days to complete when it would normally take less than a second.
Govermentium has a normal half-life of 2 years; it does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Govermentium’s mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganization will cause some morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes. This characteristic of moron-promotion leads some scientists to speculate that Govermentium is formed whenever morons reach a certain quantity in concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as “Critical Morass.”
Sir Desmond Glazebrook: ‘Surely once a Minister has made his decision, that’s it, isn’t it?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘What on earth gave you that idea?’
Sir Desmond: ‘Surely a decision is a decision.’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Only if it’s the decision you want. If not it is just a temporary setback.’
When I began work at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the Secretary General, Sir John Priestman, invited me in for a welcoming chat. Similarly, when I began work in the European Commission the then Secretary General, David Williamson (now Lord Williamson of Horton) invited me in to say hallo and welcome me to the institution. There can be few people busier than Secretaries-General (as I know myself now!) and yet they had carved time out of their busy days to see me, a young greenhorn. I saw it as an extraordinary example of good management and now, as a Secretary General myself, I am determined to see all of the Committee’s new officials personally to welcome them on board. So this morning I saw a new Bulgarian colleague, Yulian, who works in the translation service and he brought with him a gift that has touched me deeply. The Martenitsa is a small wrist band, woven from red and white cotton, and to be worn from 1 March until 22 March (Mart being the Bulgarian word for March). Baba Marta is a Bulgarian tradition to welcome the spring, and the red and white threads symbolize the wish for good health (white for purity and soul, red for life and passion). I shall wear it proudly, of course. Europe, endless!
A fellow member of our writers’ group, John Boyle, came out with a neat quip on Monday evening. Another member, John Hellon, who is writing a mémoire, had written a fascinating piece about bohemian London in the mid-1960s. John H. met all sorts of interesting characters and we were encouraging him to flesh them out. ‘But then I’d have to invent stuff,’ said John H. ‘Ah, yes,’ said John B., ‘but it would be invention in the service of truth.’ Earlier this year I finished reading two books. The first, Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy, is a mind-blowing literary tour de force. Its subject matter, the bloodily violent activities of a group of scalp-hunters in the US-Mexico borderlands in the 1850s, is appalling, and though McCarthy based his work on a gang member’s account, there was surely a lot of invention involved. I read the second book, Tiger Force, as research for my own work. It is an entirely factual account about the war crimes committed in a Vietnamese valley in 1967 by a platoon of US soldiers who just got completely out of control. It is a sort of chillingly true Lord of the Flies for grown-ups. It very strongly echoed Blood Meridian, even down to mass scalp-taking (together with other grisly trophies). And it was confirmation of McCarthy’s implicit argument that when men lose their moral compass they are capable of the worst acts of barbary. So, to echo John B., McCarthy did indeed invent in the service of an unpalatable truth. That truth was perhaps best summed up by the late, great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in Cancer Ward; ‘The line separating good from evil runs not between states, not between classes – it runs through the heart of each and every one of us.’
To my fifth (already!) EESC Bureau all yesterday afternoon and evening. It was a good-humoured and productive meeting. The President’s plans for a ‘white paper’ have now firmed up into a very promising ‘Programme for Europe’ which will be adopted at the March plenary session. Vice-President Seppo Kallio, with responsibility for budgetary matters, had a lot of good news to impart to the meeting: the 2007 discharge is on the way; the 2008 ‘plan B’ on the line for members’ allowances has resulted in a very high 99.5% take-up rate of credits, which bodes well for the decentralised system we have put in place to manage the line in 2009; the Budgets Committee approved the lifting of the reserve of 1 meuro on the same line on the nod; and the drafting process for the 2010 budget is progressing nicely. Vice-President Irini Pari, with responsibility for communication matters also delivered a meaty report on our growing activities (including a mention of our blogs!). From the SG’s point of view, the best thing about the meeting was the almost complete absence of discussion about administrative matters. Together with Mario Sepi we are determined to help the Bureau concentrate on political and strategic issues, and that is indeed what would appear to be happening.
It’s interesting, exciting and nice to see any writing project come to fruition. One of my fellow writers’ group members, Loretta Stanley, is about to produce a play that she has written over the past two years and which, we, the writers group, have accompanied from its early beginnings through to a fairly final draft. Edith is a challenging and fascinating treatment of the last period of the life of Edith Cavell. Gordon Brown wrote about her in his recent work on Courage, but the standard presentation of Cavell as an unconditional First World War heroine does not stand up to closer scrutiny and it is the ambiguities in Cavell’s behaviour that Loretta cleverly explores by bring her back as a ghost and confronting her with similar situations in the modern world. It’ll be on at the Warehouse Studio Theatre (69a rue Waelhem, 1030 Schaerbeek) from 31 March to 4 April and you can order tickets from the Irish Theatre Group’s website.
To the writers’ group in the evening. My exercise this time was about some childhood bathtime recollections triggered by a simple gesture. I read it out to my kids first, who grinned in recognition of what I was describing. Everybody this evening had similar recollections. It’s funny how these collective cultural experiences lie just below the surface - a bit like a bar of soap in the bathwater, actually. See ‘read more’ below for the exercise. (more…)