Noelle-Anne Sullivan, one of the members of the audience when I gave my little speech to the Oxford Society (see 18 June post) came to see me this morning for a chat. I am supposed to be writing a book about the communication challenge facing the EU and its institutions. The writing has had to be put on the back burner for a while, but I am still very much interested in amassing material and experiences. With regard to the latter, Noelle-Anne has had a very interesting experience indeed. She started up a blog on the European elections in Belgium. She began it because she had a vote and wanted to know how to exercise it. She started to make inquiries and realised that it would be useful for other people like her if she put the material and information she had gathered into the public domain. Before she knew what was happening, her blog had become the port of call, not only for expats living in Belgium but also for Belgians themselves. And because of the interest her blog was generating, Noelle-Anne was able to interview politicians and she, in her turn, was interviewed frequently by the media. As it happens, I have been slowly making my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. According to his analysis, Noelle-Anne is a classic example of what he calls a Maven (from a Yiddish term, meaning one who accumulates knowledge). I quote: ‘The critical thing about Mavens, though, is that they aren’t passive collectors of information. … What sets them apart is that once they figure out how to get that deal, they want to tell you about it too.’ What interests me in particular about these modern, mainly net-based, phenomena is that they are messy, by which I mean that they cannot be structured, let alone controlled. They just happen. This (it will be one of the big arguments in my book) poses a major problem for bureaucracy-based structures such as the EU institutions and, indeed, national governments or any administration.
This afternoon took on a distinctly sad tinge. First, we had a farewell lunch for Jean Lapeyre, who has been working as a detached national expert in the SG’s private office for the past two years. Jean, who began life as a glass blower and ended up, through his trades union activities, as Deputy Secretary General of the European Trades Union Confederation has a distinguished career behind him and, I am sure, a very active retirement ahead of him. Then I went to the farewell drinks of a longstanding and very popular Italian member of the administration. He came to Belgium as a young immigrant and worked in the steel industry and as an electrician before shifting across to more administrative work, ultimately ending up in the Committee’s administration. From there I went to say goodbye to a young Portugese colleague who had been working for the Committee as a temporary agent. And then I had the tremendously sad duty to sign an information notice to all staff about the untimely death, at the age of 53, of another popular colleague. In a small institution at times the role of SG is a bit like that of a vicar or a parish priest, ministering to his flock. Well, today the vicar was very sad.
All this afternoon we could hear light aircraft from a nearby aerodrome climbing steadily above us. I assumed they were taking up parachutists, but it was not until we were driving home that we actually saw some. There were three of them, gliding down swiftly on their ‘wings’. About 150 metres above the ground, one of them suddenly began to spiral downwards, plummeting earthwards, apparently out of control. Just as the parachutist was about to hit the ground we drove around a bend in the road and could no longer see what was happening. We drove back to Brussels with that image strong in our minds alongside a burning question: had we just seen a spectacular demonstration of aerobatic skill, or the closing seconds of a ghastly accident?
I always have my ‘ears out’ at such gatherings, since they are good ways to connect with the ‘real world’. One of our fellow guests works in the air industry. His company has been avoiding laying off people by reducing the working week and hours worked and also by closing down the factory for forced holidays; in other words, many of the sorts of measures that the European Economic and Social Committee and its President and various rapporteurs have been encouraging. Better to be paid less or to work less than to be paid nothing at all or to be unemployed. I murmured a few words along those lines. My fellow guest agreed but pointed out that the real damage has been done elsewhere. Larger companies that have achieved a certain critical mass can afford, just about maybe, to maintain their workforces. But his company has achieved this by ‘repatriating’ all of the work that it used to outsource. The small and medium sized companies that used to feed off of this work are rapidly disappearing and, with them, a large number of jobs.
Today we had an annual gathering of friends close to Namur. After a sumptuous lunch, we staggered out into the countryside for a walk. Our hosts took us to an interesting site called the Volcano of Piroy. It’s an old water-filled quarry. It and the surrounding woodland are now classified as a protected site because of some interesting flora and fauna, including several rare breeds of dragonfly. It’s dubbed the ‘volcano’ because the shape of the – truly volcanic – rocks gives a vague impression of being inside a crater. The local council has put up information panels and from these I learnt that the reddish volcanic rock was quarried for the local porcelain industry. The rocks were hauled in miners’ trucks up the hill and down into the Sambre valley, to a porcelain factory, where they were crushed into a powder and then used to make the distinctive porcelain. The whole area now is lush countryside, dotted with converted quarrymen’s cottages. The quarry shut down in the 1950s, and there is now no sign of the thriving industry that once existed. Not for the first time, I was struck by how the views we have of our ‘countrysides’ are, in many cases, a recent phenomenon, the result of a process of de, or dis, industrialisation.
The school year is all but over and we were invited this evening to a convivial and most enjoyable occasion with a form teacher at the house of fellow parents. I have difficulty in believing that yet another academic year is over. There can be no doubt about it: time is accelerating. How is it possible otherwise to explain the fact that, when I think back to my own school days, the days after exams dragged on and on until we finally got out and away? No sooner did I think about this than the opening guitar chords of Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ rang out again as clearly as they did in 1972. Cooper has said he was inspired to write the song when answering the question, “What’s the greatest three minutes of your life?”. Cooper said: “There’s two times during the year. One is Christmas morning, when you’re just getting ready to open the presents… The next one is the last three minutes of the last day of school when you’re sitting there and it’s like a slow fuse burning. I said, ‘If we can catch that three minutes in a song, it’s going to be so big.’” Well, to my mind, he did, and it was.
Here is your starter for ten: what is the connection between the carnival parade in Rio (picture to the left) and the European Union’s information policy? I spent much of this morning in a meeting of the Board of Directors of the European Union’s Official Publications Office (which goes under the French acronym of ‘OPOCE’). The Office’s new Director General, Martine Reicherts, is driving through an ambitious and most welcome reform process and the Board of Directors (composed of the Secretaries General of the EU institutions) is very supportive of this. One of the items on our agenda was a proposal concerning the free distribution of publications. There was a time when OPOCE sought to sell publications, but the internet and the availability of so many publications in PDF format is fast undermining a sales-based policy. So Martine was proposing a generalised policy of free publications and free distribution, on request, but only within the European Union. Why only within the Union (and here’s the answer to the question above)? Because OPOCE had detected abusive practices. In the case of Rio, it was suspected that a large number of EU publications had been ordered not because the dear Brazilian people thirsted for knowledge about the EU and its institutions and policies, but because the colourful publications could be easily shredded and used to make confetti! As they say, you couldn’t make it up.
When I had to make my speech to the Belgian Fondation Universitaire some ten days ago, I wanted to use the saying ‘the people have spoken, the bastards’, and so I googled it, as one does, and discovered that its original author was Dick Tuck, back in 1964. I then looked up Tuck on Wikipedia (as one does) and discovered that this man, who is apparently still alive, was a great political prankster. He seemed to take particular delight in playing tricks on Richard Nixon. One of these, in 1950, involved hiring a big auditorium and inviting Nixon, who was running for Congress, to speak. When Nixon arrived, however, he found the hall virtually empty, and Tuck deliberately gave a long-winded speech to introduce the candidate. Now, if they can make a film about Charlie Wilson’s war, and if they can make a film about David Frost and Richard Nixon, surely they must be able to make a film about Dick Tuck? You can read about him here.
Last Monday was the last session of the writers’ group before the summer break. Jeannette (she of big bums in sonnets fame) wrote a post about it. With her permission, she guest-blogs below. The original can be read here.
“Yesterday evening marked our last writer’s workshop for the season. After the meeting one member made the toast: “To a good year.” I had to think for a moment. Has it been a good year?
On the whole, I have to say Yes. We started this September without one of our founding and most prolific members, who left Brussels to go back to the UK. We had one brand-new member and you never know how it’s going to go no matter how well they present. Happily, ten months later, it is like this person has been with us for ages. The group has re-knit itself, once again.
And what have we accomplished? Well, one of our members put on the play that we’d workshopped from start to finish. Another organized/facilitated two very successful music-&-literature salons, apart from making significant headway into a long work of fiction. Yet another is in the final stages of setting up his own publishing company, a project that’s been in the works for quite some time. Another had her second and third books published.
Oh, and we got to meet and read poems with Jackie Kay.
And while all of us have made strides into our work, in our various ways, it was fitting that we ended the season by reading the beginning of one member’s completed first draft. For the past several years this member — I’ll call him J — has been quietly submitting chapter after chapter of his memoir. Since he doesn’t submit in chronological order, I didn’t notice until he mentioned it that he’d finished the first draft. To have stuck with this project through to completion is (how I am learning this!) a real achievement.
Two somber notes. Leila will be leaving us for the green and pleasant land. She will be missed! And Lucy continues to fight cancer. Lucy, if you’re reading this, know that we’re thinking of you.”
The beginning of this week was tinged with great sadness following the news of the sudden death of Karel Van Miert, who fell from a ladder in his beloved garden on Monday. He belonged to a fine Belgian tradition of polyglot charismatic politicians equally at home in both domestic and European politics. There is an obituary of him here. Much has already been said and written about his career and about his personal integrity and political courage. It is largely forgotten now, but in the dark days of 1999, when the Santer Commission (of which Van Miert was a member) was obliged collectively to resign, such was Van Miert’s irreproachable reputation that there was speculation about him presiding over a caretaker Commission. But I am a Sir Humphrey, and Sir Humphreys throughout the European institutions will forever remember Van Miert as the noble Commissioner who, when an over-excited media started citing out of context the fatal phrase ‘difficult to find anybody with a sense of responsibility’ in the infamous ‘Wise Men’s Report’, fiercely and very louldy defended his officials and their integrity. Van Miert’s untimely death deprives Belgium and Europe of a wise and loyal eminence grise.