It has been real down-to-the-wire stuff, but now I really, truly am leaving the office for a holiday. I have learnt a few tricks over the past few days. I thought I would have some slacker days towards the end, as people drifted away, but the past five days have been among the busiest I have experienced. The Sir Humphrey trick for next time, I think, is to announce my departure for the Wednesday and then stay on until the Friday. That way fewer colleagues will discover urgent, last-minute needs to meet their SG. Joking aside, the past month or so has been a real test of stamina. I’d liken it to somebody swimming a length under water in the swimming pool (hence the illustration). Towards the end the blood is thumping in your ears and your lungs are bursting but you can see the wall at the end and you’ve just got to swim those last few metres…If anybody is still around to read this, then I wish you happy holidays. Next rendezvous at the end of August.
Just before we left for Italy I bought Jeff Beck’s You Had It Coming (2001). It’s an extraordinary album, full of experiments. ‘Nadia’, for example is an object lesson in how to bend strings (he mimics the sitar – but not by pushing a button marked ‘sitar’ on his PC). I bored my family in singing its praises, to the extent of playing it to them as we sat on the terrace eating supper. There then occurred one of those sublime moments you simply can’t make up. I played ‘Blackbird’ (where he mimics the distinctive song of a blackbird) and… a blackbird in a nearby tree began to sing back to the guitar. Magic.
There’s that line in Sgt Pepper’s where Paul sings that ‘we’re getting very near the end’. Well, I am getting very near now to my summer break. This morning I chaired the last Directors’ meeting before the end of August. So, as I get half way through my eleventh month in the job here’s a handy statistic; I have so far chaired 32 Directors’ meetings. I have also attended ten Bureau meetings. Impressed? Depressed? I think I’ll stop there.
Suddenly, weekends exist again – well, parts of them, at least. As expected, we got to see the third part of the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions, so I am now Matrix-complete. And yesterday, at a completely different level, we watched Volver. What a film! Almodovar has himself described it as being about the culture that surrounds death in the region, La Mancha, where he grew up. There is a lot of fuss but no tragedy, and life goes on at full speed - wittily summed in the metaphor of a dead body in a freezer in a booming restaurant. I was a little uncomfortable with the strong sub-text; that men are uniformly dastardly and women just have to get on with it. Oh dear. As to The Matrix Revolutions, well, least said, soonest mended.
This weekend I finished Malcolm Galdwell’s The Tipping Point. Cyril Connolly once famously remarked that imprisoned in every fat man is a thin man wildly signalling to be let out. Well, I would argue that inside every one of these ‘must-reads’ there is a decent article struggling to get out. Indeed, like Black Swan, The Tipping Point began life as an article. A second iron law applicable to this sort of book is that their basic thesis is invariably summed up in the sub-title. Gladwell’s is ‘How little things can make a big difference.’ Taleb’s is ‘The impact of the highly improbable.’ I did learn quite a lot from both books, though, that is of immediate relevance to my professional duties, and some stuff that isn’t…
One morning recently I walked past a meeting room and saw that everything had been beautifully prepared. I got a colleague to take a picture of the scene. It has a certain beauty; the meeting room waiting for its meeting, the files waiting for their readers…
I like to welcome personally all new members of staff. Recently, I welcomed a Belgian colleague who, in a previous incarnation, had got actively involved in the campaign (in Belgian Wallonia) to get more people to use bicycles to get to work and to school. Since I come to work on my bicycle when I can, and since the Committee is actively engaged in getting its officials to walk, pedal or use public transport, the subject interested me and we got into a discussion. He pointed out that there is a direct correlation between prosperity and use of bicycles. He even gave me an example of two Belgian cities, Tournai and Courtrai, that effectively prove this. (In Tournai, under 3% of pupils go to school on a bike. In Courtrai, the figure is around 50%.) For poorer people, use of a bicycle is seen as an admission of lack of prosperity. For more prosperous people, use of the bicycle is seen as being ‘healthy’ and ‘responsible’. When I think back to the Giovanni Guareschi Don Giovanni stories I used to read, the Italian villagers in Emilia Romagna were always on bikes. Now it’s motorbikes and cars. On the other hand, in prosperous cities such as Bologna, bicycles have made a great comeback. It’s not only to do with relative prosperity, of course, but there is a great irony here nevertheless.
Today I chaired an internal meeting on business continuity, the jargon term for crisis management. We have been steadily putting in place a policy that should enable us to keep core functions going under most circumstances. The meeting today was to look at what we might need to do in the autumn if the swine flu pandemic continues as it seems set to. We were not looking at cataclysmic scenarios (none of that Will Smith in a deserted New York stuff) but we know already that we may have to deal with mass absences. Precautions, hygiene, communication, vigilance; they’re all part of the overall package. Suddenly, back into my mind came the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared! As the cubs always replied to Akela, ‘We’ll do our best!’
It’s raining this evening, so whilst I am in ‘loss of institution’ mode I would also like to post a few words about the late Christopher Prout (Lord Kingsland), who died unexpectedly on 12 July 2009 at the young age of 67. He was the Conservative Member of the European Parliament for Shropshire and Stafford for fifteen years before losing his seat in 1994. In 1987, when Henry Plumb became President of the European Parliament, Prout took his place as leader of the British Conservatives and of the then European Democratic Group, remaining in that role until his defeat. Granted a peerage by John Major, he became active in domestic British political life. There is a good obituary of him here. Prout’s leadership covered a ghastly period in the relationship between the British Conservatives and the European Union, spanning Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 Bruges speech, John Major’s Maastricht travails and the disastrous ‘black Wednesday’ withdrawal of sterling from the European Exchange Rate mechanism. I got to know him rather well. He was civil, courteous, perhaps a little dry, self-deprecating, modest but above all a man of complete integrity and considerable political courage. His principled and forensic approach to constitutional issues won him the admiration – though not political friendship – of Jacques Delors. It was he who first took the British Conservatives into a relationship with the EPP (the main centre-right bloc in the EP), a relationship that endured until June of this year.
The late Derek Taylor, the Beatles’s spin doctor, once declared that you should ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ In my case, as an ‘empirical’ political scientist writing a PhD thesis about the European Parliament, it was more a case of not letting my subject matter get in the way of a good PhD thesis. After three years of research and some scribbling I suddenly realised that this was completely potty and so in 1985 I headed north from the European University Institute (Florence) to Brussels to do a six-month traineeship at the European Commission in a new Directorate responsible for relations with the other institutions (including the European Parliament). Three years later, I returned to the directorate as a young official. In the meantime, the Single European Act had been ratified and implemented and a feisty young Irish lady, Una O’Dwyer, had joined the directorate. She had previously served in the Irish permanent representation as an ‘Antici’ (you’ll have to look up Westlake and Galloway if you want to know what an ‘Antici’ is). Una saw immediately that the cooperation procedure introduced by the Single European Act was the not-so-thin end of a very thick wedge, and that the Commission would have to start adapting itself and its procedures to the growing legislative powers of the European Parliament. Her skills honed in the Council and Coreper, Una became a doughty defender of the Commission’s collegiality and sole right of legislative initiative. Over the next seven years we became close colleagues, working cheek-by-jowl in Brussels and Strasbourg. In the meantime, Una, together with a Belgian colleague, became ‘Ms Co-decision Procedure’. As such, she was a landmark to generations of bright young things in Commissioners’ cabinets and a ready source of steady advice. She won the respect of her interlocuteurs in the other institutions, perhaps particularly the Parliament, where a generation of committed revolutionaries soon grew to respect her similar commitment to the European Commission’s unique role. Una was the complete professional. But she was also Irish – and that meant friendship, humour, culture, sentiment and romanticism to go alongside the hard work and conscientiousness. She listed poetry and sailing as her hobbies and I lost count of the number of Irish coffees we drank to round off Thursday evening dinners at the Pig’s Head in Strasbourg. Well, this evening I went to Una’s retirement party at the Berlaymont. Retirement! To imagine the Commission Secretariat General without Una is a bit like imagining Westminster without Big Ben or Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Una is clearly serene and happy to be moving on (she sang her own version of the Wild Rover with the refrain ‘will I work in the SecGen, no never, no more’) but I am sure I wasn’t the only official there to have felt that ‘Brussels’ and the institutions were not only losing a distinctive personality and good friend but also an institution of sorts.