It was time for farewells again, this lunchtime. Erika Reniers, a truly excellent official, was sent off in style by her many friends and colleagues. Retirement is a completely inappropriate term, since Erika is a very fit and active lady, but rules are rules and, sadly, go she must. I said a few heartfelt words. On these occasions I am always happy for the person who is heading off to pastures new. But I am also sad for the institution. Colleagues like Erika are gold dust and our administration will glitter a little less now that she has gone.
What had brought me over to London was lunch with Neil Kinnock. I wrote his biography and, though we see each other rarely, we have remained friends. It was good to catch up on things. For me, Neil is one of the great figures of the Labour Party and of British politics and British public life more generally. Admirably, he has remained a staunch loyalist and has contented himself with playing the role of a very private eminence grise. He adored his job at the British Council (he insisted on resigning when Glenys was appointed as Minister of European Affairs to avoid any possible accusations of conflicts of interest ). I hope he will not be lost to British public life because he has so much to give. That said, if you asked him what makes his life tick these days he would, I think, unhesitatingly reply ‘the grandchildren’.
No longer there...
I took an early Eurostar to London. My aunt, the sole surviving member of my mother’s family, was waiting for me at St Pancras. We took a bus to Islington and then she showed me around the area where my late mother and her family grew up. The house, in Duncan Street, has long since gone but many of my mother’s haunts – the church, the ice-cream parlour, the cinema, the music hall – are still there. I never did this tour with my mother. I didn’t think to do it. And now it’s too late. But my aunt has her own rich memories and so we strolled down and around this particular stretch of Memory Lane. Their lives were modest but the area has been well and truly gentrified now (the music hall is a Waterstone’s), and Vatican II did for the church interior my mother would have known. It was a somehow strange but deeply touching experience.
A little while ago (22 July) I wrote a post about Una O’Dwyer, whom I had regarded as a fixed part of the scenery in the European Commission’s Secretariat General, but who has, incredibly, retired. This evening I attended the farewell party of another landmark colleague, Joan Scott. When I first knew her she was the assistant to the then Secretary General of the European Commission, David Williamson. As such, she was an important backroom figure in innumerable European Council and other important meetings – and has a rich store of anecdotes as a result! She went on to head up the Bureau des Stages and from there went to the humanitarian aid office, ECHO. But now she, too, has retired. Of course, what’s happening is actually perfectly normal. Generations of officials are constantly retiring and making space for new generations. Like Paul Robeson’s Ol’ Man River, we jes keep rollin’, we keep on rollin’ along…. By the way, Joan, I Googled you for a picture. There was no picture to be found (you modest thing) but when I typed in ‘Joan Scott European Commission’ those mysterious algorithms threw up a nice picture of a tomato, hence the illustration. Have fun, Joan!
The writers’ group met this evening. I read out an exercise I had written up over the summer. The good thing about being older is, I suppose, that you have more memories…
The Po Plain
We were travelling back up from Umbria today. There were traffic jams – there are always traffic jams – around Florence, and then we were scuttling across the vast expanses of the Po plain. It was hot, oppressively hot. Our car’s thermometer indicated 41° C. As the distinctively flat countryside shimmered outside I suddenly realised that, to almost the day, it must have been precisely thirty years since I travelled across that landscape in my first ever excursion ‘abroad’. How I came to take that decision is another story, but going ‘abroad’, going to Italy, was one of the most important, and one of the best, existential decisions of my life. And all of the memories of that first Continue reading
Frequently, of an evening, I get into the following exchange.
‘Did you have a good day at school?’
‘What did you get up to?’
‘The usual. Lessons. And you?’
‘What did you get up to?’
I exaggerate only slightly. My working life is composed of vast quantities of meetings; with members, with staff, with visitors, alone or in larger numbers, and the hard-working and long-suffering members of my secretariat make a lot of effort to squeeze more meetings into each day. I’m not complaining. A lot of these meetings are very interesting or great fun or both. Also, pace Peter F. Drucker (who once said ‘there are meetings, and then there is work’), all of my meetings are productive because I long ago learnt the trick of making sure of that. That said, the sheer frequency and number of these meetings inevitably means that undistracted reading and undistracted thought get pushed to the extremes – that is, very early in the morning, late in the evening, or at weekends – or, worse, they get neglected. Carving out ‘quality time’ for proper reflection is one of the major challenges of the job. The meetings phenomenon also poses a challenge for me with regard to this blog. I have to be selective in any case, but I can’t keep explaining that I was in yet another meeting. But if you don’t hear from me for a while, that’s where I’ll be; in a meeting!
Today we went for a nice long walk near the river Meuse. At one stage we came to a lock gate and there we saw a yacht, its masts down, waiting for the waters to rise. The first thing to catch our eyes was the name of the boat – No Pasaran. The second was its Swedish flag. As the boat bobbed upwards, we got talking to the two man crew. Yes, they were Swedes. They had started from Stockholm, crossed the Baltic Sea and then made their way via various rivers and canals to Namur. They were heading towards the Rhone, and thence down to the French coast. From there, they planned to sail to Morocco, and then from there across the Atlantic to the West Indies. How long would all of this take? They had no idea and it didn’t matter. Did they need any crew, I asked? I wonder what I would have done if they had said ‘yes’
In a different register, we men (accompanied stoically by N° 1 daughter) went to see G.I. Joe over the weekend. If you want to see very convincing images of the Eiffel Tower falling over, then go. Otherwise, take it from me – don’t.
Di Napoli and Romano and stone
Over the weekend we attended a concert given in an old Baroque village church by a Sicilian artist, Tony di Napoli, together with singer Brigitte Romano. ‘Canti e petri blu pi scacciari i pinzeri’ brought together chants inspired by Sicilian traditional folksongs (and all sung in dialect) and lithophones. What, you ask, are lithophones? They are pieces of stone, struck or rubbed to produce musical notes. Di Napoli used rubber balls on the end of drumsticks and didn’t just strike the stones but also got a deep and melodious sound out of them by rubbing them slowly. The result was a series of wonderfully haunting melodies. How long, I wondered, before we hear them as a film score of some sort?
Sick friend aside, this was a heavy week. On Tuesday, 1st September, the Enlarged Presidency met to discuss a number of strategic issues related to the European elections and the expected arrival in the not-too-distant future of a new Commission. Lisbon Treaty or not, the Committee is well-placed to provide an important supporting role in building up a structured dialogue with civil society. On Tuesday, 2nd September I went to the Rules of Procedure Committee in the morning to speak to a rule change proposed by the administration to align the appointing powers for the President and the Secretary General with the provisions of the staff regulations. In terms of rule changes, it is interesting to compare our institution with the European Parliament. It has a standing committee for changes, whereas in the Committee’s culture rule-changes remain rare and therefore ‘heavy’. That would have been enough for a heavy day, but in the afternoon we had a concertation meeting with the Committee of the Regions and the trades unions to broker a final deal on introducing flexitime. It is a particularity of the joint services arrangement that all such concertations are triangular (between the two institutions and their administrations as well as with the trades unions). Everybody was in constructive mode and a deal was reached, leaving me in an excellent mood to go off and give a talk over dinner to a Brussels Academy high-flyers programme. It was one of those ‘Chatham House rules’ discussions – always enjoyable – but I hope I left them with some curiosity about the European Economic and Social Committee.