Back to work this morning (well, all right, I admit it; I came in over the weekend to clear my desk) and it felt, in all honesty, like getting into a modern, efficient car; the machinery is there, and it works well. Colleagues were rested and refreshed and, despite the grim, grey, wet, cold weather outside, there was an afterglow of summer sun in the corridors and the meeting rooms. Most reassuringly, the ceiling crisis that I described in my 9 August post has been managed and resolved with exemplary professionalism. Thinking about it, I see a number of reasons as to why what could have been a messy and prolonged affair was handled so well. The first was the existence of a good Business Continuity Plan (something that both I and my counterpart in the Committee of the Regions, Gerhard Stahl, have been working to establish). The second was the presence in Brussels of an excellent Director and his team and other colleagues able to implement the Plan and negotiate with the many different construction companies, insurance companies, etc involved with good will and efficiency. The third was the mutual confidence of the two Committees and of their Secretaries General (buildings and logistics are something our two institutions share) and, thanks to modern technology, the constant accessibility and availability of both SGs when their authorisation or direction was required. If you were to walk into the building today, you could hardly notice that many false ceilings in the meeting rooms elsewhere had been checked and, where necessary, repaired. I think the administrations of both Committees should give themselves a warm pat on the back.
A full-page analysis of climate change issues in today’s Financial Times, ‘Lingering Clouds’, caught my eye. ‘Consensus on dangers,’ says the sub-title, ‘but scientists face a hard task in accounting for margins of error.’ In July I wrote several posts about an extreme weather event that occurred in Belgium and the destruction it caused in the Famennes town of Ciney in particular. Whilst we were on holiday in northern Italy, there were headlines about a ‘mini-hurricane’ that occurred in Como, causing extensive flooding and quite a lot of damage. On our way back up to Belgium on Saturday we stopped for petrol in a Lorraine petrol station and the following headline in the day’s edition of Le Républicain Lorrain leapt out at me: ‘Une tornade balaie le sud de la Moselle.’ An inside article provided an account of the tornado’s path and a series of graphic images showing the damage it had caused. The tornado struck at around midnight and must have been very scary. Just on the basis of these three events – I won’t mention the unseasonal August weather throughout much of Europe nor the Russian and Finnish heat waves nor the floods in Pakistan in China – it seems that something is happening in good old Europe. There are several possibilities. Maybe we use the vocabulary of ‘tornados’ and ‘hurricanes’ more loosely; maybe, just maybe, events like this were always occurring but previously would have been described as ‘violent’ or ‘freak’ storms. Maybe there is a trend to report such events more; maybe, just maybe, they were previously occurring, but not even regional newspapers bothered to report them. But for my money there has been a steady increase in such events, whatever we wish to call them. Since such an increase in extreme weather events was one of the phenomena that climate scientists predicted would occur as a consequence of climate change, maybe we ought to listen more closely to the rest of what they have to say.
I love a good counter-intuitive thesis. The Sunday newspapers today carry reviews of a book entitled 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang that is definitely on my reading list. Ha-Joon Chang is a critic of capitalism, but he is not opposed to it. On the other hand, he is fiercely critical of the way economics has been, as he puts it ‘positively harmful for people for the past three decades.’ Chang’s reported intention is to show how capitalism actually operates, rather than as it is pictured by economists and politicians. So I come to that counter-intuitive thesis; according to Chang, the washing machine changed the world far more than the internet. I did a double-take when I first read that but the more I think about it the more I see that it could be true; the washing machine, that is, together with disposable nappies… ‘Discuss,’ as they say.
I have had two occasional companions this summer, one musical and one poetical. The musical companion, a birthday present (thank you ED) was a double-disc recording of David Bowie’s 2003-4 Reality Tour. The album, of thirty songs, was recorded over two nights in Dublin in November 2003. Bowie was at his stupendous best and I just wish I could have been there. The range of the tracks is in itself a graphic illustration of why Bowie has been so influential in so many different genres and to so many different generations. Whilst performing on that same tour, in Scheessel, Germany, in June 2004, Bowie suffered a chest pain which was soon diagnosed as an acutely blocked artery. He underwent an emergency angioplasty in Hamburg and the rest of the tour was cancelled. Bowie has since made a few musical appearances, but there have been no more concerts, no more tours and no more albums. He is not a total recluse (he was recently spotted at a Jeff Beck concert in New York) but his creative output has dwindled to next to nothing. Those who got to see Bowie at his prime on his Reality Tour could not have imagined how privileged they were. The poetic companion was Mark Strand‘s New Selected Poems. I was introduced to Strand by an American friend (thank you, LE) whose favourite poem is the wonderful ‘Our Masterpiece is The Private Life’. Strand is excellent on relationships. To give just one example (from ‘Coming to This’); ‘We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry of each other…’ The heavy industry of each other; it takes a poet to sum up in six words the key to long-lasting relationships! Brilliant stuff.
We got up at dawn this morning and walked and scrambled up to the summit of Monte Bregagno (2,107 metres). This was an altogether stiffer proposition than last Monday’s Monte Berlinghera. There is no reliable map, there are plenty of well-used goat-trails, and there are no signs to indicate the correct path. Indeed, sometimes there is no path and the walker has to aim roughly up the mountain’s scrubby and screedy flanks. The summit remained obstinately stuck in cloud but we enjoyed some stupendous views on the way up. We also saw two big wild boar within spitting distance and, for some added spice, watched a noisy rockfall not far from us. We were constantly and agiley accompanied by half-wild goats but saw not another living soul from beginning to end of our six hour adventure. A lot of the paths in this region are prehistoric and when the cloud closes in and deadens the clatter of boots on rocks there is a palpable sense of something ancient about such places.
Next on my summer reading list was Joseph Campbell‘s Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal (I am warmly grateful to Andreas for the present). This is a rich feast of a book. Campbell (1904-1987), a professor of comparative mythology, is now primarily renowned for his inspirational 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A nonprofit Foundation was set up after his death to continue exploring the fields of mythology and comparative religion and in 2003 the Foundation published this selection of edited transcripts of Campbell’s lectures. Collectively, they represent a wonderful comparative introduction to Eastern myth and religion. There are too many fascinating observations and insights for me to start quoting from them here. Rather, I would like to quote four food-for-thought passages which illustrate Campbell’s underlying philosophy. (1) ‘I think what happens here in the West is that the mythological archetypal symbols have come to be interpreted as facts. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus went to heaven by ascension. Unfortunately, in our age of scientific skepticism we know these things did not actually happen, and so the mythic forms are called falsehoods. The word myth now means falsehood, and so we have lost the symbols and the mysterious world of which they speak.’ (2) ‘At present, our culture has rejected this world of symbology. It has gone into an economic and political phase, where spiritual principles are completely disregarded. You may have practical ethics and that kind of thing, but there is no spirituality in any aspect of our contemporary Western civilization. Our religious life is ethical, not mystical. The mystery has gone…’ (3) ‘The mythology of a people presents a grandiose poetic image, and like all poetic images, it refers past itself to principles that are mysterious and ineffable.’ (4) ‘In these traditions, mythology was not an account of pseudo-historical facts that are supposed to have happened somewhere else, long ago; rather, each myth is a poetic revelation of the mystery…’ In effect, Campbell was an extremely learned student of poetry.
I try to read at least one work-related book every summer. Last year it was the disappointing Struck by Lightning and the slightly more satisfying and substantive Tipping Point. This year I have just finished reading Arthur Battram’s Navigating Complexity, which was a cult read some ten years ago, I think. Ummm… One of the blurbs describes it as an ‘easy-to-read overview’, and I suppose that just about sums it up. This is a book deliberately designed for the businessman’s shelf and occasionally for his bedside table. Everything is in bite-size morsels and Battram regurgitates in layman’s language a series of scientific discoveries and theories which may be of use as metaphors but cannot be of direct application. He clearly didn’t expect anybody to read the book through: we learn about coyotes in the Bronx, central heating systems as ‘closed’ systems and about Rank Xerox’s use of walkie-talkies three times each. There is also ghastly stuff like the following: ‘Possibility space is an extended metaphor for both the exploration of possibilities and the design of space for the creation of possibilities. One could say that fitness landscapes exist in a hilly part of possibility space.’ Quite. Notwithstanding this sort of pseudo-scientific blather, I confess to having enjoyed the book in bits. The central thesis of complex adaptive systems is a useful one. And I was happy to learn that I was already following his four concluding recommendations, including ‘be a wider reader’: ‘Broaden your range of inputs: read outside your field, read some fiction or even some science fiction… Look at the strangest things you’ve read and think how they might relate to the work of your organisation.’ Aye, aye, sir!
Summer reading again. This time something much heavier, if shorter. Jacques Chessex won the Prix Goncourt in 1973 and was considered one of Switzerland’s greatest authors. He was variously a novelist, poet, essayist and won the French Literature Grand Prix of the Académie Française. In October last year this grand old man of Swiss letters died of a heart attack at the age of 75 whilst, characteristically, defending Roman Polanski in a public discussion. Earlier the same year he had published a novella. In the tautest, tightest, sparsest prose, Un juif pour l’exemple tells the chilling and true story of how, in 1942 Switzerland, a group of misfits and Nazi sympathisers in the bourgeois town of Payerne chose almost at random a local Jewish cattle farmer and killed and butchered him as a sort of tribute to Hitler, a few days before his birthday. Vain and clumsy, and convinced that Switzerland would soon be under Gauleiter rule, the assassins were rapidly caught and condemned to long prison sentences. Why should Chessex have chosen to write such an account? His answer comes midway through the novella: born and brought up in Payerne, and eight years old at the time of the crime, he writes of his compulsion ‘to explore events that have never ceased to poison my memory and left me ever since with an irrational sense of sin.’ Eight years old when the events took place, Chessex sat in class with the children of the assassins and of the policemen and judge. Indeed, his father was the headmaster and, as a fierce anti-Nazi, was on the list of potential targets. In telling this story shortly before he died, Chessex was not only seeking to expunge that irrational sense of guilt but also to tell us solemnly that what happened to Arthur Bloch in Payerne could have happened anywhere.
Impatient with the continued poor weather, we got up early and scrambled up to the top of Monte Berlinghera before the bad weather could close in again. It’s not the biggest of mountains and certainly not the tallest (+/- 1,950 metres) but it has a satisfyingly mountain-like shape and the views it affords – down the Lago di Como to Bellagio and Varenna; up the Valtellina towards Morbegno; up the Valchiavenna, with Chiavenna itself a miniature town in the valley below; the Swiss Alps - are stupendous. Just by the summit are the ruins of a viewing platform and, having been to the Forte Montecchio, we knew that this was one of the Fort’s observation platforms to help the gunners’ accuracy. It must have been a great hardship posting in the winter! The rain began again as we made our way back down but by then we had had an eagle’s eye view of the world and so were glowing inwardly with the satisfaction of the effort and the reward.
Yesterday evening we watched Hitchcock’s The Birds, an intriguing work of art. I wanted to know more, particularly about the abrupt ending, so I surfed on the internet and came across a wonderful monograph, ‘The Day of the Claw: A Synoptic Account of Hitchcock’s The Birds’, by an Australian expert on Hitchcock, Ken Mogg. What Mogg very cleverly demonstrates is that Hitchcock’s and Evan Hunter’s screen play was not only, as acknowledged in the credits, based on Daphne Du Maurier’s 1952 short story of the same name, but its inspiration was also drawn, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, from a series of works of fiction including: The Food of the Gods (1904), by H.G. Wells; The Terror (1917), by Arthur Machen; Our Feathered Friends (1931), by Philip Macdonald; Le Hussard sur le toit (1951), by Jean Giono; The Mind Thing (1961), by Frederic Brown; and, most strikingly of all, The Birds (1936), by Frank Baker. But Mogg is not interested in implying plagiarism but, rather, in demonstrating the underlying philosophical and cultural influences which these works all shared to a lesser or greater extent and also in highlighting the very deliberate and considered genius of Hitchcock. The director once famously declared that film critics who ignored ‘pure cinema’ and concerned themselves only with the content of his films were like a gallery visitor who wonders whether Paul Cézanne’s apples are sweet or sour. Mogg’s monograph, an unexpected and delightful diversion, demonstrates why Hitchcock is considered a genius by his own kind.