Today we were all still bathing in the warm glow created by yesterday evening’s concert. We went for a walk alongside the River Lesse, walking a circular path to the Château of Restreigne and back to Chanly. The autumn trees were spectacularly, vividly beautiful – blazes of red, flashes of yellow, blasts of orange. Later, we drove back to Brussels and in the evening settled down with a jewel of a film, Shine, loosely based on the life of Australian piano genius David Helfgott. The film got a lot of stick for taking liberties with Helgott’s true life story and I can understand how his nearest and dearest might have been hurt. But it is a good story, well told and well acted. Its theme made me think that there are more than enough films about pianos and pianists for there to be a festival on the theme: Polanski’s The Pianist; Jane Campion’s The Piano; Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player;… Indeed, I was going to set faithful readers the challenge of listing more, but then I did a quick search on Wiki and, would you believe it, there is an (incomplete) list there.
This evening the Eynsford Concert Band, on a whistlestop tour of Belgium, played a wonderful concert in one of the old barns surrounding the ancient Château of Lavaux St Anne, just north of the Ardennes forest. The whole thing was such good fun I really don’t know where to begin. The band, all amateurs playing to an extraordinary degree of professionalism, clearly get on so well with one another and brought an infectious sense of good fun with them. They also brought a mobile party, in the form of several crates of excellent Kentish beer, generously shared with the audience after the concert. The ancient and beautiful surroundings of the Château, combined with the skill of conductor John Hutchins, brought out the best in them. Everybody was on song, not least the brilliant clarinet soloist, Linda Merrick. The programme included Sea Hawk (Korngold), Gallimaufry (Woolfenden), Ellerby’s Clarinet Concerto, Bugs (Cichy) and Wagner’s Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral. But to my mind, up there level-pegging with Linda’s brilliant solo, was the band’s rendering of Nigel Clarke’s Heritage Suite, with the composer in the audience (my ‘What Hope Saw’, written to accompany the Suite, got a little outing but was, I suspect, surplus to requirements). Afterwards, there was a reception at which it became clear that everybody, audience and musicians, had thoroughly enjoyed themselves. When the Band’s coach set off back to Brussels it left behind an audience clearly so very happy to have been part of a night to remember in Lavaux St Anne.
Tonight came the quid pro quo for Alien last week. Since we’ve got the box set, N° 2 sprog insisted we should watch Predator. Made six years after Alien, Predator is in effect in another genre and another league, although the basic plot line is the same: super-efficient alien killer takes out one character after another until we are down to… Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Predator). Hmmm… Predator got pasted for its weak plot line and yet it was Arnie who insisted that the plot had to consist of more than a one-on-one between him and the monster. Also, unlike Alien, the plot rockets forwards so fast you don’t have time to notice that you have left your belief suspended whilst all sorts of silly things go on. So; reasonable entertainment of the thrills and spills type – OK for when the weather closes in on the mountains.
This morning I had the great pleasure of giving a talk to the members of the Eynsford Concert Band. They will be playing at a European School this afternoon and in Lavaux St Anne tomorrow (where I will join them). I won’t repeat everything that I told them about the origins of the Union and the integration process but I believe it is impossible to understand the EU if the extraordinary initial (1950) gesture from France to Germany is not understood, together with all of the thinking that went before it about how Europe could avoid further increasingly bloody wars between nation states. In my talk I spoke about the combination of the visionary diplomacy of Schuman and the businessman’s pragmatism of Jean Monnet. As I prepared for the talk I came across the following evocative passages, written by Schuman. I don’t think I was the only person in the room to be moved by the spirit and vision evoked:
‘It is no longer a question of vain words but of a bold act, a constructive act. France has acted and the consequences of its action can be immense. We hope they will be. France has acted primarily for peace and to give peace a real chance.
‘ For this it is necessary that Europe should exist. Five years, almost to the day, after the unconditional surrender of Germany, France is accomplishing the first decisive act for European construction and is associating Germany with this. Conditions in Europe are going to be entirely changed because of it. This transformation will facilitate other action which has been impossible until this day.
‘ Europe will be born from this, a Europe which is solidly united and constructed around a strong framework. It will be a Europe where the standard of living will rise by grouping together production and expanding markets, thus encouraging the lowering of prices.
‘ In this Europe, the Ruhr, the Saar and the French industrial basins will work together for common goals and their progress will be followed by observers from the United Nations. All Europeans without distinction, whether from east or west, and all the overseas territories, especially Africa, which awaits development and prosperity from this old continent, will gain benefits from their labour of peace.’
This evening I accompanied the President, Staffan Nilsson, and the members of the Bureau to an exhibition at the town hall (Hotel de Ville) of Brussels on the subject of ‘Princess Europe; the rape of Europa’. We were shown around the exhibition by its curator, Alain Roba, who has been building up his collection over a period of over thirty-five years. Roba was particularly interesting on how Europa became associated with the continent to which she gave her name and also on how her personality changed, from somebody who was ravished and abducted (the original Greek myth) to somebody who was complicit in the adventure or even a willing lover (the Roman version). My favourite exhibit was the medallion in the illustration. Parthian in origin, it dates from a few years after the death of Jesus Christ. Gazing around the walls of the exhibition room, I saw another good illustration of European history. there were two series of names of monarchs/emperors/dynasties, as follows: Henry I ‘The Warrior’, 1190-1235; Henry II ‘The Magnanimous’, 1235-1248; Henry III ‘The Debonair’, 1248-1261; John I ‘The Victorious’, 1267-1294; John II ‘The Peaceful’, 1294-1312; John III ‘The Triumphant’, 1312-1355. Europe, endless!
This afternoon I chaired the tenth and final, de-briefing, meeting of the task force the administration established to make sure that we did everything we possibly could to facilitate the arrival and integration of the new members of the Committee. In part, it was time for a well-deserved collective pat on the back – all that hard work and good will had richly paid off. In part, it was a matter of making sure that what we have learnt will not be forgotten in five years’ time. And in part it was a matter of identifying those things that we might have done differently or better. Among the many interesting and constructive ideas collected was the proposal that we should organise a similar exercise for all of the members who are leaving, and not just for those who are arriving. Of course, those leaving receive a medal at a special commemorative ceremony and their contribution and work is recognised but it is true that there is also quite a lot of administrative work to be done when our members leave and, subsequently, also they can become active members of our Former Members Association. So; the task force is no more but it has served its purpose well and now we have codified this particular best practise and look forward to the next renewal exercise in five years’ time. In the meantime, our challenge is to maintain the good atmosphere and positive relationship with our new members. I am sure will all rise to it!
I spoke this afternoon to a group of young visitors from North London brought to the Committee by one of our British members, Brenda King (Employers’ Group). This was special for me because ‘North London’ is where I grew up and, indeed, some of the young people around the table came from places that were important or significant to me in one way or another. One of the visitors came from Harlesden. Harlesden! For two months in 1979 I worked in a Smiths Clock Company warehouse in Park Royal. Early every morning I’d get the Bakerloo line train to Harlesden and walk from there to the factory. I have many powerful memories of that time. The job was among the worst I ever had to do – dirty, grimey, repetitious, on occasions dangerous, in unpleasant surroundings and with unpleasant colleagues, and woefully low paid to boot - but the thing I remember most about it was the rich and initially pleasing but ultimately cloying smell of baking biscuits from the McVities factory (now United Biscuits and still there to this day) that could hang over Harlesden like a fur overcoat for days on end. I had great fun with the young Londoners. Their questions were entirely pertinent and they were well-informed. One fellow asked me whether the logic of the integration process was not ultimately federalist. I was guarded in my reply, quoting a Herman van Rompuy interview from the previous day (saying that it wasn’t). But I had misunderstood; my questioner was himself convinced that Europe could only logically survive as a basically federalistic entity. This encouraged me. We should never, ever underestimate people’s common sense. At the end I forgot to say my ‘party piece’ which was, quite simply, that one day one of the North Londoners in that room could end up, just as I had done, working in and for Europe.
To the Palais des Beaux-Arts this evening to hear the Müncher Philharmoniker, under the baton of Christian Thielemann, perform a programme divided, I would say, into four parts. The first was an extract from an opera, Der ferne Klang (The distant sound) by an ‘unknown’ German composer, Franz Schreker; ‘unknown’ because, in large part, his work was declared to be ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime and therefore effectively banned from performance. The second part was a recital, by American soprano Renée Fleming, of five Rückert Lieder by Gustav Mahler. The last of these, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekomen (‘I am lost to the world?’), was beautifully ethereal. Fleming is a darling of the Beaux-Arts crowd and she didn’t disappoint. After the entre-acte, the plat principal was a wonderful performance of Brahm’s 4th symphony. The orchestra pulled out all the stops. To add to the visual, as well as aural, spectacle, Thielemann had a sort of symbiotic relationship of gestures, smiles and encouragements with his first violin, whose energetic performance kept leading to him almost getting to his feet. Great entertainment. Afterwards, somebody who knows about these things told us it was the best performance of Brahms’s 4th that he had ever heard. For me, the evening could have stopped there, with the strains of the instantly recognisable third movement still ringing in my ears. But for an – undoubtedly deserved – encore the orchestra played a great wodge of Wagner. It reminded me of a dinner I once attended where, after a delicious but quite rich dessert, somebody brought out a cassata and we had to eat a slice of that on top of what we had just consumed. On its own, it would undoubtedly have been wonderful, of course. This raises the whole question of ‘appropriate’ encores…
I went to the Hague today, to the Dutch Social and Economic Council (SER), accompanying my new President, Staffan Nilsson, and his Head of Private Office, Rolf Eriksson, to a working meeting with the President of the SER, Alexander Rinnooy Kan, and his Secretary General, Véronique Timmerhuis. A number of points were on the agenda. The SER has graciously agreed to provide the presidency of the network of national economic and social councils and similar institutions of the European Union, to which the EESC also belongs, for 2011. At the same time, European Commission President Barosso recently wrote to the EESC, requesting that it activate the network of national economic and social councils in the context of the Europe2020 Strategy. The SER’s Presidency will include two traditional set-piece meetings; a gathering of the Secretaries-General around May, and a meeting of the Presidents and their Secretaries-General around November. So there was a working discussion about prospects and possible themes and working methods. Alexander Rinnooy Kan gave a truly fascinating account of the Dutch consultative economy model. Truly, a culture of consultation permates the whole of Dutch society. In that context, we were visiting the Netherlands just as the new government finally came into being, and there was a frisson of excitement and speculation about the new political landscape.
To the launching of an exhibition of Swedish art this evening, hosted by our new President, Staffan Nilsson. The art was all modern, though not all of it was contemporary, but it was all very enjoyable. The artists now up on our walls include Iris Causevic, Peter Aeström, Eva Nilsson, Sven Ljungberg, Sven Jonson, Lennart Rodhe, Peter Dahl, Josef Frank, Robert van Bolderick, Inga-Karin Eriksson and Erland Cullberg. The schools of art covered include expressionism, ‘concretism’ and the Halmstad group (surrealism) and the mediums include engravings, paint (oils and acrylics), prints and textiles. In other words, it is a very cleverly curated and rich exhbition and I am very happy that it is going to grace the walls of the flagship building of the Committee for the next two-and-a-half years.