Ever since we moved into our neighbourhood some twenty years ago I have followed the same weekday and Saturday early morning ritual of buying my newspapers at the newsagent’s shop on the corner of my street. It has been my first reality check of the day. Over the years, the owner, Pascale, and her clients (for we all know each other) have – briefly, fleetingly - discussed local, national and international affairs, from the latest alleged bêtise of Prince Laurent to the state of the world economy to local crime and unemployment, and so on. Her clients are a mix of city workers of one sort or another (the shop is on a rat run into the city) and local people (there is a bus stop just outside the shop). Pascale has been much more than a shopkeeper. The postmen drop off their big sacks in her shop. She holds our big parcels for us until we can pick them up. And, like Taseer on another corner in the same street, she ministers to her flock. We have also, inevitably, followed Pascale’s life – the sad death of her mother, her sons’ passage to adulthood, the dogs (a labrador and a basset hound), new love, and a beautiful baby and now, alas, her decision to shut up shop and lead a new life. We are all so very happy for her and so very sad for ourselves. Today is the shop’s last day and, characteristically, Pascale is offering all her clients breakfast and, this evening, an aperitif. We are all bereft. Verily, all good things must come to an end…
Leading on from my post about Claerbout’s approach to time, this weekend I read Marcus Aurelius’s stoic masterpiece, his Meditations. A colleague, GN (to whom grateful thanks), recommended the work to me some time back and I have at last got around to reading it, though it would seem timely. There is something deeply satisfying, I find, about aphoristic wisdom and Aurelius is at his best when at his most aphoristic. I particularly liked the following (not one of the more common quotations): ‘…a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values.’ And what of ‘It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible’? I’ll finish this post with one of the better known quotations… ‘A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles in the path? Go round them. That is all you need, without going on to ask, ‘So why are these things in the world anyway?” Why did I mention Claerbout in the same context? It is because Aurelius is wonderfully lucid about the paradox of human lives, which seem so significant, subjectively-speaking, and which are so insignificant, objectively-speaking: ‘…how brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.’ I love that phrase, ‘an equal infinity’! That, I think, is what Claerbout is also trying to show in such works as Long Goodbye.
We finally got around to watching The King’s Speech this evening. Mmmm…. It’s good, well-scripted, well-rendered, well-acted, well-filmed but, well, is it that good? This post would have been more critical if I had not first read the account of how David Seidler came to develop the screenplay (which I found humbling and touching) but, even so, I cannot help but feel that this film, like its chief competitor, True Grit, has been over-hyped. And, I ask myself, when should poetical licence stop? This film teeters dangerously on the edge of a sort-of Disneyland Britain, where Winston Churchill is ever-present in Buckingham Palace, much-loved and always on the right side of every discussion. Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham-Carter dart hither and thither, eyes a-twinkle, witticisms at the ready, corgis yap good naturedly and the future Queen Elizabeth II is already and forever completely obsessed with horses. Bertie (soon to be King George V) even obligingly makes a timelessly witty remark about the lack of connection between royal princes’s brains and their mouths (now, who could they possibly be thinking of?). Oh, well. I saw it, and grumbled all the way home about historical inaccuracies. But for me there was one excellent performance in the film that hasn’t been loudly touted and yet deserves to be: Geoffrey Rush, playing Lionel Logue, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist. In reality, he was successful and became the King’s lifelong friend – that much is completely accurate. Rush turned in an excellent performance, I thought, and it’s a shame that he didn’t receive at least some recognition for that in the form of an award.
To the Wiels contemporary art gallery this morning to see David Claerbout’s The Time that Remains, the first major retrospective of his work in Belgium. Initially trained as a painter, Claerbout works with photographic projections, film and video. His trademark is slow precision (some images change almost imperceptibly) designed to render time palpable. He is not without a sense of humour. His earliest work in this show Cat and Bird in peace (1996), is a real-time recording of a sitting cat and a standing budgerigar side by side in a cage. The budgie looks from side to side occasionally and the cat yawns, but otherwise nothing happens; there should be tension, but there is none. In his American Car (2004), on the other hand, the viewer senses tension but in reality there is none. Two men sit in a car in the pouring rain, waiting and staring at a particular spot. It seems like a stake-out and we await the denouement, but it isn’t and so there is not. My favourite is Long Goodbye (2007). In slo-mo, a handsome forty-something woman emerges from a door and carries a tea tray to a terrace table. The camera slowly recedes, and we see she is on the terrace of a villa. Then she senses the camera (us, the viewer) and walks slowly towards it, waving goodbye. But as all of this slowly occurs, the day passes at great speed, with shadows lengthening and night falling. The more we want to know the woman and the place, the less we can. It is both simple and profound.
At midday today I accompanied the EESC’s Vice-President with responsibility for budgetary affairs, Jacek Krawczyk, to the European Commission’s headquarters in the Berlaymont for a meeting with Janusz Lewandowski, the Commissioner with responsibility for budget and financial programming. We went to present the Committee’s draft budget for 2012, as adopted by the Bureau on 14 March, so it was a courtesy call of sorts. But there was of course a discussion during which the Commissioner described graphically the path he must carefully pick between what he knows is necessary and what he thinks will be possible. Tough times undoubtedly lie ahead. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering about the topsy-turvy world in which we live. It is a world in which the EU and its institutions which, by their nature, cannot run deficits, are having to make cuts – and this just a year after the Lisbon Treaty should logically have led to greater ambitions. It is a world in which member state governments are imposing austerity programmes and making swingeing cuts to public sectors, and where civil servants are losing their jobs. (Today’s Guardian newspaper ran a sobering six-page spread on ‘the true cost of the cuts’, detailing fifty clearly very worthy causes in the UK that will lose some or all of their support.) It is against such a backdrop that the EU’s future financing will now have to be negotiated and it is clearly going to be tough.
I have been reading around the recent tragic events in Japan. In particular, comparisons have been made with the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and so I have read, with morbid fascination, the wikipedia account of that episode. If Tom Wolfe were writing a novel set in a nuclear power generator, this would be it. A still unexplained mechanical failure, followed by a stuck valve, triggered a chain of errors and misunderstandings and other failures that ultimately led to a partial core nuclear meltdown and the release of a large quantity of radioactive gases. The accident inspired Charles Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory in which ‘an accident occurs, resulting from an unanticipated interaction of multiple failures in a complex system’. It’s a thoroughly depressing theory because it argues that accidents like the one at Three Mile Island are ‘unexpected, incomprehensible, uncontrollable and unavoidable’. Meanwhile, I read in this week’s edition of the New Statesman that the Japanese earthquake is estimated to have shifted the earth on its axis by 6.5 inches and caused it to rotate faster, shortening the day by about 1.8 millionths of a second.
I spent a lot of the day, off-and-on, in a major conference organised by the EESC’s Various Interests Group on the theme of ‘What are the prospects for participatory democracy in Europe?’ The conference, chaired by Luca Jahier (Italy), the Chairman of the Various Interests Group, first looked back to what had been achieved and how the whole construction of Article 11 in the Lisbon Treaty had come about, then looked at various sectoral experiences, before looking forward and drawing up a road map for the promotion of the involvement of civil society in the future. An interesting contribution came from Janis Emmanouilidis, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, who focused in on where civil society (and EESC) involvement could be most fruitful. He identified five areas: issues that simply can no longer be dealt with at member state level alone; neglected policy issues; issues of immediate and direct relevance to citizens; forward-looking strategic issues; and areas of specific expertise. And EP Vice-President Isabelle Durant made a telling point, based on her own politial experiences, of not believing that participation is necessarily better at the local level. There were so many rich and interesting contributions that I cannot start to cite them in this short post. On the other hand, I would like to record Jane Morrice (UK)’s witty definition of the EESC: ‘an information super-highway, of experience and expertise; a broad band of diversity, creativity and culture; and a wikipedia of wisdom and understanding!’
This afternoon the Committee hosted a high-level hearing with representatives of various European civil society organisations on the next multi-annual financial framework for the European Union. Among the guest speakers were Janusz Lewandowski, the Commissioner for Financial Programming and the Budget, and Ms Eniko Gyori, the Hungarian Minister of State for European Affairs (representing the Hungarian Presidency). The hearing was organised in the context of an opinion being prepared by Henri Malosse (France, President of the Employers’ Group) and his co-rapporteur Gerard Dantin (France, Employees’ Group). Lewandowski expressed hope for an early agreement, pointing out that absence of agreement would lead to far from optimal accelerated budgets later. In the same context he pointed out that, within the existing seven-year framework, it was normal that budgets should grow, as programmes reached maturity. However, he acknowledged that a middle way now had to be found between ‘the mood of the time and what is necessary’. Eniko Gyori opined that letters from the net contributors had become a familiar rite of passage but that what was needed in the first instance was a policy-driven debate. A broad consensus emerged in the ensuing exchanges. As Malosse put it, the EU’s budget is not a matter of figures. Behind the figures lies a project and Europe’s ambitions, and these should be defended. That project includes common values and an inclusive, collegial approach. Last but not least, a far more pro-active case should be made for the benefits and efficiency of money spent at EU level; despite caricatures to the contrary, EU expenditure represents economies, synergies and efficiencies rather than additional costs.
Two days ago the Financial Times carried a deeply touching article about the terrible dilemma that had faced many of the fishermen on the coast where the 11 March tsunami struck. When the alarm came, these men had a choice. They could head immediately to higher ground (assuming such ground was near enough), knowing that they would be leaving their livelihoods – their boats and equipment – behind. Or they could try to sail out to sea before the waves struck, in the hope of riding the waves and getting beyond them. What do you do? As one villager put it, ‘Do you think about your life, or do you think about your livelihood?’ Many of those who thought about their livelihoods lost their lives. But, just as cruelly, many of those who thought about their lives have lost their livelihoods.
When, as a young official, I worked in the European Commission’s team managing relations with the European Parliament, my (Strasbourg) plenary session week always began with an early Monday morning train ride down to Strasbourg. It was early enough to see deer in the fields and foxes returning after a night’s hunting and the line ran through two regions of great beauty, the Ardennes and the Vosges. The train also rattled – as it still does – through various towns and cities. One of these was the town of Profondeville (literal translation; ‘Deeptown’). I am being unfair to Profondeville and its inhabitants, I know, but nothing ever seemed to be happening there. I wrote a poem about it, a sort of Betjeman pastiche, which has just been published in an anthology. The copyright remains with me, though, so here it is:
How deep run your waters?
And how still?
Gazing down from the Strasbourg train,
I glimpse your emotions through the rain.
As we furrow past, splashing light on your trees,
I sense low drama and ordinary deeds.
Those garage doors, so tightly shut!
That toy abandoned on a lawn;
A dent in a bumper, grass savagely cut,
And netted windows mysteriously drawn.
Wide, empty roads, a rural lane;
An ominous crow, and a sleep-drugged dog;
Domestic froth flooding from a drain,
And ivy strangling a fire-scarred log.
There’s carnage behind the deserted station;
A ploughed-up field and a grubbed-up plantation.
And then we are through and racing away,
As your sleep-shocked inhabitants face up to the day.
Oh! Profondeville, Profondeville!
How deep run your waters?
And how still ?