On my way out to Berthem with the dog this morning, I stopped off at Leefdaal’s village church cemetery to pay my respects at two Commonwealth war graves (picture). My better half had told me that they were there. Company Quartermaster Sergeant John Fenwick and Guardsman Charles Albert Vincent Seymour died on 14 May 1940 in a bombardment in nearby Korbeekstraat. Leefdaal is a pleasant, sleepy place and, despite the pill boxes and bunkers out in the surrounding fields, it is difficult to imagine war coming this way. But, thanks to Pathé’s archives, we don’t have to imagine it. At this link there are over four minutes of images of a refugee stream pouring through the village and of burning buildings and of Coldstream Guard Regiment soldiers helping the refugees in various ways. The film was taken on or about 14 May 1940, and I just wonder whether, among all those helpful soldiers, we might just be inadvertently gazing at the last images of John Fenwick and Charles Seymour…
Today, 16 June, was Bloomsday. I listened to the beginning and the end of a radio dramatisation of Joyce’s Ulysses, performed to mark the day. Of course, the work stands on its own two feet but I confess I got particular interest out of listening to a lightly fictionalised account of events that took place in the Martello tower I visited just over a month ago. I shall never read nor hear these lines now without remembering the place itself: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently-behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: Introibo ad altare Dei. Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called up coarsely: Come up, Kinch. Come up, you fearful Jesuit.’
To Wiels this afternoon to see Jeremy Deller’s Joy in People. A relatively young (born 1966) British artist, Deller is deliberately ephemeral and avoids the commodification of his work, so this exhibition is as much a set of documentary and photographic reports on his works as it is about the works themselves. He is perhaps chiefly known for a 2001 re-enactment of the iconic 18 June 1984 Battle of Orgreave. I found the film about the re-enactment mesmerising. The 1,000-odd extras included some 800 ‘professional’ historical re-enactors, together with 200 local people, including former miners and former policeman and one man who had been both a miner and then a policeman. Their quiet reflectiveness, and the miner/policeman’s acknowledgement that he had been a pawn in a deliberately staged battle in a far broader struggle between the state and some of its people, contrasted with the cheerful boisterousness of the re-enactors. But even the latter fell into quiet appreciation of just how intimidating galloping police horses or the sound of hundreds of batons on riot shields can be and, yes, there was Tony Benn, cheerfully reminding everybody how the BBC had in its reporting reversed the order of events, so that the stone throwing was portrayed as the provocation rather than a self-defensive reaction to the initial charge of the horses. No Brit of a certain age will be unmoved by the cumulative effect of this work. And yet, given the current situation, perhaps the most memorable work on display is a set of three hand-operated embossers. With these Deller embossed bank notes with messages in relief such as ‘I’m sorry’. As he puts it ‘It has this random life that you have no control over. Once you start stamping things on money, it starts out on this weird journey and you don’t know where it ends up.’
To l’Ancienne Belgique this evening to see Mr Laurie Anderson, aka Lou Reed, on his ‘Vu to Lulu’ tour. Reed is seventy and, frankly, it shows. He is slightly doddery on his legs and is cossetted by the loving roadies. Clearly, this is a body that has been lived in – a lot. I feared the standard formula for ageing rock stars: tight backing band, maximum amplification, reduction to three power chords, occasional inaudible vocals. But Reed is feistier than that. Once the crowd was warmed up, the R&R (Heroin, Waiting for the Man) gave way to his more lyrical, studied work (culminating with Walk on the Wild Side and Sad Song). Sweet Jane came in the encores. I’m glad I went. I saw Reed a long time ago, in Bologna in 1980, and was disappointed (I recall long waits between songs and obscure material, with a moody Reed wearing glasses and reading his lyrics). This concert more than made up for that. Friends meanwhile texted me the latest news from Kiev (phew!).
Later this morning I sort of went back to school. As regular readers of this blog will know, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions pool considerable quantities of their resources in an exemplary arrangement that enables them to achieve synergies and economies of scale. The Translation Management Unit, in the Committees’ Joint Services, is a good example of how, in practical terms, those synergies and economies are achieved. Today, the Unit held an open day and generously and thoughtfully invited colleagues to come and learn how they do what they do. So we heard from the Unit’s Head, Eric Lavigne, and three of its stalwarts, Conrad Toft, Didier Bourguignon and Hannah Riley about how they manage workflows generated by demands coming from two busy institutions and how, in addition, they think ahead to how they might make their gleaming machine even more efficient. Most impressive.
I continued with my ‘meeting the troops’ series this morning, enjoying a working breakfast with the Working Conditions, Rights and Obligations Unit of the European Economic and Social Committee. As the Unit’s title suggests, the colleagues here effectively look after the rest of us, from (for example) arranging legal and financial paperwork required by the Belgian government for EU officials through establishing various allowances to welcoming new staff, supporting staff and looking after our time management system. The Unit also houses the medical and social service. I learnt a huge amount from our discussions. I was particularly interested in the always pertinent observations made about the challanges facing the administrations of small institutions. The Unit has to both develop and implement policies, whilst more generally keeping ‘the show on the road’. I repeated my view, sincerely held, that the EESC’s administration is highly efficient, in no small part because of the professionalism of its staff, inlcuding the staff in this Unit. Without them, the administration simply wouldn’t exist. Punto e basta!
The EESC’s Consultative Commission on Industrial Change today celebrated its tenth anniversary with a conference on the theme of ‘continuous sustainable industrial change’. The first session, chaired by CCMI Chairman Joge Pegado Liz (Various Interests Group, Portugal) and opened by EESC President Staffan Nilsson, heard from former European Commission Vice-President Viscount Etienne Davignon and Professor Ruggero Ranieri (Universities of Padua and Perugia), together with Goke Frerichs, who was EESC President at the time of the CCMI’s creation, and Enrico Gibellieri, currently a delegate to the CCMI but formerly the last ever President of the European Coal and Steel Community’s consultative committee. Their accounts together represented a fascinating slice of history. Davignon expressed sadness that the ECSC had gone (‘sometimes, when people put order in the house, they throw out good furniture,’ he said). He pointed to some of the ECSC’s special features: the member states needed a majority to reject the High Authority’s proposals; the ECSC had its own resources and autonomy in deciding how to use them; and the consultative committee, which also represented consumers, had a genuine power of concertation. Ruggero, a historian, explained that the 50 year expiry limit for the Treaty of Paris was one of a series of concessions that Monnet had made during the negotiations in order to maintain the purity of his revolutionary High Authority. And Gibellieri added that, given that there had been only twenty years between the First and the Second World Wars, a guarantee of fifty years’ peace probably seemed very generous. Davignon’s lucid analysis tangentially referred to the current situation: ‘if you decide to act together,’ he concluded, ‘you give yourself the instruments to act together.’ I had one additional pleasure: as PhD researchers, Professor Ranieri and I were direct contemporaries at the European University Institute.
I had a working lunch today with Willy Helin, who recently retired as Head of the European Commission’s Brussels Representation. A larger-than-life character, Willy served as spokesperson to various Commissioners, from Etienne Davignon to Karl-Heinz Narjes, Martin Bangemann, Filippo Pandolfi and Karel Van Miert. Willy then headed up the European Commission’s Washington representation before coming back to finish an illustrious communications career at the Commission’s Brussels representation. Willy also found time to write a novel, aimed at teenagers, about the origins of the European integration process, L’enfant de Berlin la vie tumultueuses de Maximilien Ebert, and is an active founding member of a charity, GIVE EUR-HOPE, specifically designed to encourage European officials to give to charitable works against poverty. I wanted to pick Willy’s brains about how the European Economic and Social Committee, as the house of organised civil society, might be better integrated in and with its local surroundings. As I gaze out of my office window at the European Parliament complex I am often reminded of the observation someone once made that the European institutions are like futuristic space ships that have landed in Etterbeek and Ixelles but have little if anything to do with the people who live around them. As I expected, Willy was full of ideas and has happily agreed to come and talk to our Communication Group members in the autumn.
This morning to Bruges, to the Groeninge Museum to listen to a lecture given by Laurent Busine, Director of MAC’s at Le Grand Hornu, and curator of an exhibition that opened today at the Hospitaalmuseum, Tant d’amours et tant de larmes. The exhibition is an essay on mortality, with works of art from various periods illustrating one of Busine’s central arguments, that the representation of death differs from society to society, and that of grief and pain from culture to culture, but somehow these experiences and sentiments also transcend any particular culture or society and so always bring us into the commonality of humanity. The stars of the show are, without a doubt, ‘Les pleurants‘, a set of 15 century carved alabaster mourners that normally stand sentinel around the base of the tomb of Philippe le Hardi in Dijon. The craftsmen who sculpted these exquisite figures took great pride in the interior detail of folds in robes and faces under hoods that they knew (or thought they knew) nobody would ever see. Now, we can admire the loving work of these anonymous geniuses. The lecture, like the exhibition, shifted to Giacometti and on to various representations of mortality, or intimations of mortality. It ends, beautifully, poignantly, evocatively, enigmatically, with David Claerbout’s The Long Goodbye. In his lecture, Laurent Busine summarised its magic brilliantly. When the woman senses the viewer’s/viewers’ presence and waves at us as night suddenly, rapidly falls we will never know whether she has had a pre-sentiment of her own mortality or of ours, or whether she will pre-decease us or survive us. But what is just as certain as our births is that we will all die.
In tonight’s European Championship match at Lviv between Germany and Portugal, in the so-called ‘group of death’, the word ‘Chelsea’ was much on our French commentator’s lips. This was because, despite having such talented players as Ronaldo and Nani in his side, the trainer, Paulo Bento, had clearly opted to play defensively for a draw at worst, leaving Ronaldo and Nani to act as opportunistic (and frustrated) stilettos (as Didier Drogba had done). What is more, Bento’s tactics seemed to be working. Indeed, so frustrated was the German trainer, Joachim Löw, that by the 70th minute he was about to substitute his centre-forward, Mario Gomez, hoping that his replacement, Miroslav Klose, would find a way through. And then, in the 72nd minute, Gomez got onto the end of a cross and headed the ball in, completely wrong-footing Rui Patricio. Gomez was duly substituted, in the 80th minute, and Germany held on to their lead to win 1-0. Not reading Portuguese, I cannot know what the Portuguese sports pundits made of it all, but the French commentators were very critical of Bento’s ‘waste’ of his team’s talent. And yet nobody would have criticised Bento for a boring match if his tactics had paid off – as was so nearly the case.