Brain cloudy blues

Brain cloudy blues

‘My brain is cloudy, my soul is upside down …’
– Bob Wills, ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’

The sun is molten in a shimmering sky. But we are driving through mounds of snow, banked in drifts along the carriageways and lanes: drifts of Ox-eye daisies. For mile after mile along the North Wales Expressway there are tens of thousands of these gently swaying flowers that seem to thrive – often deliberately planted, I think – turning what would otherwise be an extended wasteland along roadside verges into a summer’s visual delight. When I was a child in Cheshire these flowers – so bright that they appear to ‘glow’ in the evening – were commonly known as Moon Daisies. Continue reading “Brain cloudy blues”

Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe

Yesterday we gathered together a few sacks of winter clothing – heavy sweaters, thick trousers, waterproof gear, that sort of thing – and stuffed a donation into an envelope.  There’s a van leaving Liverpool this weekend, bound for Greece, driven by volunteers from Mersey Aid. That heavy sweater I no longer wear because the climate change winters here are always warm may end up on the back of someone like me – a teacher from Homs, or a medic from Damascus. So little we can do as individuals.

Today the Guardian website features a comprehensive and deeply worrying overview of the refugee crisis. In Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe, Guardian journalists report on the deepening humanitarian crisis that is unfolding along the refugee trail from the war-torn Middle East as winter sets in – from the Greek island of Lesbos to the Macedonian border and beyond. Continue reading “Winter is coming: the new crisis for refugees in Europe”

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story

Last week, at Budapest’s Keleti station, the Observer’s Emma Graham-Harrison mingled with the refugees hunkered down on the concourse there. In today’s paper she retells eight of the stories she heard from those fleeing persecution and war. This is one of them. Continue reading “From Keleti station, Budapest: one refugee story”

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark

During the last few days a poem has been cropping up frequently in Facebook posts.  Written by the young British-Somali poet, Warsan Shire, Home speaks with the utmost clarity of the reasons why the many, many thousands now risking their lives on the Mediterranean, tramping through the Balkans, or along inhospitable roads in Hungary leave their homes: Continue reading “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark”

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck

This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold. Continue reading “Two novels by Jenny Erpenbeck”

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Summer in the city: poppies and a sense of foreboding

Poppies 2

In the last couple of weeks a surprising sight has materialised in the middle of Liverpool: a field of poppies, swathes of red flowers densely massed against a background of green.  It’s a stunning sight, but also one that is, in this glorious summer overshadowed by the storm clouds of war in eastern Europe and the Middle East, inescapably symbolic.

How did this poppy meadow, on derelict land below the Anglican cathedral, get here?  Earlier this year, members of Liverpool’s Chinese community sowed native poppy and cornflower seeds on vacant land stretching from the Cathedral towards the Chinese Arch. The act was part of a project linking local business and community groups with partners in China. The land was sown with locally grown wildflower seed from Landlife, the local environmental organisation that fifteen years ago established the National Wildflower Centre located near to the Liverpool end of the M62.

The poppies have flourished in recent weeks, and after catching sight of them from the bus, the other evening I walked down and captured these shots on my phone’s camera .

Poppies 4 Poppies 3

Red poppies: symbol of hope and good fortune in China

It was a glorious evening (a group of us, old friends from university days, sat outside Camp and Furnace savouring the warmth as darkness fell); so why, as this lovely summer stretches on, have I felt a vague sense of foreboding?

Clearly, the feeling was reinforced by the sight of those poppies with their inescapable associations (at least for the British). But, more than that, I couldn’t get out of my mind – as terrible news emerged from Gaza and eastern Ukraine – the feeling that we might be living through a re-run of another glorious summer, exactly one hundred years ago.  This is Paul Fussell writing about the summer of 1914 in The Great War and Modern Memory:

Although some memories of the benign last summer before the war can be discounted as standard romantic retrospection turned even rosier by egregious contrast with what followed, all agree that the prewar summer was the most idyllic for many years.  It was warm and sunny, eminently pastoral.  One lolled outside on a folding canvas chaise, or swam, or walked in the countryside.  One read outdoors, went on picnics, had tea served from a white wicker table under the trees.  You could leave your books out on the table all night without fear of rain.  Siegfried Sassoon was busy fox hunting and playing serious county cricket.  Robert Graves went climbing in the Welsh mountains.  Edmund Blunden took country walks near Oxford, read Classics and English, and refined his pastoral diction.  Wilfred Owen was teaching English to the boys of a French family living near Bordeaux.  David Jones was studying illustration at Camberwell Art School. And for those like Strachey who preferred the pleasures of the West End, there were splendid evening parties, as well as a superb season for concerts, theatre, and the Russian ballet.

For the modern imagination that last summer has assumed the status of a permanent symbol ofor anything innocently but irrevocably lost. […] Out of the world of summer, 1914, marched a unique generation.  It believed in Progress and Art and in no way doubted the benignity even of technology. The word machine was not yet invariably coupled with the word gun.

Never such innocence again. It appears that I’m not the only one sensing the parallel.  In yesterday’s Guardian, Larry Elliott explained why he thinks the crisis following the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine  will not escalate into a full-scale economic war.  Europe’s energy requirements and economies are too intertwined with Russia:

The European Union will talk tough but fall shy of imposing wide-ranging financial and trade sanctions as punishment for the Kremlin’s alleged role in the attack on the Malaysia Airlines jet. Meanwhile, hopes that Putin is putting pressure on the separatists in Ukraine boosted share prices.

And yet. Elliott, too recalls the idyllic summer of 1914, when a little local difficulty in Serbia seemed just a tiny cloud on the distant horizon:

Events of a century ago show that the optimism of markets is not always to be trusted. It was only in the last week of July 1914 – once Austria-Hungary had delivered its ultimatum to Serbia – that bourses woke up to the fact that the assassination in Sarajevo had the potential to lead to a war involving all the great European powers. Up until then, the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was seen as merely a local affair and nothing to worry about.

Still, life goes on, the weather is glorious, so we head off to the beach.

Beach 1 Beach 2Beach 4

‘Hot town, summer in the city’: we head for the beach at Formby

The thing about poppies is, they will grow anywhere.

Poppies 1

Europe is ill

Europe is ill

Marine Le Pen

Marine Le Pen’s Front National party came first in France

The European election results reveal clearly that Europe is ill (to borrow the title of an essay by Perry Anderson in the current London Review of Books).  The symptoms of this illness are obvious – but what are its causes?  One prescient diagnosis can be found in Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, published as long ago as 1998. At the conclusion of his history of Europe in the 20th century, in which he had shown how shallow were the roots put down by democracy in European soil, he wrote this:

The real victor in 1989 was not democracy but capitalism, and Europe as a whole now faces the task which western Europe has confronted since the 1930s, of establishing a workable relationship between the two. The inter-war depression revealed that democracy might not survive a major crisis of capitalism, and in fact democracy’s eventual triumph over communism would have been unimaginable without the reworked social contract which followed the Second World War. The ending of full employment and the onset of welfare retrenchment make this achievement harder than ever to sustain, especially in societies characterized by ageing populations. The globalization of financial markets makes it increasingly difficult for nation-states to preserve autonomy of action, yet markets – as a series of panics and crashes demonstrates – generate their own irrationalities and social tensions. The globalization of labour, too, challenges prevailing definitions of national citizenship, culture and tradition. Whether Europe can chart a course between the individualism of American capitalism and the authoritarianism of East Asia, preserving its own blend of social solidarity and political freedom, remains to be seen. But the end of the Cold War means that there is no longer an opponent against whom democrats can define what they stand for in pursuit of this goal. The old political signposts have been uprooted, leaving most people without a clear sense of direction.

That was written in 1998 – a decade before the crash and the ensuing era of austerity that we are now living through, years in which national governments and European Union institutions have colluded in pouring billions of taxpayers money into bailing out the banks whilst imposing punitive measures on Europe’s citizens.  It’s hardly surprising that the 2014 European election results should therefore reflect disillusionment with and hostility towards Europe’s political elites and the non-elected executors of policy in the European Commission.

Nearly two decades ago in Dark Continent, Mark Mazower observed:

Democracy suits Europeans today partly because it is associated with the triumph of capitalism and partly because it involves less commitment or intrusion into their lives than any of the alternatives. Europeans accept democracy because they no longer believe in politics. It is for this reason that we find both high levels of support for democracy in cross-national opinion polls and high rates of political apathy. In contemporary Europe democracy allows racist parties of the Right to coexist with more active protection of human rights than ever before.

In 2014, I think we can safely say that most voters do not now associate democracy ‘with the triumph of capitalism’.  Austerity, the punitive conditions imposed on those least able to bear them, and the growing gulf between the super-rich and the poor have put paid to that. In his essay for the LRB, Perry Anderson dug deeper to identify three symptoms of Europe’s illness – the ‘degenerative drift of democracy across the continent’, a ‘pervasive corruption of the political class’ and the fallout from the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008.

He is scathing about what used to be referred to as the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union:

The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come, has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.

But, Anderson argues, the Union is not simply an excrescence on member states that are otherwise healthy enough:

At national level, virtually everywhere, executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease; parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.

With this voter alienation has come ‘a pervasive corruption of the political class’ (a topic, he notes, on which political scientists, always eager to discuss the democratic deficit of the Union, are strangely silent).

There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of persons or parties from illegal sources – or legal ones – against the promise, explicit or tacit, of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as during or before it.

If you wanted to assemble a picture of all this, you could start, Anderson asserts:

With Helmut Kohl, ruler of Germany for sixteen years, who amassed some two million Deutschmarks in slush funds from illegal donors whose names, once he was exposed, he refused to reveal for fear of the favours they had received coming to light. Across the Rhine, Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest, once his immunity came to an end. Neither suffered any penalty. These were the two most powerful politicians of their time in Europe. A glance at the scene since then is enough to dispel any illusion that they were unusual.

And he goes on to provide chapter and verse of other instances of high-level corruption among European politicians, citing Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, French Socialist minister for the budget,Jérôme Cahuzac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister who now heads the IMF, Irish taioseach Bertie Ahern – and many more.

But, argues Anderson, corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order:

It is also, of course, a symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?

Beyond the fallout from neoliberalism, there is its impact as a socio-economic system:

That the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008 was the outcome of decades of financial deregulation and credit expansion, even its architects now more or less admit. […] In the EU … this general crisis was overdetermined by … the distortions created by a single currency imposed on widely differing national economies, driving the most vulnerable of these to the edge of bankruptcy once the overall crisis struck. The remedy for them? At the insistence of Berlin and Brussels …cutting back public expenditure, [and imposing] a fiscal compact setting a uniform limit of 3 per cent to any deficit as a constitutional provision, effectively enshrining a wall-eyed economic fixation as a basic principle … on a par with freedom of expression, equality before the law, habeas corpus, division of powers and the rest.

As someone who found something truly inspiring in the way that, soon after the end of the Second World War, France and Germany overcame their historical enmities to begin the process of European integration, today’s election results not only sadden me, but also make me fearful for what the future may hold in store.  The way forward seems unclear.  Can the institutions of such a huge entity as the European Union be made truly transparent and democratic? Or should we accept that real democracy lies closer to home – not just at national level, but devolved to region or locality?  In fact, one of the founding principles of European integration, embedded in the treaties, is ‘subsidiarity’ – the idea that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen, that the Union should only take action where it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level.

Back in 1998, Mark Mazower concluded his Dark Continent with these words:

If Europeans can give up their desperate desire to find a single workable definition of themselves and if they can accept a more modest place in the world, they may come to terms more easily with the diversity and dissension which will be as much their future as their past.

See also