Monday 29 November 2010

The View from Castle Rock

 This was the Reading Group’s book for November.   It is in fact a two part  collection of (not so) short stories by Canadian writer Alice Munro.  The stories are all linked in one way or another by their origin in the family history of the author.  Alice Munro can trace one side of her family - the Laidlaws - all the way back to late 17th century Scotland.  In particular to the Ettrick Valley in the Borders.    There, her ancestors included some famous, well known people such as Will O’Phaup and James Hogg.  So it is perhaps appropriate that Alice Munro returns to that part of the world for inspiration for this collection.  
In the first part of the book the stories trace the lives of various members of the Laidlaw family as they slowly move from farming in the Ettrick Valley in the 18th century to a different kind of farming in Ontario in the years of the 20th century great Depression.  Some of these stories read more like history as Munro has made significant use of primary sources, both official public records and personal writings.  Some of these writings are quoted in the stories.  While this gives a degree of authenticity to the stories, it made some of them a bit too formal for me.   I preferred the more fictional parts.  In particular the account of the sea journey across the Atlantic, which has the title The View from Castle Rock.  Not sure why this was chosen, nor why it is given to the whole collection as the family is only in Edinburgh for a very short time.  The description of the journey from Illinois to Ontario is also finely told as is the attempts of her father and mother to earn a living as fur farmers in the years before the Depression.
The second part is all about Alice herself.  Most of these stories tell about her life as a young girl and as a teenager growing up in rural Ontario.  They are all very convincing and impressive tales.  Munro manages to convey a real sense of what life was like at that particular time.  It is also a very personal account.  She recalls the past and in so doing she let us see at least a little of her own inner turmoil as tries to understand her own past.  For example, why did she feel the way she did about her mum?   As much as these stories are about the past, they are also as much about the present, at least the present day Alice Munro.
Now of course though Alice Munro wrote these stories and wrote them in the first person, they are just stories.  So it is not necessarily the actual Alice Munro who is making these inner reflections.  What all the stories do convey in a most vivid way is the hardships and sufferings of the families.  Life is never easy and enjoyment and pleasure rare visitors.  Rural Ontario in the early first half of the 20th century clearly had much in common with the Borders in the 18th century.   

Thursday 25 November 2010

Ireland - Don't Blame the Euro

The Irish crisis is now, temporarily at least, over, but the blame game is already underway.  And for most commentators in the UK and in the USA, the prime suspect is the Euro.  If only Ireland, like clever old UK, had stayed out the Euro, everything would be rosy in the Emerald Isle. 
Now this is a bit rich coming from two countries that have not exactly covered themselves with glory as regards banking collapse.  As I see it four countries have been at the forefront of the banking and financial meltdown.  Iceland, Ireland, the UK and the USA.  Now only one of these countries is in the Eurozone, so what caused the failures in the other countries?  The only thing they all have in common was/is an almost mystical over reliance on a neo-liberal approach to economics and finance, in particular the virtues of de-regulation bordering on no regulation.  Not to mention a too cosy relationship between politicians and the captains of high finance.  
If the Euro by itself were to blame then we would expect similar banking and financial crisis in all or at least most of the Eurozone countries.  Which has not happened.  Sure there are problems for some Eurozone countries, but no one has explained how it is the Euro what has done it.
Now of course our anti Euro and anti EU friends in the UK are not content with blaming the Euro for Ireland’s current woes, they also claim that the Euro is preventing Ireland from getting out of the mess.  Their solution is for Ireland to leave the Euro, devalue and hey presto, once again all will be rosy.  Just as it is here in the UK?   Talk about misjudgements.
This idea that devaluation is the panacea for all countries with economic woes is pretty stupid.  This is not to say that devaluation has not and cannot help some countries.  Devaluation has worked in the past and no doubt will prove useful in the future.  However there are four important caveats about all this.  
In the first place devaluation can only really work if it is just one or two countries which devalue.  If everybody or lots of countries all devalue at the same time, then nobody benefits at all.   Secondly the success of devaluation depends on rising demand somewhere else, preferably from your major trading partners.  The UK has devalued, but ironically its success depends on a strong recovery in the Eurozone.  A weak Euro negates much of the benefits expected from the UK’s devaluation.  While a collapse of the Eurozone and the return of national currencies would probably lead to the collapse of the UK economy as well.  This is why the UK government and even some of the right wing anti Euro press are keen to help Ireland.  
A third point to make is that devaluation does not in itself solve anything.  To the extent that it works, it offers temporary respite for an economy.  But unless the underlying causes of the economic woes are dealt with then the country faces a bleak future of successive devaluations in a vain attempt to become competitive.  My view is that the measures needed to be taken for a country to become more competitive should be taken anyway, with or without devaluation. 
The fourth caveat to devaluation as a policy tool, is that it does bring with it some serious downsides.  While exports should be cheaper, imports will become much more expensive.   Think of the recent rises here in fuel and heating prices.  Not to mention all the other rising prices, many of which are a direct result of the devaluation of the pound.  To the extent that devaluation works, it does so through a reduction in spending power of individuals and households, thus leading to a reduction in living standards for most of the population.
This is what is happening in the UK just now.  Wage freezes, tax rises and rising prices.  Not that much different to what is going on in Ireland just now.  Though there the fall in spending power is more obvious as it comes through cuts in wages.  The cuts in Ireland are more severe than in the UK, but this is all due to the continuing rise in the national debt.  Which in turn is pretty much all due to the need to bail out the banks.  
Which of course should lead to the most interesting question of all - why should the Irish taxpayer bail out private banks?
Let us not pretend that this is just to protect Irish banks.  As I have mentioned before, other countries have significant exposure to Ireland.  The UK alone has around €150 million at risk, while Germany has nearly €140 millions.  Other countries have lesser, but still significant amounts at risk if the Irish economy were to collapse.  Hence the need to keep Ireland afloat.  Offer the Irish government a massive loan and persuade/bully the Irish taxpayer into cutting his/her living standards in order to pay it back.  
This is pretty much theft and blackmail of the worst kind.  And all to protect the UK and European banks and financial companies from losses.  Unfortunately, at least for the banks, but perhaps fortunately for the Irish taxpayer, this little scheme will not work.   With all the austerity measures now in place there is simply no way the Irish economy can generate the taxes needed to enable the government to repay these loans.  At some point the Irish will say enough is enough and refuse to go on with this charade.
The real problem facing Ireland is not a liquidity crisis but a solvency crisis.  The country is essentially bankrupt.  And all because of the colossal mismanagement and reckless incompetence of its private banks.  Private debts which an even more incompetent government has now turned into national debts.  For without the need to bail out the banks the Irish economy would already be well on the way to recovery.  This year the economy had begun to grow again and exports had started to pick up.  But the further austerity measures just announced will only make matters worse.
What Ireland needs to do is get rid of the banks’ debt.  In a private sector market economy the way to do this is through bankruptcy.  Some, at least, of the Irish banks should have been allowed or if necessary forced into bankruptcy.  This would have course placed some of the losses back onto the shareholders of UK and other European banks.  But, hey, this is what market risk is supposed to be about.  Why should the taxpayer pay all the bills while the shareholders get all the profits?
A quick look at Iceland, one of the other small countries to be badly affected by the financial crisis, shows the benefits of this approach.  Both countries have recorded similar performances but with less unemployment in Iceland.  And one of the key reasons for this?  According to  the IMF’s latest report on Iceland - “private sector bankruptcies have led to a marked decline in external debt.”  The report also goes on to praise “the focus on preserving Iceland’s valued Nordic social welfare model.”
There would seem to be some interesting lessons for the Irish to ponder over Iceland’s recent experiences.  Most importantly, if Ireland wants to avoid the risk of the whole country having to declare itself bankrupt, then it needs to revoke its blanket guarantee to cover all the liabilities of its banks and allow some of them to fail.  Better a private bankruptcy than the impoverishment of the whole country.

Sunday 21 November 2010


I have been stitching as a hobby for just over two years now.  As I look back on my work I realize that most of my projects are types of Bargello needlework.  Not that I was aware of this at the time.  So what is Bargello?  Below is a typical example of traditional Bargello taken from a tapestry hanging in the National Museum in Zürich.
As you can see Bargello is a form of needlework which only uses vertical or horizontal stitches.  The stitches can be of varying lengths, but rarely over more than six meshes.  Each successive stitch or group of stitches goes up or down in a regular pattern of steps, usually just one or two meshes.  This produces an amazing variety of finished designs, from curves, waves to diamonds and ovals.  A key part of Bargello is the use of colour, in particular subtle changes in tones or hues.
The name Bargello comes from the palace of that name in Florence.  The Palazzo Bargello is now a national museum displaying the largest Italian collection of gothic and Renaissance sculptures.  The building itself dates back to the 13th century and in the 16th century the palace became the residence of the Bargello - the head of the police - from which the palace now takes its name.
Its connection with needlework comes from the series of chairs found in the palace which were the first to exhibit this type of pattern on their backs and seats.  Other names continue to be used to describe this work.  Since the first known examples were found in Florence, some people used the term Florentine Work for this type of stitching.  Another name sometimes used is Hungarian Point.  Interestingly this is how Bargello is known in Italy.  This term reflects the belief among Florentines that the technique originated in Hungary.  However English language writers have in the main fixed on the term Bargello.
Bargello was originally worked in wool as it was meant to be used in chair covers or in tapestries.  Since I only stitch for pleasure and not to produce anything particularly usable, most of my work is done using cotton threads.  However I do use wool and funnily enough my very first finished piece of stitching was in effect a Bargello design.  Here it is.
This shows the main characteristics of a Bargello piece - repeating patterns and the use of steps to create the patterns.  It is in fact my recreation of the design of the tiles on the cupola of the Chiesa Madre in Francavilla in Puglia.  This is the hometown of Cosimo’s mother and we had a holiday there in 2008.  One of the many photos I took on this holiday was of the cupola and once home I decided to use it as the basis for a stitching project.
This has become the norm for my projects using wool threads.  I try to turn a tile pattern from the roof of a church or some other building into a design suitable for stitching.  Here are two more examples.  Both come from photos taken in Switzerland This first is based on the very bright and colourful pattern on a church steeple in a village in the Klettgau in Kanton Schaffhausen, and the second is my attempt at recreating the tile pattern on the roof of a barn in Kilchberg.

Most of the projects that I have consciously done as Bargello, have been stitched using DMC cotton threads.  Usually on 18 count Aida fabric using two strands of thread.  One of my first pieces was this one, which unusually for me consists of just the one pattern.  It is a good example of how colour is important in highlighting the design.
Most of my Bargello projects in cotton thread are compositions which use several different patterns.  This one has four sections and is unusual in its formal regularity and use of a very restricted colour palette.   You can see clearly the contrast between waves and diamonds, hence its title.  This was stitched as a present for Emma for her birthday.
So far the other Bargello projects have been based on five sections, and make up what I call my Five Easy Pieces series.  Each composition has a different arrangement of five sections, as can be seen from the collage below which shows the first four in the series.  They show how a simple unifying feature - five sections - can generate such variety in composition.  They also show how Bargello can accommodate both contrasting colour schemes and monochromatic schemes.  Most of the patterns come from examples in The Bargello Book or Bargello, A Fresh Approach to Florentine Embroidery.
My latest Bargello project was the fifth in this series and the first time I have used silk threads.  I came across some Rajmahal Art Silk Floss in a country craft shop in Angus and bought two to try.  I must say they are the most difficult threads to use.  I find it almost impossible to get them to lie flat on the fabric and to stay in place.  I will need to apply some glue to the back to help fix the threads.  However the colours are very bright and vibrant and I will continue to use them, but only in small doses. 
The centre pattern, the one in silk thread, is Italian Brocade, a pattern I found on, a wonderful online site for Bargello.  The other patterns are all adaptations of patterns in Bargello Magic.  Next up for me is another Bargello design, this time in wool.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Ireland - What Went Wrong?

Ireland, or more precisely, the travails of the Irish economy are once again the subject of newspaper headlines and much panicking by politicians and the markets.  Even our nasty Coalition seems willing to cough up billions to help the Irish.   Why all this fuss and bother?  
As regards the timing of this stage in a long running crisis, it seems that the precipatating factors lie outwith Ireland.  In particular what has been said and done in Germany and the USA have brought on the current crisis.  However, it seems very clear that the cause of the crisis facing Ireland is all of the making of the Irish themselves.  Not all Irish people of course.  As usual some are much more guilty than others.
So, what did happen in Ireland?   Here Brian Lucey, an Irish financial comentator and former economist at Ireland’s Central Bank, outlines the key factors in the collapse of the Irish economy.  “The core cause of the problems lies in a monstrous credit-fuelled property bubble which started in the early 2000s and really roared in the middle years of the decade.
This was fuelled by a toxic combination; abundant cheap international liquidity coupled with a low interest rate (Ireland having joined the EMU) and a foolish procyclical fiscal stance by the government which released a wave of cash which in turn nicely intersected with the Irish love of property.

The results were an unmitigated disaster. Reliance, as a percentage of all funding, by the Irish banks on ordinary deposits from Irish residents shrunk by half in the 2000-2008 period, with the slack being taken up by foreign bank deposits and bond issuance. At the same time the banks nearly doubled in size.

This money was disproportionally lent out to property and property-related investments. Lending to the private sector as a percentage of national income rose from about parity in 1998 to nearly 300% in 2009, with mortgage lending rising seven-fold in the 1997-2008 period and lending to property development rising 11-fold.”
So far this is not too dissimilar from what was going on in other countries. What seems to have made the situation in Ireland so much worse was the government’s decision in 2008 to guarantee the total liabilities of the banking system, then estimated at some €440bn.  Now this was something that no other government had done or has done.  It was more importantly, a guarantee that the Irish government was in no position to honour, then or now.
As the extent of the liabilities of the various Irish banks began to emerge the government was forced into effectively nationalizing the banks.  As the banks are in essence insolvent this means that the Irish state, or to be more precise, the Irish taxpayer is now responsible for the private debt of private banks.  So much for the discipline of the market!
How did all this come to pass?  Here we get into the tricky and murky waters of Irish politics and the cosy, perhaps incestuous relationship between the upper echelons of the political and business communities.  At any rate the Fianna Fail government was only too willing to bail out their friends in the banking system and pass the buck on to the poor taxpayer.
Of course in order to bail out the banks the government has had itself to borrow vast sums of money, thus landing the government with a massive deficit.  To help make this deficit more manageable the government has also introduced a series of austerity budgets which have cut public services and public sector pay.  All to no avail.  The much vaunted, or should that be mythical? private sector has so far been pretty conspicuous by its absence.  With a depressed EU and the USA still mired in its own economic woes, there is little prospect of increased demand for Irish products.
However the banks' debts still have to be covered.  Hence the current spot of bother.  The reality is that though this is presented as a liquidity crisis, it is in reality a solvency crisis.  The Irish banks are insolvent and there is no way that the Irish economy can grow sufficiently fast to pay off these debts.  But why are the EU and the UK only too willing to offer substantial loans to help Ireland?  Why not just let the Irish clear up their own mess?  The reason is simple - too many EU and UK banks too deep into the Irish mess.  It is estimated that UK bank exposures to Ireland could be as much as £139bn.  If Ireland were to declare its banks insolvent then this would lead to great losses to these UK banks and to another financial crash in the UK and in parts of the EU.  So much better if you can persuade, or should that be bully, the Irish taxpayer into bearing the burden.  Though for how long is anyone’s guess
Things are particularly bad in Ireland right now.  Though it is only a matter of degree.  And the key mystery remains.  How is it that all these highly paid, highly respected people who got us into this mess - the bankers, the top civil servants at the treasury and the central banks and the politicians - how come they are all still there in their still lucrative posts.  To paraphrase Winston  Churchill, rarely have so few made such a goddam mess for the rest of us -  and got away with it. 

Monday 15 November 2010

Postcards from the Black Forest

This autumn we had the good fortune to make a couple of short trips to southern Germany.   The main one was to Freiburg in the Black Forest.  I had heard a lot about the Black Forest and how beautiful it was and of course I had eaten many a slice of Black Forest gateau, which is very popular in Scotland.  However I had no idea of just large the area is.  I thought it was just the southern tip across the border from Switzerland, but no, the Black Forest stretches all the way north to just before Karlsruhe.  Nearly 200 km in length and about 60 km wide it is a very large area indeed.

On this trip we only managed to get a glimpse of part of the southern Black Forest.  We crossed the border just outside Bad Säckingen on the river Rhine and headed north.  Unfortunately the navigator, yours trully, misread the map and we ended up taking a detour.  This had the advantage of letting us see some of the more isolated parts of the Black Forest.  It also confirmed that the area is well named.  There are a hell of a lot of trees and it does look pretty black most of the time.  The other advantage of this short detour was that just before we re-emerged on the main route we passed by a one family car boot sale.  More accurately the goods were on display in the family's garden.  We stopped and rummaged about and left with a fine range of goodies, including a scooter for Alessio.  All for next to nothing.

We continued on our route heading for Freiburg and around lunchtime as we passed through a winter ski resort, Muggenbrunn, we saw what looked like a delightful restaurant.  And delightful it was.  The Hotel Grüner Baum is in a traditional building and the restaurant serves traditional Black Forest food, all served by waitresses in traditional costumes.  It was a warm and sunny afternoon - what more could one want.  Here is a happy Emma relaxing after the meal.
Suitably refreshed, we were soon in Freiburg im Breisgau, our destination.  This is another little gem of a city and the heart of the Black Forest.  Full of beautiful old buildings and cobbled streets and alleyways.  Most of these old buildings were ablaze with colour and some were covered in ornate decorations.  You can get an idea from the collage below.
The main public space in Freiburg is by the Munster, a fine building itself.  The next photo is of part of one of the very colourful buildings in this square.  This is followed by one of the delightful narrow streets or alleys.

Freiburg now has the full complement of modern transport options, including some lovely trams.  However it also boasts a couple of more unusual and older ways of getting around the place.  Consumption of lots of beer seems to be an obligatory part of at least one of these options.
Much of the charm of Freiburg comes from the surviving examples from its past.  Like many medieval towns, Freiburg had fortified gates into the old town.  Two of them survive in very good condition.
The pavements of Freiburg were most interesting.  Many of them were covered with intricate mosaics.  Most of them represented the shop or business in the building beside the mosaic, though some just seemed to be decorative.  I loved them all.  Here are a few.
Also at street level were the gutters which crisscrossed the town.  They all had running water in them and most were in good condition, free from litter and other detritus.  They are clearly a tourist attraction for children as you could buy specially made little boats to pull through the water.  Alessio found this great fun.
 All in all Freiburg was a wonderful place to visit.   We were blessed with lovely warm sunny weather, which always helps.  However Freiburg was just a delight.  The cafés and restaurants were all very enticing and the ones we sampled excellent both in service and food.  Freiburg is also very lively place with throngs of people strolling about or just sitting in the sunshine supping a coffee or a beer.  There were also plenty of street entertainment to keep everyone amused, as with this pretty juggler.
On the Sunday afternoon as we drove back to Zürich we had two more adventures.  The first was one of these totally unexpected pleasures, when you by chance come across something delightful.  In this case we happened to drive past a little apple festival in the Elzacher valley.   A traditional brass band was on hand to provide musical accompaniment to the many guests who were happily gorging themselves on an irresistible selection of local goodies.   Though the main excuse was to celebrate the range of products from the humble apple, other fruit products were on sale.  A very popular liquid refreshment was a glass of Sekt, the German version of champagne, doused with a little fruit syrup.  There was a great range to choose from and all looked good.  We managed to try a couple each and bought some bottles to try out back home.   The festival was also an opportunity to see some of the traditional presses that used to be used in extracting the juice from apples.  Below is a collage from the festival.
Our next stop was the Black Forest Open Air Museum Vogtsbauernhof which is near Gutach.  Emma had found out about this museum on the internet and thought it would be interesting to Alessio.   It is in fact a wonderful museum.  A collection of original farm buildings from all over the Black Forest which have been lovingly moved and restored to their former glory in the Vogtsbauernhof.  Some of the buildings are very large and impressive, like the one below.
Inside each building you can see the actual implements used in the past, and in some cases the living quarters of the people who lived on the land.  There is also a fine collection of farmyard animals.  The collage below shows some of them.
Unfortunately Alessio was not particularly impressed with all this history.  Luckily there was an extensive playground for children, so he will probably have fond memories of his visit.  For the rest of us there was so much to see and do.  If we had more time we could have made our own scarcrow.  Kathleen was particularly keen on this.  There were also some living examples of traditional costumes to admire, as can be seen in the photos below.

This was our first trip to the Black Forest and most enjoyable it was.  We did have glorious weather.  However everyone we met was very helpful and kind, and everyone seemed to be pretty happy with life and enjoying themselves.  There is so much more to see and do in the Black Forest, it is a walker's paradise for example, that I hope to return again.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Photo of the Month - October

October was the first month for some time that we have spent entirely in and around Dundee.  Though we did have a lovely visit from Emma and Alessio to keep us on our toes.  As usual when they are over here, we tend to do a bit more in the way of little trips.  The photos this month reflect this.  First up is this lovely autumnal display from the courtyard of St. Mary's Church in St. Andrews.  This is the Anglican church in the town and a beautiful building.
The next photo is of a sleeping beauty, taken while he was resting during his visit to the Blue Seaway playpark in Monifieth.
The following two photos were taken during out visit to the Deer Centre in North East Fife.  They have a wide selection of different types of deer on display.  The deer in the first photo is a reindeer.  The centre doesn't just host deer, and the second photo shows a magnificent example of the Highland cattle breed.  This is definitely the photo of the month.  Wonderful creature.

Next up are some photos from our little walk in Tentsmuir.  We walked on the edge of the forest and through some dunes and back along the shore.  This fine clump of fungi was found by the path along the edge of the forest.
We then have two photos of our grandsons.  First is this delightful one of Jamie and Alessio in a lovely cuddle.  The second shows all three.  Every time I tried to get a photo of all of them they would go into some pose or other.  This was one of the more interesting.

This photo was also taken on the Tentsmuir outing.  It shows an almost waterless estuary, looking across to Broughty Ferry.  Just shows how far the tide goes out hereabouts.
The next two photos were taken outside our house.   The first shows part of a display of plants, natural objects and ornaments which lies just beside the front door.  In the second you can just make out a little bird resting on a branch of a tree in our neighbour's garden.  The leaves have all gone from the trees by now. 

The final photo is a fine specimen of a scarecrow, which can be found in the gardens of Kellie Castle in the East Neuk of Fife.  The gardens are now organic and they preserve some rare specimens of vegetables.  Plenty of flowering plants as well and the Castle and gardens are well worth a visit.  Part of the National Trust for Scotland.

Monday 8 November 2010

Campaigning against the cuts?

One of the most surprising things about the current political situation in the UK is the absence of any effective mass campaign against the economic and social policies of the Coalition.  No matter how nasty they are, there seems to be no willingness on the part of the general public to make their opposition loud and clear.  Opposition and anger there is, but so far very little in the way of public demonstrations.  Nothing like the strikes and demonstrations in Greece and France.  Nor any new political movement such as the Tea Party in the USA.
What’s up?  As I see it, there seems to be two explanations for the lack of any mass resistance.  In the first place the cuts and the economic thinking behind the cuts are widely seen as either inevitable or at least necessary.  All the main UK political parties advocated severe cuts in public spending.  They only differed over the speed of the cuts.  In addition all the mainstream media outlets have constantly banged on about the economic crisis and the absolute need for deep cuts in public spending.   Finally the main global  economic and financial institutions - IMF, OECD, the World Bank - also support urgent austerity measures.  
Thus the writings of the many distinguished and respected economists, of both the right and the left, who have exposed the shoddy economics behind this dash to cut, are rarely heard in the mainstream media.  All we ever hear or read about is endless debated about what to cut and by how much.  The Labour party, now in opposition, should of course be leading the fight against this economic madness.  But of course since Labour in government argued for severe cuts, they can hardly do a somersault and now argue the opposite.  Especially since the majority of Labour MPs still seem to think that deep cuts in public spending is the answer.  Must be a pretty silly question if that is the answer.
The result however is that there has been no sustained challenge to the  dominant neo-liberal nonsense about an economy in crisis and on the verge of collapse.  It is therefore hardly surprising that there has been a reluctant acceptance by the general public of the cuts agenda.  
The other significant factor in all this is that so far there have been few actual cuts and probably even fewer job losses.  The Coalition has played their hand very well in this respect.  There have been lots of announcements and headline figures of huge cuts in public spending.  But as yet the axe has only grazed a bit here and there.  First of all the cuts will be phased in over the next four years, thus lessening the immediate impact.  Secondly most of the actual decisions on what to cut will be left to others.  In particular it will be local authorities who will have to balance the books.  This of course means that many people will blame their local council instead of the Coalition.  And here in Scotland most of the cuts come in the form of a reduction in the block grant.  So it will be the Scottish government which has to take the first decisions on what to cut.  Then will come the turn of the local councils.  The Coalition clearly hope that with all these actors involved, at some of the blame will attach to them, letting the Coalition off the hook.
At the moment the political situation is a bit like the phoney war at the start of World War 11.  We all something nasty is coming, but no-one knows for sure just what it will look like and when it will all start to get really bad.  This of course makes campaigning against the Coalition very difficult.  In this respect I am not sure that focussing on opposing the cuts is the right strategy.  As explained above most people, unfortunately, accept that cuts are necessary.  It is also difficult to get people fired up about opposing a generalised threat of cuts in public services.  Again, unfortunately, there will always be people who are in favour of cutting some public services.  I, for example, would be most happy to see a steep cut our defence budget.  It can also, and will be, portrayed as special pleading.  And in general terms, by focussing on resisting all cuts, you are left open to the question of well, what would you do to get us out of the economic crisis?  
This in a way gets us back  to the beginning of this post.  More than just opposing cuts, we need to find a way to challenge the whole neo-liberal charade about the economy.  No easy answers to this I’m afraid.  I would suggest that campaigning should focus as much as possible on how we got into this economic and financial mess and in particular who got us all into the mess.  Make the bankers pay!  might make a good slogan.  There is a lot of anger out there and it is this anger against the big banks and the whole parasitical financial sector, and their political lackeys that campaigns should highlight.  Unfortunately this will have to be done without the active support of any of the main UK political parties.  In fact all of them will be terrified of such a campaign as all of them are to some extent guilty.

Thursday 4 November 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid was the Reading Group’s book for October.  I had previously listened to the novel as an audiobook, but decided to take advantage of this opportunity to experience it as a novel to be read.  I enjoyed both versions and as is often the case gained more from the second reading.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a deceptively simple little book.  But a lot happens in its 200 or so pages.
At one level this is a simple tale of how one well educated Muslim was at first seduced by everything American and then gradually came to reject the USA.  The Muslim in question is Changez, the narrator of the novel.  He is from Pakistan and managed to gain entry into Princetown University, one of the most prestigious and elitist universities in the USA.  There he graduates as one of the best and the brightest and immediately succeeds in getting a job with a firm of valuators.  All goes well at first, but after the attacks on 9/11, things begin to change.  Changez notices a change in the way Americans regard Muslims, and Changez himself begins to change his views about his work and about the USA.  Eventually he leaves his job and the USA and returns to Pakistan where he finds a job as a university lecturer.
This is the bare bones of the novel, though one of its many delights is the telling of the tale.  The whole novel is written as a conversation between Changez and an unnamed and unknown American.  They meet in the old part of Lahore, Changez’s home city.  The opening line is: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”   The rest of the novel is Changez’s conversation with this person, though we never hear him speak.  We only hear Changez’s side of the conversation.  A most intriguing device and as the day unfolds the tension rises as their conversation reaches its enigmatic conclusion.
The title of the novel is of course hardly an accidental choice.  What is fascinating is that in the novel the word fundamental is only used to describe the work of the valuating firm that Changez works for.  Their job is to examine the finances of companies over the world and seek out the fundamentals of the business.  In other words which bits, if any, can be made to make lots of money for their investors - irrespective of the social and personal damages this will cause.  Post 9\11 Changez comes to question the value of this work, especially in light of the way the USA mistreats Muslim countries.  The key turning point is reached when he is accused of being a modern day Janissary by a bookstore owner in Chile.  The Janissaries were young boys from Christian families who were taken from their families and brought up as Muslim soldiers whose sole duty was to protect the Ottoman Sultan.  They could only do this because they knew nothing about their own culture and peoples.  Changez comes to realize that in his current job he too has rejected his family and his Pakistani culture.  All to further the USA in its War of Terror against Muslim countries.
The novel can also be read as a more explicit allegory.  This seems to be the main explanation for the inclusion of Erica and Chris in the story.  Erica is a beautiful, but emotionally fragile young woman whom Changez meets as a student.  He falls in love with her, but she remains aloof most of the time and in time suffers a breakdown.  This is due to the death of her boyfriend Chris.  She never recovers from this loss, despite Changez’s best efforts to help her.  At one level a simple tale of rejected love, the key to this part of the novel is the names of the characters.  Erica can be regarded as representing America, as Erica is America, minus the first two letters Am.  While Chris, who never appears in the novel, can be seen as an amalgam of Christopher Colombus and Christ.  Chris thus represents traditional America -  white, European and Christian.  Into this comes Changez, whose name is the Urdu version of Genghis of Genghis Khan fame and notoriety.  The English spelling of the name of course makes it represent change.  So Changez can be seen to represent the prospect of a new virile future.  A future which of course Erica rejects, trapped as she is in the nostalgia of the past.
However you read the novel there is much to enjoy and appreciate.  And to think about.  For that is the real strength of the book.  It asks us to reconsider who are the real fundamentalists?

Monday 1 November 2010

Three Cheers for Multiculturalism

This post has been inspired by the recent comments from Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  Speaking to members of her own party (CDU) she asserted that, “multiculturalism has failed, utterly failed.”   In making this claim she seems to have a very limited understanding of what multiculturalism is about.  She said that allowing people of different cultural backgrounds to live side by side without integrating had not worked.  She then went on to say that this (multicultural) approach has failed.  This would seem to suggest that it is the failure of immigrants to integrate which has caused the failure of multiculturalism.
However by focusing solely on the demand that immigrants integrate, she clearly implies that the host nation and population do not need to do anything.  As usual blame the victims.  In another part of her speech she lets the cat out of the bag when she added: "We kidded ourselves a while, we said: 'They won't stay, sometime they will be gone', but this isn't reality."  As an outsider it seems to me that this is precisely the key to the particular difficulties now faced by those countries such as Germany which treated immigration as only a temporary phenomenon.
The workers and their families who came to Germany from the 1960s onwards were always referred to as Guest Workers.  People who would sooner or later go back home.  Thus there was never any expectation or requirement that they integrate into German society.  Why should Turkish immigrants go to all the bother of learning German and German customs if they were only here as temporary Guests?  And, most important of all, why would the German authorities, whether Federal, Land or local, spend good taxpayers money on helping those temporary guests integrate.  
To the extent that integration is crucial to the success of multiculturalism, then it must always be borne in mind that integration is a two way process.  While the immigrant population can be legitimately expected to learn the language and main customs of the host country, the host population has to be willing to accept the new arrivals as future citizens with welcoming arms.   And this is what does not seem to be happened in Germany, at least not in the early decades of immigration.  Angela Merkel would be better to look at the failures of Germany policy towards the immigrant Turkish community rather than blaming the immigrants.
This is not of course an important issue only in Germany.  All European countries have had problems in welcoming immigrants.  Scotland and the UK as a whole has had some terrible experiences in the past in failing to integrate immigrants.  Jews, East Europeans have all suffered from discrimination and violence from the local population.  In Scotland the most notable victims of this hostility to immigrants were the Irish who came to live and work in Scotland (and other parts of the UK) in the 19th century.  What is most interesting about this group was that the Irish were fellow citizens of the UK at that time, and in their majority spoke English.  Yet they still suffered great hostility and discrimination.  In part this was because they were seen as a threat to jobs and houses and so on.  The standard accusation thrown at all immigrants.  But what stood out in the hostility to the Irish immigrants was that they were Catholic.  Scotland at that time was an overwhelmingly Protestant country and many, perhaps most, Scots had a very strong dislike, verging on hatred of Catholicism.  This hostility and remnants of discrimination was to survive into the 1960s.  Thankfully it is now pretty much reduced to the mutual loathing between the football supporters of Rangers and Celtic.  Indeed in the past three decades there have been two very successful Papal visits to Scotland.  Something that would have been unimaginable only 50 years ago.
Returning to Germany and this notion that multiculturalism has failed as a result of the lack of integration by the immigrant community.  I would suggest that the experience of the Irish in Scotland and the rest of the UK, shows that integration is not the key issue at all.  The Irish immigrants were UK citizens and spoke English.  It was their religious differences that generated the hostility.  Then the victims were Catholics.   While now of course, in Germany as in most other European countries it is Muslim immigrants who face the brunt of popular hostility. 
In the long run these conflicts tend to die out.  In Scotland for example there is a large and flourishing Catholic community well integrated into all aspects of Scottish society, yet still Catholic and predominantly of Irish origin.  Likewise there are smaller, but equally flourishing Jewish, Hindu and Muslim communities throughout Scotland.  All continue to make Scotland a more attractive and interesting place in which to live.  The long run can however be a long time a’coming and meanwhile great damage can be done.  If integration is to be promoted then more Europeans need to welcome Muslims as fellow citizens and integration will follow.