Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Culture shock

From Pelion to Warrington is a journey that takes you from the idiosyncrasies of a Greek village to Rugby League territory, itself hardly an idiosyncrasy-free-zone. Waking up after the journey back, it was off on Sunday to the Co-operative Championship finals day for the lower divisions of the Rugby League, trying to switch my mind back to a different version of normality.

There were a few questions buzzing around. Would Oldham lose their fourth successive final and miss out on promotion yet again? They did, despite being supported by a group of African drummers and featuring the extravagantly named Wayne Kerr. Would the main match see evidence of the revival of two of our traditional heartlands clubs, Featherstone Rovers and Halifax, and show that there was life outside Super League, despite the abolition of automatic promotion and relegation? Here the news was mixed. The match was by no means a sell-out as it has been in the past, but there was a reasonable gathering of supporters from two clubs that had been through difficult times.

Then the drama began - a superb hundred metre try for underdogs Halifax from Warrincy, followed by a recovery from the excellent young Featherstone side and suddenly there was an announcement, the game was halted and the crowd behind one set of posts told to evacuate on to the pitch as a fire had broken out in a cupboard under the stand.

Friday saw the last match at St Helen's Knowsley Road ground, their home since 1890. On Sunday we saw why the old grounds had to go. A fire in many of our old stadia, including Swinton's much lamented and never replaced Station Road, could have been a catastrophe, another Bradford. Here everything was managed perfectly, there was no risk of it spreading and supporters were moved away from the area safely onto the pitch and then into another stand.

After a forty minute delay the drama continued. League leaders Featherstone built a comfortable 22-4 lead with 25 minutes to go and were cruising to victory. Then came the fightback, Halifax equalising at the death to make it 22-22. Now it was golden point extra time and Halifax snatched victory with a drop goal to win 23-22 and take the title.

It was a breathtaking, strange and very long day, but all was overshadowed by the tragic news of the death of Terry Newton. He was a fine player, though one capable of some pretty bad foul play, who had wrecked his career at the end by testing positive for a banned drug. A tragedy, but not one that should have cost him his life at the age of only 31. A very strange weekend for Rugby League.

With the Grand Final, a Wigan Saints derby, coming up on Saturday in front of around 70,000 fans at Old Trafford, it's a good time to reflect on the qualities and flaws of a sport that has reinvented itself, embracing a summer season, razzmatazz and a clutch of new stadia without ever losing its roots and its unique, down-to-earth qualities. It's a great game. Roll on Saturday.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A piece of history

This, according to its owner Iannis, is the first car ever owned in the village - and it is still in use.

But today I leave it all behind and set out back to the UK, though using more modern transport.

Friday, September 24, 2010

An unnatural disaster

First there is Ireland:
After posting an increase in growth in the first three months of the year, official data showed that the former "Celtic Tiger" sank into a double dip recession in the spring.
Larry Elliott comments:
The reason for this is simple: the budget cuts have impaired the economy's ability to grow. The Irish government wants to slash the country's budget deficit from 12% to less than 3% by 2014, which would be eye-wateringly tough even if the economy were growing robustly. But when the economy is shrinking, it means the government is in effect running to stand still, hence the calls for even greater austerity to mollify the markets. That would, of course, simply weaken growth prospects still further.

Ireland, in other words, is perilously close to locking itself into permanent depression and deflation, from which the only way out may be a default that would further damage consumer and business confidence.
Then there is Greece. And Jean-Claude Trichet, the president of the European Central Bank, has said, "Greece has a role model and that role model is Ireland." Ah.

Much of the reporting of the Greek crisis consists of sending someone, blissfully unencumbered with knowledge, somewhere nice for a week or so to write about the crazy goings-on of those pesky foreigners. So it was great to read this thoughtful analysis of the Greek economy from Aristos Doxiadis, written with insight and respect. Doxiadis identifies the main features of the economy to be its reliance on small scale family enterprises and self-employment, a persistent rentocracy and opportunistic behaviour. This, he argues, is a consequence of the history of the modern Greek state and its very different model of development.
In the West, feudalism, monarchy and the Catholic Church interacted to create the absolutist state which was mandated to rule and guide society. The bourgeoisie inherited this state and reinforced its role of societal guidance. In parallel, during the industrial revolution large business hierarchies were developed, which assigned stable positions to workers and clerks. Such things did not happen in Greece: we overthrew the Ottoman state rather than developing it, and we resisted economic hierarchies.

In other words, advanced western economies were founded not only on free markets and individual incentives. They were founded on hierarchies (vertical rules) and on strategies of cooperation (horizontal rules). Successful and hegemonic capitalism is free markets embedded in a society of rules and responsibility. Otherwise, it is either a jungle, or a community of corner shops. We Greeks have subscribed neither to vertical nor to horizontal rules. We are neither obedient nor cooperative. If we have avoided the jungle, it is because we have kept the corner shops.

Instead of despairing at Greek foibles, Doxiadis makes pertinent observations about the strengths of some Greek behaviour to go with his critique of the features of the economy that are dysfunctional and in urgent need of reform.
Within this context, we have developed some admirable economic institutions, which western-educated technocrats find peculiar.
I would urge anyone interested to read the article in full, it would be well worth your time.

I harbour huge doubts about the wisdom of economic orthodoxy in any circumstances, however the imposition of an orthodoxy, conceived in the context of very different societies, on somewhere as unorthodox as Greece strikes me as destructive folly. Instead, Doxiadis argues for the recognition and support for an economy based on small-scale activities, an alternative model of development, rather than the use of the sledgehammer of austerity, accompanied by wishful thinking about the emergence of a competitive and orthodox economy from the wreckage.
A new model of development for Greece should not imitate the ones that have been most successful globally. We start from different initial conditions, and will follow a different route. Let us accept our peculiarity.

But then again ...

Whole EUR 19.000.000 (no typo! nineteen million euros!) was spent in rubbers by eco-friendly Greek ministers in a period of five years.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Heaven knows ...

... we're miserable now.
The UK and Ireland have been named as the worst places to live in Europe for quality of life, according to research published today.
And I am going back there on Saturday. Oh well.
"Last year compared with our European neighbours we were miserable but rich, this year we're miserable and poor."
And the weather is crap. Then we do like to moan about everything, perhaps it makes us happy after all. Perhaps.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Hot stuff

I love spicy food - but this encounter with the infinity chilli from Grantham, probably the world's hottest, does not sound nice.
The fire hits my throat and then goes into my ears. My ears! They ache terribly. My legs wobble. Punch-drunk, I slump on a garden chair.
And then, the obvious question:
But what happens next? "Let's be honest here. It's got to come out again," he says. "But it's not going to be as bad as when it went in."

Last night

Another wonderful sunset

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Have a break

What a shock.
"Whether people are in a job or not, they almost all report being happiest during leisure time. The employed, however, are least happy when at work or commuting."
A new study is reported as finding that, on the whole, work is pretty crap and that not having any is not too bad on a day-to-day basis. I have to say that after three months enjoying a Greek summer I am not waking up in the morning tortured by the lack of a few hours of mind-numbing bureaucracy.

However, the piece goes on,
In line with previous research, the study found unemployed people are less satisfied with their life in general.
Well, the hours may be great, but the pay is lousy and then there are all the words in the sociological lexicon - status, alienation, identity etc. Some work can be fun too, because I do miss teaching - but not marking. All of this does suggest though that leisure time, however you want to spend it, should play as important part as employment at the heart of any emancipatory ideology. In the meantime, I shall put my feet up on the patio with a good book.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Book burning is back in fashion. This piece sums up the whole pointless affair, describing superbly how the actions of self-righteous nonentities were inflated by a stupid and lazy media to global significance.

In the meantime, just as Shuggy argued:
More than a dozen people were killed and scores injured in confrontations in Kashmir today following a report on an Iranian TV channel of the desecration of the Qur'an in New York on the anniversary of 9/11.
Deeply depressing.

To continue on the theme, but change the subject, I wanted to understand the references in George Szirtes' The Burning of the Books so I have just read Elias Canneti's Auto da Fé. The poem is a set of reflections on the novel and what an impressive and strange novel it is, though I have not come to terms with it in my own mind yet. At times disturbing and at others darkly funny, it is based on constant thought and communication leading to total incomprehension, collective and individual, breeding misogyny, murder and madness. And, centrally, it is about books, libraries, "those burning places of the intellect"*, their lives, their destruction.

It could not be more relevant to the folly of bigots.

It is Autumn and all we should be burning are the fallen leaves. The first poem in George's collection is Chet Baker, so this seems appropriate.

*George Szirtes - Postscriptum

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Thoughts at lunch time

I was shopping in Volos on Monday and stopped off for lunch. The waiter heard English being spoken and started asking questions about what work was like in England and whether he could get a job. Qualified in computer programming and network design, there he was working as a waiter and saying that he had wasted the best years of his life. It was just one small indicator of life in deflationary Greece. In the meantime, Greek TV shows adverts for expensive English university accredited degrees in business studies - another costly route to a dream that will probably end in delivering coffees to ageing English tourists.

All the while, sitting at your table looking out over the Argonafton, hawkers from Africa and Asia keep trying to sell you grim religious pictures, cheap plastic toys or knock-off DVDs. God knows what they have risked to get to the promised land of the European Union. Roma children are begging in the street and ask for the unfinished pizza slices.

There it all was, amidst the comfort and prosperity of European life, a hierarchy of hope, disillusion and discontent, as seen from a pavement café in a Greek port.

In the meantime the English press have been obsessing over the Blair memoirs. All agree as to the excruciating written style:
"On that night of the 12th May, 1994, I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct, knowing I would need every ounce of emotional power to cope with what lay ahead. I was exhilarated, afraid and determined in roughly equal quantities."
Then there was Iraq, with a consensus, bordering on neurotic hatred, that the desire to bring down the regime of a brutal, mass murdering dictator and replace it with a democracy was somehow an act of unparalleled malevolence.

There was little in the coverage on Blair's social policy, other than to describe it as 'centrist' and essential to winning power. There was even less on the whole Third Way farrago, an intellectual mish-mash if ever I saw one. Few doubts were expressed about the nature of public service 'reform'. And there was nothing on the strange death of adult education, my particular obsession.

When I look at the New Labour years, what strikes me as vital is political economy. Blair was not an unsuccessful Prime Minister, but he was an unsuccessful Labour Prime Minister. Deeply attracted to fashionable nonsense (the weightless economy anyone?), the Blairite government fully accepted and accelerated the Thatcherite settlement, only moderating it through supply-side driven investment in public services. There was an easy association with wealth, privilege and a celebration of inequality, though only on 'merit' of course. And it did this at the very moment when Labour had the power and popular approval to challenge, revise and lead the country away from the prevailing neo-liberal consensus.

And all this leads to the scenes at the port. For us Europeans this isn't desperation or starvation, it isn't the hunger, disease, shortened and blighted lives of the slums of the developing world, nor is it the brutal racism directed presently against the Roma across our continent. It is a feeling of unease that things could and should be better, a nagging worry about the future, a sense of injustice at the immunity of the rich from the sacrifices now being imposed through economic austerity programmes. Lost potential, lost lives, curtailed dreams seem to be an ever present reality. Stories that highlight individual tragedies are sprinkled amongst general unease.

And when Labour bought into the political economy of Thatcherism they made themselves complicit in all this. This is the legacy awaiting the new leadership, only now they have to challenge a coalition government that Blair seems only too comfortable with. We will have to wait and see, but, like Paulie, I am not hopeful.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A tale of two newspapers

In the Israel/Palestine conflict there appears to be a choice between victory for one side or the other or a settlement. The only problem is that victory is neither possible nor desirable. Israel cannot and will not be obliterated and the Palestinians will not and cannot have their right to self-determination denied. So the real choice is between a continued, corrosive blood-letting or a deal that will transcend the conflict and create a new reality, giving the opportunity for peace.

So where are you most likely to find an argument for continued struggle? The Guardian of course where this article, in a piece of psychic punditry, announces in advance the failure of the coming peace talks, or, if by any chance an agreement does emerge, that it must of necessity prove to be a disaster.

The Jerusalem Post, meanwhile, provides another platform for the practical optimism of Gershon Baskin of ICIPRI who argues that, "Failure to reach an agreement would be a crime against both peoples".

In the meantime, the current enemies of just such an agreement, in the same way as their earlier counterparts did, have announced their opposition.


O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

'The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

'The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.'
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

William Blake - To Autumn - 1783

I have never been here in September before and I will see most of the month out until I return to the UK. Already there is a sense of Autumn, the mornings and evenings are cooler and though still warm, the heat has a softer quality to it. Despite my ignorance and lack of stewardship, thin branches are bending under the weight of fruit. The village is noticeably quieter, many summer visitors have gone and it is absolutely gorgeous. As the loudspeaker on the hawker's van calls out, 'κρεμμύδια και πατάτες έχω', I have an overwhelming sense of my own good fortune and privilege. What could be better than to be here, now, on a September day?