Monday, September 1, 2014

How the Soviet elite lived

Getting away from the depressing events of the world, I have been reading about depressing events in the past, in particular the Diaries of Alexander Tvardovsky for 1950 - 1959. Tvardovsky was for years at the heart of the Soviet literary establishment, both as a prolific and well-known poet and, more importantly, as the editor of the monthly journal Novy Mir, which, in the very late fifties and sixties was crucial in the temporary liberalization of the country's cultural atmosphere. They published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and a number of other "shocking" works that were suppressed in the seventies. 

Tvardovsky himself escaped arrest but had a good many problems with censorship, political attacks and criticisms and was forced to resign from editorship twice, once in 1954, described in this volume and again in 1970 not long before his death. He has been much honoured post mortem with a stamp, at least one memorial, a planet named after him and a good many other things, which are presumed to have made up for the problems he faced in his life. (Then again, if one looks at the list of monuments to Soviet writers one can find quite a few to people who had been imprisoned, murdered or simply destroyed as artists.)

A fair proportion of Tvardovsky's time was spent in various rest homes and sanatoriums where he could forget about the many party, editorial and political duties and perhaps do some writings. Often these stays were really drying out periods as the man was known to drink heavily (for which one can hardly blame him in those nerve-wrecking circumstances).

A particular episode caught my attention. In March 1955 he was spending some time in the newly opened and not quite completed "Istra" Sanatorium, which still seems to exist as an hotel but was then owned by the Writers' Union - a place for the Soviet cultural elite though few of them managed to rest easily and many required the oblivion provided by vodka. This site says that the hotel sanatorium now belongs to the professional union of nuclear energy industry.

On March 19 he wrote this [my translation]:
This appears ghost-like, a semblance of my conscience everywhere: there you are, hoping to enjoy your rest and enjoy nature and you see young girls trying to excavate ground that is frozen to depth of about one metre or doing other hard, unwomanly labour while you are trying to walk off your 80 kilograms. They are excavating trenches - sewage for the standard dachas meant for Ministry employees. Workers for that project are taken away, it is said, from the building of the sanatorium. The Deputy Minister came down and issued an order: "Those dachas must be ready by April 15."

Yesterday complete strangers said to me: "What utter insolence. Can they really not use the outside lavatories in the summer?" Today, on the other hand, I thought that those dachas are another sign of everything being tied to Moscow. Where else do we see such care for living officials? Houses are desperately needed in many places, such as the "virgin lands" or anywhere else.

The girls earn 10 15 roubles a day and their food is terrible. Today I joked a little as I went past: "Why not wait till spring? It will be easier to dig." A pleasant young girl replied with sad determination: "We have to do it."

How much there is that we prefer not to notice.
It is clear from this excerpt and other entries that many of these elite holiday places did, indeed, have outside lavatories even if they were close to Moscow. At no time did Tvardovsky or anybody else as he described events seemed bothered by that. Nor did he seem anything odd in the fact that there seemed to be no machinery to help the hard labour of digging the frozen ground. These points are just as interesting as those that did bother him: the stupidity of ordering impossible work to be completed by a certain date when that could not be done; the sight of girls doing hard manual labour (the way in which equality between the sexes all too often manifested itself in the Soviet Union) and the appalling lack of thought about those who really needed new housing in places where life and work was very hard.

An interesting vignette of Soviet life, I thought, and one that is not much known in the West among admirers (of which there are far too many still) or among detractors of the late unlamented Soviet Union.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

AfD might get seats

While we are getting all excited (well the media is or, at least, some of it) about a possible UKIP MP from Clacton it looks like the far younger Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) looks set to win a seat or two in the State of Saxony.
Exit polls after voting closed at 6 p.m. (1700 BST) showed Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), who have run Saxony since German unification in 1990, winning almost 40 percent, followed by the Left and Social Democrats in second and third place.

The Eurosceptic AfD, founded in early 2013 to oppose the euro zone bailouts, beat all forecasts with about 10 percent, according to exit polls.
I accept the argument that the German system is less inimical to small parties than the British one but I see no point in saying that UKIP (or whoever) has won seats in local councils. State government in Germany is considerably more important and powerful than local councils in this country. That may be a pity but it is a fact.

Results to be announced later this evening.

UPDATE 21.54 AfD apparently won around 9.6 per cent.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

No more earthquakes, just a game changer - maybe

Just as I thought I would not have to write about UKIP again until the General Election campaign, along comes Douglas Carswell, the man, who, as the Boss says, was still certain just a couple of months ago that the only way to get a referendum (and none of these people seem to think beyond that) was to vote in a Conservative government next year. Apparently, that is no longer the case, that is if we assume, something that is hard to do, that Mr Carswell's sudden volte face, resignation and reappearance on the streets of Clacton to take part in a UKIP "action day" was motivated by something more than just pique at not being treated with the respect he thinks he deserves.

My own feeling is that Mr Carswell himself shows a certain amount of disrespect to the people who worked with him and for him for some years by this rather nauseating appearance so soon after he dropped them into something of a mess. But then, who expects honourable behaviour from a politician.

There are a few problems facing Mr Carswell and UKIP. The first is that absolutely none of his much-proclaimed ideas are at one with those of UKIP, who have long ago turned themselves into a statist, protectionist and welfarist party, the very opposite of what Mr Carswell has been preaching. There is the question of Brexit but that, as the Boss and I have been pointing out ad nauseam, is no longer high on UKIP's agenda and is often omitted completely in favour of another rant about immigrants. Incidentally, how is Mr Carswell going to like being questioned on that subject as he will be by the media who will not think it necessary to treat him with respect either?

Another problem is that of democracy and being different from other parties, two subjects that UKIP tends to treat as interchangeable. Mr Carswell is known as a great believer in open primaries and UKIP periodically proclaims that it is in favour of direct democracy whatever might be meant by that. So, what is happening? It would appear that the NEC has decided to over-rule the local association and put pressure on the already chosen candidate to stand down in favour of the high-profile defector from another party. Open primaries and direct democracy can both go hang when publicity is needed.

The Boss has referred to the hysteria displayed by the media though nobody is talking about earthquakes any longer - a more modest suggestion of a possible game changer is all anyone can come up with. There is speculation that anything from six to ten (depending which newspaper you are reading) other Conservative MPs are about to jump ship. Remains to be seen. I am guessing that they all know that Mr Carswell's defection was not caused by any great burst of political idealism and can see the various difficulties he might encounter. At the very least, I would imagine they will be waiting for the by-election and its results. That might not be quite what Mr Carswell and UKIP are hoping for.

It is not precisely a secret that Nigel Farage has been agitating for the party to put its collective shoulder to the wheel to make him the first UKIP MP in next year's General Election though that was an unlikely scenario as Our Nige is not precisely a vote winner. Now he has to put on his big grin and a happy face on the strong possibility that Mr Carswell will get there ahead of him. The truth is that this is the only way UKIP could win a by-election and even that is not certain. Much depends on how matters will sort themselves out with the local UKIP association and how angry the Conservative voters of Clacton might be. No amount of mutual back-slapping and grinning for the cameras at some "action day" can hide the difficulties. Or not for long, anyway. Dan Hannan thinks otherwise: he thinks Douglas Carswell's decision to jump was entirely noble and that he is entirely popular in Clacton. The first seems odd, when one takes everything into consideration, the second is a possibility but events are about to hit everyone involved in this saga. Besides, I have a rooted objection to any politician who says "take it from me". Somehow I do not find that a convincing argument.

Meanwhile, what of Roger Lord, the original and, as far as anyone knows, present UKIP candidate in Clacton? As we have seen he is not happy. The New Statesman suggests that he might defect to the Tories, which would be quite entertaining. The Daily Telegraph has not gone that far but has published an article in which he has called Douglas Carswell weak and cowardly. Apparently, he has rejected Nigel Farage's slightly off-hand offer of another "plum" seat (there are no plum seats as far as UKIP is concerned and well they know it).

So what does this do for euroscepticism in general? Much depends on how the by-election pans out and the fact that the anti-politician political party has been behaving in the usual kind of politician-like fashion is not something that they can boast about too much. The Boss and I discussed this at length, as readers can imagine. He said quite rightly that if Carswell loses that will be a huge blow to UKIP and also to the Eurosceptic movement. In my opinion, Mr Carswell's ill-thought through action is already a blow: even he wins the by-election he is unlikely to hold on to the seat in the General and will be, in the meantime, a solitary UKIP voice in the Commons who will have to argue that party's policies whether he likes them or not, while being subjected to jeers from his erstwhile colleagues many of whom would have gone on supporting him, had he stayed in the Conservative Party. No, I do not think we can trust the PM or most Conservatives but neither do I like UKIP or most of their policies (the one I agree with having become ever less important to them). Besides, nothing in this world will give us a UKIP government.

What will prove to be quite entertaining will be the Leader's manoeuvring to ensure that he remains the best known UKIP person in the country even though that actually loses the party votes. As things stand, Douglas Carswell is a far better known one and if he actually is re-elected as a UKIP MP, he will be the one the media will go to instead of Nigel Farage, who is not going to like that at all. I wonder if David Cameron has realized that and is banking on the trouble and tension that will appear between two such primadonnas strong personalities.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

One of his early films is missing

The death of Richard Attenborough (or Dickie Attenborough or Lord Attenborough but NOT Lord Richard Attenborough), announced last week was not exactly tragic news. He was nearly ninety, frail and unwell for a long time and the proud possessor of a spectacular filmography. Nevertheless, many of us felt sad in that the news of his death, coming so soon after the news of Lauren Bacall's, reminded us that the greats of the film industry are going and not being replaced by an adequate number and of adequate calibre.

My own preference is for Attenborough's early films, many of which have a noirish tinge and one, Brighton Rock, is a classic. In fact, a good many of those films were classics. Another one of my favourites is The League of Gentlemen that, for some reason, has not been revived for a many years, despite an excellent plot, a sharp script and a stellar cast.

Yet there is a film that is missing. Well, it is not exactly missing in that I have seen it as did a good many people who were attending the National Film Theatre but it seems not to be listed anywhere.

A few years ago the NFT screened one of Attenborough's early films, Dancing with Crime, in which he plays a newly demobbed taxi driver who tries to steer clear of the post-war black market gangs but gets drawn into action when one of his childhood friends with fewer scruples is killed. His part of the cheerful, strong-minded Ted Peters who wants to get on in life honestly and settle down with his childhood sweetheart (played by Sheila Sim) is as different as it could be from the one he played in the same year, Pinky in Brighton Rock. Dancing with Crime was a good enough film though as black market films go not as good as the brilliant and rarely shown Noose or, as it appears to be known now, The Silk Noose.

There was, however, an extra attraction to that showing: a short film made in 1953 by Eric Fawcett and scripted by Peter Brook, entitled Box for One. In it Attenborough plays brilliantly a minor hoodlum who realizes that he has somehow fallen foul of a big gang and makes ever more frantic phone calls from an old-fashioned phone box (that box for one). I shall not reveal the ending but I can reveal that Sidney (Sid) James appears in it briefly, thus creating one solitary film that links the ultra intellectual Peter Brook with the considerably less intellectual Sid James.

The problem is that this film is not listed in any of the filmographies: not in Attenborough's, not in James's and not in Brook's. What we do find on the latter is two other versions of the Box for One, one made in 1949 with Marius Goring in the main part and no director credited and one made in 1953 for the BBC's Wednesday Theatre, directed by Tony Richardson with Robert Helpmann in the main role. There is also a Danish TV play of 1956, written by Peter Brook (and presumably translated), called Telefonboksen, which I assume to be the same play or, at least, similar to the original. Wikipedia also lists a 1958 Australian version, also starring Robert Helpmann (and here).

But where is the Richard Attenborough version listed? I have seen it, I tell you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What is the matter with academics?

Not all academics, of course, but a very large proportion of them. The problem I am going to write about seems to be prevalent in universities of long standing and high reputation as much as in those that are too new to have any reputation at all. And extraordinarily large number of academics with good positions and published works to their names seem unable to write books or articles that express their views and their opinions. All they can do is to quote various other academics and, occasionally, writers outside that world, thus ensuring that nobody but other academics will be interested in even the slightest degree in what they have to say. And why should anyone be interested in a book that is merely a compilation of previous pronouncements, in themselves, one suspects compilations of even older ones. Somewhere at some time there must have been an original thought, idea, thesis or book but it would take too long to find it.

As I said above, I do not consider all academics to be of such intellectually pusillanimous variety and can think of several historians who happily say what they think even if it brings down on them the wrath of their colleagues, of the glitterati, of the serious reviewers (though, one hopes, less so) and of the academic world in general. But these hardy souls are becoming few and far between and that is not a happy state of affairs.

Part of the problem must be the insistence on "peer review" in subjects when such a thing cannot really exist. Peer review in sciences can, as we know in such subjects as climate research, be used to silence current "heresies" but, on the whole, is necessary. Peer review in arts and social sciences is not - it is the reviewers and the reading public that will judge what is acceptable by way of theory and, after all, it is always possible and, indeed, necessary to publish arguments against a certain thesis and to have an academic dispute.

That, apparently, is no longer acceptable. Instead, publishers, as I know from my own and other people's experience, send manuscripts out for peer review, said process being little more than one of ensuring that the author does not step out of line or beyond the currently accepted boundaries.

Some years back I contributed an essay to a collection of counterfactuals in history and the editors insisted that every essay in it should be reviewed by other contributors. My own essay looked at 1938 and asked "what if Czechoslovakia had fought and defended the Sudetenland". I looked at what happened in that momentous year from the British, French, German, Soviet and, finally, Czechoslovak point of view, coming to some tentative conclusions as to what might have happened. The essay was sent off to a couple of my colleagues and came back with comments that dealt exclusively with the section on Britain and France, rehashing the old arguments about the Munich Agreement in which I did not chastise Chamberlain strongly enough. I accepted a couple of corrections, argued a couple of others and carried my point (to be fair) and tried to explain that the point of the essay was something quite different. It was published in full so I have nothing to complain about but the whole process did make me wonder about the exercise of peer review.

In a slightly more serious case, which also ended well, I am glad to say, a friend has recently published a well researched and well reviewed book about Islam in Britain, which had been held up, criticized and nearly destroyed by academics to whom it went for peer review as it had not fitted into the parameters that had been drawn up in academia and which were more important to these people that original research and conclusions drawn from it, with which they could have argued, had they wanted to after publication.

So what do we get when academics publish books? By and large, as I said at the beginning of this rant, a string of quotations that places the burden on those who said those things previously and who, if themselves present day academics, probably did the same.

For another blog I have been asked to review a book whose topic is of great interest. The title is A State of Play and the subtitle, British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It. The author is Steven Fielding, is Professor of Political History in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and the Director of the Centre for British Politics as well as an author of several other volumes on subjects political and of a website. Not, you would think, a man who should be worried about expressing his opinion.

Mind you, I have my doubts about somebody who writes about British democracy and its development in the twentieth century without once mentioning membership of the European Union and its effect on legislation and the democratic process, but that is by the by. (I shall eventually do that review and link to it.)

In fact, I have done a certain amount of complaining about this book already.

Setting that aside, why cannot Professor Fielding just say what he thinks about writers and writing of novels and plays and their relationship with their audience or readership. Why does he have to quote on one page Anthony Trollope, T. S. Eliot, the historians Anthony Aldgate and Jeffrey Richards, the playwright David Edgar and the novelist Maurice Edelman not as people whose ideas need discussing but as the origins of those ideas that are part of Professor Fielding's argument.

Why is it that such an unexceptional and uncontroversial, even banal statement as "[a] work and its reception are entirely different things" can be inserted only as a quote from the playwright David Hare?

I could go on at length but it would only prove the same point, which is unnecessary. Many other academic publications suffer from the same problems. Who apart from other academics, many of whom will simply want to name-check themselves will want to read such books?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lauren Bacall 1925 -2014 RIP

It says something about my taste in films that, although I understood why so many people were upset by the tragic news yesterday of Robin Williams succumbing to the depression that seems to haunt so many comedy actors, it is as nothing compared to the sadness I feel about the news of the, hardly tragic, death of the great Lauren Bacall at the age of 89.

Just in case anyone does not know her story in films and theatre (at the very beginning and towards the end of it), here is a summary by Reuters. It does not deal with her private life or her somewhat silly political pronouncements but it does give the impression many of us share that there was some wastage of a fine talent there. Then again, she may not have felt it was a wastage. It is hard to tell.

Anyway, film clips. One has to be from To Have And Have Not, her first film and the one in which she and Bogart met and fell in love on and off screen. No other film, in my experience, conveys the sexual chemistry between the two stars as well as this one. I decided not to choose the famous clips about whistling but one of Bacall singing while Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket in the film) plays the piano. And yes, she did sing herself. The story of the young Andy Williams dubbing for her is a myth.

The other clip is from a far less well known film but one that shows Bacall in an unexpected comedy role with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, How to Marry a Millionaire.

And last but not least, the trailer from Murder on the Orient Express, not, in my opinion, a particularly good film but with a cast that was truly stellar (though, possibly, the biggest star of all, was the train).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Give more power to elected bodies and all will be well

Or so we are told by a number of people who seem to think that what people do is less important than how they get there and of all the ways of appointing anyone is by some kind of a ballot. This blog is not against elections or elected legislators but it also considers that constitutional accountability is a higher priority and even elected legislators need to be subjected to some sort of checks in order to have those balances. It is no secret that this blog opposes the idea of an elected House of Lords. Apart from a slightly mystical (and misty-eyed) belief in the absolute goodness of a more or less popular vote no rational argument has been advanced in favour of such a system.

However, all that is for another posting. What concerns us here is the European Parliament a.k.a. the Toy Parliament, which is a huge drain on all our resources for no particular purpose as it does not even have primary legislative powers.

We have all heard the arguments, have we not? The European Parliament, unlike the European Commission (the sole initiator of European legislation), is an elected body and represents the people of Europe, however you may define them. So, in order to breach that democracy deficit we need to give them more powers and that is what recent treaties have done. You would expect the people of Europe to be so delighted by this development that they would rush out in ever increasing number to vote for their European representatives.

Not so but far from it. With every new acquisition of powers, in every European election, fewer people bother to vote.

The sad news is that the turn-out for the 2014 European elections was lower even than for the 2009 ones, in itself lower than anything before. In fact, the turn-out was the lowest since the Toy Parliament had become a directly elected body in 1979.
Voter turnout in May´s European elections was the lowest ever, according to newly-released figures which contradict earlier claims of historic participation.

The 2014 turnout figure of 43.09 per cent, based on exit polls, has now been revised down half a percentage point - putting it lower than the 43 per cent turnout in 2009.

Turnout has steadily dropped from 62 per cent in 1979 and the 2014 figures marks a new low point in voter participation.

Senior EU figures had hailed the initial turnout as "historic" and evidence of the EU successfully bridging a "democratic deficit" with citizens.

Former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt, now an MEP, said the "increase" in turnout, albeit tiny, was “an endorsement of the European project” and EU commissioner Viviane Reding hailed the apparent reversal of the ever-downward trend in voter participation in the EU-wide poll as a "game changer."

However, the 43.09 per cent figure was based on exit polls so was preliminary and it has taken over two months to establish the real figures.

While voter turnout has dropped in every single European election since 1979, the Parliament´s powers have consistently increased and its choice for the next European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was rubberstamped by member states.
There follows a lot of blah about the need to introduce reforms or something from Open Europe. If readers feel so inclined, they can read it.

It is very satisfying to be able to say that the turn-out in the UK was well under the average at 33.7 per cent, which makes me think that the only lesson the Prime Minister can learn from the European Elections is that the majority of the population cares not a fig for that institution and has no particular preference in the question of whose snouts should be in the trough. And if he does not that yet he must have been hiding in a hut in Outer Mongolia all this time.

Of course, we cannot compete with Slovakia where the turn-out was 13 per cent and in the Czech Republic 18.2 per cent. That was announced on Sunday night. Both figures might have been revised down since then.