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August 23, 2012

Edinburgh's festival: experiments lost in translation

Underground? Odd venues for Edinburgh fringeThe summer festivals in Edinburgh, and in particular the Fringe, pride themselves of being the most democratic large cultural festival in the world. This year, though, they had a worse-than-usual press. First, the creeping commercialisation of the Fringe caused a sort of controversial ‘split’ (fringe’s fringe?) at the Assembly Rooms. Then the Olympics overshadowed its build-up. Finally, some stand-up comedians had the brilliant idea to joke about rape – placing themselves at the same low level as Republican wannabe senators. And in the meanwhile, the main shows received lukewarm reviews.

We spent the week-end between the main festival and the fringe, and it was worth it, even though the Scottish weather prevented us to take purt in the night walk-cum-light show Speed of Light on Arthur Seat.

No interest in stand-up comedies: with all respect to the performers, it is really a minor genre anbd a result of cost-cutting. A silly guy standing in front of an audience telling jokes on politics/sex/stereotypes - really something I can do myself at home, thanks. But we did go to two of the highlights of the International Festival, 2008: Macbeth and Meine Faire Dame, in the Royal Highland Centre – a huge hangar adjacent to Edinburgh Airport.

Macbeth was an unusual Shakespeare experience. Not so much because it was in Polish: as I had already written, on stage (as opposed to on paper) I prefer Shakespeare in translation than in English, because director and performers can only flourish outside the iron cage of verse and the burden of five centuries of previous recitations. All the more for Macbeth, which literarily is one of the least fascinating plays, with hardly any worthy speech (speeches are admittedly better in English, and an excellent solution is the one of repeating them in both the performers’ language and in English, as in Langhoff's Hamlet: A Cabaret). 2008: Macbeth is set in contemporary occupied Iraq, it was first performed in a weapon factory outside Warsaw, and experiments bravely with screens, pyrothecnics and sound effects: it really seems that a helicopter is landing. The scene is split into four quadrants and the amount of video connections makes the theatre scene as close as ever to the idea of hypertext. All this has not been appreciated by most British critics, complaining that Shakespeare does not need pyrothecnics (Daily Telegraph). What a double pointless argument: of course he does not need them. Yet Macbeth, as said, is with Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s plays where action prevails over word – and the director’s art is making the most of it, and giving it a meaning. Only last year I saw Macbeth in the kingdom of Shakespearean orthodoxy, the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by the RSC Director Michael Boyd. Even Boyd had to innovate to get something out of Macbeth, replacing the witches with children, adding a historical shift to the Reformation and even... pyrotechnics. Yet Grzegorz Jarzyna (who in 1998, aged only 30, became director of the experimental Teatr Rozmaitosci in Warsaw) goes much further and adds much more. The ghost scene is the best of any Macbeth I have seen, the witches are scary, the whispering sounds make the rise of evil almost palpable. Moreover, the setting in Iraq is the open references to Abu Ghraib jail’s horrors add more food for thought than it is usually delivered by this play.

Given the amount of effort on the set, the actual acting is not so prominent in 2008: Macbeth, and only occasionally (as in the ghost’s scene) is Cezary Kosiński really gripping. The opposite can be said of the second show we saw, Meine Faire Dame – Ein Sprachlabor by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler. The extremely loose adaptation of My Fair Lady is not placed in some topical historical setting, but in a language laboratory of functional but grey and unfashionable 1970s’s Switzerland (which hits the memory of any Milanese who watched Italian Swiss TV in that decade). There is hardly any plot, and the little plot that is there has no logic. Moreover, there is a disconnection between sound and action, and between sounds, and between characters. It is more absurd than the theatre of absurd, which still maintains unity of time and space. But in this fragmentation of meaning, it opens an avenue for the best possible expression of actors’ talent: moving arhythmically while singing, for instance, is actually more difficult than moving rhythmically. And playing not just with different accents, but with different sounds, pronunciations, talking speeds and languages is a sort of artistic Olympics. I had my eyes wide open in admiration, when not weeping for too much laughing, for the whole 120 minutes. But British critics did not like it, expressing their indignation at the apparent lack of any meaning (Guardian).

What we saw at the Fringe was, paradoxically, much more conventional. Karen’s Way: A Kindertransport Life was a very moving play-story telling on Jewish persecution in Nazi Germany, on the difficult reception of Jewish child refugees, and oin survivers' guilt-trap feelings. It was played simultaneously by a young and a mature actor, representing the past and present of poet Karen Gershon, and in particular director-actor Vanessa Rosenthal is convinging with her German accent, contrasting with the accentless young Karen (because when young, she was actually speaking native-language German).

A more difficult, but less convincing, game with accents occurred in Sister Annunciata’s Secret, a monologue where the actress personifies a Canadian nun, but also her New Yorker and Irish interlocutors. In sum, deciphering languages and accents was important in all four plays we saw, but the experimental nature of the Swiss-German and Polish shows was the most memorable thing I took from this year’s Edinburgh. Rather than too commercial, it looked too innovative (and polyglot?) for the habits of British critics. But it is fortunate that the Edimburgh Festival, like the Olympics, are giving the world a fresher, more modern, open and attractive image of the UK than the embarassingly old-fashioned one given by royal weddings and queen's jubilees (or princely strips).

August 09, 2012

London & the Olympics

After the Olympics came to me to Coventry, I went to the Olympics. So far, they have brought at least three very good things:

(1) The G4S private security blunder: nobody could have staged such a spectacular, world-vision refutation of the theory that private is more efficient than public; it won’t change policies probably, because despite the crisis neoliberals and privatizers are still all around like zombies, but it will remain in public consciousness - just like the fact that fast increase in performance, as for Great britain and China, is only possible with a coordinated effort and public support (better if not in a authoritarian way)

(2) The multi-ethnic, although still a bit classist, nature of the British triumphs: that’s all for you, Daily Mail

(3) More attention to women’s sport than ever before, and also to less famous sports - although only conditionally on the nationality of the favourites coinciding with that of the reporters

Sometimes it so good to look staged, as if in a continuation of the opening ceremony with its celebration of the NHS, social progress and multi-ethnicity. Take today, wednesday: after over a week flooded by British medals, a day of pause with no British success to talk about, so that the headline news could only be the new horrible data on the economy... Osborne must be furious for the bad timing of his circuses.


The real thing is indeed good, but having watched football, fencing and athletics I am a little underwhelmed, after so much overenthusiastic reporting in the British media (as in the BBC shouting "Ben Aisle is the best sailor in history"... how about the Vikings, Phaenicians and Columbus?). Everybody looks happy, sure, but in a somehow fake way, like in a big Disneyland. The sport has not been so great, with still no athletic record and little in terms of memorable performances or dramas. The best thing you can say of the weather and the food is that they are typically British, and of the ExCel arena is that it was already there and they did not have to build it on purpose for the Olympics. The Olympic park, while it may be better than the previous wasteland, is soulless and anonymous: it could be anywhere and it has no striking building. The velodrome and the aquatics centre are beautiful inside, but indistinct outside, while the Olympic stadium is very functional, but it deserves to be downsized into a second-tier football ground afterwards – the Polish Euro2012 stadia are much nicer, not to speak of Beijing’s Olympic Stadium. The much-acclaimed Orbit is, from the outside, so ugly that it makes you want to go up to it – from where you can see all but the Orbit itself. The presence of the sponsors is so oppressive that it makes me want to drink Pepsi. And one strange thing I noticed yesterday: the Olympic Park is actually about the only place in the UK where you cannot watch the Olympics: there are big screens only in one place, the Live Park, which is however much too small at peak times to host all curious spectators.

And indeed London, while well-organised, is far from showing vibes of excitement. On Saturday, Hyde Park's Live Site was far from full, and the race walk, which is usually through the city, was hidden away in loops of the Mall, as not to disturb Londoners.

British fans, British food

This does not mean it is not enjoyable or that there are no gripping or exhilarating moments. At the athletics, we saw the exuberant celebrations of German discus thrower Harting, and an amazing finish of the 100m hurdles women. At the race walk we had the drama of seeing the second-placed Russian Borchin collapse in front of us at the last loop - a better collapse, in hindsight, than that of Italian Alex Schwazer, gold medal in Beijung in the 50km, caught for doping. Talking of Schwazer, he reminds the case of Ben Johnson, downgraded from "Canadian hero" to "Jamaican-born" overnight in 1988. In Italy, Schwazer has been downgraded from Italian hero to cheating Southtirolean (e.g. by La Stampa reporter Castelnuovo), while 4 years ago it was the Schützen who condemned him for celebrating with an Italian flag (and being a Carabiniere, i.e. enrolled for the occupying army). In the other direction, Murray, who was a miserable Scot when defeated at Wimbledon a month ago, is now a British icon...

Moreover, London offers so much more than sport anyway. In a break from sports we saw ‘These Associations’, Tino Seghal’s installation at Tate Modern: dozens of performers walking and running around the huge Turbine Hall, and stopping people to tell about individual lives made of uprooting and meetings. I was myself ‘chatted up’ by a performer and found this one of the most unusual artistic experiences. The work is somehow reminicent of Ai Waiwei's ones, but Tino Seghal is himself from Berlin, where I had had another unusual artistic experience that included reindeer urine). And it was somehow like the Olympics: eye-catching, cosmopolitan, and occasionally disconcerting.

PS: indeed, the Jamaican and Kenyan running exploits have now added what the London Olympics were still missing - records and memorable scenes.

July 31, 2012

Olympics in Coventry

Lady Godiva

The Olympic Games - if only with the football matches - in Coventry: it must be the first time that there is some sort of world news involving this city since the beginning of the Millennium. On Sunday, I went to the male football in the City of Coventry stadium, usually called Ricoh arena but renamed for the Olympics due to the strict sponsoring rules, a place where I had been a couple of times to see poor Coventry City and always struggled to keep awake. Coventry City was relegated from the Premier League, after 34 years of honourable survival in the top fight, during my first year here, and this year, devastated by speculative hedge fund investors, was relegated further to League One (third league). So the Olympics are a welcome counterbalance to the long social, economic and sport decline of this city: Gabon-Mexico and South Korea-Switzerland were not memorable, but an improvement on the usual local standards. And on Friday I will go again for the female quarterfinal Great Britain - Canada, which should be exciting (should I support Quebec or Scotland?).

There is also some art involved: the Godiva Awakes project linked to the Olympics is quite impressive and on Sunday I saw the pretty gigantic heroin's marionette, which will cycle all the way to London: it was good, nice and cheerful as people are here, but the grey weather and the even greyer backgrounds were a bit sad and did not impress the few foreign visitors and fans who attended.

Similar feelings for Danny Boyle's opening ceremony in London, which I watched on TV with other 27m spectators in the country. Lovely and cheerful indeed, with all the good things I like of Britain: social history, the NHS, pop music, Akram Kahn, Simon Rattle, self-deprecating humour, cinema, Shakespeare, children literature. But also a bit sad indeed: if Beijing's opening ceremony was all triumph and onwards-looking, London's was all nostalgia and backward-looking. The NHS and British culture have been very good thing, but they are being massacred by the current government. And the whole country is in decline, with the third-worst economic performance in the world (in $) since the beginning of the recession and the worst Chancellor in human memory. Some fools hope the Olympics may help the economy: in fact, data from the last ten Olympics show, if the Olympics help, it is only before the game, with the construction boom; afterwards, it is rather anti-climax and doom - a bit like Coventry City after they built the new stadium.

July 22, 2012

Vive le Tour (even a dull one)

It was one of the dullest Tours I can remember: with an indistinct, unspectuacular route, hardly anything happened in the mountains, and one team was too strong, killing off competition. It was also one of the least deserving winner: 45 competitors removed by falls, and indeed Froome deserved more, but it was hampered by bad luck and iron hierarchy. It was a bit like track cycling invading the roads (100km of time stages is too much), and erasing poetry, scenery and tradition. This year, the Giro d'Italia was much more fun.

Still, well done Wiggins. First of all he looks like a clean win, and if dull means no drug scandals, long live a dull Tour. And the good luck this year balances the bad one last year. But mostly, thanks to him, there is some reporting and attention in the UK, although still nothing in comparison to Italy and France where cycling is the most watched sport. When I arrived to the UK twelve years ago, one of the cultural shocks was that there was no Tour de France on TV. But since the triumphs in the 2004 Olympics and 2007 Track Cycling Championship, the sport is more and more popular. This comes with some disadvantage (some silly consumerism), but (together with the crisis and oil prices) it increases the numbers of bikes on the road. Contrary to the number of cars, the more bikes on the road, the better: it gets safer if everybody gets used to bikes, and the political pressure for more cycling paths increases. The sporty nature of the new rediscovery of cycling in the UK, however, also limits its potential expansion: it is so sporty-looking, that everyday, casual city cycling, without helmet and lycra outfits, like on continental Europe, looks actually rarer. As if cycling were only for athletes: my grandaunt in the Po valley cycled until into her 80s.

In fact, cycling is become a flagship for environmental policies all around Europe, and interestingly, especially on the Right side: it is rightwing mayors like Boris Johnson and Letizia Moratti who have introduced cycleshare schemes in London and Milan. You can easily tell why: more space for bikes is a relatively cheap policy, as far as environmental measures go (especially if like in London they come with sponsorships from morally disputable institutions...), and who benefits most, is the middle classes, in an interesting social reverse from 50 years ago.

I have enjoying cycling a bit everywhere, from Peru to Canada and China. This year around Europe, unfortunately, I did not always have a bike at my disposal, but everywhere I could, I tried out the public cycle schemes and gathered information from local cyclists. And here are my notes.

The worst city for cycling is Madrid - strangely enough, the capital of a proper cycling nation. Only some 1% of the inhabitants cycles to work, and basically the only bikes you see are mountain bikes in the Casa del campo park. The reasons are largely understandable (climate, hills, excellent affordable public transport), but really the Spanish Right is well behind the other European ones and is not doing anything for cyclists.

From TibidaboThe best improvement is in Paris. When I was a student there in the mid-1990s, cycling was even worse than in my native town Milan: I remember the unique madness of placing some cycling lanes in the middle of the roads (the reason was to avoid the most frequent of city cycling accidents, i.e. crashes into opening doors of parked cars - but surely the solution is to remove the cars, not to place the bikes in the middle of fast traffic). Now, the vélib scheme is by far the best I have experienced, for number of bikes, ease of use, cost, and coverage of the whole city. It maybe an expensive scheme (a lot of bikes are lost to vandalism) but it is very well spent money: the whole city is much more livable and many more people take up cycling. But vélib is not the only reason for the cyling surge in Paris. The December 1995 month-long strike of public transport forced so many onto the two wheels, that a good share of them were hooked - and strikes in the Parisian public transports are everyday a possibility. Also, Paris has one of the best attended 'critical mass' traditions, anarchist group cycling and roller-skating to reclaim the streets from car traffic (popular also elsewhere, from Milan to Warsaw).

Clear improvements in comparison to the 1990s can be noticed also in London and in Warsaw, once very cyclist-hostile cities. But the best place among those I have been in the last two years (Copenhagen and Amsterdam did not enter the competition) is still, by far, Berlin - even though I am not a fan of cycling paths on pavements.

May 04, 2012

Voting in Coventry

Yesterday, I made the most of my status of European Union citizen by voting in the local elections in Coventry. Voting in local elections is something two thirds of the British population do not care about, so my act may be seen as paradoxically one of distinction from, rather than of integration in the local polity. Those who do not vote in local elections over here might have some reason: the country is strongly centralised, there are no regional elections and local councils do not have much competence, despite running substantial budgets and being responsible for something most British people complain about all the time: the council tax (a rather regressive thing, heritage of the even worse Thatcher's poll tax). But still, local elections have some relevance for national politics, although not nearly as much as they have in most of western Europe, and especially so in Germany, Italy and Spain. And they matter locally too: when Coventry fell shortly into conservative hands afew years ago, the damage was there for all to see, for instance in the cuts to libraries, including those just built.

So I did go to vote, and while in the past I occasionally voted Greens or Socialist, especially when sick of wars abroad and of traffic locally, I opted for the ‘useful vote’ that a first-past-the-post system calls for, and gone for Labour. With good satisfaction: my ward, which is a mix of two parts, old working-class Tile Hilland new middle-class Westwood, swung from Conservative to Labour and Coventry’s Labour majority was strengthened. Despite low turn-out, Labour's excellent result across the country sent a clear message to the ruling coalition and especially to the Lib-Dems, who were duly massacred in the polls.

Liberals have been an important tradition in the European polity, with serious merits, but both largest liberal parties, in Germany and in the UK, may disappear from the next Parliaments and I find it difficult to miss them. The German FDP discovered neoliberalism after its sell-by-date, and it is now reduced to something like 1%. In the UK, the Lib-Dems' affair with the Tories will go to history as one of the most stupid political decisions ever. The long history of Italian coalitions taught me that as a rule, ina government the senior patner always takes the merits, and the smaller parties take the blame: this is why the Christian Democrats could rule with smaller allied for as long as 45 years (the rule is confirmed, grosso modo, by the other proportional-voting countries). So junior partners need to demarcate very clearly something they will benefit from, which is usually simpler for regional parties (i.e. the Catalans of CiU). But in a foolish bet, Clegg gave the Tories everything, even what they had not asked for (the reform of the NHS!), in exchange of only one, terribly insecure thing: the referendum on the election system. Which he predictably lost, and now, for a further three years, he has to keep being the spare wheel of the Tories for no benefit whatsoever, playing the shameful role of the scapegoat for Cameron, without any negotiation power given that in a snap election he would disappear. No, his strategic vision will not be missed.

Yesterday we also voted on another election reform: a referendum on the direct election of mayors. Initially, I was quite in favour of the idea. In Italy, it was introduced 19 years ago and, although I had opposed it in the Italian referendum of 1993, I concede that it had a positive effect in revitalising local democracy, and all across the country there have been lively campaigns and independent, innovative mayors. And during these two years, I have seen charismatic mayors having positive influence in all corners of Europe, from Kraków to Berlin to Milan. But on reflection, this is not so much associated with direct election: in Germany and Spain, the elections are indirect. And direct election works well in Italy, because anyway the large majority of the population takes part in the vote. But in the UK, with participation at around 30%, the risk of maverick populist mayors with large marketing budgets is too high: Boris Johnson in London is only a taste of worse things that could come. Rather than revitalising democracy, direct election could undermine the associational pillar of democracy itself (so openly despised in these same days, across the Channel, by Sarkozy). So I voted no, and in this case, I have been in line with the innate conservatism of the majority of local voters.

March 06, 2012

Post–shakespearean sexual and religious politics in Stratford–upon–Avon

Royal Shakespeare CompanyIf Coventry is not exactly a cultural heavyweight, at least it is very close to Stratford-upon-Avon, which during the day is little more than a theme park packed with American tourists but in the evening, after day-tourists have left, becomes more silent and allows hearing Shakespeare’s echo. During the last few weeks back in Coventry, while in continental-culture withdrawal crisis, three times I headed to Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare Company and its theatres for comfort – and as always, I did not regret it.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is devoted to, guess what, Shakespeare, and the main theatre only shows its plays. The other two, the Swan and the Courtyard (recently built to host the main plays during the Shakespeare’s theatre transformation in 2006-11), show also different texts, and generally experiment with slightly edgier ideas, although even there texts need about five centuries before being considered. But one splendid thing of all three is the setting: the Guthrie-inspired thrust stages, whereby scenic illusion (quite pointless in the era of cinema) is abandoned to make the actors play in the middle of the audience and exalt theatrical skills. In this regard, the RSC theatre, which before the renovation had a traditional stage, as it reopened last year is particularly impressive: it fits over 1,000 people, all very close to the stage. The downside may be that seats are cramped, but well worth it. Thanks to generous subventions (theatre cannot compete without public support), prices are affordable, with generous subsidies tickets and some very cheap occasions for places with ‘reduced’ (but fully sufficient) view. Last year we run to see the Macbeth as soon it reopened, and we found the transformation as the best improvement in the whole region foe the last decade...

As to the content, if poetically Shakespeare’s texts are hardly surpassable, I must say, to the disgust of my English-speaking texts, that when it comes to the scene, it is better in translation. My best Shakespeare experiences were all in other languages, from Strehler’s Tempest in Milan, to Cieplak’s King Lear in Warsaw with Zapasiewicz, to Langhoff’s Hamlet (in cabaret-adaptation) at Paris’ Odéon, and even a Ninagawa’s Titus Andronicus in Japanese in Stratford-upon-Avon. The simple fact is that translation disentangles actors and direction from the iron cage of the verse and allows the liberty to express the text as best.

This is not to diminish RSC work – rather the opposite: all shows I have seen are, if not the best, absolutely excellent technically, thanks to near-unlimited material means, great actors and skilful directors. In particular, the RSC manages to strike a very difficult balance between updating Shakespeare to attract new audiences, and be faithful to the text and to the core of its spectators (who are not so young nor so progressive). This is usually done by locating the scene in modern or semi-modern times. Both Richard III and Macbeth were set in contemporary times, with some of the baddies dressed up as terrorists. Last month, The Taming of the Shrew was set in post-war Italy, which is both very attractive visually at a time of retro-fashion, and pertinent as an hyperbole of patriarchy – although a Berlusconi-times Italy could have been even more intriguing.

I was curious about The Taming of the Shrew because it is two most politically incorrect play by Shakespeare besides the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice. How will the RSC make it palatable for a modern audience in a very PC country? With a female director, Lucy Bailay, who makes of Christopher Sly’s Induction the pillar of the show. The Induction was often omitted in classic times, but by putting the Shrew’s story in the head of a drunken tinker, it reverses like in a mirror the meaning of the plot: it objectifies male chauvinism, which is no longer the meaning, but rather the object of Sly’s wicked imagination and therefore of our laugh. The stage becomes a big bed, covered by a huge lines under which Sly sleeps and moves comically, and which underlines the sexual content of the play. The result is a very funny and guilt-free play.

The other two visits to Stratford-upon-Avon were at the Swan, and for non-Shakespearean plays. The first was The Song of Songs, an experimental work by the RSC Movement Department. The text, originally much older than Shakespeare, is the whole 22nd book of the Old Testament in King James Version – itself more or less contemporary to Shakespeare. This is the most poetic of Bible’s books, and it sounds divine even if it never mentions God. I'd say that even for Shakespeare God is a hard act to follow... I had heard beautiful readings of it before – first of all by my wife at our wedding – but taking it to stage is another matter. Director Struan Leslie does it by leaving any theological content apart, focussing on the erotic poetry, adding minimalistic, oriental-sounding music and letting six dancers create follow the rhythm and the narrative. The experiment was for me extremely successful, even if in its originality it did not attract the crowds that it deserved and that more standard RSC productions ensure. By the way, also on a 3,000 year-old erotic text the RSC manages to be politically correct – the performers are four women and two men and the dances and readings, starting from the opening ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,’ are not always heterosexual matches, and the mentions of sisterly love are particularly stressed, even if the highest points of the show are heterosexual (by the way, nothing explicit in this institution – the RSC had recently to refund offended spectators after an edgy Marat/Sade.

And the last play was a rare modern one - but paradoxically, the only onw which on stage was set in the past: Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love, directed by Nancy Meckler, telling the story of Sor Juana, the XVII Century Mexican nun and writer, repressed by an obscurantist Church. You can hardly get a more feminine production - and this is well suited to Mexico, a country where violence against women is ripe, but whose identity was shaped by women, starting from Malinche (see on her the very instructive Malinche's Conquest by Anna Lanyon), to Sor Juana and then artists like Frida Kahlo, and passing from the icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The play might be a bit too long, and I found the subplot on Sor Juana's sister rather redundant. The stage and period costumes were beautiful, although bishop Santa Cruz was dressed in a misplaced papal white (tacit anti-Catholicism?), and the nuns were simply overdressed. But above all this was a very interesting play, both on Mexico identity, and on obscurantism, repression and women segregation. And if you think that these were problems of the XVII Century, well, think of the rapidly shrinking academic freedom in Universities and on the enduring female disadvantage on the labour market. Actually, repression of free thought is still ripe: only in the last few days it was revealed that in the UK the police collaborated with construction employers in the blacklisting of union-activist workers - and even on academics, like Charles Woolfson, who dared investigating Health & Safety matters...

Seconds after the end of the play, while we were still clapping, the fire alarm broke out and everybody left the theatre: for some ten minutes, the shores of the river Avon were populated with mysterious XVII Century aristocrats, nuns and bishops... Stratford is a good place to dream.

December 13, 2011

4 countries, 4 views of the Eurocrisis

The taz title on Saturday was brilliant, as usual: Merkel rettet Euro-krize taz_2011_12_10s1.pdf(Merkel saves Eurocrisis). Like a soap opera, it never ends, and it should not. To be precise, what started in 2008 does not deserve the definition of “crisis” in the κρίσις sense of moment of decision, because so far there has been so far little choice and little rupture: we actually have more of the same (more power for financial institutions, more inequality, more neglect of democracy, in short more privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses). It would be better defined as ‘shock’ perpetuation in Naomi Klein of Shock therapy, whereby every month or two we are faced to a new disaster, delivered with good timing by rating agencies, wits a There Is No Alternative message – the opposite of a crisis.

Yet at the EU-level we have now reached a sort of crisis, not so much on socio-economic issues (the agreement solves nothing and more austerity will only dig us into a deeper hole), but on UK-Europe relations. I had the luck to observe the last three weeks, building up to the agreement of last Friday, from the four largest EU countries, while travelling between Paris, Coventry, Milan and Hamburg. Despite information being increasingly transnational, reports are quite different country by country. In the UK (except for FT and Guardian) the summit was a British victory (!!!), in France and Italy, a German victory, and in Germany, a German half-defeat, because already in January Italians and Spaniards will come asking for more cash and Germany has gained no new excuses to say no. These differences of perception make a Euro-polity still difficult to imagine, but at least shows that national political spheres still matter, and at least at that level some debate could take place.

In European politics it happens what I always tell my English students when I try to raise in them at least some interest in international issues and foreign languages: Europeans know much more about Britain than Britain about Europe, which is a competitive disadvantage for the Brits, for instance in the hierarchy of multinational companies. This fact has perhaps a more flattering side for the British: Europe is fascinated by the extravagant British, while Britain's interest in Europe is limited to sunshine and little else. In any case, reports of British politics in European newspapers are much deeper and better-informed than British newspapers’ reports of European affairs, except perhaps for The Economist and FT, which are more global than British. Le monde, die Welt, die FAZ have published detailed analyses of Cameron’s stance, although opinions differ: for Le monde and die Welt Cameron is authentically anti-European and will eventually bring the UK out of the EU (you can see the happy smile of the journalist through the lines at this point), for der Spiegel he is just an opportunistic tactician, who embraced anti-Europeanism only to get elected as Tory leader in 2005 and now simply avoids at any cost any treaty renegotiation, which would break up his government and his own party. By contrast, British medias’ analyses don’t go beyond stereotypical portraits of Merkel and Sarkozy, failing to spot that within a year or two both Germany and France will be much less Anglophile than today. At the SPD congress last week-end many spoke up to wish a British exit, to finish off with free riders and with obstruction. Le monde has regularly wished the same for very long (I suspect, since 1973). Italians have to keep a low, penitent profile nowadays, but Repubblica still hopes that Clegg will one day grow up, leave the coalition and send Cameron, rather than the whole country, out of the UK. By the way, even in the new member states, its natural allies, Cameron finds few sympathetic voices except in Hungary and the Czech Republic, due to his decision to combine with nutty populist righting parties from Central eastern Europe in the European Parliament.

The funniest reports are certainly the British rightwing press triumphal reports of a ‘victory’ and a ‘veto’: according to them, 26 countries have remained isolated. Indeed the agreement of last Friday does not change much. Read for instance the interesting interview with Sarkozy in Le monde, where a new 85%-majority voting system on the European Solidarity Mechanism is mentioned, which would give the UK, France, Italy (and if they were there, the UK!) a veto power. In the short term, the new EU-26 financial regulations cannot go against the single market and punish the UK for its non co-operation, especially on a possible Tobin Tax. But over-time, excluding the UK from all new ‘enabling’ financial regulations may isolate and damage the City of London, that 28th, non democratic EU country (see the analysis by George Monbiot in the Guardian). Maybe the next UK elections would be a moment of crisis for British voters: the time to choose between staying with the EU-26 or with that 28th country (by then 29th: welcome Croatia).

November 30, 2011

A movie on trade union emotions (on a strike day)

I am back to the UK, just in time for today's national strike in defence of pension entitlements (I was at the big rally in Birmingham), which makes it the appropriate day to review a movie I saw last week in Paris. The economic crisis has already been the opportunity for a few good movies, documentaries and not, but this is the first, to my knowledge, with a trade unionist as hero.

Michel, a grandfather in his fifties, is a CGT délégué syndical in Marseille docks, a romantic speaker who likes to quote Jaurés and speak at length. The limits of his working class solidarity ideals are put to the test twice when the crisis hits, and he negotiates a redundancy deal. First, when the names of the twenty redundant workers are to be drawn, should he add his own name in the draw, despite being protected from dismissal on the ground of his union function? He does, and he draws his own name, landing into unemployment. But the bigger test comes when he and his wife are violently burgled – the thieves are after the collection made for them by work colleagues, which would have made their life dream possible, a holiday at the Kilimandjaro (Les neiges du Kilimandjaro is a 1970s French pop song). Michel discovers soon that the burglar is a young workmate, made himself redundant, only carer of his two younger siblings. Should he tell the police? Or would that make him a petit bourgeois and a class traitor?

The movie is beautifully acted and is carefully directed by Robert Guédiguian, who knows Marseille intimately. He may not know, or pretend not to know, the French social system equally well: the draw as a system to select redundant workers is unheard of; social benefits do not work that way in France, not to speak of the care system for children. But it does not matter: I have to accept that this is not a movie on the regulation of employment relations, but a movie on trade union emotions. The inspiration of it is not a real story, but a poem by Victor Hugo, Les pauvres gens.

As researchers we often forget the poetry of unionism and its emotional side. There are some exceptions, like a few studies on solidarity (e.g. Rick Fantasia) and the studies of the ‘politics of anger’ (see the excellent analysis of Solidarity by David Ost). Indeed, today in Birmingham anger was the dominant feeling: how else to react when pensions of cleaners, nurses and teachers are cut, while bankers’ bonuses taxes are removed and business jets taxes postponed? But I would say that an increasingly broader range of emotions are at play nowadays. In fact, the social movement of 2011 in the western world, the one I had witnessed emerging in Madrid, is even defined by a feeling: indignation. Indignation is different from anger: it is not a reaction to a personal affront, but (according to Spinoza’s Ethics) ‘hatred towards one that has injured the other’ (not me!). It is a disinterested feeling, not easily explainable rationally, as in the case of 93-year old Stéphane Hessel.

The movie by Guédiguain is a poetic and touching portrayal of a whole range of emotions that affect a worker's and a unionist’s life. At times it reminds even of Ladri di biciclette. Maybe a bit sentimentalist: le Monde has written that the grace of Guédiguian's cinema is 'tirer de la fracture du monde ouvrier un outil qui fracture le cœur des bourgeois'. But there is art in this way of breaking middle class hearts with the broken working class. The movie won this year’s edition of the LUX prize, on which I commented last year and which is one of the few things the EU does well right now.

August 19, 2011

Back to the continental crisis

The EU crisis is deepening. Italy is succesfully managing to get its "I" back from Ireland in the PIGS group. It may be an opportunity to finally move on with fiscal and economic union, or a negative one where capital exploits a good crisis to weaken labour and democratic prerogatives - as it is happening with the Italian reforms apparently forced, in the middle of the August holiday, by the European Central Bank.

In any case - the situation is foggy and Stirling is definitely not a good observatory for the European crisis. So tomorrow I am flying back to Spain, sorry, Catalunya, for a couple of weeks. On my way back, I will stop for a week in Switzerland, for a conference and hopefully some good mountain hiking, but don't take this as a run to the Swiss Franc.

Stirling castle

August 10, 2011

Riots, politicians, sociologists

I am in Scotland, immersed in peace and nature, light-miles away from burning England. But it is impossible to ignore what’s happening there, in particular when former neighbourhoods in Birmingham are affected.

Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, interrupted his holiday and yesterday was on the streets of London, armed with a groom as if helping to clear up the mess. He didn’t really need a groom though as he could have used his hair, but politicians are there to speak and not to clean up. He said some sensible stuff on the ‘true spirit of London’, and I would add that there is a ‘true spirit of Birmingham’ too, where it appears that three men died tonight while standing to defend their neighbourhood. But then he moved on saying that ‘it is time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications’.

What confusion. It is true that academic experts in the heat of events should rather not speak too much – we had a terrible example a few weeks ago with armies of ‘security’ and ‘terrorism experts’ explaining to us that the Oslo bombing was Al Queda’s work. But Johnson caught the occasion for a cheap attack on social sciences and progressive thinking, adding only to confusion.

It is not the job of social scientists to explain individual events – for that there are journalists, police investigators, judges, local authorities, and eventually historians. Even more so for contemporary events. Despite the recent stress on ‘impact’ from research authorities, the best social research actually proves its usefulness only years, sometimes decades after it is carried out: take Becker’s research on youth subcultures in the 1950s, that became topical ten years later. Sociologists, in particular, are interested in patterns, regularities of behaviour, and should never try to explain ‘everything’: human behaviour is just too unpredictable. By the way, even natural sciences can predict very little, and mostly talk of probability only. So, as sociologists we are not so much interested in the Tottenham riots, but in riots as such – in the way Simmel said they were interested in king John and not in King John. Sociologists cannot solve the ongoing riots, but can try to explain why they tend to happen in certain places and at certain time. Explaining has nothing to do with justifying, but it is necessary if we don’t want repetitions, and therefore Johnson should in the future pay more attention.

These riots remind me strongly not so much of those in the Paris banlieus in 2005, which were much more political, but, rather, those of Los Angeles in 1992: which also had as immediate cause a police killing, were aimed at shopping malls, and took place during an economic crisis. In this sense riots are an example of 'succesful' adoption of the American social model - indeed in Southern Europe they are virtually unknown. The racial element was probably stronger in Los Angeles, though: in England now there may be a significant black component, but overall looters from all ethnic groups are uniting, and thank’s God no ethnic group is being targeted by the violence (in Los Angeles it was the Koreans, and in Birmingham in 2005 there was a minor Asian-Black Caribbean riot). And without falling into justification, cuts to community social services did matter in both cases: in Tottenham, the majority of youth centres has been recently closed because of the cuts, and I can see in my Tile Hill neighbourhood in Coventry what difference a youth centre can make.

But sociologists can also tell something to some kind of leftists. I remember people so excited the Los Angeles riots footage (probably the first riot so heavily televised) that they watched them with rap soundtracks. Now, as Merton famously said, there are various kinds of ‘social deviance’, depending on whether it is on the goals or on the means. Gangs of looters are not deviants in terms of goals or values: they just want to consume more in a consumerist society. They are just deviant in terms of the means they use to achieve their socially-shared goals. In this sense, they are not unknowing allied of the Left, but actually it is its exact opposite: the radical Left should be deviant in terms of goals, but, if it is democratic, not in terms of means. And historically, let’s remember that the 1992 riots in Los Angeles finished with the intervention of the army, more repression, and a wave of ‘zero tolerance’ policing across the whole United States.

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