Friday, 26 December 2014

Christmas crackers: twelve thoughts about work to enjoy over the holidays

When Sigmund Freud was asked how we can achieve happiness he said two things were necessary: the ability to love and the ability to work.

According to the internet this quotation appears nowhere in Freud’s published work but, even if he did not say it, it is close to things that he did say and, in any case, it is very true. Here are some more thoughts I like on the subject of work.

I don't like work no man does but I like what is in the work the chance to find yourself. Your own reality for yourself not for others what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.

Joseph Conrad

They are not only idle who do nothing, but they are idle also who might be better employed.


Work hard, do the best you can, don't ever lose faith in yourself and take no notice of what other people say about you.

Noel Coward

Choose a job that you love, and you will never work a day in your life.


The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.

William James

Things can be done. The people in life who get them done are the ones who know that, and the ones who don't are the rest.

Tony Hawks

A clumsy right hand cannot be trained into a skillful right hand by taking thought, by wishing it were less clumsy, or even by avoiding clumsiness. It can become skillful only by exercise in practical achievements, and the incentive to the achievement must be more deeply felt than the discouragement at the hitherto existent clumsiness.

Alfred Adler

There is no such thing as talent. There is pressure.

Alfred Adler

All happiness depends on courage and work.

Honoré de Balzac

Those who have some means think that the most important thing in the world is love. The poor know that it is money.

Gerald Brenan

I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Douglas Adams

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Victor Ponta gives up his doctorate

As Metternich said when he heard of Talleyrand's death, 

"What did he mean by that?"

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Things that seem strange to a foreigner about the Romanian presidential election

Why were the opinion polls in the Romanian election so very wrong, with one exception giving Victor Ponta
the PSD (Social Democratic Party) candidate a very healthy lead throughout? 

I have not heard any convincing explanation. Presumably, people are reluctant to say that they are going to vote against the PSD. I wonder if this is in case this information is used against them in some way. The PSD is the reinvented Communist Party, after all. But are there better explanations?

The one rogue poll was published by CCSCC two days before the vote and showed the candidates exactly equal. It was dismissed by almost everyone because it was a telephone poll from a no-name company. That poll was nowhere near the final result, but it was a lot closer than the rest of the polls.

Why did Gabriela Firea attempt to claim moral superiority for Victor Ponta over Klaus Iohannis just because he didn’t have children? Klaus Iohannis, by the way, is a Protestant who is deeply religious, according to his childhood friends, didn't plagiarise his doctoral thesis and didn't leave his pregnant wife for another woman.

Why were Mircea Geoana and Marian Vanghelie expelled from the PSD, rather than the people who were responsible for losing the election - Victor Ponta, Liviu Dragnea, the campaign organiser, and Adrian Nastase? (Nastase's friends, it is said, did not get out the vote because he wanted to get even with Mr Ponta for allowing him to be sent to gaol the second time.) 

In an old-fashioned Western the baddies always start fighting among themselves at the end of the film. It's like that after the PSD lose elections too. 

As Mircea Geoana said,

I lost the presidential election by a very few votes and I got expelled from the party. This guy lost by a lot of votes and I got expelled from the party again.
Mr. Vanghelie was expelled, even though he commands a faithful following of gypsy voters and is very rich. He is considered (fairly accurately) to be a semi-literate buffoon and could be described as the Romanian gypsy equivalent of Tony Blair's deputy, John Prescott. I am told Mr. Vanghelie was expelled 
because he has a big mouth
and so he certainly has, but this should have been a reason for  keeping him in the team. Instead he has been telling us all sorts of things the PSD doesn't want us to know. (I am sure it is not by chance that evidence of corruption is surfacing in the papers about Mr. Vanghelie exactly now.)

Actually, I know the reason why Messrs. Geoana and Vanghelie were expelled, in very rough terms. It was because they were a danger to Victor Ponta. I am told Mr. Geoana compounded his fault by telling Mr. Ponta after the result was known,

At least I believed I was president for a night.

However Mr Ponta's action makes him look weak, not strong (rather like Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives). And those who live by the sword die by the sword.

People allege that over a million fraudulent votes were cast by 'electoral tourists', people bussed from area to give multiple votes for the PSD candidate. The same thing was said in the election of 2004. I don't, of course, know the truth. Nor does anyone for sure. Why were no investigations made then or now? 

Readers who are not familiar with Romanian politics are, I hope, shocked to learn how the votes are rigged and manipulated here. Even so, what is much more shocking is that Romania is, on the whole, a much freer country than England, even though a less democratic one. Western Europe is becoming less free week by week. Romania will one day, I hope soon, get clean elections. She will never have clean politicians, but she will presumably in time have the same restrictions on freedom that, for example, the British and Dutch have.

Monday, 8 December 2014

There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in making money

Dr. Johnson said that 
“There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.
Christopher Hollis said this was the most un-Christian remark imaginable (Hollis was the kind of Conservative politician I like) but I am coming round to siding with Dr Johnson. He was being deliberately paradoxical but he was usually right. 

I sympathise with Hollis but working hard is one of the most innocent ways of spending time. 

I always thought a knowledge of Dr Johnson and his best lines was the parole of educated men, to adapt what he said about knowledge of Latin and Greek. But a former master of a Cambridge college told me a few years ago that very few Cambridge undergraduates until recently read the 18th century authors. It reminds me of what Johnson said to Boswell: 
“Sir, they [his college friends] respected me for my literature, and yet it was not great but by comparison. Sir, it is amazing how little literature there is in the world.”
He of course was talking about the classics, not English writers.

I suppose Johnson's most famous joke is
"Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"
but on whether he was right I cannot comment. I only ever heard one woman preach and she did so in Swedish, in Stockholm Cathedral. She was, or believed she was, a bishop - and what surprised me was that she was very beautiful. And a blonde. That I had not expected.
It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"
also applies to my ironing a shirt, once every eight or ten years.

I really cannot see why people read Johnson less than Wilde. Johnson is better, in my judgment, and a better Christian - and his philosophy is manlier and more wholesome. He was also a staunch Tory and a great saint. Though he might have been disagreeable in real life, as opposed to in his writings and in the pages of Boswell. His table manners were appalling. He once spat out an entire roast potato that was too hot on to his plate and told the girl beside him
A fool would have swallowed that.
Fox told his nephew, Lord Holland, that he met Johnson only once and thought he was he was 
A very coarse man. He said 
Talk of pleasure, sir, the greatest pleasure is emission.
On the subject of his philosophy I am reminded of his old Oxford friend, Mr. Edwards, whom he met by chance in Fleet St and who told him
You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.
But to Dr. Johnson stories there is no end, so I stop now. But if you want more, please click here.

If you haven't read Boswell's Johnson, dear reader, you have a great treat awaiting you. A book for a desert island.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Romania is the Orient dreaming that it is France

I am proud of a line I coined many years ago

Romania is the Orient dreaming that it is France
and repeated it to a British diplomat friend this week. His rejoinder was to quote a British diplomat in Paris who told him,
It's taken me years to see that France is the Middle East with a very thin veneer of civilisation. Paris is essentially Cairo.
It's good to know that we still have diplomats like that.  

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Gabi Firea thinks not having children is a deficiency - she is entitled to her opinion

One more comment on the Romanian presidential election.

Psychopaths have a very strong urge to reproduce but I'm certainly not saying Gabriela Firea is a psychopath. I'm simply saying that psychopaths feel this biological imperative for which there might be an evolutionary explanation. 

Gabi Firea was Victor Ponta's spokesman during the presidential election and earned a lot of disapproval for her remarks about the childlessness of Mr. Ponta's opponent, now the President-elect, Klaus Iohannis. She said,
“From my point of view, a person is complete when he raises a child from his first days up to maturity. A man living in a cold house, without hearing baby’s chatter, without seeing his first steps, his first grades, cannot feel all these things … You can adopt a child if you want to have a complete family … In all civilised countries, all aspirants to the presidency  belong to complete families, they are married with children and grandchildren..."

Asked by a journalist if having no children was a defect in a president, she said,

A particularly stupid remark, even in a particularly stupid PSD election campaign. Romanians want an efficient president, not one who has children. I wonder how many childless people were impressed. I wonder what the last PSD President, Ion Iliescu, made of it. He is childless, which cynics say is the reason why he famously did not steal from the country (unlike those around him). 

Perhaps if Adrian Nastase, the PSD's failed presidential candidate in 2004, had not wanted to provide for his son he might have avoided going to gaol for corruption. But this is taking alternate history too far. Let's just say that childless politicians have their advantages.

I am no fan of Gabi. I have been no fan of the television presenter turned politician since she said back in 2002 or 2003 that calls from the Presidential office at the Cotroceni, ordering television companies not to run certain news stories, happened in President Emil Constantinescu's time as well as after Ion Iliescu regained the presidency. I never believed that.

But I am equally not a fan of the the National Council for Combating Discrimination. The National Council ruled during the election campaign that Gabi's remarks were "discriminatory" and breached Mr. Iohannis's "right to dignity" (what on earth is a right to dignity?) 

This is almost very funny, but it is not - it is in fact very disturbing. 

The Council is a deeply authoritarian and illiberal institution at the best of times, but when an unelected body seeks to curb free speech during an election campaign things are very bad indeed.

I don't like referring to a politician's lack of children in a political fight. Nor did Romanians. I didn't like it when people said the same thing about Condeleeza Rice. I didn't like it because it is irrelevant, has nothing to do with politics, is none of the public's business and may cause pain. But people are perfectly free to disagree with me and say that not being married or not having children does have a bearing on whether a man would make a good leader of his country. 
It is of incalculable importance that  people should be free to express this or any other opinion that is not defamatory or calculated to lead to what the Common Law calls a breach of the peace. 

None of this should even need saying, but it seems it does.

Here are some unmarried leaders, to refute Gabi's idea that in civilised countries presidents have children, though some of these do have children and not all of them lead particularly civilised countries. Pope Francis is one ruler whom the list omits.

Nastase was never angry with Traian Basescu; SOV says he deserved much longer in prison; Victor Ponta asks for pardon

Perhaps because it is Advent, in a very Christian spirit Sorin Ovidiu Vintu and Prime Minster Victor Ponta have publicly acknowledged their sins and former Prime Minister Adrian Nastase has said he holds no grudge against President Traian Basescu, whom Nastase must consider is responsible for his having gone to gaol. Nastase (I drop the 'Mr.' since he is a gaolbird) said yesterday:

"Angry? I was never angry with [Traian Basescu]. It's not about anger..... Life is very complicated." 

Read more here.

Sorin Ovidiu Vintu was very frank:
“If the state had caught me with everything I’ve done, I would have been in prison for life. The state has no idea what I’ve done and what I would have deserved to be imprisoned,” said Vantu in his interview for Adevarul. He added that the prosecutors invented some causes to arrest him. 

“I don’t claim that I shouldn’t have been in jail, I deserved it. Thank God, I got away cheap. And not only I. There are many people who you see today in business, politics, administration, who would deserve to serve tens of years in prison.”

More here.

And Victor Ponta has also caught the modern habit of apologising for his mistakes, as shown in this mea culpa delivered to his foe Dan Andronic, in an interview published yesterday in Evenimentul Zilei.

"Certainly I made ​​many mistakes but at 42 I have the ability to recognise them. Not only to recognise them but also to learn from them, regardless of the position that I have on the public stage! What are my regrets? It's a pretty long list, but everything I did wrong was human! I do not want anyone to endure the amount of negative energy, even the hatred, that was directed against me in the recent past. I think we all need to understand that hatred and passion leaves wounds that are very hard to heal. I would say that once again I apologise to those who were offended by my words and to those who supported me. I often used words that I wanted to be able to avoid. This I truly regret! "

I don't like politicians saying sorry, for some reason. It makes me distrust them more than if they didn't, though I prefer them to say sorry for their own mistakes rather than for the Amritsar massacre or the slave trade. But it somehow seems slippery to me - like that boy in an H.G. Well novel (which one?) who instead of standing and fighting asked for forgiveness.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Was Russian money behind the anti-fracking protests in Romania?

A very interesting story in the New York Times suggests that Russian money was behind the anti-fracking protests in Romania. It sounds extremely likely to me.

The Romanian Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, announced three weeks ago that Romania does not have shale gas and so there was no need to argue over the issue. But Chevron is not so sure.

Friday, 28 November 2014

My strongly-held opinion about Plebgate

I still PASSIONATELY believe Plebgate should be called Gategate.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The man who mistook Westminster Cathedral for a mosque

Westminster Cathedral.

Somebody in the South Thanet constituency association of UKIP referred on Twitter to a photograph of Westminster Cathedral as a mosque. The Guardian and many others are taking this slip terribly seriously. How much UKIP is hated - the verb is exact - and feared. Our rulers are very insecure about their hegemony.

It is an understandable mistake - nothing looks less English than neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral and after the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople was turned into a mosque this great Byzantine church became the model for the design of mosques to the present day.

In fact Catholic churches can never be national monuments. We are an odd, subversive foreign institution in the eyes of our Protestant compatriots, not part of English life, though we created England. I like this, the feeling of being an outsider that we share with Communists (it's not the only thing).

Of course Pugin, the fanatically Catholic architect who designed the Houses of Parliament, thought Gothic was the only true Catholic architectural style but it is not accidental that the two most famous and most loved Catholic churches in London, the Brompton Oratory and Westminster Cathedral, are not English Gothic but Italian baroque and Italian Byzantine respectively.

I love Westminster Cathedral more than any church in England, even though it is not nearly the most beautiful. Even though someone aptly said the interior resembles the bathroom department in Harrod's.

I loved it since I went there aged three for the first time. Even though the Masses are mostly in English it does not feel like the modern low church Catholic Church. It is intensely, giddily spiritual, unlike the much more beautiful St. Paul's, which is as spiritual as a garden shed. The Abbey, like other medieval Anglican churches, has the faintest trace of spirituality, which is all that remains of its Catholic origins, buried by restraint, good taste, national monuments and moth-eaten flags. 

I go to Westminster Cathedral whenever I am in London, even on brief visits. Possibly its un-Englishness it part of what draws me. Perhaps it reminds me that the only genuinely religious emotion that the English ever experience is hatred of Catholicism.

I wonder which is hated more, Catholicism or UKIP.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Victor Ponta and Traian Basescu were allies in the election

Romanian President Traian Basescu, who is on the centre-right, and his Social Democrat Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, appear to loathe each other and probably do so, but they do deals from time to time. I don’t know whether they met to discuss their strategy in the presidential elections but they were de facto allies against the main centre-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, who on Sunday unexpectedly won a comfortable victory.

The reason for this unholy alliance was that, although in Romanian presidential elections only two candidates go forward into the second and final round of voting, held a fortnight after the first round, it is very important which candidate comes third. Traian Basescu as President is not permitted to have any party affiliation but he was represented in the election by his great protégée and favourite Elena Udrea. Mr. Basescu’s idea was that Mrs. Udrea would come third and take most of the voters who like Mr. Basescu with her. They come to over 15% of the electorate. In the 2016 elections the PSD would control the presidency, the parliament and the government and Mr. Basescu, as he imagined it, could be the opposition. But this idea was ruined when, to his great annoyance, Monica Macovei stood as an independent candidate. She is the former Minister of Justice who deserves the credit for making Romania’s previously infamously corrupt courts relatively clean. 

She has been a great admirer of President Basescu and would have made a very effective leader for Mr. Basescu’s constituency but Mr. Basescu is devoted to, even besotted with, Mrs. Udrea. In this way the Basescu vote was split. 

Elena Udrea

Everyone agreed, by the way, that neither woman stood a chance of being president because Romanians will not be ready for a woman president for a long time to come.

Meanwhile the PSD had done a deal with the former National Liberal Prime Minister Catalin Tariceanu, who now leads a splinter party. He is the man who sacked Mrs. Macovei as soon as Romania had safely entered the EU in 2007. He was drafted in by the PSD to stand for president in order to take votes from Klaus Iohannis.

It was important for the PSD that Mr. Tariceanu came third so that President Ponta could appoint him Prime Minister as a gesture of inclusivity intended to garner support from people who voted for the main centre right parties that backed Klaus Iohannis. Mrs. MacoveI threatened to wreck this plan too.

On the morning of the first round exit polls – these are published throughout election day here - showed her gathering an unexpectedly high 8% of the vote, not nearly enough to get into the second round but easily enough to take the prestigious third place. This for an independent candidate with no party organization or powerful backers would have been a very great achievement and made her a big force to be reckoned with for the next few years.

In the afternoon and evening something remarkable happened. The exit polls showed her support dropping off and falling to somewhat over 4%. 

This is remarkable because it is a given that left-wing voters vote early (the left is the rural party and in the countryside people wake early). Right-wing voters tend to lie in bed and vote later. Why did this not happen this time? Nobody knows, but the suspicion cannot be suppressed that the vote was tampered with to ensure Mr. Tariceanu took third place, as he did.

So far all went more or less to plan for the PSD though they had expected to win more votes in the first round. All was set for Victor Ponta to be President and to have a nominally liberal and centre right Prime Minister Catalin Tariceanu. This was the plan that was hatched a year ago but, as we know, it was not to be…

Most of Mr. Tariceanu’s voters ignored his advice to vote for Mr. Ponta and voted for Mr. Iohannis, who took the presidency by a comfortable margin of 10% of the votes. Mrs. Udrea told people to vote against Mr. Ponta but on Saturday it was reported that she was neutral. On Sunday she appeared unexpectedly in Paris of all places standing in the queue to vote at the embassy. The Hungarians voted for the German and so did a lot of previously undecided voters. Almost every one of the 400,000 members of the diaspora queuing outside consulates and embassies had several people in Romania they were close to and whom they may have urged to vote –  for 
Klaus Iohannis. Some Romanians abroad told their parents that they would not send any more money home unless they voted for him.

Mr. Ponta lost badly, but not he only. His party lost badly, of course, even though it is still the government. A lot of people who fear investigation by the anti-corruption prosecutors (DNA) know that they may lose very badly indeed. Mrs. Udrea lost fairly badly and will soon have to manage without presidential protection. She has already been interviewed by the DNA. Mr. Basescu, I suggest, lost and so did Mr. Melescanu who gave up running the secret service to be Foreign Minister and resigned five days later because of his failure to arrange enough stamps to allow the diaspora to vote. 

He said it was a resignation of honour but before Sunday's election he had said the law did not permit him to enable people to vote quickly. He will come back. He always does. He also stood for the presidency as a stalking horse to draw away centre-right votes but later the PSD decided Mr Tariceanu was a more useful feint.

Mrs. Macovei backed Klaus Iohannis and it will be interesting to see what the future has in store for her. She didn't lose, even if some of her votes were lost, and, of course, nor did the parties representing the 7% Hungarian minority, who voted for Mr. Iohannis. Whoever wins or loses, the Hungarians always win. A German president is the nearest thing to a Hungarian president that they can hope for, so they may feel that they won big.

Almost everyone I talk to thinks that Romania has won, including some who are connected to the PSD by ties of consanguinity or interest. Romanians, who have a collective father complex, tend to look for a providential figure to rescue them and the President-elect looks providential. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, people are hoping. Let's see.

War in Aleppo takes toll on the legendary Hotel Baron

Here is a short, sad article on Aleppo's wonderful Baron Hotel, my favourite hotel in the world, in one of my favourite cities in the world. Sad though the war is, I am glad that no worse has so far befallen the grand old lady than a roof
 perforated by gunfire and no guests for four years.

Mr. Mazloumian, the owner, is an exceptionally nice man, feline and gentlemanly. Arabs are wonderfully hospitable and warm and when you are a paying guest they are even more so. In the article he is quoted as saying of the fighting in Aleppo,
"You think all this will stop? It will take years."
Unfortunately, he is of course right. 

I stayed in the presidential suite, the rooms where President Assad senior had stayed in 1972 for $70, but would have preferred to pay less and stay where Agatha Christie or Laurence of Arabia had stayed. I wrote about my journey here and a brief note about the Hotel Baron here.

I like to google to find the oldest hotel in a town I visit and hope it is run to seed at least a bit. Wikipedia provides a useful list of such hotels here. Among my favourites are the Hotel Imperial in Jerusalem, the Hotel Londonskaya in Odessa and the Hotel George in Lviv. There is also the Grand Cafe des Londres in Constantinople. The Pera Palace was once delightfully late nineteenth century, like a London club in Constantinople, though not shabby  - it was my favourite place in the whole city and the only place that felt old-fashioned - but it was ruined by renovation. Now it's a five star place with air conditioning designed for Americans.

When I went I wanted to go from Bucharest to Aleppo by train but the Taurus Express had been suspended for four weeks. Now it has been suspended indefinitely, of course. I have since remembered the first lines of 'Murder on the Orient Express' which makes me regret even more not taking that famous train.

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.
Here is a conversation I had with a friend I made in Damascus who now lives in Bucharest. His insight into the war is worth reading.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

What will Victor Ponta do next?

What will happen in Romania next, after the surprise election of Klaus Iohannis (his name is really Johannis) as President?

First we have to see if the Supreme Court rules in a case in which Mr. Iohannis is accused by the National Integrity Commission of having not declared a conflict of interest in a slightly arcane matter in his capacity as Mayor of Sibiu. The court could rule against Mr. Iohannis and rule that he is unfit to be president. I can’t see it happening. It is more likely that they will adjourn the case until he becomes president, when he will have immunity from prosecution. This is what they did with a case in which the current President Traian Basescu is accused of corruption in connection with selling off the Romanian navy.

What will happen to Victor Ponta, who lost the presidency to almost everyone’s surprise?
Nothing, for the time being. He will continue being Prime Minister, despite the change of president. It is the Government not the president that rules Romania. Like his mentor Adrian Nastase, who was the PSD candidate for the presidency ten years ago (and who is now out on parole), Victor Ponta never wanted to be president and wanted to continue as prime minister. So everything is peachy. Except it’s not.

Victor Ponta though a clever man is not leader of the Social Democrat party (PSD) or Prime Minister because of his own strength of personality or sheer stature. He is not what in British politics is called a big beast of the jungle. Only two Romanian politicians really qualify for that description: Ion Iliescu, who overthrew Ceausescu and had him shot, and Traian Basescu. Victor Ponta, by contrast, was chosen as a young (too young to have been a communist) and telegenic front man for the PSD.

For those who do not follow Romanian politics, I should explain that the PSD is not a political party in the sense understood in Western Europe. It is the continuation of the old Communist Party by other means and without the left-wing ideology. It is not monolithic or genuinely national but is a federation of parties organised in each Romanian county. Each country organisation is in effect a business, a conspiracy or, if we are to call spades spades, a criminal network. Mr. Ponta is leader as long as he can balance the competing interests of the leaders of the party in the countries (the so called ‘barons’) and offer them a chance of winning the 2016 parliamentary election.

Mr. Ponta said that any PSD candidate for the presidency would get 40% of the votes. It was up to him to get another 10%. The fact that Mr. Ponta won only 45% of the votes and therefore lost the presidency does not mean he cannot lead his party to victory in 2016. The way he lost Sunday’s election probably does. 

Victor Ponta fought a very old-fashioned campaign that seemed to be tailored to the unsophisticated, nationalistic Romanian electorate of the early 1990s, offering pension increases and public works. Playing the racial and religious cards against his German Protestant opponent is what everyone would expect him to do, though it seems to have been ineffective. No one was surprised by his shameless campaign to bribe electors with public money Electoral fraud which may have stolen up to 900,000 votes has not made a big impact here, through it certainly should have done. But the sight of very long queues of Romanians outside embassies and consulates, queueing all day in the cold, in many cases never to be allowed to vote, were crucial for winning the election for Mr. Iohannis and will permanently tarnish Mr. Ponta’s image. And these things happened not only on Sunday but in the first round of the election two weeks before. They happened because the diaspora is overwhelmingly opposed to the PSD. Those people were not queueing all day to vote for Victor Ponta. Mr. Ponta defended the way in which voting took place abroad on television in his debates with Mr. Iohannis. The contempt for the viewing public was unmistakable.

Remember that Mr. Ponta was discovered to have plagiarised his doctoral thesis. Then there are lurid, melodramatic allegations on the net about his connection with a young prosecutor who committed suicide back in 2002, while investigating Adrian Nastase. If I held stocks in Mr. Ponta I should sell them. That is what the barons are thinking too.

Tony Blair was motivated by envy

My companion at lunch told me Lord Carrington told him that Tony Blair was motivated mainly by envy, of things he didn't have. This is why he loved destroying traditions. Lord Carrington is a wise old bird and might be right.

Psychopaths are motivated mainly by envy too, but I do not believe Mr. Blair is one.

Friday, 14 November 2014


Since he first came on the scene I have been struck by a remarkable resemblance between Victor Ponta, favourite to win the Romanian presidency on Sunday, and Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine's eternal write-in candidate for president.

mad magazine the idiotical Alfred E. Neuman for President: Let Him Finish the Job Politics, Alfred E. Neuman, Alfred E. Neuman for President, Mark Fredrickson, MAD Posters


An October day in the Maramures

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Romania publishes as many books as all the Arab countries put together

An interesting piece of information from this site:

....the Arab world, with its population of over 362 million people in 2012 (according to the World Bank data), produces between 15,000 and 18,000 new titles per year, with print runs varying between 1,000 and 3,000 copies each ... Which is the number of books produced in countries like Romania (with a population of 21.3millions in 2012), and Ukraine (population 45.6millions in 2012), and which is roughly the number of titles published yearly by Penguin Random House.

Interestingly, Iran, with 78 million inhabitants, publishes more than the Arab world. 

The Arabs have produced six Nobel prize winners, of whom three were given the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and one for campaigning for human rights in Yemen. Romanians have won four. However, of the four Romanian winners two were ethnic Romanians and the other two, Herta Muller and Elie Wiesel, a German from the Banat and a Transylvanian Jew respectively, made their lives abroad and did not write in Romanian. By comparison 32 Nobel Prizes were awarded to graduates of Trinity College, Cambridge. I wish my headmaster had not dissuaded me from going there.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Berlin Wall was opened 25 years ago today

Embedded image permalink
Helmut Kohl at the Brandenburg Gate
On 9 November 1989 the German Democratic Republic told its citizens that they could visit West Germany and West Berlin. The Communist government did not mean they could cross the Berlin Wall (the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart") that evening but that's what East Germans understood. For soldiers to have stopped them could have led to violence so they were allowed to go. 

That evening seems very recent to me. WHERE DID 25 YEARS GO?

Many people do not know that Germany need not have been divided until 1989. Khrushchev offered the USA a united, neutral and demilitarised, but democratic Germany - and the offer was unforgivably rejected by the USA. Adenauer oddly was opposed to the idea too - as, of course, was the leader of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, but his views didn't count with Russia. The same offer in respect of Austria was accepted.

Mr. Gorbachev, looking very ancient, is reported as saying yesterday at an event at the Brandenburg Gate that 

"The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it's already begun."

Interestingly, though an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, Mr Gorbachev blamed the West for this state of affairs and mentioned the expansion of NATO and NATO military intervention in Iraq, Kosovo and Syria. He has a point but I think the cold war aways continued in the background, certainly as far as military planning and the intelligence services were concerned and, under Vladimir Putin, the intelligence services and former members of those services are running Russia. 

There is no longer much of an ideological difference between Russia and America - but there is some difference, because democracy and human rights can be said to be the USA's ideology. This ideology has led the Americans to try to topple governments friendly to Russia in the former USSR and therefore is a direct threat to the Russian government. On the other hand Vladimir Putin pays lip service to much the same ideals, except when it comes to 'homosexual propaganda' aimed at minors, and does not have an alternative ideology to offer. But, in any case, great powers automatically attract enemies and the USA has done a lot to attract them and so we are in the classical situation where unfriendly powers are vying over influence, something that was not supposed to happen in the democratic era. 

It is depressing and worrying but anyone who remembers Mr. Brezhnev knows that this is not going to be a Cold War like the last one. I suspect though that, since  neither side intended to disturb the division of Europe into Communist and democratic blocs, the Cold War itself was based to a large extent on paranoia on both sides. So did George Kennan, whose famous Long Telegram formed the basis for the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but who did not think the Cold War was necessary. Yet the Cold War was a duplicitous, curiously insincere affair. When the Communist regimes fell the Poles and Hungarian anti-Communists got no help from the West. The KGB, not the CIA or MI6, helped bring about the changes in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. 

This is the kind of paradox which is the stuff of Cold War spy fiction and its doyen, John Le Carré. 

Britain and France did not want Germany to reunite and discussed after the Wall opened how it could be prevented but could not think of a way. Mrs. Thatcher and François Mitterand agreed with François Mauriac who once said: 
I love Germany so much I want there to be two of them.
George Kennan also opposed the extension of NATO into Eastern Europe 1998 saying it the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs." ... 

I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

I am sure Kennan was right that Communist Russia was not a threat to Western Europe. He backed detente. He also thought Vietnam was not of strategic importance to the USA and opposed the Vietnamese War, though not the Korean war. He was angry with Eisenhower for letting down Britain and France over Suez and he thought mass immigration a grave danger for America and Europe. That's a lot of things to have been right about. 

Whether he was right to oppose NATO expansion in 1998 is harder to say. Would this have kept good relations with Russia? If not it would have made the Baltic States much more vulnerable than they already are to Russian aggression - although it would also have made NATO less exposed. I suspect that Kennan might have argued that they are not of strategic importance to the USA or Western Europe. 

Had he lived to see it he would, of course, have opposed NATO's later further expansion to include Romania. He makes deploys good arguments, but  NATO expanded into Eastern Europe because Eastern Europe desperately wanted to join NATO. Had NATO not expanded I am pretty certain that Vladimir Putin would still have annexed the Crimea and intervened in Ukraine.

Mark Steyn, who is always worth reading, commemorates the opening of the Wall here and gets in an amusing point about Mr. Obama's narcissism.
As he put it in his video address to the German people on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:
'Few would have foreseen on that day that a united Germany would be led by a woman from Brandenburg or that their American ally would be led by a man of African descent.'
Tear down that wall …so they can get a better look at me!!!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Playing the race card in the Romanian presidential elections

The first round of the Romanian presidential election on Sunday produced a result more or less as expected. The Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, from the PSD, the party which is in effect the successor to the Romanian Communist Party, scored 40%. His centre-right PNL (Liberal) challenger Klaus Iohannis scored 30%, a bit better than expected. If you add on the votes of the other two centre-right candidates Mr. Iohannis’s vote almost equals Mr. Ponta's but Mr. Ponta says he will name former Liberal Prime Minister Mr. Tariceanu as Prime Minister and this may bring over most of Mr. Tariceanu’s supporters. But the election result may be decided by the ethnic Hungarians who make up about 7% of the population and usually vote as a disciplined phalanx as their leaders instruct them.

Wise people who know about how things work in Romania always confidently but mysteriously say that the politicians are marionettes behind whom stand occult interests, shadowy business leaders and the former Communist secret police (and the very boyish Mr. Ponta does rather look like a marionette or even a ventriloquist's dummy). The well-informed people say that the PSD election strategy is a long term one by which Mr. Ponta was persuaded against his will to stand for president and Mr. Tariceanu was persuaded to stand to draw away votes from the Liberal Party and split the anti-PSD vote in return for the premiership. It is also said that the local Liberal barons, powerful political figures in the provinces who are believed to wax fat on sweet deals and immoral activities connected to the public service, have not tried hard to get the vote out for their party leader, preferring the other side to win for financial reasons. 

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Be that as it may Romania has divided in the most interesting way over this contest.

The electoral map of the results of the first round is very telling. Hunedoara and Caras-Severin are the only Transylvanian counties to vote for the PSD, as did the Bucovina. Otherwise the border between Austria Hungary, or Catholic Europe and the Ottoman Empire or the  Balkans is reflected in the voting. The areas which voted for Iohannis were not necessarily more prosperous than those which voted for the PSD but they are culturally very different. This division derives from the nine hundred years that Hungary ruled much of what is now Romania but before that to the dichotomy between Eastern and Western Christianity and the division of the Roman Empire into two halves.

Romania is an example of incomplete nation building, though it coheres, which is much more than Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia did. Ethnic Romanians do not share a common history or the same Orthodox religion  (some adhere to the Greek Catholic church and Rome) but they share a common literary language, accepted in all parts of the country, and a common fear - the spectre of Hungary one day talking back the lands she lost in 1918. Like all spectres this danger is insubstantial and doesn't in fact exist, but is nevertheless scary. Since the revolution the the party that now calls itself the PSD have played on this fear with great effect, as did the Communist party throughout its period in power.

You might expect the Hungarians to prefer a Transylvanian German but there are signs that there might be an unholy alliance between the ethnic Hungarian party, the UDMR, and the PSD. We should know which candidate the UDMR endorse on Thursday but if they think Mr. Ponta will win they will want to give him their support and he is expected to win and.

Ethnic Romanians made up a fraction over half the population of Transylvania before it was taken from Austria Hungary and given to Romania after the First World War. The rest of the population were made up mostly of Hungarians and Germans. The numbers of Germans diminished when very many were ethnically cleansed after the Second World War. Under Communism many more left for West Germany in return for payments by Bonn. In December 1989 when the Romanian revolution took place there were about only 200,000 Germans in Romania, a year later half that. Klaus Iohannis would have left in 1990 had he not fallen in love with an ethnic Romanian girl to whom he is now married.

Sibiu, or Hermannstadt to give its German name, is a city designed by Germans and Hungarians for Germans and Hungarians and is a masterpiece of Habsburg architecture that it is now inhabited mostly by the descendants of the peasants in the hinterland. The same story can be told for old cities scattered across Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia and Ukraine. After the revolution the numbers of Germans fell so low that the ethnic German party only filled one seat on the city council. Mr Iohannis, an able youngish schoolmaster, was expected to win that one seat in 2000 but to his and everyone else's astonishment he won the job of mayor. He was chosen not for his own merits (he was an unknown)  but, like Mr. Obama, purely because of his ethnicity, all Romanians thinking that ethnic Germans are more honest and more efficient than Romanians. This was the reason why he later became leader of Sibiu County Council and then was summoned to Bucharest, the Great Wen, where the PSD candidate in 2009 promised to appoint him Prime Minister if he won the presidency.  

When he announced he was standing for president I thought Mr. iohannis's ethnicity would swing it for him. Almost all the Romanians that I know trust foreigners more than other Romanians ('so long as they're white' was the caveat a leading businesswoman added when she told me this). But I spend most of my time with intelligent, educated Romanians who went to university. The peasants and factory workers think differently.

There is an interesting book to be written about the intertwined relationship between Germans and Romanians. It would have to include the the German occupation of Bucharest in the First World War. The German commander, Field Marshal August von Mackensen, complained when he left that
"I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers.”
The same trajectory has been followed by a number of German businessmen who came to Romania. Let us hope that Mr. Iohannis preserved his principles despite the temptations presented by political life in Bucharest. His opponents point however to allegations of misconduct. 

Be that as it may - and Mr. Iohannis is the owner of six properties - it is thought that the astonishing arrests of large numbers of leading businessmen and politicians for corruption which have made the last few years in Romania so hopeful are more likely to continue under President Iohannis than they are under a PSD president. President Traian Băsescu has used the presidency to protect the independence of the prosecutors from being unfairly influenced by politicians, in the PSD and other parties he dislikes, and the so-called 'structure of power', the Romanian shadowy equivalent of the Turkish 'deep state'. This is one principal reason why the fight over the presidency is so important.

Ethnic Hungarians are regarded with suspicion by ethnic Romanians but ethnic Germans enjoy good relations with both groups and are much respected. Romania's first king, King Carol I, was German and is regarded as one of Romania's very few good rulers. But is Romania ready for a German president? Perhaps more to the point is she ready for a Lutheran president? (Like almost all ethnic Germans, Mr. Iohannis is a Lutheran in a deeply religious country where being Romanian means being Orthodox.) Mr. Ponta thinks not and is naturally playing the ethnic and religious cards as much as he can. In the countryside these things matter and not just in the countryside. 

People tell me things are complex but I think two issues dominate the election - whether people want the PSD and the post-Communist old guard in power and whether they think a German president would be better. 

Friday, 31 October 2014

Discussing fascism in Bucharest with the imagologists

Today is the horrible commercial festival of Hallowe'en and an opportunity for fun and parties and to scare ourselves with bogeymen. Or bogey persons. But we do this all the year round and the chief bogeyman is fascism.

Fascism is no danger in Europe for the next twenty years - but fear of fascism is a danger and is to blame for very many bad things. I discovered that it is incredibly prevalent among academics. I was with thirty of them at a conference in Bucharest on Imagological Stereotypes at the weekend. A wonderful occasion, by the way, to meet clever academics and throw around ideas, but they all seem to be sniffy about 'stereotypes', whatever they are exactly, and to disapprove strongly of national stereotypes.

One distinguished professor of Imagology, who had delivered a good talk on 'nationalist discourse', Joep, was saying he has been thinking for years about this and slowly realised that we think dictatorships begin with a putsch but they can come slowly and unnoticed. I warmly agreed and mentioned loss of freedom of speech. He looked at me sharply and asked for examples. 

I gave two from the UK, though I could have given very many: the putative new law to make sexual harassment online an offence punishable with two years in gaol and the story of the man who went to prison for two months for saying on Twitter that he hoped a footballer who was in a coma would die. Joep was in favour of these laws. 

He brought up the subject of Geert Wilders who, Joep said, asked a crowd if they wanted fewer Moroccans in Holland and was prosecuted for racism. When I said that  in a democratic society any political programme should be allowed, 'We have judges who decide these things' Joep said with great severity. He is very pleased about the prosecution. I felt very much that I would not like to be a defendant coming up before Joep as a judge.

What becomes clearer as I think about this is that it is Joep who, from the best of intentions, is becoming a fascist.

Unfortunately, he speaks for most academics in humanities who see nationalism as a purely negative thing. What is sad is that these people really do believe in a grave threat from the anti immigration right (why?) and are generals fighting the last war. They don't realise that evil morphs and the lessons they learn from Nazism are the wrong ones anyway. For example the lesson we have drawn from the Nazis is that ethnically mixed societies are ipso facto good things rather than ipso facto volatile things.

When I was growing up in the cold war fascism was hated for many reasons but principally as an enemy of freedom and democracy, together with communism, but nowadays it is the racial aspects of Nazism which are what drives anti-fascism. This is fine - but concerns about freedom and democracy take a somewhat distant second place and this is worrying. In fact freedom is deeply unfashionable these days, despite or because of anti-fascism. Freedom's mortal foe, equality, was never more in fashion.

I noticed for the first time that Joep's hair was slightly longer than is normal and brushed over his ears. in the 1970s it had been much longer and he is old enough to remember the revolutionary year of 1968. I used to think that the 1968-ers had lost when communism collapsed and free market economics became generally accepted. In fact, these two things were a liberation for the left which is more powerful than ever before in history. As Geert Wilders is discovering.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The hole in Bucharest that’s become a nature reserve

This article by Michael Bird was published recently by the New Statesman and he has given me permission to post it here

A failure in Romania’s brutalist architectural planning of the 1980s has transformed a massive hole in Bucharest into an anarchic expanse of natural and urban coexistence.
The communists wanted a reservoir. The capitalists wanted a casino. The city got something else entirely.
“No one made any intervention,” says eco-activist Dan Barbulescu, as he leads me through the paths of the abandoned reservoir. “We did not plant anything. Only the wind and birds have bought seeds to this place.”
Poplars and willows are scattered through this verdant terrain where lakes over four metres deep are packed with thick bullrushes flickering in the wind. A concrete escarpment shields the wildlife from twenty-story tower blocks that rim Vacaresti Lake: a lush enclave in the urban congestion of Bucharest.
Barbulescu is executive director of the Save the Danube & Delta Association. But he also promotes this wetland reserve, where over 86 species of birds thrive, alongside newts, foxes, water snakes and stray dogs. Natural springs emerge from beneath a strip of concrete, where families of otters have arrived, travelling through the sewer tunnels. Nature has ravaged this empty space over 20 years of neglect; Barbulescu calls it “a school of life in the open air.”
This is the richest and wildest park in Bucharest – but this wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Under communism, the plan was for Vacaresti to be filled with water; in the idiotic capitalist years of the mid-2000s, it was meant to be a concert venue. Both projects collapsed – and the zone became a metaphor for the failures of Romania’s development under both communist and free market principles.
Yet its teeming wildlife, lawless beauty and inhabitants of drifters, scraping a living by harvesting the wild, lay the foundations for how this troubled country could prosper.
With over two million inhabitants, Bucharest is one of the largest cities in eastern Europe. And, more than any other ex-Communist city, the Romanian capital suffered from the grand redevelopment projects of a mad dictator, who sought to build a workers’ paradise based on a clueless interpretation of modernist principles.
From the 1970s, Niculae Ceausescu demolished the Vacaresti district’s winding 19th and early 20th century streets of low-level housing and kitchen gardens. (A few traces remain: a cobbled path from an old house nudging through the vegetation, say.) His plan was to create towering residential projects inspired by his visits to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. To supply water for this high-density housing, and to act as flood protection, he constructed two giant reservoirs at either end of the capital. One was completed; Vacaresti lay empty.
In the early 2000s, the space was again earmarked for development: this time it was to include a hippodrome, casinos, hotel and a golf course. But in 2008, Bucharest was hit by a double whammy. Its post-EU accession real estate bubble burst at the same time as the global financial crisis pulverised the city’s private development. Investors pulled out of the Vascaresti project.
Meanwhile the muddy hole attracted peculiar vegetation, then fish and amphibians and, once the trees and bushes had grown, migrating birds.
Similar wetlands exist elsewhere: in Nantes, Copenhagen, Buenos Aires, Shanghai. But Dan Barbulescu calls Vacaresti lake, with 190 hectares, “the largest urban humid natural reserve in Europe”.
Four dedicated organisations look after the lake and offer a viewing platform at a nearby tower block. Their ambition is to build wooden walkways through the zone, and an observation centre.
But neither City Hall, the Ministry of the Environment or private donors or charities has any cash for the place. European Union funds are the only option – but before that can happen, the space needs the local government to grant the zone protected area status.
And, although the Romanian leadership seems open to the idea, it has been locked in bureaucracy for over a year. Former owners of houses seized and bulldozed by the Communists are still soliciting the government for rights to their properties. According to Cristian Nan, a representative of some ex-owners, they want to take back their land and lease it to the state.
The Ministry of the Environment claims it is still putting together all the paperwork, before it can create a Natural Park with protected status – but activists are exasperated by the delay.
While the status of the wasteland remains in limbo, Vacaresti Lake thrives as an unofficial zone for leisure, business and housing. Several families have made their home in the reserve. Among them is 48-year old Gica, lying on a mattress outside his home-made shack, playing with his naked daughter. I ask him what his second name is. He offers two options. “You can either call me Gica ‘Pescarul’ (The Fisherman) or Gica ‘Lacului’ (of the Lake).”
Scarred across his body by a house-fire, he now squats with nine children next to a duck pond. “I won’t move,” he says. “Why? I love it here. Fresh air. A large garden – a place for children to run free.”
Gice has lived here for 16 years, and calls himself a “warden” of the lake, which he treats as an extended garden. He shows me a picture on his phone with a cormorant on his shoulder. He loves the birds, but has a problem with the rats.
Meanwhile three pigs are wandering free around the reeds and the grass. “Only one will be killed for Christmas,” he says.
He claims he only eats the fish. He doesn’t touch the birds and wild ducks. “How about the otters?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “I don’t eat the otters.”
Outdoor pursuits here also include sex. Playboy Romania has already filmed a nude photo-shoot on the land. Now it seems the zone is a place for cruising, too. Gica says he sees about 15 people per day having assignations in woods.
As I walk through the streets, I see one guy in his early thirties, naked except for a baseball cap, sunglasses, shorts and a pair of trainers. His tanned skin is waxed clean and he smiles and says “Good day” as he walks past. It’s clear he’s not a fisherman or a jogger, so I assume he’s there for another reason, but I don’t dare ask him if he’s there for sex.
I ask Gica whether the place has ever been a dumping ground for corpses. He claims that only once, a decade ago, was there a “burnt body in the woods”.
On the escarpment, a man with no front teeth is binding up willow branches. Thin and twisted, they can be stripped and used as ornamental decoration. I ask whether he will sell them. He mutters that he is not sure. How much can he get for them: three Euro a bunch? “It depends,” he replies, turning his head to the ground.
Along the edge of the dam pass a horse and cart, its rickety trailer full of wild mint stripped from the zone. On the far side of the escarpment, a mother grapples her five-year old daughter as they negotiate the steep concrete. They carry a plastic bag of food for the stray dogs.
People still crack open the concrete to mine for scrap metal to sell: one of the main sources of cash for the city’s massive underclass. But if the lake offers some drifters a sustainable business, others’ behaviour is more destructive. Some nearby residents cut down the trees for lumber and firewood, and parts of the zone are a dumping ground for fly-tipping. Meanwhile fisherman sit back and drink cheap vodka and plastic bottles of beer, before chucking the empties into the ponds while they fish.
Nevertheless Vacaresti Lake has moved on from being just another urban wetland reserve. In Bucharest, state intervention has plagued the livelihoods of citizens for decades. The lake shows that, when the government pulls back, the people can still  create order, business and pleasure out of anarchy.