Thursday 27 June 2013

About the courage of Spanish politicians (and the timidity of Welsh ones)

I previously wrote nice things about the tram network in Valencia and I had the opportunity to visit the southern part of the region a couple of weeks ago. Alicante is a sea side town with a lovely old city centre and sprawling modern outskirts. If Spain is in a recession, the more touristic cities along the coast  do not show it, which does not mean that the people there don't hurt.

However, coming from Wales, it was interesting to me how the region solved its public transport problem. The coast line has long been connected via an old diesel train all the way to Valencia. The track was narrow gauge and single file. In a sense this was all that is needed and the region decided in 2003 to update the network. What they did was smart and on the cheaper side of the usually grandiose transport investments in Spain that contributed so much to ruining the Spanish regions' finances.

In effect, they kept the single file tracks, electrified the network and replaced the rolling stock with trams. No guessing where those trams come from: only the finest from Bombardier (Canada). The result is a reliable regional transport network that connects Alicante with Benidorm, and two underground city stops in Alicante itself which allow future lines to be built.

A product of political courage - Alicante tram

Now for the politics of it. The investment in public transport in Spain was made mainly by the regions and it crippled many of them. Some even had to mothball their rolling stock or lease it to other countries. Yet, some regions have maintained their new transport networks and the improvements will give them an additional advantage once Spain's economy recovers. In a sense, it took guts to make those investment decisions, and you may say that it ruined a few political careers of regional politicians along the way.

Yet, then again, look at the dithering of the Welsh politicians when it comes to the modernisation of the valley lines. There is nothing they could not do what Spanish regional politicians did. But Carwin Jones and his bumbling cabinet will always lack the guts to spend political capital on large transport infrastructure projects. Instead, they look to London whilst accusing London at the same time for meddling in Welsh affairs.

I guess a country gets the politicians it deserves. And sometimes it takes a politician to put his political career on the line for a project he believes in. We know political courage is not Carwin Jones' strength. But if not for improving the lives of the people in Wales, what was his political life for?

Wednesday 26 June 2013

From myth to history and back - Marie Arana's Bolivar

Historical biography is probably the most difficult of historiographical genres. The early examples of (auto-) biography were little more than defensive treatises, rebutting accusations by real or perceived enemies of progress. Augustus' Res Gestae falls into this category and historians have sharpened their critical tools on the interpretation of it. 

As the religious wars kicked off in Europe and printing opened up new possibilities of publicising opinions, history often melted into something akin to propaganda and, again, it was the difficult job of historians to subsequently distil fact from fiction. Biography suffers from a heightened sense of all these ills. 

At the centre of the biography stands the person, and the outward line of events often casts little light on the inner life of the subject in question. The main preoccupation of readers however is not the event. We are not so much interested in knowing that Caesar crossed the Rubicon but what he thought when he saw Cleopatra. On top of that, people have a strong urge to cast themselves in a good light and few biographers can resist the pressure to write with critical distance about somebody they have likely chosen because they liked them in the first place. 

In constructing any narrative historians usually have two options. They either stick to the line of events which commonly delivers taut and paced accounts of what happened or they exhaust the subject matter in minute details, immersing and potentially drowning the account in quotes. The former produces annals rather than history, the latter usually produces boredom. 

Peter Longerich's Heinrich Himmler biography is rich in detail, so rich in fact that it swells to more than a thousand pages and whilst the reader gets a good understanding of every nook and cranny of Himmler's warped thinking through plenty of quotes, the overall picture is lost and the narrative resembles more a zig-zag path to historical oblivion. 

The trick of course is to use the material in the particular context in the most appropriate way. Quoting Himmler's deluded ruminations about races only confirm in the reader's mind that he had a fairly tenuous grip on reality, but insights into deluded minds rarely tell us much about what happened and why. 

Marie Arana's biography of Bolivar is of the other category. Arana does not like to busy the reader with the exhaustive interpretative turns of previous scholarship and she delivers a fast paced narrative of the events. Quickly, however the reader loses sight of Bolivar the person and Arana's partiality becomes a problem. 

Much of this is due to a creeping sense that Arana uses different terminology when describing the warring factions because she preconceives a righteousness in the liberating cause. As the narrative proceeds and Bolivar's early attempts to liberate Venezuela falter, everyone who opposes him becomes a traitor in Arana's account. 

Those who dare argue a different course are 'scheming' while Bolivar himself simply 'lacks genuine friends'. By page 170, Bolivar's righteousness is a function of the end he wants to achieve, and everything that may tempt other historians into a stance of critical distance (for example Bolivar's sexual preference for extremely young girls which he cast aside as soon as he 'conquered' them) is passed over. 

The result is a one dimensional account of the hero himself and Arana's narrative, though fast-paced, becomes difficult to trust. As the slave rebellion enters the picture this lack of critical distance becomes deeply troubling. Bolivar is by now more of a cut-out frame rather than a real person and the language Arana uses to describe the atrocities on all sides is more disturbing. Bove and his men 'revel' in the killings, while Bolivar is 'bewildered' by the storm of violence. 

Arana of course has a problem here given that it was Bolivar who unleashed the forces he could not control with his uncompromising call for the murder of all Spaniards. The proclamation still produces heated discussions amongst historians but Arana 'neutralises' it by attributing it to Bolivar's political 'naivite'. 

The section on Bove's rebellion also makes uncomfortable reading for the racial undertones that creep into Arana's writing. Bove and his men (mainly black and mixed raced) are blood thirsty and cruel by nature, whereas Bolivar and his men are civilised heros fighting for a righteous cause. 

What is lost in this teleological writing is an appreciation for the complexity of the civil war and the difficult position of those caught in it. At some point, Arana gives a glimpse of it when she mentions that some of the fighters easily changed sides up to ten times during the struggle, usually aligning themselves with the party of power. 

In short, the reader gradually grows suspicious of Arana's lack of nuance and critical distance. Most importantly, what is often lost in this sympathetic historical writing is Bolivar the person. Starting with his 'vow to rid Venezuela' of the Spaniards on Monte Sacro in Italy, Arana never manages to lift the mythical veil to glimpse the real person behind. Beginning with his pledge in Italy, Bolivar's life is a path of glory walked by a living saint while virgins are voluntarily throwing themselves in his way (or their fathers trying to throw them in his way to get Bolivar's attention), only temporarily frustrated by evil traitors and agents of Spain. 

Crafting certainty out of doubt - Golo Mann in 1990

The master of biographical writing was of course Golo Mann, who delivered an unsurpassed account of a real person in 'Wallenstein' that had all signs of human frailty and self-doubt. Mann's prose oscillates between historiographical certainty and questioning distance which is curiously mirrored in the actions of Wallenstein himself. Through this historiographical device, Mann made a virtue of the biggest shortcoming of biographical writing, that we can never know the mind of the other. His writing circles the subject matter ever more closely until the established facts are just about holding on to the human perceptions of them. 

Mann was of course aware that this was a historiographical trick. In a sense, he may have been simply lucky in his choice of subject matter. Wallenstein may have been a more tortured personality than Bolivar. But then again perhaps not. Arana's biography cannot tell us either way. What we do know is that writing a biography that turns people into one dimensional canvasses for our projections approximates myth rather than history. In other words, Arana's work gives us 'Res Gestae' rather than the man himself. 

Tuesday 25 June 2013

Mick Aston dies

Mick Aston (left) with Tony Robinson

There has been sad news today. Mick Aston, the lead archaeologist on the Time Team programme has died. He was 'the brain' of the programme and a veteran contributor until 2011. Time Team was rarely without him over the years and his funny and knowledgeable comments added a depth to the episodes that was appreciated by many viewers. Not to forget his unique jumpers and hats!

Aston taught at Bristol University and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Archaeological Society in 2012. He died on Monday, the Guardian just reported. Aston will surely be missed by his students and of course the fans of the programme, including me!

Saturday 15 June 2013

The rise of the independent politician

Steve Richards recently observed in the Guardian that politicians from both sides of the chamber are making increasingly mischief for their leaders. Interestingly, one party is largely exempt from this: the LibDems.

Previously, the LibDems enjoyed an at times rowdy annual conferences, but since they are in government, their discipline (with few exceptions) is exemplary. The leaders of the other two parties however struggle to keep their troops in line. David Cameron repeatedly faced rebellions of his backbenchers over Europe and Ed Milliband is regarded by many of his own shadow cabinet members as an ineffectual and weak leader. The overall effect is gloom on all sides when politicians consider their chances to win the next election.

Partly this constellation is a result of a resurgent house under a new and effective speaker. Bercow was not liked on the Conservative benches but once in place he has transformed the house to a better place, allowing more time to backbenchers to hold the government to account.

Less than compliant with their leaders' wishes?

A similar thing has happened in the Lords where there have been more rebellions against government than ever before. In a way this may simply be the delayed effect of the removal of the hereditary peers. Although Lord's reform is still incomplete (and recently failed again) the members of the upper house do seem to have a better sense of their role: scrutenising legislation and holding the government to account.

But there are other factors at play as well. One is that Cameron, in good Blairite fashion, always steered a moderate and pragmatic course which does not fare well with many of his more dogmatic backbenchers. Being in a coalition has its own problems, but I doubt whether Cameron really would swing wildly to the right if he was unfettered by his coalition partners.

Should we be worried about this increased inability of the party leaders to call their troops to account? I don't think so. In a sense, this is what we always wanted. One often heard complaint during Blair's leadership was that everybody crowds in the centre and that political party machines whip party members into submission. Now, we have the first inklings of independence amongst politicians, and perhaps we should celebrate it. It makes for more difficult governing but also for more exciting politics.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

The French President on a flight of fancy

Francois Hollande, the French President, has declared the Euro crisis over a couple of days ago. His announcement comes at a time of unprecedented unemployment in Spain, Italy and his own country, as well as at exactly the moment when Mario Draghi's promise to 'do what it takes to save the Euro' (i.e. buy unlimited bonds from Italy, France or Spain) is under scrutiny at the Constitutional Court in Germany.

Apart from the odd timing of Hollande's announcement, and it's peculiar echo of the sun king diktating the will of the markets, it is likely to be more in the category of wishful thinking. The Euro crisis is fundamentally a crisis of budget deficits and national debts, bloated by enormous bail outs for troubled banking industry in the wake of the financial crisis. For France, and for the socialist president, this crisis is however mainly one of austerity and its effects. Or so he thinks. 

The recent strike of the French air traffic controllers, grounding in one fell swoop half of Europe's air traffic for three days, demonstrates what this is really about: a largely unreformed public service, a highly fragmented trade union movement in France which makes effective negotiations of labour disputes difficult to say the least, and the unwillingness or inability of the French President to take on the problems he was elected to tackle. So, Hollande is looking for an easy way out. Declaring the Euro crisis over, so he believes, will open up the coffers of the European Central Bank for the French government. If the Euro is sorted, France can continue to spend, ever onwards with its profligate ways. 

Observers are agreed in disagreeing with Hollande. What France needs are reforms, not higher wages for less and less work. The Commission President Barroso recently put it simply: France is loosing its competitiveness rapidly compared to Spain and Portugal (of all countries!) where radical reforms have begun to turn the ship around. It's about time Hollande understands that Europe wont wait for France, Euro crisis solved or not.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

When artists stray into politics - the case of Christa Wolf

There are several warnings throughout the history about artists engaging in politics. There are the examples of scultors and writers living in Nazi Germany who felt the urge to cosy up to the regime more than necessary. And of course there are more recent examples of writers and painters who worked in Communist countries and tried, more or less successfully, to steer clear of political compromise.

I do not claim to know anything about the complexities of living in a dictatorship and wanting to practice your art. Clearly the line must have been a fine one as Shostakovich's work amply demonstrates. Yet once communism had been consigned to the dustbin of history, the troubles for some artists did not abate. In fact, in a way, for some, the demise of communism coincided with a decline in their artistic ability. Again, I have little insight into why this should be. What I do know however is that great art does not beget great political insight. Christa Wolf is a shining example for this.

Whilst her books 'Kassandra' and 'Medea. Voices' are brilliant explorations of the precarious positions of women in mainly superfluous masculine fights, her personal political views are nauseating. In her diary 'A day in the year' she charts her doubt and (mainly internal) criticism of the communist East German regime during the 1970s and 80s. Her words are sharp, well aimed and usually hit their target. After the regime crumbled her political instincts are becoming less certain. A nostalgia is creeping into her notes, culminating in a diatribe against 'Western' democracy in her entry for 2006. It is not a nostalgia for the East German communist regime so much as one for an idealised version of it. The passage is revealing and shocking in equal measure since it speaks of a political naivety that belies her astute political radar during communism.

Recounting a conversation with her manucurist she writes: 'She told me that the time she spent in the factory in the GDR was the best of her life, because of the solidarity amongst her fellow workers.' Continuing the theme (and taking over the narrative) Wolf now comments 'that the people today fear unemployment more than the Stasi [the secret police] in the GDR.' Her diatribe ends in claiming that Mr. Bush is a greater criminal than the few powerful rulers of the GDR could ever have been' (p.98).

This reveals a devastating refusal to distinguish between a totalitarian and a democratic state. To be clear, she does not simply equate East German's communist rulers to Bush's political mistakes, think what you will about his politics. She explicitly expresses a preference for the communist undemocratic politics over any democratic way of life. It is a shocking and devastating admission that Wolf never arrived nor understood the difference between communist and democratic politics. Most likely, it was a rejection of the choices and personal freedoms that democratic politics generate which she probably understood as a burden rather than a possibility.

In this sense, the decline of her artistic value after the communist regime disintegrated makes sense. It confronted her with the liberty to shape her own destiny, free from the constrictions of pre-conceived Marxist paths to Jerusalem. Wolf excelled at criticising the shining city on the hill, but never managed to cope with the freedom normal politics forces on us.