Saturday, 22 February 2014

The power of teaching

A couple of years ago I heard somebody on BBC Radio 3 expressing his surprise, as he went over the music of Benjamin Britten, that so few notes could make such a beautiful sound. Somebody else who knows about how to produce amazing sounds with very few notes is Arvo Pärt. Pärt is an Estonian composer and I came to his music through the music of Heino Eller, his teacher in Tallinn.

Heino Eller in 1965

Most recently, I bought a CD with Pärt's 3rd Symphony and I was astonished how strikingly similar it sounds to Eller's Neenia. This is confusing since Eller composed his piece around 1928 whilst Pärt's 3rd Symphony stems from his romantic/minimalist writing in the 1970s.

One reason may be the transformative and suggestive power of Eller's compositions, another may simply be its Estonian rootedness, which Pärt came to value and revive from 1970 onwards. Whatever the cause of this similarity, it reflects the strong influence Eller must have had on Pärt.

Lucky those who live on in their student's work!

The BBC, peacocks and the Ukrainian 'revolution'

If I hear one more time from BBC correspondents that people in the West of Ukraine are looking to the West and people in the East are looking East, I will probably throw my television out of the window.

The recent events in Ukraine have prompted the BBC into a journalistic 'dumbing down fest' that borders on wilful distortion. This is not the first time the BBC news coverage feeds simplistic interpretative patterns. Not so long ago, Libya was reported to be experiencing a conflict between Western oriented revolutionaries and the forces of a (previously courted) dictator. We know where that one ended.

So why is the BBC wedded to simplistic journalism? One reason is probably the poor calibre of its personnel. Most of their staff are anchors of general news programmes rather than well informed specialists. This should not be a problem, if they would not be so tone deaf when it comes to listening to their own studio guests or interviewees. The BBC still invites commentators from a reasonably wide political spectrum, and this should inform the quality of its own presenting. Alas, little of that is felt when it comes to ad hoc reporting. What we get instead is BBC reporters telling us that the president's compound in Kiev has peacocks (what else?) and a golf course. Shocking! You would not find this at Chequers or Kennebunkport of course!

This poor journalistic work is not the exclusive domain of anchormen. Even otherwise respectable journalists like Matt Frei succumb to it, twittering ceaselessly (and pointlessly some might say) about the duck houses in the presidential residence just outside Kiev.

As somebody who lived through the so-called 'revelations' of the 'excesses' of the East German leadership in 1989, I fail to be impressed by the alleged 'largesse' of East European leaders or the reports about it in the BBC. What looks like 'high society' at first glance usually turns out a result of poor taste and the preferences of the 'nouveau riche'. The real largesse is not the way in which a president lives but the millions of dollars that have been siphoned off and safely tucked away in Swiss bank accounts.

No doubt, Yanukovich will have something for a 'rainy day', but so undoubtedly has his opponent, the newly declared 'democrat' and hero of the Western media, Yulia Timoshenko. After all, she happens to have amassed tens of millions of dollars and her business partner was convicted of embezzlement of 'epic proportions' (the judge's words) in a US court.

So, why does this matter? It matters because the poor quality reporting from the BBC reflects a lack of understanding of the real fragmentation of the country, a split that does not run between East and West but between those who belong to a tiny political elite who have treated the state as their personal fiefdom and the rest of the population.

Yanukovich and Timoshenko are part of the former, fighting over the state silver, whilst those on the streets of Kiev hope that a change of the guard will bring an end to corruption and usher in democracy. If the Ukrainian (recent) past is anything to go by, Timoshenko will take the reigns of power, marginalise the current opposition leaders and do what she failed to do the last time when she 'led' a revolution to its inglorious demise: prevent the formation of a proper functioning party democracy and enrich herself and her entourage. And people in the West will stand by and scratch their heads, thinking that this was not what the BBC told us would happen.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Partnerships and service integration

The Institute for Local Government Studies at Birmingham just published a blog post of mine. You can find it HERE

Why political polarisation is nothing to worry about

The polarisation of political views is exercising observers in the US at the moment. There is a flurry of publications from journalists and scientists at present about why democracy is bound to disintegrated under the onslaught of centrifugal forces. The lack of political consensus and the unwillingness of compromise in the House of Representatives in the US are often cited as examples of increased polarisation. And psychologists like Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards (Democracy despite itself, MIT Press 2012) provide empirical material to support the claim of a doomed democratic politics.

While there can be little argument over the rise of the 'fringe or anti-politics' politician, and the popularity of Tea Party Movement in the US, the numbers are not really bearing out a significant flight of the moderates into the extremes of the political spectrum. If anything, the opposite is the case. Wherever important electoral battles are waged, moderates such as Obama win with comparatively large majorities with mainstream political programmes. So what is going on?

In a sense, it is the location of politics that is changing, not the balance between mainstream and the fringe. Politics is increasingly played out in the media at the expense of a wider public domain and the preferences for political confrontation over political consensus in the media are well documented.

Yet, there is another aspect to it. The rise of the politician who holds immoderately questionable views is not just a problem of how politics is portrayed. It is above all an issue of mobilisation.

This is where the gulf between electoral victories of fringe politicians and their relative lack of success in important electoral competitions comes into view. UKIP and the National Front in France struggle to win any important electoral battles but often succeed in local or by-elections. Why?

Mainly, because the broader moderate electorate does not assign much significance to these battles and stays away. They only feel sufficiently motivated to vote as and when important issues are at stake. So, in effect, it is a question of how to mobilise whom and when. This is where political parties increasingly struggle and come under what often looks like the polarisation drag. To campaign for a political party you have to have at least two sorts of resources at your disposal: a lot of time and deeply held views on particular issues. Moderates rarely possess either. Hence they stay away from party politics and are seldom found to stuff letter boxes with campaign literature on a rainy day.

This is often interpreted as political apathy. But I think to do so is a misunderstanding. What leaves political moderates actually disengaged is an acute sense of when and where really important issues are (or aren't) at stake. In a way, moderates trust the political system to bear some extreme weather in the turbulent to and fro of daily politics. They bank on the belief that the inertia of the democratic system wears extreme views thin in the long run. This may be an error but as long as the electoral map still shows not a single member of UKIP in Westminster, I think their calculation is right.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Smell of Reading

I often wondered why I never caught on to the Kindle craze. Electronic books are so convenient, aren't they? You can carry hundreds of them around with you and not feel the weight. You can also skip from one to the other without reaching for another volume.

Displays, the great bane of electronic devices, have also improved over the last years and Kindle and others have managed to simulate paper like qualities and appearance. Yet still, I dislike them with a passion.

The reason of my annoyance with electronic books may be simple however. They don't smell. This may sound odd and slightly OCD but it is something that falls into the category which others describe as 'the experience of reading'. For many, including me, reading is not just about a string of letters and words, it is about an experience that opens up another world and, strangely enough, the odour of book glue and acid coming from the pages are an integral part of it.

Can you smell the reading?

German books for example have moved to acid free paper which is a real downer for me. American hardbacks are still a blast in terms of their smell and books from the 1950s and 1960s which have lingered in public libraries for decades (often unread) are the pinnacle of joy. Nothing compares to the blend of collected dust and heavy paper acid!

This may sound very obsessive compulsive but I think part of it can be explained by the fact that reading is actually (in evolutionary terms) a very un-human activity. It requires concentration and cognitive skills applied to a string of horizontal letters which is biologically alien to us. It takes something special to keep us reading, in other words, and that something for me is the accompanying smell of the pages which forms part and parcel of the reading experience. In fact, the odour of a book often becomes part of the story that unfolds on the pages. I think I may even remember John Dos Passos U.S.A. simply by the smell that come from its bend pages of the ancient Penguin edition I have.

I guess as long as there are people like me out there, printed books will have a future.

Philip Seymor Hoffman 1967 - 2014

There are few actors that struck me as genuinely original when I watched a movie and Philip Seymor Hoffman was definitely one of them. I will never forget watching him in the role of personal assistant in The Big Lebowsky. His deference mixed with badly concealed menace and contempt was absolutely stunning. This was my first 'brush' with watching an actor who was absolutely top class and next came his portrayal of the male nurse in Magnolia and the CIA agent in Charlie Wilson's War (alongside Tom Hanks) which displayed his breathtaking versatility.

Philip Seymor Hoffman

There were moments of intensity in his acting that came close to those by Al Pacino (in his better roles), yet in addition, Hoffman added an authenticity to his characters that was almost shocking. His acting breathed a depth of performing that was simply unrivalled by most English speaking actors. Whilst others manage to genuinely transform themselves into their characters (think of De Niro), Hoffman didn't just transform himself in his acting, he revealed full scale personalities through it. That's why he was the best choice to play Truman Capote, a role he not only mastered but made come to life for those who watched.

Hoffman must have been one of the few actors I would make a point of going to see in a newly released movie. He will be missed.