Monday, 16 January 2012

Identity and economics: Africa viewed from Oxford


I’ve just returned from a lecture at Green College, Oxford. I’m a lucky chap: I can walk to Green College from my flat in less that ten minutes – and I pass two other colleges along the way!

I arrived a little early, yet already a queue tailed away from the underground lecture theatre and it quickly became apparent that the place was full. A couple of academics pushed their way through, mumbling something about taking dinner with the speaker afterwards. Then a number of the queuing students decided to give up and retire to the bar, and that’s why I found myself at the doorway. There an attractive young woman held back the throng whilst admitting the worthy. She took one look at me then, surprisingly, said:

“There is a place for you at the front sir.”

Hallelujah – there is some benefit in being old(er) beside the bus pass. I mumbled a thank you and made my elated and guilt ridden way to the front row, then sat in one of the reserved seats. I covered my stained jeans with my frayed coat, and then adopted what I hope was a worthy pose as I eyed the crush of students standing along each side of the room.

The speaker was my age, had a beard a little like mine, and there comparisons end. He wore a smart sports jacket, thick necktie and well-ironed trousers. His name was Paul Collier and he was introduced as a legend – as they usually are. His subject was ‘What will happen to African states?’It was great: calm, informative and informed, clear, unostentatious, unscripted and without slides.

I could not begin prĂ©cis the whole talk, but the central theme was identity. Though the idea is probably not new to any of us its treatment as a basis for economic study was so to me. Paul mentioned a book entitled ‘Identity Economics’ by George A. Akerlof which asks the question, “How do you get a good plumber.” Not in the sense of finding one in yellow pages, but in the sense of how does a person get to be a good plumber (let’s say the plumber is a man since most are – at present). And the answer, apparently, is that the plumber identifies himself as a good plumber. He has pride in his work and his results and is self monitoring. He does not need carrots and sticks and constant checking by bean counters.

What’s all that got to do with Africa? Well, there are 54 states in that continent and, according to Professor Collier, they are mostly dysfunctional. The people of Africa do not trust them and there are plenty of reasons not to do so. We in Europe trust our states don’t we? And we identify with them, though we may have many identities (EU, Britain, Scotland...) Africans identify with localised groups within their states and distrust all others. They do not work together for the common good and their state does not work for their common good. Yet, the speaker argued, you need trusted states to do big things. One solution is to make Africa itself the trusted state. But the 54 states will not have it; they do not trust each other! Alternatively power might be handed down through devolution – a dangerous trend that is happening here (dangerous because it may never end – except in war (my comment)). However, in Belgium it seems to have reached  a peaceful end since the place seems to function perfectly well without a government: Flanders and Wallonia, the two sub-regions, keep things going.

In common with many academics Paul Collier asks questions rather than providing answers, but the questions certainly stimulated my limited brain. There was a lot more; it was a good session; and free.

In the future I shall certainly know what to look for in a plumber should I ever cease to identify myself as the plumber. I’m not sure where do-it-yourself fits in to this idea of identity.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Kindles for Christmas


I couldn’t wait. I bought mine last week.

It’s not a very exciting gift anyway. Like so many electronic things it takes a bit of getting going, a bit of getting into. And by the time you’ve done that the thrill has gone.

Then what? Well you can read books of course. You download them from Amazon’s Kindle store or elsewhere and can keep lots of ‘em - all stored in a thing as thin as a calculator and about the area of a ‘real’ book.

But what’s this ‘real’ in quotes for? I have already downloaded a book by Mark Twain on the Mississippi basin and another by Frank Close all about Antimatter (which interests me). They are both real books; that is I could, in principle, enter a book shop and buy them. Of course the book shop would not necessarily have them. But they could order them for me, electronically. And some time later I could pick them up , physically.
The decision to buy a Kindle was easy. Its cost was covered by a cheque from Amazon for $100. The cheque’s arrival was a complete surprise, then I recalled that I had put my book on Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone into the Kindle store (not then an easy task) on my return from China. It’s already an eBook in my own “shop” (www.robsbookshop.com), but that is not getting quite the number of hits that Amazon gets!

Why was the cheque for exactly $100 I wondered? I learned that Amazon only send payment when sales have reached that round sum. Anyway, in a way, Amazon paid for my Kindle!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a rather well-known writer has re-written my Hedy Lamarr book - and is attracting rave reviews in the States where he is hailed as the man who discovered Hedy’s inventive talent. Well , that’s life, somewhat inevitable perhaps ... there were two biographies released on Hedy last year and no one owns a good story – it’s maybe how you tell them. Or, as Churchill had it: first it’s who saying it, second it’s how they are saying what they are saying and third it’s what’s said.

The Kindle wave has now swept over me. Since April 1 of this year Amazon has been selling 105 Kindle eBooks to every 100 paper books! And though it is the giant there are plenty of other suppliers pumping out eBooks. Gone are the days when eBook stores were replete with badly written sci-fi and eroticism from unknown authors. It’s quite normal for new books from well known publishers to be released in paper and electronic form nowadays. And there’s lots of free stuff around too, including many fine classics.
So I’m spending a lot of time preparing my stuff for sale through Kindle and Smashwords.

My great hope is the novel I wrote that is based on my Asian experiences: Shaken by China. It’s up there in the eBooksphere right now. However, the challenge is bringing it to anyone’s notice. I suppose that’s always the challenge. I’ve kept the price low ($2.99 or £1.91). Nevertheless, just how can readers stumble across it? They find my Hedy Lamarr book because they do searches for her name, but a novel is very different thing.
As an experiment I put my collection of short stories from Turkey (Turkey Trove) into the Kindle store recently. That’s a bit more of a target for searches so we will see. Becoming a publisher is quite exciting, but also exacting and potentially depressing.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Moment



Travelling to Oxford on our long journey from La Fresneda in Spain I was once again reminded of the beauty of France: the wide rivers, the quiet villages, the elegant houses. Yet, for all of that, we left the glorious cathedral of Chartres and raced frantically towards Belgium, arriving in Ostend at about seven on a darkening evening. The reason for this mad dash into yet another country is quite simple: beer.

Britain produces by far the best, and the greatest variety, of draft beers in the world. Meanwhile, Belgium produces the best, and widest variety, of bottle beers in the world (in my humble opinion) France produces some good bottled beers but it is, naturally, more wine than beer oriented. In the lovely village of Antonin en Noble Valle we paid 4 euros for a small glass of Leffe beer. Appalled at the cost we bought four bottles for less than 4 euros in a small supermarket next day and that was the moment: yes the moment that we decided to plough on into Belgium and fill the van with Belgian beers. On the last night of our trip I had my magic moment as I savoured a bottle of Maresdous Triple (10%) and followed it by many different beers. Next morning I sought out a supermarket near the port and blew 70 euros or so on a variety of bottled bliss which should provide me with many moments of relish on those cold winter’s nights that we were about to cross the channel to endure.

I have just finished ‘The Moment’ by Douglas Kennedy. I am a fan of his page turners and, though it took me a little while to get into The Moment, I soon become gripped by the book - as always. He does spin a good tale. The Moment is about love suddenly gained then equally suddenly lost. It is about betrayal and deception, and, of course, failing to grasp … the moment.

Kennedy cleverly locates the love affair in a divided city: pre-liberalised Berlin. He portrays the German Democratic Republic (the red side) as an Orwellian state where the Stasi do a very efficient job as the thought police; where almost everyone is controlled by them; and where the majority of people are informers for them. Room 101 for the female half of the intense love affair at the centre of the book is permanent separation from her cherished baby son. Betrayal, for the (American) male half, is her deception as an agent of the Stasi.
In a complex and rich tale Kennedy focuses on the moment where both lovers lose their moment and spend the rest of their lives regretting the loss, condemned to a life of compromise and regret, their experiences always blighted by the shadows of that great affair. 

Intriguingly, my reading of the book was shadowed by a very real deception. Whilst I worked doggedly on my stone hut Margaret was at home secretly reading the book; she just couldn’t wait until I had finished it so that she could begin. One night over dinner when I was just a few pages from the end she confessed that she had already read the whole thing, always carefully preserving my book marked page and never revealing the plot or denouement.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The two bar trick

Our village of La Fresneda is small, but it does have two butchers, two bakers, a swimming pool, a restaurant, a chemist, and, of course, a bar. In fact when the swimming pool is open it provides a bar so, in the summer, there are two. And in the past the restaurant also had a bar, so there were three.
Nonetheless, the main bar, the one where major items of gossip are exchanged over coffee, where football is reverently observed, where tricks for growing the largest radish are shared between close friends, where the growing number of retired (jubilados) meet for cards and take their one drink of the day, where the paseos pass and the mayor scoots by at least three times a night, this bar is Bar La Plaza (the bar in the main square).
Bar La Plaza is nothing special. A single room some ten metres long with toilets at one end. There is a bar on the left which surrounds the open plan kitchen and, of course, centre stage, a large screen TV. When I first came here the bar was run by the only slim woman in the village. She had ejected her alcoholic husband from both the bar and her life and was subsequently pursued by both village carpenters. One had the deepest voice that I have ever heard and became her barman. The other made gifts of shelving and cupboards and became her lover.
Finally she left the bar to start a laundry business. The barman carpenter died and the lover carpenter returned to his wife. She is still slim and catches many an eye as she walks about the town, but not that of the remaining carpenter: they ignore each other.
After she left Ramon and Montsie took over the bar. They gutted the place and installed garish clusters of red lights more suited to a city night club. They were going for the younger set of which there are rather few in the village. At first they adopted a guise of charming hosts but as time passed and the same few villagers came and went, buying little and sitting long, they changed.
Ramon sat at the most distant point in the bar barely visible behind his laptop which he shared with one of the new intake of bikers who had moved to the village. Any call for a drink was met with obvious reluctance as he slowly moved to the bar, his eyes loath to leave the screen. Montsie, when present, sat dejectedly behind the bar or talked to some of the biker set offering service with a scowl when required.
I was mortified. The bar, yes the bar, in the village of my second home was becoming the last place I would want to drink on earth. I seriously considered selling up and locating elsewhere in Spain. Then, one night as we were dining in a nearby village with Spanish friends, we heard that they had “buen noticia” (good news). Ramon and Montsie were leaving. New people were taking the bar. Phew.
Balthazar and Ampora were a very different couple. He was a lethargic man of few words whose main interest seemed to be holidays in hashish rich countries. She was a delightful lady of impressive appearance and with good English. We liked them, they ran a good bar.
But this time when we returned to the village they had gone, new people were running the bar, and this was not the only shock. The place next door had been turned into a bar as well: and the proprietors of this new bar were none other than Ramon and Montsie! I just could not believe it, I really could not.
The new owners of the original bar were delightful. Miguel and his son Raul hailed from Barcelona and had bought the lease on the place without being told anything of the plans for the second bar. Miguel is an affable, pipe smoking Spaniard with a long pony tail and his son is an athletic looking twenty something with good English and a desire to practice it. We have stuck with them, though our loyalty is somewhat contorted since they are new. Other loyalties in the village run along family, friendship or enemy lines. We watched with interest who goes where. Visitors to the village are confused. They sit at the outside table of one bar and use the toilet of the other, order drinks from one and food from the other. Ramon and Montsie scan the fast emptying plaza in the hope of new clients. They barely look at us since we do not visit their bar much, if at all, and perhaps they can sense that we remember and our remembrance stirs their own memories.
Last week Ramon the elder passed my little building site. He is the father of Ramon the younger and is the local antique cum rag and bone man and a dominant local character.  I was surveying the stones delivered to me by Enrique the builder who fell to his death from roof of a house nearly a year past. The stones are rubbish and I can only use them after a great deal of shaping. I told Ramon that I needed stone and he said that he had some – no charge. No charge, from a man who wheels and deals? I went to see the stone, it was good. I rolled it down the hill to the road and arranged for a man with a tractor to help me transport it. I paid him well and later pressed an envelope into the shirt pocket of Ramon who looked surprised and amused.
But now I am in debt to the Ramons. Should I use the new bar or stick with Miguel who tells me that he wants to start a nudist campsite in the countryside near our village. Meanwhile our friends from the Netherlands are appalled that the local council should give permission for another campsite since they already have one nearby. We are confused by mixed loyalties and are too old to remove our clothes publicly, but we watch with interest this healthy rivalry knowing that whatever trick is pulled there is only room for one camp site and one bar in this village. I can hardly tear myself away – but Britain calls: there is guiding to do and decoration to be done.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Travelling with Samuel Johnson and Harry Potter

Johnson and Potter are unusual travelling companions perhaps, but literally acceptable.
Very occasionally we rent out our house in Spain. Recently We had a one week booking which left us homeless, so we took a trip in the camper van. My wife suggested that we travelled around our own area (the Mataranya) but I felt the need for pastures new so we ventured to the Ebro River and  the Monsant area of Catalunia.
It was a nice trip with no set agenda except a beginning and an end, yet we quickly dropped into a daily pattern. I went running most mornings, then had breakfast inside or outside the camper van whilst reading a little. Usually we managed to find beautiful setting for our overnight stay, though not always. After a shower we explored the village that we were visiting or I went for a longer walk. Later we moved on, stopping at some pleasant location for a picnic lunch in transit.
Then came the hard part. It was intensely hot that week though we were in the latter part of September. Our camper does get very stuffy so we had to find somewhere, usually in a village, that had a little shade from the sun. Now such spots are in great demand even though the villages are thinly populated (one had only 40 or so souls within it according to the priest). If we were lucky then we parked in a shady spot during the hottest part of the day and either slept or read or wrote - the villages were spookily quiet at this time in the afternoon as they too slept, or read or wrote.
At five or so we toured our current village in search of bars and restaurants. We then spent the rest of the evening drinking cold beer, often followed by tapas and cold red wine. Then home (the campervan) for a carjillo (coffee with anis), a bit more reading, and so to bed.
I read Harry Potter for educational purposes. I read a little each day. I read in Spanish in the hope that it will improve my poor understanding of the language, and I read professionally since Potter and his friends, like it or not, are of great interest to many of my Oxford tour groups. I am currently reading the sixth book but during the trip could find little in it which related to Monsant.
I was also reading  Samuel Johnson’s report of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, mostly because I visited his birthplace in Lichfield recently and was moved to buy the book of his, and Boswell’s, describing their travels, as a memento of my visit. I included it in my bundle of books for Spain (we both have a real fear of finding ourselves without reading matter and are hoping for Kindles this Christmas) and, though I have not completed it, I found his notes an excellent companion to my own travels.
Johnson describes his journeying without becoming embedded in a diary-like itinerary. He hitches everything to experiences within the Hebrides, but regularly launches off into fascinating philosophical trails discussing anything from human migration to the price of cows. He has an inquiring mind and an apparently encyclopaedia- like recall.
Monsant shares with the Hebrides a low population and a lack of industry, but it is clear that the people of this mountainous area were richer or perhaps more industrious than the Scots. The houses of the lovely Monsant mountain villages are old yet they are clearly better built and certainly much taller than the stone huts described by Johnson. Water is a problem in both locations, though for diametrically opposed reasons. Monsant is very dry and relies on collected water and irrigation, The Isle of Sky, in Johnson’s time was, so boggy that there were no roads and only the locals could safely traverse the island.
I am home now, but still reading Johnson and Potter. One of the most enjoyable accounts by Samuel Johnson, the compiler of of course of our first comprehensive English dictionary, is the Highlanders’ willingness to answer any question: quickly and with immense authority. However, follow up questions quickly dissipated that confidence, diluted the answer and sometimes actually resulted in a completely different tale. This is so like the Cotswolds that my reading of it aloud even made Margaret (the implacable supporter of Stow-on-the Wold superiority) chuckle.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Lorna Done and the Spanish

We bought our house in Aragon at the end of 1999 and celebrated the millennium there. We knew little about the area, its history, flora, fauna and culture beyond what our daughter (and personal search agent) had shown us. However, we did sense that this was an area that had been somehow insulated from the modern world for much of the century and yet was on the cusp of change.
Not completely insulated of course: our village had electricity and all that comes with it. There were motor cars and tractors and refrigerators and so forth. Yet there will still people climbing the extreme slopes to their homes laden with huge bundles of firewood, donkeys occasionally tramped the streets bearing even huger bundles, and shepherds often blocked the roads as they led their vast flocks of sheep and goats to pastures new. Not for nothing did the Spanish speak of Teruel, our province, as the place that no one goes to and no one come from despite the fact that some locals displayed defiant signs saying “Teruel existe”  in the back windows of their cars.
I have just read Lorna Done for the first time. We read it as the inaugural book of our newly formed, and now defunct, family book club: I was the only one to have finished the tome in time for our discussion meeting! I enjoyed the novel and had the delight of becoming obsessed with it. I can recall thinking as we sat in the plaza of our village at two in the morning and just part the way through a long fiesta night, “I wish I was at home reading Lorna”.
For those who have read the classic you may recall that “John Ridd” should have been the title. John is the narrator and the book is mostly about his life as a farmer. Of course the Doones and his Lorna have a key role in the plot, but John’s life and times is the soil upon which the story grows. (As an aside I doubt very much that R D Blackmore would ever have achieved fame had he chosen my alternative title: there is something beseechingly attractive about the name Lorna Doone.)
John’s life, when he is not yearning for Lorna, is almost exclusively focussed on food: planting, tending, harvesting, collecting, breeding, butchering, eating, sharing – these were the verbs that define much of John’s life, and much of the lives of the people in whose time the book portrays.
And so too with the people of my village of La Fresneda where the conversation used to be redolent with much the same verbs, though in the local tongue. However, these were the old brigade. In the last ten years or so they have mostly retired (at least formally, people who have worked the land never entirely retire) and the village has become different. Incomers have arrived (ourselves included), the road system has been improved, many of the houses have been renovated, and agriculture, though still important, is no longer number one. The incomers are local youngsters who set their sights on the big cities for their future; other incomers are retirees or evacuees following some dream and bringing their own culture; there are also foreign workers who specialise in building houses and building their own version of the country that they have left.
Naturally food is important to the incomers, even though it is not their focus. They produce little or nothing, obtaining their food from the supermarket and having little knowledge, or interest, in its origin. Farms and huertos (smallholdings) are increasingly disused and those that remain are often managed by one man and his machines.
Traditions still abound and will take a long time to die or adapt, but already I can see this happening. A friend in Oxford recently told me that the Spanish did not dance. I was amazed to hear such a thing about this, the country of flamenco and fiestas. Yet on the last night of our own fiesta the people did not dance! Local groups were playing pop music and the crowd simply stood around and listened. There was the occasional, uncontrolled outburst of dancing by individuals, but this was soon suppressed by peer (not beer) pressure. I was nonplussed and had to return to the scene a number of times during the night simply to check my earlier observation. This is so sad. The Spanish without their dancing would be like the English without their pubs.
Fortunately all is not yet lost. The previous five nights of the fiesta were accompanied by dancing and a fiery bull. And a week or so after the main fiesta we had another one: this time based on food, wine, rum, figs, and lots and lots of dancing.