Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The plight of savers

Of the 489 billion Euros that the European Central bank lent to European commercial banks at a concessionary interest rate just before Christmas, to ease their liquidity/solvency situation whilst US banks refuse to lend to them, 412 billion Euros were placed on deposit by the banks back with the ECB over the Christmas period. It will there earn the banks even less in interest than the low rate they are having to pay to borrow it, but they clearly do not trust their fellows as borrowers.

The cost of privatisation

The great and good Mr Handel

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Whisper of the Heart

Forests lost

Once upon a time Corsica was entirely covered by forest. Storey by storey, it grew for thousands of years in rivalry with itself, up to heights of fifty metres and more, and who knows, perhaps perhaps larger and larger species would have evolved, trees reaching the sky, it the first settlers had not appeared and if, with the typical fear felt by their own kind for its place of origin, they had not steadily forced the forest back again.

The degradation of the most highly developed plant species is a process known to have begum near what we call the cradle of civilization. Most of the high forests that once grew all the way to the Dalmatian, Iberian and North African coasts had already been cut down by the beginning of the present era. Only in the interior of Corsica did a few forests of trees towering far taller than those of today remain, and they were still being described with awe by nineteenth-century travellers, although now they have almost entirely disappeared. Of the silver firs that were among the dominant tree species of Corsica in the Middle Ages, standing everywhere in the mists clinging to the mountains, on overshadowed slopes and in the ravines, only a few relicts are now left in the Marmano valley and the Foret de Puntiello, and on a walk there a remembered image came into my mind of a forest in the Innerfern through which I had once gone as a child with my grandfather.

A history of the forest of France by Etienne de la Tour, published during the Second Empire, speaks of individual fir trees growing to a height of almost sixty metres during their lives of over a thousand years, and they, so de la Tour writes, are the last trees to convey some idea of the former grandeur of the European forests. He laments the destruction of the Corsican forests 'par des exploitations mal conduites' ('by mismanaged exploitation'), which was already becoming a clear menace in his time. the stands of trees spared longest were those in the most inaccessible regions, fro instance the great forest of Bavella, which covered the Corsican Dolomites between Sartene and Solenzara and was largely untouched until towards the end of the nineteenth century.

The English language painter and writer Edward Lear, who travelled in Corsica in the summer of 1876, wrote of the immense forests that then rose high from the blue twilight of the Solenzara valley and clambered up the steepest slopes, all the way to the vertical cliffs and precipices with their overhangs, cornices and upper terraces where smaller groups of trees stood like plumes on a helmet. On the more level surfaces at the head of the pass, the soft grounds on which you walked was densely overgrown with all kinds of different bushes and herbs. Arbutus grew here, a great many ferns, heathers and juniper bushes, grasses asphodels and dwarf cyclamen, and from all these low-growing plants rose the grey trunks of Laricio pines, their green parasols seeming to float free far, far above in the crystal-clear air.

'At three the top of the pass ... is reached,' says Lear, 'and here the real forest of Bavella commences, lying in a deep cup-like hollow between this and the opposite ridge, the north and south side of the valley being formed by the tremendous columns and peaks of granite ... which stood up like two gigantic portions of a vast amphitheatre', with the sea beyond them, and the Italian coast like a brush-stroke drawn on paper. these crags, he writes, 'are doubly awful and magnificent now that one is close to them, and excepting the

heights of Serbal and Sinai, they exceed in grandeur anything of the kind I have ever seen'. But Lear also comments on the timber carts drawn by fourteen or sixteen mules which even then were making their way along the sharply winding road, transporting single trunks a hundred to a hundred and twenty feet long and up to six feet in diameter, an observation that I found confirmed in 1879 by the Dictionnaire de Geographie edited by Vivien de Saint Martin, in which the Dutch traveller and topographer Melchior van de Velde writes that he has never seen a finer forest than the forest of Bavella, not even in Switzerland, Lebanon or on the islands of Indochina.

W.G. Sebald, 'The Alps in the Sea' collected in Campo Santo, trs. Anthea Bell

Sunday, 25 December 2011

St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.
There was a man sent from God whose name was John.
The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.
He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.
That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
He came unto his own, and his own knew him not.
He came unto his own and his own received him not.
But as many as received him, to them gave he the power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, not of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-14

Saturday, 24 December 2011


Sale of assets

Consider the lilies

The Chancellor's family firm is finding times hard. It has just announced a loss for a third year in a row. The firm has responded by cutting staff, increasing borrowings, and maintaining directors' remuneration.

As George Osborne said, "It's been a part of my family for the whole of my life. I was always aware as a child when things were going well and when things weren't going so well, so it's given me a strong understanding of what's involved in running a business – the risks, the hard work and the commitment."

Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas past

This picture an readily be found on the internet when one searches under 'Christmas truce'. It is used on several web sites and blogs but none seem to tell one exactly when or where it was taken. What were the circumstances in which these two soldiers of opposing armies shared a cigarette? Who took it? How did the photographer come to be there? It was once known, and somewhere perhaps still is, but for most viewers it is now unknown. Yet the picture has undoubted emotional power.

It is as if the internet is turning our recent past into the state of our knowledge of long distant societies, from which evocative but little understood artefacts surface after successions of unsystematic and unrecorded archaeological digs that have detached them irrevocably from their context and meaning.

Thursday, 22 December 2011


The European Central Bank has just lent 500 billion Euros at a concessionary interest rate to European banks against low grade security. There was an even greater rush than expected from the banks to apply for the money. As I understand it, the motive was that European banks currently have liquidity (or is it solvency?) problems and American banks are unwilling to lend to them directly. The ECB and European national central banks had a little while ago struck an arrangement with the US Federal Reserve to supply dollars to Europe.

However the ECB is unable to determine what the banks will do with these new funds. The operation is about saving the commercial banking system rather than directing the way in which it operates. Banks might, it seems:

a) lend them to private and commercial borrowers;

b) hold on to them in order to increase their solvency;

c) use then to buy up high-yielding and therefore risky debt such as the bonds of economically stressed European states

d) use them for some even more clever ploy that the rest of us have not even thought of.

It's up to the banks, not the Bank. If they use them to buy up stressed European nations' bonds, (c), there will be a short and shallow sigh of relief but the inter-connection between vulnerable banks and vulnerable nations will be knit a little closer and the wonderful construction of financial instability raised to a slightly greater height.

A couple of weeks ago the international accountancy firm Deloitte estimated that the total value of 'non-core and non-performing assets' held by European banks (i.e. candidates for the kind of operation just carried out by the ECB) is 'at least' 1.7 trillion Euros. Deloitte reckoned that in the previous twelve months (before this latest ECB intervention) banks had managed to dispose of about 60 billion Euros worth. Without the ECB's deus ex machina it would have taken 28 years at that rate for the banks to get rid of their unwanted assets.

Of that European total the largest national holding was in the UK at 536 billion, closely followed by Germany at 522 billion. UK GDP in 2010 was approximately 1720 billion Euros, whilst German was 2536 billion. Italy the new sick man of Europe, with a GDP of 1572 billion (but with a third more industrial manufacturing than the UK within that total - woodworkers, much like handbag owners, know that their machinery has little chance of being manufactured in this country but may well come from Italy) had only 102 billion of these assets in their commercial banks' hands. Of course, these are only estimates, by an organisation not without complicity in our financial travails, of figures that banks are careful to conceal.

Foreign travel

The British government has asked Washington to hand over a man held by US forces in Afghanistan after the appeal court ordered a writ of habeas corpus be issued seven years after he was detained.

The court ordered the writ last week after hearing that Yunus Rahmatullah was detained by UK special forces in Iraq in 2004, and then handed over to US forces who flew him to Bagram prison, north of Kabul.

The court heard on Wednesday that the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence had asked the US government to transfer Rahmatullah to British custody so that he could be released.

However, the US defence department replied three days later that the responsible official "is currently on travel", and that it would respond at some unspecified date in the future....

Rahmatullah, 29, is a Pakistani man who denies being a member of a terrorist organisation, but whose lawyers admit was in Iraq to wage jihad. For several years after his detention his family assumed he was dead.

He was one of two men captured by the SAS and handed over to US forces who were subsequently rendered to Afghanistan. The transfer to US authorities was permitted under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries that also allows the UK to demand their return.

The court also referred to an article of the Geneva conventions which forbids occupying powers from removing civilian prisoners from an occupied country other than in narrowly defined circumstances....

Ministers of the last Labour government repeatedly denied any knowledge of the matter before finally admitting in February 2009 that it had known about it for the previous five years.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Kafka goes to the movies

The innermost mystery of secular metaphysics is this strange sensation of physical absence, something evoked by what might be called an over-developed gaze. Significantly, the customers coming out of the twilight of the peepshow and going back into the street always have to give themselves a little shake before they are fully in control of the bodies they had to shed as they were absorbed in looking at the panorama.

Kafka's comments on photography suggest that he felt there was something fundamentally uncanny about this way of copying life. Friedrich Thielberger. for instance, remembers once meeting Kafka in the street when he himself has an unwieldy box for making photographic enlargements under his arm. Thielberger writes that Kafka asked, in surprise, 'Taking photographs?' adding 'That's really rather sinister.' Then, after a short pause, he continued, 'And you enlarge them as well!' Kafka's books too contain many indications of the vague horror he felt at the impending mutations of mankind as the age of technical reproduction opened, mutations in which he probably saw the imminent end of the autonomous individuality formed by bourgeois culture. The freedom of movement of the heroes of his novels and stories, which is not great to begin with, steadily undergoes further restrictions in the course of the action, while figures already called to life by an inscrutable series of laws take over, characters such as the court functionaries, the two idiotic assistants and the three lodgers in The Metamorphosis, executives and officials whose purely functional, amoral nature is obviously better suited to this new state of affairs. In the Romantic period the doppelganger which first aroused a fear of mechanical appliances was still a haunting and exceptional phenomenon; now it is everywhere. The whole technique of photographic copying ultimately depends on the principle of making a perfect duplicate of the original, of potentially infinite copying. You only had to pick a stereoscopic card and you could see everything twice. And because the copy lasted long after what it had copied was gone, there was an uneasy suspicion that the original, whether it was human or a natural scene, was less authentic than the copy, that the copy was eroding the original, in the same way as a man meeting his doppelganger is said to feel his real self destroyed.

'Kafka Goes to the Movies' by W.G. Sebald, collected in Campo Santo, trs Anthea Bell

How things have changed in less than a century. Now the camera and the computer do not just capture and copy reality and identity but create and manipulate it, and, as the techniques have become available to us all individually, not just to the "sinister" ones, we no longer feel our own identities threatened or diminished. Our sense of our own reality is no longer challenged: we have instead a sense of our own ability constantly to renew and recreate ourselves. The doppelganger is now a mere amusement. We have cheated not only death and dissolution, but life itself. Feeling ourselves in control, we no longer feel the need to confront external forces. Yet our auautonomy is of course exercised within a system provided for us - "we play happily and child-like in the gardens created for us by the evil giants of Google and Apple". We have become licencees of our own reality, forever checking the box that declares "I accept the terms of this agreement" without ever actually reading it or bothering that we have no choice.

Monday, 19 December 2011


The UK government is embarked on a pruning of senior ranks within the military:

"The simple truth is that the defence senior cadre is larger than we can afford, is judged to be out of proportion with a reducing manpower base and also with modern working practices and societal tolerances."

The work of the Office of Societal Tolerances (OffSoT) within Number Ten is less recognised by society than it should be. David Cameron's recent comments on multi-culturalism, recycled into his speech on the King James Bible are a direct result of its work:

"Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them."

OffSoT unfortunately has had to close down the section of its website where members of the public could post suggestions for topics for its investigations because of the regrettable facetiousness of most of the proposals, but its recent reports on, for example, the Bullingdon Club, Angela Merkel's wardrobe, the Supreme Being, the odour of sanctity, the smell of money and the order of merit, have led to major new developments in government policy.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


I have a faith in the power of correspondence - literary correspondence that is, but with the deeper meaning of the word given full weight - to create reality. a belief that if a letter (or even an email) expresses with sufficient skill and power the interweaving of the recipient's history, statements and opinions with one's own concerns and desires it creates a version of reality that cannot be gainsaid.

It is, I suppose, a belief little different from a belief in witchcraft spells, or in voodoo - of from a belief in, an understanding of, the power of poetry, or indeed of any form of art.

Yet it is inferior to voodoo (or witchcraft or art) in that, unlike them, it requires for its efficacy that the recipient should be a believer too. Whilst the modern sceptic dismisses the pricklings in his limbs until he rapidly and unaccountably expires, the recipient of the letter passes his eyes over it without its logic and architecture impinging upon him in the slightest. So that it is, ironically, not a lack of superstition that causes my literary witchcraft to fail, but a lack of imaginative faith in rationality and the inter-relationship of expression, thought and truth.

The heyday of my faith was probably the eighteenth century , when sense was a matter of general agreement among educated gentlemen, and the great example of the power of literary correspondence was to be found in Dr Johnson's famous epistolary rebuke to Lord Chesterfield:

"The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind: but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it."

Lord Chesterfield was so much a fellow believer that, rather than attempt the impossibility of replying to such a letter, he kept it on display and exhibited it to his friends and visitors as an outstanding work of expression.

I like to think (probably erroneously) that it was a recognition of the possibly over-weening power of expression to create its own reality that lead Dr Johnson to advise aspiring writers to strike out anything in their work that they thought particularly fine.

The eighteenth century is normally regarded as a prosaic culture, but there was something heroic in its belief in the power of rationality and human agency, which in some of its strongest authors resulted in outbursts of exuberance, malice or even madness, as one may find, for example, in Alexander Pope or Jonathan Swift. Elsewhere, as T S Eliot observed, 'It crushed a number of lesser men who thought differently but could not bear to face the fact.'

Language, especially figurative language, has the power not only to encapsulate our thoughts but to betray us, almost seamlessly, into accepting further ideas that were not part of our original perception.We all know the feeling of 'swimming against the tide': finding that our efforts do not produce the results we think they should, that they are resisted by some large force 'out there'. But the strength with which we recognise part of the metaphor can blind us to how badly the rest of it fits. Those of us who indulge in sea bathing (including Le Corbusier) know vividly that swimming against the actual tide always gives a far greater sense of achievement, of disciplined productive effort, of pleasure and progress and an enhanced fitness for further work, than does swimming with it - when you may get somewhere faster, but in something of a physical mess. Some people might even be more likely to get a few admiring glances from people on the beach. Is that the metaphor or the thought doing the work?

Spirit of the fifties

Inherited by Ryanair

Friday, 16 December 2011

Heading for the exit?

"Nonetheless, Fitch continues to be of the opinion that, however well-managed, the structural aspects of their funding, earnings, and leverage, predispose GTUBs to vulnerability to market sentiment and confidence, particularly during periods of exogenous financial stress. Furthermore, the complexity of their business models and exposure to fat tail risk make it more difficult to assess the size of loss that could emerge rapidly from unexpected events."

"Fat tail" or fatal? Not a typo.

Dog eat dog

But nearly two years on, European banks are under enormous pressure in credit markets and only very large banks have scope to expand. Credit Agricole may be the first of several banks to drop commodities trading, said the senior commodities trader:

"The major players - Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank - are still hiring to replace people who leave to funds and trading houses. But small and medium-sized banks are just shutting everything down."...

A senior oil trader at a major European bank said only very large players could now survive in commodities: "They (Credit Agricole) wanted to have a commodities arm but the appetite for risk was so small it was impossible to do big deals."...

Cargill is not alone among trading houses responding to a disappointing 2011 performance, Swiss-based coal traders said.

Coal has been a particularly tough market for traders this year because prices have been largely stagnant and liquidity has been lower. Without liquidity and volatility, trading profits have been hard to come by....

"In 2008-2009 everybody made money because prices were so volatile but this year prices have been stagnant and for the first time in a decade, even the big trading houses are facing a downturn in earnings," he added.

Last month Cargill former head of coal based in Geneva, Patrick Bracken, left to return to the U.S. and Peter Biston, Geneva-based head of power and gas, a junior gas trader and a power trader lost their jobs.

Cargill Ferrous International in November shut its physical steel trading desks in Hong Kong and Geneva and its top sugar trader, Jonathan Drake, left in early December.

"That (restructuring) makes sense. In the previous structure oil made a lot of money and they couldn't bonus traders as power and gas were down. Now oil can live or die by its own performance," said Peter Henry, senior consultant with Commodity Search Partners.

Reuters US

Monday, 12 December 2011

Financial crisis - latest

Astronomers have announced the discovery of the two biggest black holes ever seen, each one around 300m light years from Earth and with a combined mass equivalent to more than 30bn Suns.

These cosmological objects are some of the strangest in our known universe, where the laws of physics seem to break down and space gets very strange. One thing we know, however, is that getting close to one is a bad idea.

Black holes begin as giant stars (at least six times the mass of our Sun) and, after billions of years they collapse in on themselves into a point smaller than the full-stop at the end of this sentence. Nothing nearby can escape the pull of the resulting gravity.

Even at some distance outside the edge, it would take all the effort in the universe to resist getting pulled into orbit around the hole. Closer still, because of the sharp rate of increase of the forces, if your head was nearer the hole than your feet, the atoms in your hair would feel a stronger force than those in your toes. This difference would quickly tear you apart, turning you into a spaghetti-like line of atoms.

But a black hole would not need to suck the Earth in to cause us trouble. If one wandered within a billion miles of our solar system, its gravity could knock the Earth into a dangerous elliptical path around the Sun, where winters would drop to -50C and summers would reach hundreds of degrees Celsius. Or, if one knocked us out of the solar system, our planet would wander through deep space. Without our Sun, life on Earth would freeze to death within months.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

New found land

I wonder how Newt Gingrich's idea that the Palestinians are an 'invented people' is received by native Americans.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Italy in Europe

Italian police have just caught one of the country's most wanted men, 16 years a fugitive from justice and the alleged boss of one of its most savagely violent organised crime syndicates, the Casalesi clan of the Camorra.

A true success - but look at that car. What does that tell us about the position of Italy in relation to its European neighbours and its present troubles? Where are the Alfas?

The elect

Well, it's an election, stupid, I say to myself, but nevertheless it did catch my attention when Mitt Romney was reported as attacking Obama's foreign policy:

"Abroad, he's weakening America. He seems to be more generous to our enemies than he is to our friends. That is the natural tendency of someone who is unsure of their own strength, or of America's rightful place as the leader of the world."

I suppose, a century and a half ago, a British person might well have made the same unhesitating and unreflecting claim to a "rightful place as the leader of the world", but we are, all of us, usually a little more circumspect now. I just wonder wherefrom Mr Romney thinks that right derives, and whether he does not reflect that he has just given a hostage to fortune, or to history. Can he truly be confident that the right will not soon be migrating to another national brow?

Russia looks up

Activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi (Ours)

and, elsewhere, Interior Ministry troops

Greece reposes

6 December 2011 - anniversary of the death of a student protester

Choose your slogan

'We're All in This Togeher' or 'United We Stand'

A new road map for Europe

Need a loan?

As I publish a new post on this blog, the page on which Google confirms to me that it has succeeded includes, quite beyond my control, a link to an advertisement offering "Small loans in an hour".

Perhaps I should ask them how long a few trillion dollars/euros would take.

As I said in my talk "we the public, the consumer play happily and child-like in the gardens created for us by the evil giants of Google and Apple".

But, did I imagine that? Do I malign Google? I cannot find find it next time around.

New dawn

People may be inclined to think that concerns about the loss of democratic control in the economic decisions being imposed upon distressed European countries - Ireland, Greece, Italy and others to come - as a condition of the loans being granted by the IMF, the EU and the ECB are an over-nice indulgence of liberal sensibilities rather than a real concern for genuine popular interests.

That might be wise and worldly if these 'rescue' packages did not amount to deeply political choices that attempt to entrench structures in national economies and society that massively favour highly sectional interests and commit societies to paths leading to major practical and cultural consequences.

It is a time for political choices and if they are not made democratically, when peoples believe themselves to live in democracies, we shall reap as we have sown.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Turner revisited: the triumph of the concrete

Monday saw the announcement of the winner of the Turner Prize, the predictably controversial modern-art award, even though none of the nominees is terribly controversial. So the judges would do well to consider a late contender who has entered the fray with an audacious piece of work in the past week: the mysterious reimagining of Stonehenge on a hill on Achill Island, in Co Mayo, by the serial controversialist Joe McNamara.

Dubbed Achill-henge by locals, the huge structure was erected by McNamara and his associates last weekend on a scenic hilltop overlooking the village of Pollagh, despite attempts by Mayo County Council to halt the work...

Martin Boyce: 'Do Words Have Voices'

One can read a report of the actual award of the prize to Martin Boyce here although you should be warned that, apart from the picture, the article, which reads a little like a report of the Oscars ceremony, will make you struggle to learn much about the work itself.

Meanwhile, back at the pre-concrete version, there is a proposal to give it a lighting installation to 'add a little magic'. Ah, how different things might have been for Tess of the d'Urbervilles if they had thought of that before!

A bright dawn at Stonehenge

Monday, 5 December 2011

Guilty or not?

Love and hate in Moscow today.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

War is the Health of the State

The growth of pervasive state control, so often a response to crisis and social, economic or national collapse, finds its ultimate, expression in the creation of state-sponsored groups outside the established mechanisms of government and democratic control. Its most sinister and rebarbative manifestation was seen in the elite groups of fascist European states, but something similar is found now in the unaccountable patriotic groupings of modern Russia or the shadow government of party and people's army in China.

The process is of course less hindered in any effectively one-party state (Does that include coalitions of previously bitterly opposed rival parties?), and where there exists a shadow institutional apparatus of power. No doubt many will see it as a grotesque loss of a sense of proportion to find something similar, in kind, if not scale or overt intention, in the proliferation in our own country now of 'partnerships', 'pathfinder' projects, fora, and all the coming apparatus of 'localism', that ersatz handing of power to the people that bypasses established forms of democratic accountability, which national governments have been so keen to erode at local level for decades, and passes effective control to energetic interest groups. For politicians, 'localism' comes out of a different phrasebook from 'nationalism'.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Private and public art

Architecture new and old at the Venice Biennale 

Friday, 2 December 2011

A Ponzi landscape

In this time of economic collapse, a tottering banking system, vanishing consumer prosperity, one looks around the physical landscape and thinks, not how it might grow and develop, what new might be added, but which parts are most devoid of energy and truth, devoid of any wealth of spirit, that they might collapse from our physical consciousness, now that something even more meretricious is less likely to be created or manufactured to give them some relative substance and permanence. The sense of relief is palpable as one imagines the earth swallowing them up: a relief from sensory and mental din.