Thursday, 16 September 2010

Val leaves

Just as I enjoy arrivals, so I dislike departures. I get a small knot in my stomach. Wednesday evening we were at the bus station below the New Fort well in time to see Val onto the overnight coach from Corfu to Athens after her fortnight in Ano Korakiana. Her seat - €42 - is in a sleek coach with air conditioning and WC which will take her via the ferry to Igoumenitsa on to Athens where a local bus takes her to Venizelos to catch an Emirates flight for the long haul back to Sydney and on to home in New Zealand.
To me the distances still seem immense, the shrinking of journeys that once took months by ship are a sleight. I walk down a square corrider, enter a tube, sit watching films, reading, drinking and eating from a tiny lap tray, get up now and then to stretch or use the tiny loo, hope neighboring passengers aren’t fat, flatulent or verbose (though I’ve had good chats on long journeys) and now and then glimpse clouds, mountains, deserts and oceans across a mighty wing, so beautiful I wonder at my detachment. I stare at roseate light on a cloudscape tumbling into dawn above the darkened sea thousands of metres below – the face of the deep as God decreed light at creation. Why no ‘oh!’ or ‘ah’? Why no charge of awe and delight?
I should have figured that out by now. It’s not just a matter of staring into the abyss and the abyss staring back. I read that book; not a few have it on a T-shirt. Gaze on a panorama of stunning beauty, and like the lion behind the bars in the zoo, the stunning beauty gazes back. Stare into the coffee and the coffee stares back – though so long as it’s a skirto I may catch a glimpse of my face. Same thing. This is Lawrence Durrell’s much quoted comment on the wondrous land (as Byron called it)
Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder—the discovery of yourself. (early lines from Prospero's Cell)
True and not true. If the muse of a creative talent like Lawrence Durrell's were, instead of on Corfu, tp find its first exposure beneath Birmingham’s Spaghetti junction (a place I like, but it’ll do for a bathetic jump from the sublime to its opposite) he would have found something of himself inside an atrium of concrete pillars amid the roar of heavy trucks bumping over expansion joints.
I exit the tube on the other side of the world, but the in-between of air-travel is more forgettable than – whatever else I’ve forgotten. “I don’t like flying at all” Val said as the coach revved and the large baggage including a lamb carcase and a sack of potatoes were loaded in the big hold stacked with every colour pull-along bags of possessions. Pensive is the closest we get to grief at departure, since nowadays most goodbyes are less attached to the possibility you’ll never meet again. Lin and I should be seeing Val again in Dunedin in South Island in about seven weeks.
***
The other day in Handsworth our Richard, at my request, went to check our allotment and said he saw no sign of potatoes sprouting. Disappointing. Robin, with a plot across the path, emailed – knowing how to give my cage a small rattle - about the meeting on 11 September to set up a plotholders' committee for the VJA:
There were about 20 people at the meeting. I explained that if there were any problems then  you were the person to blame. And that that was why you'd avoided coming that morning.  Anyway, meanwhile Clive Birch explained the case for forming an association. We agreed and approved constitution and appointed Chairman Phil Rose (pl 6), Treasurer Pete (pl 60), Secretary Scylla (pl 17 next to mine). Other Cttee: Me, Joy p44, Sonia, Ruby Ubhi, Ken Brown (maybe more). Will open bank acct with Cooperative B. Arranged to meet again next sat 11 am…People were reckoning the gates should be kept locked at all times. The skip is going today/tomorrow and there won't be another one.  I may try to get over to clear off the junk from my plot, or not.
***
Mark told me that when walking Teal, the big black dog, the other day he’d come on a walk across tortoises mating. Teal sniffed and left them be, whereas he’s wont to pick up a tortoise in his soft mouth and bring it unharmed to Mark, who remarked that “They seemed to be enjoying themselves” and gave a lovely imitation of the tortoise on top with tongue hanging gently from his open mouth. Splendour in the grass.
His and Sally’s wide porchway, more a shaded alley between two front doors off Democracy Street, where we sometimes use their WiFi, has just been filled almost from top to bottom with hard wood for winter. The season advances and we shall bring cardigans for a BBQ on their balcony this evening.
***
Richard Pine asked me for some thoughts on the impact of the Kallicrates plan for the reorganisation of Greek Local Government. I told him first about a waking dream I had the other morning:
Dear Richard. Good to hear from you.
I had the strangest dream. I was at a party full of actors chatting to Dame Judy Dench who mentioned being in 'dancing at Luna'. I, pompously, said I'm sure it's 'Lunasa' She said 'No it fucking isn't' I said "Brian Friel told me' She said 'Then he's a fucking liar...or you are". I said "Oops it was Richard Pine". She obviously hadn't heard of you and I, anticipating her slandering you on my account, started to explain your qualifications to know how to pronounce 'Lughnasa'. She said "Oh" but clearly hadn't heard a word of my mumblings, and launched into a wonderful soliloquy from the play which I recalled in the dream but not later, especially as it ended with her getting into a car and there were no cars in the play but I, enthralled by her performance, thought "Ah! Now I see how it should have been acted." Then I woke up.
At last account I understand that following Kallicrates, Corfu is to have two new councils - Corfu Town, and then the rest of the island from Erikoussa to Paxos. (A Corfiot informant has told me this isn’t the case and that there will be one council for all Corfu, a separate one for Paxos; that the electorates of every current demos will vote three members to the new large council in Corfu Town plus five people from the business community in each old demos, and there will be a regional governor for all the Ionian islands, and that present but smaller offices will remain staffed to receive water rates and deal with local queries – so I must check).
A new politics will eventually emerge around that shift of scale but I doubt anyone knows what form it'll take, and so much will depend on who are the new senior managers, especially the relevant CEOs, as these are the people Papandreou hopes to accord greater power over present local politicians.
I can only comment in a generic way on Kallicrates because I understand so little about the details of Greek politics - even now. That said I'll make a few enquiries including having a chat with X (a nice wise man) and someone else I have in mind….
Papandreou is pressing a managerialist reform of Greek local government comparable to our 1972 local government reorganisation. The reform claims to be decentralising, giving more authority to regions with budget raising powers in the hands of non-elected technocrats, outside of Athens. But at ground level it is anything but devolutionary for the obvious reason that enormous reductions are being made in the number of local demos'. A lot of locally elected mayors are losing their jobs along with other local politicians.
It's all supposed to be in place for the November elections in Greece. The rationale for our Redcliffe-Maud reforms of the 70s was that the smaller councils in smaller communities had become corrupted by alliances between local politicians and local interests, and in bigger cities there were powerbases that challenged central government. T.Dan Smith was both corrupt and a local hero - one of 'our friends in the North, playing on the English predilection for Robin Hood type rogues.
The UK by the late 60s had become a land of far greater mobility. Changes in demography and economic trends demanded - it was felt - a local government system more amenable to strategic planning and economic regeneration that would ease big infrastructure projects especially housing, transport and land use planning. It's no coincidence that as our Planning and Land Act followed soon after UK LG reorganisation, Kallicrates coincides with the Hellenic Cadastral and the drive to strengthen Hellenic planning law.
In UK 'locality' was dissolving. Social scientists spoke, not always negatively, of place losing its meaning. Newcomers in a more fluid population were fretting at the experience of local patronage, clique government in the hands of the British equivalent of 'good old boys' and variations in local government services arising not from local democratic choice but becoming as it still is, a post code lottery, arising from a mix of inefficiency and the choices of those in charge. In the early 1970s you got a council house by approaching a councillor. This wasn't corruption it was normal procedure and allocation procedures favoured those in the know, friends and neighbours.
The irony is that these negatives are now things we in the UK are, minus the whiff of nepotism, trying to restore - community, sense of place, organic society. In the 70s these were seen by received opinion as parochialism, resistance to new managerial methods, general competency, even racism -  local interests banding together against change and more efficient and equitable ways of conducting local government. Our reforms in the 70s were about centralising in the name of efficiency. Local politicians and local politics were to be squeezed out by a new breed of local government manager, new competencies and techniques that had little to do with elected members or local democracy. That said the underlying intention - the long game - was to cleanse the stables with a view to its future restoration.
It's strange to see Greece going down the same road 35 years later, but you can see why. Do you trust your local government here? In Ano Korakiana we do when it comes to waste collection and filling holes in the road, but not when it comes to enforcing planning laws against rogue bulldozing of the countryside to lay more concrete (the suburbanisation of the olives), preventing flytipping, enforcing building regulation or regulating motorised traffic in and around the city, or easing congestion by getting more people to use better public transport, or setting up a process of serious consultation to shift to harvesting renewable energy - solar farms, wind farms, hydrogen fuel - as well as justifying significant hikes in local government taxes to pay for the information technology, the newer offices and new managers that accompany internal modernisation of local government and for external reforms in education, housing and social services. It's a slow burn revolution. The funny thing is that Tsoukalas has listed many of these things but as you point out lacks the political credibility essential to the success of his ideas.
Just when in UK and other 'advanced' democracies research shows the need for intimate overlap between the political and the managerial in order to address 'wicked' problems that do not fit into the agenda of any one local government profession, Greece is seeking to create an elite of politically neutral professionals who will not bow to the local political class. Just as Kallicrates is effectively dealing with the need to dissolve the corruption that has continued and is intimately linked to outdated ideas of place (especially the lies - I call them landscape porn - that will continue to be nurtured in Greek Tourist brochures 'gnarled old men sitting around tables in a shaded platea, fishermen caulking their caiques and tending their nets, Durrell's Greece of the 1930s from which he knew he was forever 'amputated' by more than just the war.' He with many are rightly inconsolable about this loss of enchantment as we are about the same thing in UK and indeed Lughnasa. The British literary classes invented that paradise taken up with such consequential enthusiasm by the rest of the rich world after WW2. Of course there are notable exceptions (regularly referred to in my blog) but Greeks in Greece are on an almost entirely different trajectory - only just beginning to develop and share an aesthetic of place, care for their environment, think about how to incorporate that into new economic drivers and new forms of government that can realise those novel ideas, turn them into policies that can actually be implemented and win votes.
Now we in UK are obsessed - rightly so - with trying to nurture forms of government that respect place, locality, and stimulate citizen engagement in making and paying for their locally determined choices. We worry about democratic deficit and alienation. We are trying to make that fragile thing democracy actually mean what it's supposed to mean. That wasn't the democracy of classical Greece. It's something rather new. It puzzles me whether it can succeed. Perhaps totalitarianism will turn out to be what more prefer.
Observing Kallicrates is like going back in time to when I first began working at the Institute of Local Government in Birmingham in the 70s and all our training focused on managerialism, professionalism and performance against measures set centrally and not locally. I'd like to know more about how Athens will determine the allocation of centrally collected tax to localities; what strings will be attached and how central allocations will be ring fenced to manipulate the priorities of the new local managers that Kallicrates requires. I made a career, with my colleagues, training managers for the modernised local government that was emerging in the 1970s in the UK. It's only in recent years I've become deeply engaged in the training of elected members able to bring back a political steer to what was, as I said, the rise of a new local government technocracy. Best, Simon

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