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Wednesday, 29 May 2013


I took Oscar for a walk into town. We left the house in in rain. I wore layers of clothes under a full-length waxed cotton raincoat, neck warmer, waterproof gloves. Starting through Handsworth Park I peered through railings at my allotment. There's much to be done; walked out of the park, down Thornhill Road to busy Soho Road, crossed over to descend through Wavenhill Park, through Bacchus Park then, via Bacchus Road, to the Soho Loop diversion from the Birmingham Mainline canal, its turgid surface pimpled with rain, its towpath, which soon joined the larger waterway, puddled into the city centre, where, dripping, in company with a drenched Oscar, I called on Richard; not welcomed by Annie the exquisite Bengal cat that shares the flat with him and Emma.
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In the first week of May, we - Lin, I and Chris Holmes - saw Richard Pine for lunch at Harry's Taverna in Perithia. It detracted not a jot from our companionable enjoyment that, even in May after so late an Easter, we were on our own, as is often so these days, though an English couple came to sit at another table as we left. Richard reported optimistically on the discovery of a new home in Corfu Town for the Durrell School library that has been forced out of Philhellinon Street, as the daughter of its aged landlord consolidates her parent's properties. Richard, for years has stayed and worked two days a week in the little bedsit space at the School's Philhellinon premises. He's missing that base for the moment and so the useful and - I suspect - restorative routine of a 30km weekly bus commute between village and city. Richard is never loquacious - or perhaps sometimes, in prose, when writing about the great Brian Friel. We talked about many things, favourite fictional detectives, thrillers we'd enjoyed on screen, Greek politics, Richard's sanctimonious Dublin consultant, the weather, gossiping about the Corfiot cosmopolis - Greek and international - of old island signorini in their last retreat, living in the mouldering remains of grand estancias, while others exercised their talents in the modern economies of the world as academics, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs; of the juxtaposition of Lyuba Ranevsky and Yermolay Lopakhin in Chekhov's Cherry Orchard which describes, so intimately, the fate of 'old money' in a new world, how the playwright could (as does Brian Friel) forge stories by simply, as Chekhov put it, 'looking out of his window'. We roamed over the idea and importance of 'narrative' - especially the European one with its special kind of language - 'Eurospeak'. For all of us the European Union, supported by the Common Market, was about ensuring there'd never be another great European war. A unified Europe had the character of a vision and an ideal - the European Dream, Jean Monnet's vision of an escape from the continent's atrocious acquaintance with nationalism. But Richard, who agreed the ideal, was pithy about the future of the European Union. He wrote as much the other day in the first letter written from Corfu since his recent - and in his view largely futile - spells in hospitals, here and in Dublin....
Wed 29 May 2013 The Irish Times: Greece’s Balkan identity may obliterate Brussels link - Specific regional geopolitics lurk behind the goal of a unified Europe
Imagine an EU member state where the public service relied, for its efficiency, on bribery and corruption. Imagine a state where the hospital service was so under-resourced that patients had to bring a friend or relative to undertake their feeding, washing and basic nursing. Imagine a state where shops that traditionally sold handcrafted goods now promoted Taiwanese dreamcatchers.
Are we talking about Greece? Well no, actually. These are the thoughts of novelist Donna Leon’s Venetian detective, Commisario Guido Brunetti as he walks his native city, wondering how to bring to justice criminals whom the law and its administrators protect.
But they also apply to Greece, and one wonders whether they are true of the other ‘Pigs’ – Portugal and Spain. In a sense it’s a relief to read Brunetti’s disillusionment with his environment, since it suggests that Greece’s problems are not unique. Do all Europe’s southern states really have these dysfunctional characteristics?
Troika control

That question presupposes that we subscribe to the Eurocentric view of what constitutes a responsible and efficient member of the EU and the euro zone. Greeks seem to have become passive onlookers of the troika’s insistence on austerity measures, reduction in public service numbers and the sale of state assets. Trade union activity is at an all-time low.
There is very little to alert holidaymakers to the unrest which nevertheless festers beneath the social surface. To most holidaymakers, Greece represents sun, sea, and prices that remain low. But essential Greek characteristics are the signs of differences, as any holidaymaker from northern Europe will immediately recognise, and those differences are not only what makes Greece (and of course Italy, Spain and Portugal) attractive as holiday destinations but indicate precisely why Greece finds it so difficult to fit into the euro norm.
As I wrote previously, a former Greek president, on the eve of Greek accession to the EU, pointed out the time-warp between the southern and northern states, and the fact that they had a lot of catching up to do. If, that is, they wanted to be good members of the club. Former prime minister George Papandreou tried to drag Greece into the club – and failed, because there are basic elements of Greek society that cannot be changed. Bribery and corruption may be part of this, but they are ‘normal’ rather than exceptional.
Which brings me to the basic flaw in the Eurocentric argument: that what is being lost sight of is the geopolitics of Europe’s southeast, which for centuries has been a cockpit of east/west and north/south tensions. Greece is essentially a Balkan country, with the continuing – and growing – problems of Cyprus and complex relations with Turkey. The ‘Great Powers’ which brought Greece and most of the Balkan states into existence, were exercised by the threat of Russian influence in the region, a factor which remains a player in today’s geopolitics, with Russian investment in Cyprus seeping into Greece itself.
In April, the ambassadors to Greece of the 10 states which joined the EU in 2003-2004 (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Malta, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Cyprus) co-signed a letter to the Athens newspapers stressing the significance of ‘the vital strategic goal’ of unifying Europe in the aftermath of the second World War and the economic benefits of an open market. These are almost all countries still staggering from the effects of Soviet domination, with Cyprus becoming the only EU member state to have been illegally occupied since 1974 by a neighbouring force (Turkey).
Yet, as Paul Gillespie recently wrote in this paper (‘Loss of confidence is eating away at EU’), there are growing signs among the major players that all is far from well. The former Italian prime minister, Mario Monti, spoke of the “dramatically declining” public support for EU reforms and the EU itself; Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker foresaw the possibility of “a social revolution”; and France’s finance minister warned of a “loss of social and political confidence”. These have all been defining characteristics of Balkan history for 150 years, with fragmentation along ethnic and religious lines bedevilling any unity. 

To stress unity of purpose presupposes common characteristics and identity of skills and resources. If Leon’s Guido Brunetti sees Italy correctly, then at least two of the EU’s southern states cannot subscribe to Eurocentrism. Greece’s Balkan situation (especially with the Turkish dimension) suggests that its current misfit with the aims of Eurospeak will continue to be the norm.
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Thursday afternoon. Grey and chilly. I plucked up courage and started tidying plot 14 with scythe, electric strimmer and hands - hauling out couch grass, rose bay willow and hoping to the regular rows amid the wet greenery that shows that some of what I planted in March has surfaced. And - yes - there were some potatoes, some garlic, spinach and Jerusalem Artichokes. Two of the fruit trees carry blossom - a cherry and an apple and the vine I planted last year is sprouting buy no sign of bearing grapes. Oscar wandered the fence between park and allotments. As Gill, who's looking for a new swarm, had warned me her bees have lost their queen. They did not survive through the winter.
A frog on Plot 14

When a decade ago we were campaigning to save some of the green space here for allotments I pressed for the council in its plan for new allotments, under a S106 agreement, to keep the hedges and paths that had run through the original Victoria Jubilee Allotments. Sadly all but one hedge was lost to the bulldozers. Then early this year our allotments association decided without discussion with plotholders to have the last hedge cut short, ragged and messy.
The hedge that was

It's only privet with a couple of higher sycamore trees but it's disappearance for the time being changes a familiar landscape. To complain vehemently is futile. I should have joined the committee if I wanted things to be different. But we've lost a useful wind break and pleasant shade in summer because one or two people on the site committee thought they needed more light. Someone also said the hedge roots were sucking nourishment form the soil.  Foliage has been left where it was cut. My photo shows where there had been a tree and a 'secret' play space inside the hedge made by the nearby plot holder's children.
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Martin came round at noon with the gift of two mixer taps. When he was with us in Greece two weeks ago he'd insisted we change them to taps of quality - chrome plated brass. The spout of our kitchen sink tap at 208 Democracy Street had already sprung a leak. I had been quite proud of having plumbed mixer taps into our kitchen and bathroom sinks last year. With typical generosity Martin's given us taps that would have cost treble the price of those I bought in Corfu. The difference in weight is remarkable, but of course I can't install them for months!
We've been sorting out a queue of necessary minor jobs awaiting our return to UK; things that couldn't be handled from Greece despite modern technology - getting insurance cover for the Handsworth Helping Hands van, getting an unused gas meter removed from one of our properties now the provider is imposing a standing charge on meters even where there's never been gas supplied at that address because it's in a tower block where gas power has long been forbidden (what a business!), preparing for our next visit to Scotland to clear mum's house ready for its sale, making sure the bureaucracy handles the renewal of my visiting lecturer contract without extended loss of my connection to IT Services, sorting out bills and rent on another flat of Lin's as the agent handling its management went out of business while we were away, tidying, mowing, weeding, pruning, getting a haircut and general sorting...and following an email returning a sketch proposal for a half-day in-house workshop for a group of councillors chairing scrutiny committees...

with Inlogov, Birmingham University

(date/times/venue to be agreed)
 The purpose of this workshop is to give a small group of Scrutiny Chairs an opportunity to:
 ·    identify the responsibilities and challenges of chairing Scrutiny
·    rehearse skills and affirm values that contribute to best practice
·    explore innovative thinking about the role of scrutiny

TEACHING STYLE: Brief talks, exercises and discussion to guide analysis and reflection. Handouts will be available to participants. Except for start and finish, times may vary slightly
I'd already circulated the minutes of our last and the agenda for the next meeting of Handsworth Helping Hands.
Meeting of Handsworth Helping Hands ~ 30 May 2013

"Ταξίδι στ' αστέρια" - Journey to the stars
Κοινή εκδήλωση διοργανώνουν το Σάββατο 1 Ιουνίου 2013 και ώρα 8.30 το βράδυ στο προαύλιο του Αγίου Γεωργίου η Δημοτική Κοινότητα Άνω Κορακιάνας, η Φιλαρμονική Κορακιάνας, η Ενορία του Αγίου Γεωργίου, ο Φιλοπρόοδος Σύλλογος Σωκρακίου και η Αστρονομική Εταιρεία Κέρκυρας.
Η εκδήλωση θα ξεκινήσει με ομιλία του Καθηγητή Αστρολογίας του Αριστοτέλειου Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλονίκης κ. Σειραδάκη με θέμα «Κομήτες, διάττοντες και Μετεωρίτες» και θα ακολουθήσει η μουσική παράσταση «Ταξίδι στ’ Αστέρια», με τη Φιόρη Μεταλληνού (τραγούδι), το Σάκη Κοντονικόλα (πιάνο) και το Σπύρο Χονδρογιάννη (απαγγελία ποίησης).
A joint event arranged for Saturday, 1st June 2013 at 8.30pm in the courtyard of Ag.Georgiou, Upper Korakiana by the the Sokraki Progressive Association and the Astronomical Society of Corfu. The event will begin with a talk by Professor Seiradakis of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 'Comets, Meteors and shooting stars'' followed by the musical 'Journey to the stars' with Fiore Metallinou (vocals), Saki Kontonikolas (piano) and Spiro Chondrogianni (poetry recitation).
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The Greek economy isn't getting healthier - yet. The Greek Minister of Finance Yannis Stournaras is challenging the predictions of a recent OECD report on the future. Nick Malkoutzis and Yiannis Mouzakis write on Nick's excellent blog, Inside Greece:
...The OECD’s recent Economic Outlook contains some alarming messages for Greece, messages that are in  contrast with the recent wave of positivity from the government and upbeat  assessments from the media domestically and abroad. The Paris-based organisation  does not see a return to growth in 2014 but predicts a further economic contraction of 1.2 percent, a gap from Stournaras’s projections that translates into about 3.6 billion euros of economic output. It goes as far as suggesting that additional financing from the EU/IMF program will be required for Greece so automatic stabilizers are allowed to kick in if the recession turns out to be deeper than initially anticipated.
As much as Stournaras was quick to challenge the OECD’s projections on growth, he did not comment on the devastating projections for unemployment. The finance minister has designed Greece’s medium-term fiscal strategy based on average unemployment of 22.8 percent for 2013 and a lower figure of 21.4 percent for 2014. The OECD and the Bank of Greece, which also gave its forecast this week, think otherwise.
The differences in the forecasts are as stark as they are vexing....

How do we - for the moment spectators of this sad scene - experience what the statistics and the grim predictions suggest? We see furrows on the brows of even our employed friends. Will the hitherto healthy demand for their skilled services continue? We know they're working hard, often over weekends and holidays and outside as well as inside the 'season'. We hear rumours of rising petty crime, house-breaking, and of course concerns about the rise of the far Right especially the horrible symbols of Golden Dawn, some seen even in Ano Korakiana...
Lin with paint in Corfu
... The rich still have money to spend on homes and holidays and swimming pools and yachts and what goes with those things by way of consuming goods and services. Will this continue? What of the 'season'? Tourism is the money bringer and guarantor of work. This year we had the impression that a season that usually starts after Easter - a very late one in Greece (2-5 May) - that little was happening. Coaches and hire cars clustered at the airport but the teeming mass of visitors that we've known in the past has not materialised. There were spare seats coming and going on Easyjet flights we knew of including our own. Go into town around the busy hours of 11-12 and you'd wonder that there's such a thing as a crisis. Traffic is jammed, all parking spaces taken, the narrow streets buzzing with people on foot, scooters and cycles. Only when you look closer do you see boarded shops, empty showrooms, cars without number plates (the sign that they owner is paying no tax, parked until further notice), the proliferating 'for sale' and 'for lease' signs and when you watch the so-called shoppers - disgorged in hundreds and hundreds from big cruise liners you realise they are walking and gazing, but hardly on a shopping frenzy. Eating places in the height of the day and the evening have empty chairs, many in the majority. Go out of town to the seaside places like Kontokali, Gouvia, Dassia, Ipsos and Pyrgi on the east coast and they are, in the hard language of business, near 'dead'. At a taverna with swimming pool in our last week on the island, we were the only people there all afternoon - swimming, eating, drinking, reading and enjoying the quiet - great for us; rotten for the family proprietors. Out in the countryside new building seems limited to the rich south east. Of course I prefer this. I wish people would live in clustered settlements and not lay concrete in olive groves to build house that blight green horizons. We see new building that have been for sale now for five years or more, unsold since we've lived on Corfu. It's almost invariably a delight to see improvement works proceeding on village homes, and in Ano Korakiana we see a good deal of that, on the properties of resident Greeks and foreigners. No-one would come to Greece, especially Corfu, because the cost of living is less than in the UK. Prices for fuel, health, food and in restaurants are the same as in Britain, sometimes higher, especially for goods like power tools, car parts and chandlery. All this is delightful if you have spending money, like quietness and relative solitude, and are untroubled by empathy with  those whose hopes are blighted by crisis. A piece in early May in the Economist plays on the danger of self-fulfilling pessimism, looking for clues that there really may be light at the won't come from consumers who've little or nothing to spend, not from exports because the eurozone has wider troubles...
...What could transform the outlook is a surge in foreign investments. But Greece is still a risky place for outsiders to do business. One obstacle that Mr Hardouvelis stresses is a poor and still largely unreformed legal system, which means that investors can get bogged down in long court cases. Negotiating Greek bureaucracy is another headache. Dimitri Papalexopoulos, the head of Titan, a cement firm, says it is difficult to describe how badly and inefficiently the public sector is run.
Some failings are being tackled. Export procedures are being simplified, halving the number of days that goods are stuck at ports. The time taken for a ship to be registered has been cut from seven months to ten days. On April 28th the parliament passed measures to sack 15,000 civil servants by the end of 2014; they will be replaced by young, qualified new entrants.
A litmus test will be the privatisation programme, which matters less for the revenues it will raise than for the wider opening-up of the economy it signals. An original target of €50 billion has been halved and the programme has been plagued by delays and setbacks. The sale of a stake in OPAP, a gambling monopoly, was concluded on May 1st. Since this was supposed to mark a fresh start, it was disappointing that there was only one valid bidder.
The Greek economy is at a precarious point. Despite the surveys showing a revival in confidence, many businesses remain downbeat. Such pessimism may be self-fulfilling. And Mr Papalexopoulos is not alone in worrying that Greek society, struggling with a youth-unemployment rate of almost 60%, is reaching a limit on how much pain it can endure. If a recovery does occur, it may be in the nick of time.

'The Precariat – The new dangerous class' by Guy Standing, Professor of Economic Security, University of Bath, UK, co-president of BIEN (the Basic Income Earth Network)...Neo-liberal policies and institutional changes have produced a huge and growing number of people with sufficiently common experiences to be called an emerging class. In this book Guy Standing introduces what he calls 'The Precariat' - a growing number of people across the world living and working precariously, usually in a series of short-term jobs, without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers, stable social protection or protective regulations relevant to them. They include migrants, but also locals. Standing argues that this class of people could produce new instabilities in society. They are increasingly frustrated and dangerous because they have no voice, and hence they are vulnerable to the siren calls of extreme political parties. He outlines a new kind of good society, with more people actively involved in civil society and the precariat re-engaged. He goes on to consider one way to a new better society - an unconditional basic income for everyone, contributed by the state, which could be topped up through earned incomes. This is a topical, and a radical book, which will appeal to a broad market concerned by the increasing problems of labour insecurity and civic disengagement.
And I'm still only seeing my grandson on Facebook with his paternal grandma....
Christine and Oliver

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Simon Baddeley