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Friday, 16 December 2011

Φιλέλλην ~ Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved, In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defense of free expression. Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
Both Chris on Corfucius and Jim Potts in Corfu Blues, my favourite Corfu blogs, report that Christopher Hitchen's - a contemporary swift-witted Thersites, intellectual, polemicist against religion, rhetorician, entertainer, writer for Vanity Fair until the end - died yesterday. All of us know of Hitchen's ill-opinion of the social web, including blogs. He was a  writer, with pen and ink, on paper and he talked. He was once married to a Greek, Eleni Meleagrou from Cyprus whom he would refer to as "my terrorist". They had two children. Hitchens worked mainly in Cyprus, as a reporter at the time of the Junta. He has argued for the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles since the early 1980s. (Democracy Street 8/11/07) (Listen also).
... Christopher his 1987 polemic, The Elgin Marbles, now retitled The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification. Hitchens insists the Greeks have “a natural right” to the sculptures, and that they belong on the hill of the Acropolis – “in that light, in that air. Pentelic marble does not occur in the UK.” So why hasn’t this been evident to the British authorities? Hitchens says: “Partly, that is to do with Greece’s geography in that for a long time it wasn’t a stable country: repeated wars, occupations, demolitions, and so on, in which the temples suffered terribly.” Hitchens’s interest in the marbles began about 25 years ago when he read an essay by Colin Macinnes, author of the 1950s novel Absolute Beginners. “He’d taken an interest in the Parthenon Marbles early on when no one was bothering with it and I read his essay and thought ‘Shit, I didn’t know all that. I didn’t know.’ I was predisposed to be a philhellene by my education and by making friends with a lot of Greeks during the time of the dictatorship. Who isn’t impressed by what they find out about 5th century Athens?“  But the congealing, catalysing effect was this essay and around that time Melina Mercouri became the Greek Minister of Culture and the subject got revived.” Hitchens wrote his first article on the subject for the Spectator in 1983. “The thing that struck me the most and still does was that though my article had taken one-by-one all the arguments for retention and said this is why these arguments that are well known are actually very bogus, people wrote to me as if I had not mentioned them. “And I thought – this is very odd that people should be so blind, I mean I’ve just said why that’s a crap argument… and they write to me and say – ‘What about if all museums had to give back all their stuff!’ This was a wildly dogmatic, radical position: irrational, unexamined, intolerant and they wouldn’t give you credit for having tried to deal with their case in advance. “And so I thought, right, that means I’m onto something. It certainly means we will win the argument because people on the other side aren’t trying to argue, all they’re saying is ‘Ya, ya, ya, ya, we’ve got them and you can’t make us take them back!’” Twenty-five years on, however, the argument is still not won, and there remain those who argue that if Lord Elgin hadn’t removed the marbles, they’d have been destroyed or lost. And so, they argue, he did the right thing. Hitchens still maintains Elgin had no right to take them and the British should be impelled to return them. “We can’t live with this embarrassment.” And he’s surprised the Greeks aren’t ruder about it.   “Even if they say ‘Thank you, you rescued our property from the fire next door, you looked after it while our house burnt down, the fire was our fault’… that doesn’t mean we own the stuff. You wouldn’t put up with anyone saying ‘Oh well, yeah, thanks I guess I did look after it – in fact it’s mine now.’” When Mercouri died in 1994, Hitchens was one of those who walked in her funeral cortege. He still feels sad Mercouri didn’t live to see the marbles returned – but sadder still that her husband, filmmaker Jules Dassin, died in March this year before he could see the official opening of the New Acropolis Museum. “That was a feasible desire. We – he and I – could’ve been there.”  Hitchens is adamant that the campaign that Mercouri began will never be abandoned. “As Rabbi Hillel the great Babylonian Rabbi said, ‘You may not ever see the victory of the justice but you have no right to abandon the struggle for it.’” He likes to imagine the day the marbles are returned: “Here’s the day: the day’s come, British PM arrives, the ship arrives at Piraeus, the ceremony’s begun, there are fireworks… Who can think about that and not want it to happen? [from 'Greece has the right to the Elgin Marbles' Christopher Hitchens was telling Christina Borg why the marbles must be returned to Athens.] [See also this interview of May 2009, with considered comment by New Athenian 'Like Byron, Hitchens is extraordinarily intelligent, curious about the world, controversial wherever he goes and a legendary drinker. Like Byron, too, he is susceptible to the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” type of publicity.) (See also Michael Fitzpatrick piece in Spiked regretting Hitchens' journey 'From revolutionary student to Byronic celebrity') 
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Lin has circulated ads for the tipper truck that we have taken over when taking responsibility with others for the assets of Central Handsworth Practical Care Project - now renamed Handsworth Helping Hands.
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At the request of the PM, Mary Portas - an entertaining, persuasive and articulate guru on the art of recovering failing shops - has reviewed the blighting of High Streets as a result of shoppers migrating, almost invariably in cars, to out-of-town shopping centres. The elephant in the room is of course the car - that ferocious anonymising invader of the interactive space that makes towns into places. Portas like a thousand others sides with those who dodge the elephant in the room. She writes on p.27 of her review:
It just wouldn’t be possible to tackle the challenge of the high street without looking at parking. I know there are many very sensible environmental arguments as to why we shouldn’t be using our cars. But to remove controlled free parking from our town centres puts them at a massive competitive disadvantage. Cars are an intrinsic part of the way many people shop and so many of our high streets simply aren’t catering for our 21st century shoppers. The ease with which out-of- town retailing can be reached by car means that high streets do not have the luxury of pretending that car-based access is not convenient for shoppers. It is. And yet in many town centres I have visited for this review parking has been run-down, in an inconvenient place, and most significantly really expensive
Or take this familiar proposal from a letter to the Editor in today's Financial Times:
Sir, Mary Portas is misguided in her view on what would give high streets a new breath of life. She should focus on the real cause of the death of the high street: lack of parking. In London there is a structural lack of parking space for shoppers, who do not shop on high streets because there is simply nowhere to park. Moreover, shoppers are constantly bled by parking enforcers: councils always seem to be able to pay for armies of enforcers despite their claim that they don’t use the fines to replenish their coffers. One’s shopping bill is more often than not bumped up by £60 for being two minutes late back to the car, for stopping three minutes to pick up a loaf of bread, or for having one wheel sticking out of the parking space. No wonder shoppers have migrated to out-of-town shopping malls where the parking is expensive, but where one doesn’t get a ticket. The solution is therefore to offer more on-street parking and to fire the majority of parking enforcers. Asking for underground parking garages to be built, like in most large capitals in the world, would be asking for too much at this stage.
Of course the opposing polemic goes something like this:
The difficulty is that it is impossible to bring about the changes that would be required without a wholly different attitude to our settlement patterns - from dispersed suburbs to dwellings that cluster around a central places - and our ways of getting about - shared transport in trains, trams, buses and other inventions that could substitute for the space-devouring but, for large numbers of people, enormously convenient car. The car messes up the interactive life of cities which is why people's use of them in towns has been so regulated by parking restrictions and charges, producing revenue streams for budget-pressed local councils which have become a core way of keeping down council taxes - obscuring the original purpose of the regulations and turning traffic controllers - councillors in charge of transport, to the engineers who serve them to the traffic wardens who enforce the by-laws imposed on car-drivers - into objects of mirthful vexatious loathing.
Richard Risemberg - a cyberfriend in Los Angeles sent this: 
Yes, in Utah, of all places: bikes, walking, light rail & buses, mixed use, the whole shebang.Pushed by a regional gov't agency, no less. One fellow quoted called the old school suburban style of McMansions and strip malls "brain dead planning." Rick
This piece in Salon:
...look around (if you have a second) and you might notice that a lot of the new ideas seeping into cities are aimed not at making them faster, but slowing them down. The buzziest mode of transport now is a bicycle. Streetcars, a pokey throwback, are returning. Walkable neighbourhoods, traffic-calming measures and 'slow zones' are catching on, and freeways are being torn down and replaced with lower-speed boulevards. Even things like sit-down pedestrian plazas and pop-up cafes seem to indicate a desire to slacken the pace.
To get a small idea of the scale of the problem to be solved, Joel Crawford, American living in Europe, talented and energetic author of the web-zine Carfree Cities, provider of a portal to global debate on the possibility of freeing cities of cars, author of supporting books, including the Carfree Design Manual, and producer of short videos (this in Santiago de C) on the subject including this preachy but illustrative and instructive clip -

- said some years ago that for public transport to serve as an adequate substitute for the automobile there must be a rapid transit get-off-get-on stop within less than six minutes of anyone's home; the transport (bus, tram, train) must arrive and depart so frequently that timetables become unnecessary; the service must run 24/7; it must be free or nearly so, and able to get those who rely on it from one point in the city to another in a maximum of 30 minutes. What a gargantuan challenge to bring about such a transformation in under a century even if everyone wanted to go in this direction, instead of heading out of town in cars to big-box shopping land - paying the high price of low cost goods, worshipping at the church of cheap....

The seductive invasion of the world by cars has happened over the last century - bringing highly conditional freedoms, not least the blighting of alternative transport and the erosion of people's sense of place, of neighbourhoods, villages, parishes and townships, while blighting so cities with pollution, noise and clutter. I recall a series of illustrations of this process created by two Swiss-German authors in the 1970s, Jörg Müller and Heinz Ledergerber...'Hier fällt ein Haus, dort steht ein Kran und ewig droht der Baggerzahn oder Die Veränderung der Stadt'...'Here is a house, here is a crane and an excavator. Teeth - ever threatening to overhaul the city.'
Although I still had a car until about 6 years ago when I agreed an amicable divorce, I have been cycling in the city since at least 1997, all year round come rain, come shine, come hot or chilly weather. In Spring 2000 I summarised my thoughts on my own and other's dependency on the car in a piece that reviewed reports by Prof Phil Goodwin and a book on urban sustainability by Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy.  I get pleasure from cycling in the city, especially in Birmingham and London. It's a swift, economic and reliable way of getting around, wonderfully free of the regulatory web that entangles owners of automobiles - whether moving or stationary.
 I use a folding bicycle. I can combine cycling with buses and the rest.
10 Myths about the Inevitability of Automobile Dependence (Newman and Kenworthy)
  1. Automobile dependence is an inevitable consequence of wealth. People will always buy cars and larger amounts of private urban space, thus alternative urban forms, public transport and non-motorised modes will inevitably die out as people get richer.
  2. Automobile dependence is inevitably induced by warm climates where people can enjoy low density suburban lifestyles, whereas compact, transit-oriented cities are mostly in cold climates.
  3. Automobile dependence is inevitably part of countries that are very spacious, whilst those with little space have compact cities.
  4. Automobile dependence is an inevitable feature of modern life and thus new cities developed predominantly after 1945 show it more than old cities.
  5. Automobile dependence is inevitably created by the reaction to density and its health and social problems.
  6. Automobile dependence is inevitably created by the attraction of rural lifestyles in the suburbs with their associated promise of withdrawal from the evils of city lifestyles.
  7. Automobile dependence is inevitably created by the powerful combination of road interests.
  8. Automobile dependence is inevitably created by the powerful interests of land speculators and developers and there is little that planning can do to stop them.
  9. Automobile dependence is an inevitable outcome of the standard processes of transportation planning.
  10. Automobile dependence is inevitably regulated into cities by local town planning
...not for cars it ain't
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After a few worthy comments on an article on Inside Greece called Umbrella union: 10 myths about Greece and the crisis, including mine, I read this....
.... with enjoyment:
Timothy Patitsas: All of this reminds me of my experience in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s. I would meet so many professional development experts with a million rational, linear, statistical, and, excuse me, Cartesian ideas about economic development in the Third World. But when you asked them where they would most like to live, if they could live anywhere, so many of them independently gave the same reply: Bolivia, almost the 'least developed' place in the Western Hemisphere! Yet these 'experts'  never could bring themselves to see the contradiction in their own ways of looking at the world. Greece is like that – on paper, many problems; but in the living, so often a true paradise of human relating. I was raised in the United States, got my Greek citizenship later, and still live abroad. And I have to say that Greece is really first in the world in so many of the most important ways. (my italics) The last thing she needs is to abandon all that in order to make a neater appearance on some abstract accounting. Does this give her a free pass to ignore reality? No – the zombie-money subsidies of the E.U. already have done a good enough job of that, anyway 
My reply: Ακριβώς Τιμόθεος. Σας ευχαριστώ πολύ. Σάïμον Μπαντελέï
A Philhellene returns to Greece: - 12 Feb this yearSo we're in Ano Korakiana again. The ferry, a rattling behemoth, dropped us in Corfu in weather too warm for the clothes we'd worn for the chill at dawn as we rumbled by the snow topped Albanian mountains south of Vlorë under a clear sky, the smudge of Erikoussa of the Diapontian islands, looming first to starboard and soon the familiar shape of Pantokrator, strewn across the dawn horizon. First we met Yianni who was waiting with our car. Stop. First I put a hand flat on the concrete jetty to touch the blessed place and saw a text on my Greek mobile from Paul and Lula “Welcome home. X.”
"Είμαι στην Ελλάδα;"
..but I also read this comment from Alec Mally, Global Economics Director at Foresight and IPEDIS (ΙΠεΔιΣ), consulting with Greek and US companies, former US diplomat, vice-Chair Democrats Abroad, Greece:
Hello Simon, I wanted to get back to you re the BFGPS (Big Fat Greek Publik Sektor). That's a term of art around here, I hoped to get stats for you but these are not so easy to come by. But the central issue is easy to explain....we are basically dealing with a personnel structure that is short on critical service providers and excessively heavy on administration. Where the jobs have been created over the years are 'special advisers', media people, secretaries, guards, general office clerks, general communications clerks, special-purpose secretaries, etc, you get the point. This is the issue, as well as a proliferation of small government-funded organizations each with its own secretarial and administrative staff. Americans would probably classify 25-40% of these structures as unbalanced, not sure how it would look from the UK. So the challenge is to get more doctors and nurses and provincial fire-fighters deployed and to lower the core administrative costs for the 760,000+ strong workforce. The root cause, as in many democracies, is a patronage-spoils system, here called 'clientist (pelatiako, πελατακια, η παρασιτοκρατία). The rule in the Greek political world before the bailout was "Get me 25+ votes (usually for Parliament) and if I win, I get you or your family member an unspecified public sector position." So you can see the root of the never-ending job-creation machine which pretty much has every Greek family somehow connected (total labor force is 5.1 million). Greece's public sector is not Europe's largest, but its efficiency/output is very low by most standards....take teaching, a recent report I am recalling from memory noted that Greece has substantially lower educational results than Finland, and more than double the number of teachers per student. So the 'Bang for the Euro' is very low, especially since all Greeks send their kids to special college preparatory sessions at night (frontisteria, φροντιστήρια) sometimes staffed by their same public school teachers, although that is illegal. Finally, just wanted to note Greece has special needs - being partially an 'archipelagic' nation. Due to the island structure, allowance has to be given for the need to run a larger public sector when it comes to health, education, transport and security - the islands need clinics, schools, etc but the ability to deliver them economically is not guaranteed. The question remains why most of the new jobs somehow get created in Athens or larger cities and are not distributed effectively.... Enough for now....

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