Former Belgian PM Guy Verhofstadt on Europe and the financial crisis

Here is some interesting reading and debating material for our readers (hat tip Sargasso). Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has published an essay through Bertelsmann entitled The Financial Crisis: Three Ways Out for Europe (pdf). Teaser (emphasis mine):

What counts in this new world order is the multiplicity of empires and civilisations, not the dominance of one. What matters is the political stability and economic growth that they can create at a regional level, not for one or other of them to rule the whole world. In a nutshell, this is not about nostalgia for a return to the European empires of old but rather the birth of new types of political organisations, established by open and free societies, competing with each other at a global level, building bridges rather than walls, but each retaining its regional roots and customs.

The financial crisis is acting as a sort of ‘particle accelerator’, speeding us on our way to a new multipolar society. This is abundantly clear in the economic sphere, but politically and militarily too great powers in the making are beginning to sit up and make their presence felt. Russia and China particularly, but India as well, let no opportunity pass to show the world that they are a force to be reckoned with. The question is, though, whether Europe will be able, or willing, to play a part in this multipolar concert. ‘Able’ it most certainly should be, but ‘willing’ is another matter. Europe continues to suffer from cold feet. (…) Yet the way ahead for Europe is only too clear. If it wishes to play a role in tomorrow’s multipolar world and survive the ‘new age of empires’, its only option is to take a bold and decisive new step in the integration process. Seen in this light, the current financial crisis is not a disaster but rather a golden opportunity for the future. What is needed now is for our political leaders to overcome their cold feet and take the plunge.

Sunday morning lifeblogging: adventures in European subtitling

Samurai Champloo

Shot taken from Samurai Champloo

About a year ago there was this email exchange between me and some of my AFOE colleagues in which I talked a bit about my daily job as a subtitler. Actually, I was venting. During this exchange I was invited to write a post about subtitling for AFOE.

The image at the beginning of this post is a screen shot taken from the anime series Samurai Champloo that I subtitled some time ago. The Dutch subtitle roughly translates as “So, it was really you, sitting stark naked in that bathtub?” I have translated weirder lines, though.

Many non-European nationals that settle in Europe for the first time, especially Americans, seem to find subtitling and dubbing a particularly quaint feature of the continental European landscape. It must indeed be weird to hear Will Smith speak French or German all of a sudden. And on several occasions I have heard American friends in Belgium wonder why subtitles never seem to correspond with what is actually said on screen. In general they do, really, but in a different way. Moreover, subtitles are often associated with “European” as in “arty, obscure films shown at elitist film festivals”. Last year I translated and subtitled an episode of the British soap Coronation Street in which two parents are wondering what their goth daughter must be talking about with her friends. ‘Boys, probably’ says dad. But mom replies: ‘Probably some film with subtitles that nobody else ever goes to see.’ And there I was, poor little European me, translating that line in a soap opera that could not possibly be more mainstream.

Anyway, I have hesitated a long time before deciding to finally give in and write a post about my job. AFOE is not a lifeblog and, most of all, there are some slightly unsavoury details about my job that I wanted to keep in the closet. Never mind that these details actually prompted the request to write this post… But, hey, it is August (traditional slow season at AFOE) and I feel generous. If you really want to know just how “elitist” the life of the average subtitler is, then read on.

I am not going to go too technical on you guys in this post but, noblesse oblige, I need to point out some useful resources on subtitling. Go have a look at the website of Jan Iversson, a Swedish subtitler and author of the magnificent Subtitling for the media handbook. There is also this website on subtitling standards by Fotios Karamitroglou. It gives you a good idea of all the technical issues. And if you are really masochistic you can go and read some excerpts of Pilar Orero’s Topics in audiovisual translation.

And how does all this technical stuff translate into practice? In November 2007 the European Parliament and Council adopted Media 2007 the latest EU programme designed to support the European audiovisual sector. I had a closer look and discovered the EU had commissioned a few interesting studies. One of these studies (pdf), by French Media Consulting Group, deals with ‘dubbing and subtitling practices in the European audiovisual sector’. It is an extensive overview of how different European countries deal with foreign audiovisual material:

As regards works distributed in cinemas: most European countries use subtitling. And even though some countries would traditionally be inclined to prefer dubbing (Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic), It was noted that most of them are clearly moving towards subtitling. In fact, only Italy and Spain, where films are generally dubbed, have resisted this trend.

As regards works broadcast on television: dubbing is the preferred option in 10 countries: Germany, Austria, Spain, France, Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Switzerland, and French-speaking Belgium. Voiceover is used in 4 countries: Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania. Voiceover is also present to a lesser extent in Estonia, where 33% of foreign language programs use voiceover, with the remainder subtitled.

The remaining European countries use subtitling, with Luxembourg and Malta a special case in that they broadcast foreign audiovisual works exclusively in the original version.

The study also mentions, among many other things, the size of the European dubbing and subtitling market:

The study estimated that 2006 turnover for the European dubbing and subtitling industries was between 372 million € (minimum estimate) and 465 million € (maximum estimate).

And here is a nice confirmation of what everybody in Europe already knows (emphasis mine):

Non-European fictions accounted for 73% of the total, of which 73.15% consisted in American programs (54% of the overall total). Non-European fictions represented 68.57% of hours in dubbing countries, compared with 79.55% in subtitling countries, which in fact corresponds to a clear predominance of English-speaking programs since most (i.e., 57%) of these works are coming from English-speaking countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada).

Okay, so much for the practical information. I now need to explain one more thing before I can go on to rant a bit about my personal experiences.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post many people, and not just my American friends, wonder about the discrepancy between what they hear on screen and what they read in the subtitles. The explanation is really quite simple.

First of all, people process spoken information faster than written information. Subtitles follow the pace of spoken language. The amount of text used in subtitles therefore needs to be reduced so that the reading speed matches the speed of the dialogue. The faster a character speaks, the more the translator needs to reduce his text. Most of the time it is simply impossible to do a word for word translation. You, the people who watch tv and movies, simply cannot read fast enough. It is your fault, not the subtitler’s. The need to respect the viewers’ reading speed is a constantly recurring and major challenge in subtitling.

Moreover, in most cases, notably television, subtitlers will translate for a very broad audience. Sure, there are people who can read really fast, but we also have to take into account that there are many people who cannot. The elderly, the less educated, children, etcetera. The reading speed is therefore set to accommodate the average viewer. Of course, it all depends on the targeted audience. If you are doing specialized translations for, say, corporate managers or academic graduates the reading speed will be faster than if you are translating strictly for young children. Personally, I translate mainly for a television audience. Now get this. According to a Belgian study years ago the average television viewer’s literacy level was estimated, if I remember correctly, to be that of a… fourteen year old!

Secondly, subtitlers translate for people who do not understand the source language or the cultural context of that source language. For instance, the English expression “it is raining cats and dogs” simply does not make any sense when translated literally. Dutch-language viewers, my target audience, will not think of heavy rainfall. They will literally be seeing mental images of cats and dogs falling out of the sky. A good translator then needs to come up with the equivalent of that expression in his own language, which will more than likely not feature cats and dogs, and quietly explain to some people (like I had to do) that yes, the English voice was mentioning cats and dogs and that no, this does not mean I have to mention these domestic creatures in my translation. Another example is the American Medicaid program. Unless you are translating a documentary explaining what Medicaid is, you’ll need to find an equivalent, very often a descriptive translation, that makes sense to people who have no idea what it is.

Let’s go back to the cats and dogs for a second. Once I had to do a whole series of funny American cartoons for kids. In one episode the expression “it is raining like cats and dogs” was used in combination with an image of actual cartoon cats and dogs falling out of the sky that totally belied my earlier argument that I do not have to mention these creatures in my translation. After all, this time the animals were shown on screen. So what does a good translator do in a case like this?

Well, first of all you cry a little and curse the fact that you chose to become a subtitler. Next, you search your native language database for any expressions dealing with heavy rainfall in the hope that at least one of them will mention either a dog or a cat so that your translation will correspond with what is being shown on screen. In Dutch there is the word hondenweer or dog’s weather, which means “really bad weather” and generally describes heavy rainfall combined with heavy winds. I solved the pun problem by feeding cats into the equation and came up with something like: “Today, it is dog’s AND cat’s weather.” The pun was preserved and the text corresponded with the image. Eureka!

Sadly, more often than not subtitlers are not that lucky. Just consider this movie scene I once had with a bitchy female character brushing off a vampire with the words “bite me”… And no, a literal translation is not an option in Dutch because you would lose the pun.

The frustrating fact that, in subtitling, the audience can easily compare the source language with the translation is something you learn to accept pretty soon in your career. No matter how ingenious your solutions to translation problems are, there will always be criticism from individuals who are either totally obnoxious or who are completely unaware of what a good translation is all about. And I am working for television. Thousands of people, sometimes even hundreds of thousands, get to see and, in theory, judge my work.

Another closely related frustrating fact is that people are not even supposed to judge your work. A good translation is one that viewers remain totally oblivious to. As soon as viewers start noticing your translation there is something wrong with it. Subtitlers are trained in several techniques that allow the viewer to read subtitles without paying too much attention to them. We respect the rhythm of the dialogue, we keep the layout of the subtitles and the sentence structure (avoid sub clauses, for instance) as clear and simple as possible, etcetera. Sometimes you will have to alter a good translation simply because it will be too difficult to read. Also, the lettertype or font of the subtitles is specifically designed to provide maximum reading comfort. And here we touch upon another constraint for subtitlers. Your text must fit the screen. Sometimes, especially if you are working with a large font size, you simply have to drop information because otherwise your text would be too long and scroll off screen. On several occasions I have had to alter a perfectly good translation just because there was not enough room at the end of the line for the full stop.

The technical constraints are a source of constant frustration. This frustration, or challenge, is particularly palpable when you are translating a quality program. One time I spent two weeks on a screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now there is a challenge for you. You cannot translate everything, you cannot keep the original sentence structure and you cannot always keep the rhyme schemes. Furthermore, viewers need to follow the action on screen as much as they need to follow the dialogue, which means you have to “simplify” the dialogue and cut it into easily digestible little chunks of text. And, remember, they only have a limited time in which to read the subtitles. If the text is too difficult or too long they cannot go back and read it a second time. At the same time the translator must convey as much of the original flavour, both stylistically and contextually, as possible. With films like these I often feel like I am some sort of firefighter trying to salvage as much as I can from an immense burning mansion. You take out the expensive furniture and artwork and all the people and you leave behind the wallpaper, the rugs, the goldfish tank and the occasional poodle. Sorry, folks, no time.

The funny thing is that many people will claim they never read the subtitles and that they do not need them. This is actually a compliment. Little do they know that those dastardly subtitlers actually trick them into believing that. Research measuring the eye movements of people watching subtitled movies has demonstrated that everybody reads the subtitles, consciously or not. In countries with a long established subtitling tradition viewers are simply so used to reading subtitles that they hardly notice them anymore.

So, to summarize, subtitlers do everything in their power to make sure people do not notice all their brilliant solutions to difficult problems. And they do this so well, that more often than not even their customers (the television stations that buy the subtitles, for instance) have no clue either. They tend to have no idea of the true value of the product they are buying and adjust their prices accordingly. Downwards, ever downwards. To quote from the Media 2007 study mentioned upstream (emphasis mine):

The quality of audiovisual translation will be a major issue in the evolution of subtitling and dubbing in Europe. The quality of audiovisual translation (time spent on research, time spent on contextual analysis, verification) is being threatened by pressure on the structural variables of the market: price, volume, deadlines. The problems of quality of the audiovisual translation are not always caused by an insufficiency of existing training courses.

No, the quality is often market driven. Truly talented translators are driven out of the market because too many television execs have little regard for them. Demand for their quality is low and prices are constantly being driven down. Even experienced translators, indeed under pressure of prices, volumes and deadlines, are having to compromise in order to make ends meet. Or they leave the business altogether. The gaps are then filled by lesser subtitling gods who take advantage of the lower standards and give creedence to the often heard complaint that the quality of subtitles is really bad.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of good translators out there who keep on trucking. Why? Because it is a fascinating and highly varied job. You get to do everything from documentaries to soaps to movies to cartoons to… the list is endless. Nowadays most translators work at home and thanks to the internet you can work in any country you want. All you need is an ADSL connection to download your work and a pc equipped with the necessary software and you are good to go. I am now living in France while I am working for a translation company in Belgium, but I could as easily decide to move to Canada.

Oh, one more thing. About those “unsavoury details”. If there is one thing I absolutely hate to translate, it is… porn. Yes, porn needs to be subtitled as well, believe it or not. I haven’t had any porn to translate for two years now, but in the past I used to do some work for Belgian pay tv. Porn was part of the package, either you accepted the whole package, including great movies and awesome documentaries, or they took their business elsewhere (which they eventually did anyway in order to cut prices, but that is another story).

Porn sucks, no pun intended, for several reasons. The first reason is the appeal of porn. People often ask me what kind of stuff I translate. Typically, I’ll then cite a list of movies and documentaries and make sure to proudly mention that I have done notoriously difficult things like Shakespeare and comedy. The British bard and comedy, however, do not generally impress people much. When I mention Japanese anime the reactions get a little better, “way cool” and all that, but not much. By now you must know that subtitlers have a frustrating job with little or no gratification and that it is always nice for us if we can extract at least a glimmer of recognition out of somebody. So, inevitably, I will be forced to bring up the subject of porn. Remember the enthusiasm with which Obama was recently welcomed in Berlin? That is exactly the reaction I tend to get when I mention porn. All of a sudden I am the toast of the party. How humiliating is that?

The second reason why porn sucks is its unpredictability. Yes, porn can be unpredictable. At least for subtitlers. I have been in the subtitling business for almost eighteen years now and I never missed a deadline. Apart from this one time when, at the very beginning of my porn career, I accepted to do a porn movie over the weekend. On Friday night I got a call from my client. Would I be willing to quickly do an X-rated flick by next Monday? Sure, why not. How much work could that possibly be? Famous last words.

A typical normal feature film, one and a half hours long and with few action sequences, will have some 700-800 subtitles. About three days work if it is not too difficult. This particular porn flick went up to 700!! Even when, obviously, there was plenty of action.

To make things worse, the damn thing was difficult too. Yes, porn can even be difficult. As most of you will know (I assume cheekily) porn producers for some reason must insist on telling a story. In this case the story was about some bimbo trying to make it through college. She was doing a major in Spanish or in history. At one point she was attending class, you could tell because she was wearing glasses, and flaunting her knowledge about the early history of California. She was supposed to be a good student too. I forgot what it was and I’ll be damned if I go and check my archives but suddenly, and to my great horror, she mentioned a 15th century Spanish book. And she gave the title in Spanish. Get the picture? This American bimbo had probably never spoken a word of Spanish in her life before. Hell, she even lacked basic English speaking skills. That mouth was definitely not made for talking. I have a major in Spanish and I did not understand a word of it.

I was so upset that I made it a point of honour to find that book. And I did. After several hours trawling the internet I found exactly ONE webpage that mentioned the book and its Spanish title. That one subtitle alone, invoice value seventy eurocents, cost me hours of work and precious time. And, at the same time, I realized that absolutely no-one watching this flick would give a damn about this Spanish book. That is another thing about porn. Your work means absolutely nothing to no-one. Or almost no-one. There are actually viewers who insist on porn to be subtitled. The pay tv channel at one point tried to broadcast some flicks without subtitles and apparently received so many complaints that they were forced to reinstate them.

The Spanish book was not exceptional, by the way. In another movie a scholarly-like porn actress (she too was wearing glasses to make her character credible) was reading from a marine biology book and citing various names of deep sea mollusks.

And there is the quality of the sound. Porn is often made on the cheap, anyway, with a handycam and not much else in the way of sound equipment. You know how paper always seems to make so much more noise in movies than it does in real life? Well, hard plastic is even worse than paper. Imagine the following scene. A couple is talking and making love in the middle of a room, far away from the camera and mike, on a mattress covered with hard plastic. Outside the building you hear cars going by and dogs barking. In the background movie assistants are knocking things over and there is the sound of the director giving directions. The dialogue of the couple banging away on the noisy mattress is garbled. Some sentences come through clearly and others do not. You, as a subtitler, have to turn all this mess into a consistent dialogue.

But it can get worse. Shower room full of girls, the showers are on and all the girls are giggling and talking among themselves. The main lead actress is standing off-screen, far away under one of the showers amid the noisy girls. On screen you see the male lead having a conversation with the female lead. This dialogue, in the beginning of the movie, sets up “the story”. It is therefore important to get all the information right. You, the subtitler, however, can only hear the male lead… Etcetera, etcetera.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at this. I have done my duty and talked about subtitling. Would love to hear more in the comments section from any colleagues out there, though. Do not be shy.

PS: Here is another good and concise page on subtitling. By Mary Carroll.

Update: Welcome, readers of Andrew Sullivan and The Plank (and Metafilter!). I needed to be a little more precise when I stated that “people process spoken language faster than written language.” This is true in subtitling, not necessarily in other areas, because the viewers are following both the action on screen and the text.

Qatar: It’s Where the Money Comes From

Karl Marx said that ideology is part of the social superstructure, merely a decorative overlay on the brutal truth of the economic base. Millian liberalism was really just an expression of the pounding steam engines, Jacquard looms and downtrodden apprentices of 1840s Manchester, just as absolutism had been built on the assumption that society would always consist of peasants and landlords.

But what does it tell us about the chief proponents of “Eurabia” that a healthy chunk of their money comes from, well, Arabia? We don’t need to spend too much time flogging this sack of horseshit; Randy McDonald has already debunked it with rapier sharpness in this post at Demography Matters, following up on his classic 2004-vintage spanking of Mark Steyn. The short version is that there are not enough Muslims, the ones who are in Europe are progressively exhibiting more European demography, the countries whose demography is most worrying attract large numbers of non-Muslim immigrants, and not all European countries’ demography is anything like the same.

The Nation‘s Kathryn Joyce takes a look at the politics of Eurabia; nobody should be surprised that it’s pretty ugly. Essentially, there’s a gaggle of thinktanks/campaign groups/whatever closely connected to the Mormons and Senator Sam Brownback, and specifically to their extreme “quiverfull” wing, which advocates having absurdly (8+ kids) large families. It looks a lot like an effort both to find a new market for their politics in central Europe (Kazcynski’s Poland was Target One) and also to gin up a foreign-policy scare that would energise their base in support of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Well, that went well.

It’s also amusing that Joyce describes their view of Poland as “the anti-Sweden”. I don’t know to what extent this is a true misrepresentation, but it’s worth pointing out that they’ve placed their strategic bridgehead on the wrong side of the Baltic. It’s as if the Normandy landings had taken place somewhere on the coast of Portugal or Ireland. In yet another cracking DM post, this time by “AFOE Principal Investigator” Edward Hugh, we learn that Sweden is the last place in Europe that needs to worry. Well, except for France. Poland, on the other hand, is solidly in their problem group of countries with very low total-fertility rates (the data is here (XLS)). France? Sweden? You can almost hear the authoritarian personalities creak and groan with the cognitive dissonance. Of course, there’s a very good reason why they didn’t go to either France or Sweden, which is that they would have been laughed out of town.

But what especially amuses me is this:

The result is the spread of US culture-war tactics across the globe, from the Czech Republic to Qatar–where right-wing Mormon activist and WCF co-founder Richard Wilkins has found enough common cause with Muslim fundamentalists to build the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development.

Doha? As in Qatar? Yes. Unless you’re in the oil or natural gas business, there’s one reason to locate a new institution – especially a profoundly subsidy-dependent one like a thinktank – in Qatar, which is that the sheikh is probably paying for it. Marx would have understood what’s going on here – nothing happens without the means of production, after all. Money, not Coke – it’s the real thing. But what would he have made of the World Council of Families?

Unintended Consequences

We can all probably agree that Italy’s fit of xenophobia towards Romanians is pretty bad, but it has had one positive consequence; ITS, the extreme-right/nationalist grouping in the European Parliament whose membership can be summed up as “if you want to make some minority unwelcome and you’re in the minority yourself, you’re welcome here”, has fallen apart after the Great Romania Party, one of its less hopelessly unsuccessful members, unsurprisingly walked out.

I say unsurprisingly because the leader of Italy’s “post-fascists”, Giancarlo Fini, has been going around calling his Romanian allies in ITS “animals”. There was always something fundamentally absurd about a group of parties dedicated to lionising their own nations and decrying others trying to cooperate internationally; it was just a matter of time.

Review: The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze

Adam Tooze, who (it says here) is a senior lecturer at Jesus College, Cambridge, has a book out; The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. It is getting some very good reviews, and this one will be no different. Tooze’s thesis is that the Nazi German economy was a more powerful factor in many decisions taken by the leadership than hitherto assumed, that its structural weaknesses were determining in the failure of Nazism, and that Nazism itself can be understood as an effort to escape them by a combination of will and technology. The first is fairly original, and certainly controversial, the second is hardly controversial (although it is surprising that it still needs restating; the image of impregnable fascist might dies hard), and the third is both new and highly controversial.

Tooze begins with a discussion of Germany’s economic problems and relative place in the world whilst passing through the Depression. He provides an excellent account of Stresemann’s policy in terms of a special relationship with the United States, importing US capital to develop German industry and help cover the reparations bills to France and Britain. At the same time, he argues, closer economic ties to the US were also a means of forcing the US government to press the European Allies over the reparations issue; France and the UK were insisting on the cash in order to cover their war debts to the US, so being as close as possible to the US meant that Germany could count on US support in a crisis, on the principle of being too big to fail.

America in German eyes is a main theme of the book, and a little-remembered sub-theme of Nazi discourse more generally. Not only were leading Nazis concerned about the potential power of the US, they both idealised what they took to be the unique efficiency of 1920s US industry, and demonised what they took to be the decadence and miscegenation of US society. It was the era of Josephine Baker, Al Capone, and Henry Ford, and all three icons were lapped up by Weimar culture, just as US bankers (Jew York, verdammtnochmal!) lapped up Weimar industry’s short-term paper. Stresemann and his fellow liberals, and the Social Democrats, thought the answer to America was to preserve the international political and trading structure; perhaps with a European community in the far future.

The Nazi response was to shake the structure until it fell down; the economic history of the 30s in Germany is one of continuous foreign exchange crises, mitigated by a succession of increasingly inconsistent expedients. Hjalmar Schacht, as Reichsbank president, is the figure most associated with this – it is perhaps worth noting that he was himself half-American, but didn’t use his other two Christian names (Horace Greeley) very often. A telling detail is that, as each crisis passed, the Bank and the ministries of finance and economics convinced themselves that this time, things would get back to normal. Memos for a return to multilateral trading, a relaxation of administrative controls, and a slowdown in armaments spending would be drawn up, and immediately ignored as Hitler, and the various groups either working towards the Führer or trying to take advantage for their interests, concluded that their survival of the crisis confirmed the rightness of their course.

According to Tooze, who provides a considerable quantity of statistical evidence for this claim, the work-creation programme created little work; after all, actual spending on the autobahns and public works projects was not all that great, and the total demand for construction workers was limited. Fritz Todt’s new reinforced concrete building methods were capital-intensive and required specific skills, rather than hordes of labourers. What got Germany back to work was rearmament, and Tooze argues that much of what is thought of as civilian investment was actually more like disguised military investment, or investment in war-supplying industry. It is well worth pointing out here that Tooze is excellent on the corporate world of Nazi Germany, and especially the fast-growing influence and power of the top technical executives of big industry (especially chemicals and aeronautical engineering), who made up something like an independent technocratic lobby in their own right. J.K. Galbraith’s technostructure comes to mind; this may have been the most malevolent and evil manifestation of it ever. Even the big coal and steel men, who generally went along, were frequently horrified by Nazi policy; not so Junkers, BASF, Bosch or IG-Farben, who were not only profiting from arms sales but benefiting from massive state capital investment into the latest technologies in their research divisions.

As a rule, steel and forex were the limiting factors, and hence swung conservative; chemistry and engineering were convinced that all could be achieved with enough budget, will, and steel. But it wasn’t their job to find the steel or the sterling, so their ambitions ballooned to deranged proportions. By the Munich crisis in 1938, Germany was nearly bankrupt – after a summer of currency crisis, the Reichsbank was able to get away a succession of huge bond issues in the relief afterglow, but ran into a wall when the market refused the fourth loan. Only by paying suppliers 40 per cent of their contract prices in tax credits could the Reich roll over its short-term loans; at the same time, the vast consumption of steel by the war industries meant that the State Railways were struggling to keep going. The forex question even put a crimp in anti-Semitism; right up to the war, the Reichsbank was required by its charter to convert anyone emigrating from Germany’s marks into foreign exchange. And even though the total wealth that could be seized from the Jews was risibly tiny, it far exceeded the available cash. Tooze argues that one of the motivations of Kristallnacht was to scare them into leaving without their money; even that was a problem, as so much plate glass could only come from Belgium, which meant it had to be paid for in hard currency and cash on the nail.

By 1939, the Reichsbank was reduced to commissioning secret studies to estimate the mark’s exchange rate; the economists who carried them out concluded that the concept was now meaningless in the light of dozens of mutually incompatible side-deals with Germany’s trading partners. Germany paid 72 per cent over the world price for Peruvian cotton, and 10 per cent over market for petrol from the same source; 63 per cent over market for Dutch butter, but Danish butter was paid for at the world market price (there must have been plenty of butter moving from Denmark to Holland…).

The upshot was that the decision for war, and then the decision to take the offensive in the West, and finally the decision to take the offensive into Russia, were at each step driven by a logic of economic bootstrapping. War, and the consequent loss of world trade, had a serious initial impact on the German economy; inflation threatened to burst out of control, there was a constant struggle between interests over short-supply assets, and a key feature of the German economy caused deep discontent. This was uneven development; Tooze argues strongly that Germany’s apparent economic might concealed a long tail of poverty, not just in the hard-arse Mietskasernen of the working class but also among the peasantry.

Peasants were a key Nazi constituency, as well as occupying an important place in ideology; unfortunately this image of virtue didn’t translate into grain all that well. Agricultural productivity was poor, with a toxic cocktail of absentee landlord estates and tiny plots that barely supported their tenants. Most of the Nazi solutions to this started off with the idea of a class of farmers with secure tenure of farms big enough to make a good living, but wanted the excess peasants to stay on the land for reasons of mythology. Ominously, the answer was to put them on someone else’s land. Here, the appalling figure of Herbert Backe, State Secretary and later Minister of Agriculture, stands out; Backe wrote a PhD thesis years before entering office on the Russian grain business, in which he explained that the superior people without space must get rid of the Russians in order to secure the Ukraine’s surplus and settle enough of their urban working class to overcome the unrooted, degenerate tendencies created by the modern nomads, that is to say the Jews.

Hilariously, the examiners threw this manifesto for genocide back in his face; terrifyingly, he had it reprinted and issued as part of Wehrmacht formation commanders’ briefing material for the invasion of Russia. Tooze makes a good case that Backe’s elevation to the Ministry in early 1942 was an important catalyst in the decision to launch Operation REINHARD, the extermination of the European Jews; it is well-known that one force encouraging ghettoisation the year before had been other Nazi proconsuls’ tendency to herd their own race enemies into the Government-General of Poland, which was slated to be reduced in population. However, one hitherto underestimated fact is that Backe’s revised grain allocations at the same time foresaw a dramatic change; rather than being a net importer of food, Hans Frank’s fief was to become a major exporter.

The reason why this was so important is simple; although the conquest of western Europe turned a very bad economic position into a tolerable one with considerable potential, Europe was far more globalised than the Nazi economists assumed. Oil is the canonical example, but Europe also imported a lot of animal feed, and also British coal. Problems with transport, and the planners’ inability to come up with a settlement of coal supply between the mighty interest groups concerned, exacerbated the feed problem. As agricultural productivity fell, so did productivity down the mines; it probably would have done anyway, French communists not being likely to bend their backs any harder for German fascists, but hunger is enough to explain the droop in coal output per hour. The Foreign Ministry put forward schemes for a European community, but in the prevailing climate of hubris this never stood a chance; the government far preferred a more exploitative option, the centralised clearing system under which exporters to Germany were paid by their own central bank, which then charged an account with the Reichsbank. German exports in the other direction were meant to be set off against this; however, the Germans simply ran a permanent overdraft.

This permitted a substantial theft of goods, services and assets; it also created a powerful incentive not to produce. The upshot was a European economy operating massively below capacity and a German economy running red hot, with a continent-wide shortage of key inputs. Soviet trade, under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, matched part of the difference, but the Soviet government demanded its price, especially in terms of technology transfer. Trade with allies and neutrals, meanwhile, had the serious disadvantage from a Nazi viewpoint that it was actually trade; it required matching exports, which for political reasons were a priority claim on resources.

Hence, the crisis; with the occupied territories only a marginal benefit, and much capital investment not yet producing, Germany was faced with the rapid spin-up of US production. Where to go for the next bootstrap, before US industrial power took effect? Russia, clearly. Tooze’s book may be a final slam-dunk demonstration for the “functionalist” view of Nazism, dominant since the 1980s, which argues that the regime’s internal politics, shared assumptions, and the incremental radicalisation caused by a succession of crises drove Germany into war and genocide, rather than a clear rationalist design. Independent decisions, taken for different reasons, mutually reinforced each other.

This is no longer controversial, but there is much in the book that is. For example, Tooze vigorously criticises the common idea that Germany never attained the same level of civilian mobilisation as the UK, that the Nazi government “protected” civilian living standards at the expense of the war effort and the occupied up to the declaration of “Total War” in 1943. In fact, he argues, there was very little slack in the economy; if anything was being held back from war production, it was because the early war years were years of massive capital investment. This investment, he claims, explains the surge in armaments production from 1942 onwards that is usually ascribed to Albert Speer. It was the pre-war dynamic between the Luftwaffe, the Führer, and the industrial technocrats writ stupefyingly large, combined with a new emphasis on the entrepreneur as leader. (Of course they were not entrepreneurs, but technocrats managing huge state-funded projects; they thought of themselves as Unternehmer, though, and Nazi propaganda lionised them as such.)

Some of this was wasted, of course. There was the fabulous Flugmotorenwerke Ostmark, a scheme to build a gigantic aero-engine plant in Austria to match the output of Ford’s new plant next to River Rouge (it could as well have been to match Rolls-Royce’s at Barnoldswick, but it had to be American); it never produced more than 198 engines a month compared with a target of 1,000. But in the same industry, Daimler-Benz was able to upgrade one of its own facilities from 300 DB605 engines a month to 1,200, at a fraction of the cost. (The UK war economy had a similar experience with the state-financed shadow factories; Rover and Vauxhall never really got the hand of aero-engines, especially not the jet program, but things improved immensely when the whole thing was slung to the real experts at Rolls-Royce.) And who knew that the Buna synthetic-rubber plant next to Auschwitz still produces about 5 per cent of the world’s synthetic rubber? The installation, never completed during the war, was first robbed of the fancier chemical engineering bits by the Russians and then rehabilitated by the Poles; even if there is no Hitler in uns selbst, there may be some Hitler in your tyres.

So there should be no surprise, then, that the German war economy pulled out of the Moscow crisis in the winter of 1941; it was the capital formation whatdunnit. Tooze has ample statistical data to underpin this, but I am less sure of his conclusions regarding another of the classic controversies. In nearly all British accounts of the second world war, the author takes sides regarding one or more of the morality, effectiveness, and wisdom of the RAF’s strategic bomber offensive against Germany; it’s an identity-creating decision for any British historian. AJP Taylor is the leader for the opposition; he argued, on the basis of J.K. Galbraith and George Ball’s US Strategic Bombing Survey results, that not only was it wrong, but it was also incredibly wasteful, sucking up almost one-quarter of UK industrial production and failing to seriously interrupt the German war effort. Still less did it deliver the crushing blows to morale the airpower theorists promised. And no branch of service offered its members a shorter life expectancy.

Tooze argues, against Galbraith, that the bombing was indeed effective. Specifically, he cites the “Battle of the Ruhr” in the spring of 1943 as essentially being enough to stop the growth of German armaments production in its tracks; and he has a graph to support this, with a little explosion at the inflection point (presumably there isn’t a carbonised ironworker’s corpse in MS Excel’s clipart file). He also quotes various people’s reactions to the destruction of Hamburg with a slightly distasteful enjoyment, hence the rather harsh finish to my last sentence. In fact, he goes as far as to conflate the Ruhr and Hamburg, although Hamburg can’t have been the key point because it’s not a steelworks town and it never has been. And anyway, the bombers didn’t win the war in 1943, nor 1944 or 1945 for that matter. What went wrong? Tooze argues that the mistake was Bomber Command’s – although he doesn’t say so. But it was Bomber, and particularly “Bomber” Harris, who shifted the target from the Ruhr to Hamburg, and then on to Berlin. Harris and his staff didn’t want to disrupt industry, after all; they wanted to “dehouse the German working class”, which they believed would lead to revolution or at least chaos. So this counterfactual would have required a different Bomber Command; one that didn’t believe in airpower theory, and therefore probably wouldn’t have existed. This is not mentioned, even though Tooze repeatedly and approvingly quotes the phrase “dehousing”.

More importantly, he argues that RAF Bomber Command could simply have kept bombing the Ruhr at the rate of May 1943 indefinitely; but there was a reason why the Battle of Berlin was called off at the end of February 1944. Quite simply, the Nachtjäger had won and the RAF’s loss rate was running permanently well above the rates its infrastructure was scaled to support. Even the Ruhr battle had an aggregate loss rate of 4.71 per cent; the Oberhausen raid on June 14th hit 8.37 per cent, and nowhere could be more of a Ruhr target than Oberhausen. The RAF Air Historical Branch thought that “Bomber Command was approaching perilously close to the unbearable, or at any rate the insupportable, sustained casualty rate during the Battle of the Ruhr”; it’s worth remembering that each cohort of crews faced that average rate every time they went out, for a tour of thirty missions. It wasn’t a question of finding enough aircraft, but enough people. The figure of 30 was meant to represent the point at which the individual reached a 50/50 risk of death, and once the loss rate went past a critical figure this datum line, as it was known, moved closer and closer. And the rate went progressively higher over time; the Berlin battle had an average of 6.44 per cent, the last Berlin raid 8.88 per cent, the raid on Nürnberg six days later a knockout 11.94 per cent.

Something changed, and it wasn’t just targeting; the Luftwaffe completely redesigned its tactics, command and control, and equipment between the spring of 1943 and the autumn. The tightly-controlled “Zahme Sau” system was replaced by the free-rein “Wilde Sau”; new airborne radar meant that the night fighters began coming out halfway across the North Sea to meet the bomber stream. Of course, this could just be the sort of operational history that economic historians don’t bother with; but you would think that costs are a pretty important concept in economic history. Further, Bomber Command competed for resources primarily with the U-boat war, with RAF Coastal Command; but there’s nothing here about this.

Tooze returns to the bombers, later on, as the bombers returned later on; apparently, in the autumn of 1944 “the war-winning airfleet was now ready”. It seems rather late; and, we read, “the correlation between the area bombing of Germany’s cities and the collapse of its war production was loose at best…the wanton destruction of German cities could disrupt production but it could not bring it to a complete standstill.” In between these sentences we learn that far from submitting to the “operational stranglehold” claimed for the Ruhr in 1943, the Krupp Gußstahlfabrik in Essen kept going through the bombs until its electricity supply was wrecked in October, 1944; war-winning, indeed. Further, he argues that it was actually the massive attacks on the railways in this period that did it; which isn’t the same thing as bombing steelworks two years earlier.

But despite this, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a major contribution. (It’s notable that the sections that deal with bombing are the least well-referenced in the book.) In conclusion, what stands out is that the Third Reich was fascinated by the United States, perhaps even more than the Soviet Union; Hitler spoke of the Volga as Germany’s Mississippi, and various SS Schreibtischtäter of treating its inhabitants as “Red Indians”. The size of the proposed empire was frequently compared to Canada or Australia. It is clear that a major motivating factor for many leading Nazis was a wish to escape from an increasingly integrated world economy, and a matching desire to have a Grossraumwirtschaft to match the people seen as controlling the world economy; Tooze’s book leaves the disturbing sensation that this is us.

Fertility in Europe

According to the Economist last week “Reports of Europe’s death are somewhat exaggerated“. I can only whole-heartedly agree. I think though, it only fair to add, that reports of Europe’s impending old age are almost certainly not, indeed generally it might be felt that the significance of this phenomenon were rather underestimated, than overstated.

Let me explain.

As the Economist article itself points out, here in Europe a good deal more attention has been being focused on the potential impact of climatic change (which is in and of itself undoubtedly an important topic), whilst, and in contrast, comparatively little coverage is being given to our need to develop a population policy:

though every rich country has a climate-change policy, few have a population one (there are historical reasons for that). And just as everyone whinges about the weather, but does nothing about it, so everyone in Europe complains, but does nothing, about population.

Again I tend to agree. Part of the difficulty comes, I think, from our undoubted tendency to try – as the Economist also notes – to simplify what are undoubtedly complex topics. This simplification processes can in itself produce rather sudden and noticeable shifts in opinion, as we have recently seen in some quarters in the case of climate change. What was previously thought by some to be benign, now is thought to be not quite so benign, and in the process a new global consensus emerges, even if comparatively little seems to have changed in the way of available evidence.

And so it will probably be with demography. In part, if this does turn out to be the case the Economist itself may turn out to be one of the guilty parties, since interesting and useful as this article is, it does most definitely fall into the complacent – things aren’t so bad as was feared – camp.

The article makes 6 main points:

i) “This article will argue that pessimism is no longer justified. It would be too much to say Europe’s population is bouncing back. But its long-term decline is starting to bottom out, and is even rising in a few places.

ii) A long list of US observers – ranging from American observers from Walter Laqueur, an academic, to Mark Steyn, a conservative polemicist – who have been arguing that “Europe is fast becoming a barren, ageing, enfeebled place” are wrong.

iii) That changes in population are not – in and of themselves – either a good or a bad thing in economic terms, since “there is no short-term correlation between population change and wealth” and “Japan and South Korea have even lower fertility than Europe”.

iv) Europe is simply not in decline. “Rather…. it no longer makes sense to talk about Europe as a single demographic unit at all” since “There are two Europes.”

v) Some “very-low-fertility countries can fall into a trap”. (This is a reference to a hypothesis which has been advanced by the Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his collaborators at the Vienna Institute of demography, although strangely, even while the Economist author uses adjusted data from the VID for the article, Lutz himself doesn’t appear to warrant a mention. I have posted on this hypothesis extensively both on Afoe and elsewhere, and a list of posts can be found here)

vi) “16 European countries, with a total population of 234m, now have fertility rates of 1.8 or more…..They are rare examples of bucking the trend that, as countries get richer, their birth rates fall. Why? There are no obvious answers.”

Of these (iv) (with qualifications see below) and (v) seem to be arguably very much to the point, (vi) is undoubtedly true, (iii) is highly questionable (in substance, though not in the rather constrained form in which the argument is presented, again see below), (ii) is undoubtedly the case, due to the simplistic way in which the argument is often put, and (i) is really not only deeply questionable, but fall foul of exactly the same kind of oversimplification process which the article’s author would want us to reject from Europe’s US critics. A case of double standards?

Well, let’s take a look at what is actually happening.

In the first place, as the Economist argues (and this is undoubtedly one of the strong points of the article) it is simply not satisfactory to talk about Europe as one single demographic whole. There are several Europe’s, and perhaps not two, but four. The general situation can be rapidly grasped by a quick glance at this map which I have put online here.

In the first place we have those countries – essentially France, the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia – where fertility is at, or near, population replacement rate. The population path here, if you add in a certain quantity of immigration which the comparatively strong economic dynamic of these countries naturally attracts, would certainly seem to be pretty sustainable, and at least a lot more sustainable than in many other countries. As noted above these countries vary considerably in their welfare and tax systems, so it is hard to identify any specific feature which has contributed to their relative stability. This being said, that isn’t the end of the problem, unfortunately, since demographic processes are not only about fertility, they are also about life expectancy, and increases in the latter, which seem to form part of what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently referred to as an ongoing demographic transition, a transition which is associated with rising population median ages and which is destined, with or without fertility-related problems, to place growing pressure on the health and pensions systems of all OECD countries.

In the second place, and at, as it were, the opposite extreme, we have the former member States of the Eastern Bloc. I single this group out as a special category since they are arguably still operating under the weight of what could well be termed an “asymmetric demographic shock” since their fertility generally plummeted following the coming down of the Berlin Wall. In addition, prior to the coming down of the wall, the mean age at first birth of mothers was significantly below that which could be found in Western Europe (see this map here for an at a glance appreciation) and below ages which are now considered to be the norm for developed societies with services-oriented economies. As a result these countries face what could be called a continuing “birth dearth” as mean first-birth ages move steadily upwards over – and probably over a good number of years to come – as women systematically put off having children to ever-higher ages.

This postponement process can lead many astray into thinking that the impact the process has on Total Fertility Rates (TFRs) is benign, since eventually TFRs may well recover somewhat (if there is not a trap, again see below), and although this debate gets incredibly technical involving comparisons of Completed Cohort Fertility Rates and TFRs, and the study of an issue which has become known as Quantum vs Tempo, one of the obvious impacts is easy enough to understand: with each passing generation the size of the cohort base from which children can be born is reduced, and substantially so – as a result of the missing births. The structural damage which this does to the shape of the population pyramid is known as the negative momentum effect, and this is one of the mechanisms which has been identified as a factor in any possible low-fertility trap.

In the third place we have the ‘Latin’ cultures of Southern Europe – Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece – where, by and large, significant birth postponement has already taken place (Portugal is something of an outlier here), but where fertility still stubbornly sticks near to the lowest-low TFR 1.3 zone. I think entering the specifics of these countries is going to have to remain beyond the scope of the present post, but my feeling is that Portugal and Italy are much more stuck in the fly-trap than Greece and Spain are (this remains outside my present scope since the explanation of why I think this is the case rests on a development of the economic dynamics of the trap which Claus Vistesen and I are currently working on, which I briefly outline here, and which I sort of spell out in the case of Italy here. In a nutshell, it depends on whether – as a population – you are still young enough to get a housing boom or not).

Fourthly and lastly we have the case of the German speaking countries, namely Germany and Austria (and a part of Switzerland). The German case is by now reasonably well known. Aggregate fertility was, of course, negatively affected by the fertility “crash” in the former DDR, but as the graph appearing in the middle of this post – and which compares the two constituents independently – reveals, fertility in the West is low in its own right, and has been so for a very long time now.

As the Economist notes:

Germany not only has low fertility now, but has had for more than a generation. This suggests that “exceptionally” low rates can persist for decades. Admittedly, points out Michael Teitelbaum of the Sloan School in New York, Germany may simply be odd demographically.

Now while the German fertility pattern is decidedly odd, perhaps one of the oddest of odd features in the recent childbirth patterns there is omitted from mention in the article, namely the relatively higher numbers of women in German-speaking cultures who remain childless (see this chart where you can see the very rapid and significant rise in childlessness – up towards the 25% mark – among German women since the 1950 cohort) and indeed the proportions of women in these cultures who have considered it normal not to have a child. As can be seen in this chart, in answer to the question asked of women in the 2002 Eurobarometer survey about what their “ideal” number of children would be some 16.6% (in the 18-34 age group) declared “none” to be their ideal number of children in Germany and 12.6% in Austria.

These results do tend to give credence to the idea that some part of the low fertility in Germany is structurally different from low fertility in other members of the “lowest-low” group, in that a more significant part of the childlessness may be due to a free and voluntary decision rather than a result of biological infertility produced by excessive postponement.

But high levels of childlessness are not the only significant characteristic of low fertility in Germany, as can be seen from a glance at this chart, which compares the parity composition of childbirth (ie numbers of children) in six EU countries – Italy, Federal Republic of Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Finland and France – for the 1935 cohort. If we make a direct comparison between Germany and France we can see that not only does Germany have more women who remain childless, of those who have children, a far lower percentage were having third and fourth children.

If we then take a look at the time-series chart for the percentages of children born out of wedlock to mothers in a number of EU countries which I have at the bottom of this post, we can see that in the case of Germany it is noticeable that the percentage of children born out of wedlock remained low in comparison with the UK, Sweden and France right though the second half of the last century, and that the level had stabilized by the 1990s (at around one-sixth of the birth total): this is an interesting result since marriage and the family are specifically protected by the German Constitution and since we have seen how since unification the number of such births has been halved in the east, where “illegitimacy” was previously massive.

So we may well have a rather perverse situation here, whereby “family” (as opposed to child oriented) policy specifically targeted married couples, and – at least in terms of tax concessions – favoured the father rather than the mum, with the result that – given the significant social transformations which were taking place in family types during the period in question – less children where born. Such at any rate is the opinion of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research demographer Jan M. Hoem, as argued in this paper (PDF).

So now lets go to point (iii) in my list from the Economist, namely the idea that population change is economic growth neutral. I would say that this was perhaps the most controversial idea in the whole article. The key point to note here I think, is that it is not population SIZE that matters, but population age structure. Changes in age structure effectively produce – as was mentioned in the context of Ben Bernanke and the Demographic Transition earlier – shifts in median ages, and these shifts in median ages do seem to have significant economic consequences. Basically, if we look – yes, actually look – at those societies whose median age has reached the highest level – around 43 – so far – Germany, Japan, and Italy – we can note straight off that each of these has been experiencing economic problems in recent years which to some extent break away from the traditional pattern. I do not wish to go into this in any great detail here (that will be, I think, another post), but basically it could be argued that these three countries all tend to be suffering from congenitally weak domestic consumer demand, and as a result tend to depend on export lead growth for increases in GDP (increases which in the case of Italy remain exceedingly small, due to the inability to meet the export-lead growth challenge).

I have recently gone into all this in some considerable depth in the German case (and here) so I will simply refer the interested reader to this line of argument. But this kind of economic problem will undoubtedly feed-back into the fertility trap problem (if one exists), and in particular by maintaining downward pressure on the disposable income available to young people, both via the tax squeeze that ageing and the associated higher elderly dependency ratios produces (viz, the 3% VAT rise in Germany) and the downward pressure on wages which is being systematic and relentless in both Germany (see this remarkable Q1 2007 wage data from Eurostat, just 0.1% growth in wage costs y-o-y after the boom year of 2006) and Japan (where again wages continue to fall, and here).

So, in summing up, what can we now make of the Economist’s claims that “pessimism is no longer justified” and that “Europe’s population is bouncing back”? Well, I would say that pessimism is rarely justified, since it tends to produce fatalism. On the other hand realism leads me to want to qualify the Economist’s claims in the following way:

* Europe is only bouncing back in parts, so it is hard to draw any real conclusions, in particular a very large part of Europe still has – as can be seen here – around 70% of its population with TFRs below 1.7, and 1.7 is already significantly below replacement level.

* Demographic changes are not processes which only go to work in the very long term, the short term consequences of changing median ages are already real and present.

* The economic consequences of changing population age structures are not growth neutral, but are real and significant.

* As a consequence of all of this we simply cannot afford to continue to give demographic changes the back seat. Europe needs above all policy – rather than complacency – in the face of these changes, and such policies ought to be just as evident in the minds of our citizens as the recent declarations of good intent about the need to act on climate change.

What the hell is an economic government?

So, somebody has a brilliant idea to solve all Europe’s problems. What is it? It’s to set up a European economic government for the EU. It’s not exactly new – several people in the Jospin government thought so, including Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It might have something going for it.

But what is it? The EU already has – already is – an economic government, in that it handles trade negotiations, operates a single set of product standards, interworking arrangements between big networked systems, some social and environmental regulations, and even operates some fiscal rules. If you include the European Central Bank, and why not, it conducts monetary policy.
Continue reading


The European Commission still can’t tell participation from a horse’s arse. Neither, sadly, can the advocates of closer European integration. At least the ones who the Commission (and all the other institutions) thinks will help them win friends and influence people.

Example the first. Three organisations – the European Movement, plus something called “Notre Europe”, and something else called “Europanova” – are going to hold a gathering in Lille on the 17th of March. Now, the European Movement is familiar enough – rather worthy, painfully Commission-ish. Who the hell are the others? Notre Europe is run – indeed, going by the bylines on its website, is – two superannuated bureaucrats and Jacques Delors. Europanova has the first devilish sign of Euro-dullness on its home page, a reference to “jeunes leaders”.

They turn out to be a French academic who, surprise surprise, works at the European College in Bruges, and a German CSU MEP, a von to boot, who boasts that he invented the concept of “privileged partnership” for Turkey. I wouldn’t boast of that if it were me. It’s run by somebody who headed the European Youth Parliament, and then ran the news magazines Euro92 and A’l Heure de’l Europe.

Look, if anyone’s got a copy of either, I’ll vote for you in the Pyjamas. Can’t say fairer than that. It was 1992 – couldn’t he have been out dancing? The rest of them all seem to work for the Robert Schuman foundation, and one of them for the French national assembly’s European secretariat.

They are a congregation of vapours, but hardly foul or pestilent. Not enough there for that. Honestly, you want to grab them all by the neck and shake them until they do something interesting.
Continue reading

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.
Continue reading