Dylan T on the U.S. Lecture Circuit


Dylan Thomas, who was born 100 years ago next month, spent much of his last few years reading his poetry, writing film-scripts and consuming vast quantities of alcohol on lecture tours across the United States. Just before he set off on his last trip across the Atlantic – he died in New York aged 39 – he wrote a comic, caustic account of the U.S. lecture circuit entitled ‘A Visit to America.’ It is from a little-known collection of Thomas’ broadcasts for the BBC called ‘Quite Early One Morning’ and is a gem of a piece I have no problem relating to – not just because I hail from Dylan’s hometown of Swansea but because I am one of those “dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers” occasionally plying my trade in America.

Across the United States of America, from New York to California and back again, glazed, again, for many months of the year there streams and sings for its heady supper a dazed and prejudiced procession of European lecturers, scholars, sociologists, economists, writers, authorities on this and that and even, in theory, on the United States of America. And breathlessly between addresses and receptions, in planes and trains and boiling hotel bedroom ovens, many of these attempt to keep journals and diaries. At first, confused and shocked by shameless profusion and almost shamed by generosity, unaccustomed to such importance as they are assumed, by their hosts, to possess, and up against the barrier of a common language, they write in their note-books like demons, generalizing away, on character and culture and the American political scene. But, towards the middle of their middle-aged whisk through the middle-western clubs and universities, the fury of the writing flags; their spirits are lowered by the spirit with which they are everywhere strongly greeted and which, in ever-increasing doses, they themselves lower; and they begin to mistrust themselves, and their reputations – for they have found, too often, that an audience will receive a lantern-lecture on, say, ceramics, with the same uninhibited enthusiasm that it accorded the very week before to a paper on the Modern Turkish Novel. And, in their diaries, more and more do such entries appear as, ‘No way of escape’ or ‘Buffalo!’ or ‘I am beaten,’ until at last they cannot write a word. And, twittering all over, old before their time, with eyes like rissoles in the sand, they are helped up the gangway of the home-bound liner by kind bosom friends (and all kinds and bosoms) who boister them on the back, pick them up again, thrust bottles, sonnets, cigars, addresses, into their pockets, have a farewell party in their cabin, pick them up again, and snickering and yelping, are gone: to wait at the dockside for another boat from Europe and another batch of fresh, green lecturers.

There they go, every spring, from New York to Los Angeles: exhibitionists, polemicists, histrionic publicists, theological rhetoricians, historical hoddy-doddies, balletomanes, ulterior decorators, windbags, and bigwigs and humbugs, men in love with stamps, men in love with steaks, men after millionaires’ widows, men with elephantiasis of the reputation (huge trunks and teeny minds), authorities on gas, bishops, best sellers, editors looking for writers, writers looking for publishers, publishers looking for dollars, existentialists, serious physicists with nuclear missions, men from the B.B.C. who speak as though they had Elgin Marbles in their mouths, potboiling philosophers, professional Irishmen (very lepri-corny), and I am afraid, fat poets with slim volumes. And see, too, that linguaceous stream, the tall monocle men, smelling of saddle soap and club arm-chairs, their breath a nice blending of whisky and fox’s blood, with big protruding upper-class tusks and country moustaches, presumably invented in England and sent abroad to advertise Punch, who lecture to women’s clubs on such unlikely subjects as ‘The History of Etching in the Shetland Islands.” And the brassy-bossy men-women, with corrugated-iron perms, and hippo hides, who come, self-announced, as ‘ordinary British housewives,’ to talk to rich minked chunks of American matronhood about the inequity of the Health Services, the criminal sloth of the miners, the visible tail and horns of Mr Aneurin Bevan, and the fear of everyone in England to go out at night because of the organized legions of cosh boys against whom the police are powerless owing to the refusal of those in power to equip them with revolvers and to flog to ribbons every adolescent offender on any charge at all…

…See the garrulous others, also, gabbing and garlanded from one nest of culture-vultures to another: people selling the English way of life and condemning the American way as they swig and guzzle through it; people resurrecting the theories of surrealism for the benefit of parochial female audiences who did not know it was dead, not having ever known it had been alive; people talking about Etruscan pots and pans to a bunch of dead pans and wealthy pots in Boston. And there, too, in the sticky thick of lecturers moving across the continental black with clubs, go the foreign poets, catarrhal troubadours, lyrical one-night-standers, dollar-mad nightingales, remittance bards from at home, myself among them booming with the worst.

Be Careful What You Wish For Monsieur Rocard


Cher Monsieur Rocard

Although I am not one of the “English friends” you urge to “get out of the European Union before you wreck it” – I am Welsh – I was deeply offended and somewhat saddened by your Le Monde tirade against the country whose passport I hold.

I write this as someone who enjoys seeing his rugby side beat ‘Les Bleus’ most years but remains a huge fan of all things French – with the exception of snails, Marine Le Pen, your late night talk-shows and occasional bouts of petulant chauvinism from former prime ministers. Indeed, my partner is from Paris, my daughters have French names and nationality, we spend most of our holidays in your beautiful country and I speak the language of Moliere as well as anyone schooled in Swansea and living in Brussels can be expected to. So I am the last person you could accuse of being a Little Englander or French-basher – which made reading your rant against Britain all the more depressing.

Firstly, publishing an article laced with such bitterness towards the United Kingdom on the day Queen Elizabeth was laying a wreath in Paris for the thousands of British soldiers who gave their lives to liberate France 70 years ago was perhaps not the most diplomatic thing to do. As a former prime minister I would have expected you to have a little more tact than to insult a monarch who was an officer in World War II while many of your compatriots were doling out brie baguettes to Nazi invaders.

I was also astonished at how little you seem to understand both Britain and the European Union. You claim that the ‘English’ – a schoolboy error when referring to the United Kingdom, a country also composed of Welsh, Scottish and northern Irish nations – “do not like Europe.” You obviously have not spent much time in Britain, where it is almost impossible to support a major football team that is not made up of or managed by Europeans, walk down a high street without shopping in European stores like Zara, Lidl or H&M, buy a pint of beer not brewed by Germans, Belgians or Czechs or even pay an electricity bill or take a train that is not run by a French company like EDF or RATP. The millions of Brits who visit France, Spain, Italy and other European countries every year also attest to a people who love Europe but are lukewarm about the European Union. Having spent more time in France than Britain over the last two decades, I would have no hesitation in saying that British people are more open to the world than French – who tend to buy French cars, eat French food and take French holidays (often for good reason).

Of course, if you equate Europe with the European Union – another pretty basic mistake – you have more of a case. Britain did not join the European Economic Community when the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. However, it did apply to join four years later and was vetoed by that “giant” – as you call him – President Charles de Gaulle. His reasons for nixing Harold Macmillan’s application, which he set out in a 1963 press conference, are worth rereading today – precisely because they show a much more profound understanding of the “very special, very original habits and traditions” of this proud island people than you do. De Gaulle again vetoed Britain’s candidacy in 1967 – little over a year after he refused to send ministers to Brussels (the “empty chair crisis’) because the then EEC wanted to meddle with generous subsidies to French farmers, give greater powers to the European Parliament and introduce more majority-voting. Hardly the actions of a model European.

A selective interpretation of history is a common thread throughout your article, which the Guardian helpfully translated in the interests of Franco-British entente cordiale. Winston Churchill did indeed call for a “United States of Europe” in his famous Zurich speech of 1946. But he was also the prime minister who refused to join the European Coal and Steel Community in the early 1950’s and told De Gaulle in 1944: “Each time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we shall always choose the open sea.”

For someone who was prime minister at a crucial time for the continent – during discussions on creating a single currency that has divided the Union and brought misery to millions of Europeans – you also appear to suffer from acute historical amnesia when it comes to the recent history of the EU. You write that Britain “never, ever allowed even the smallest step towards greater integration” – conveniently forgetting that it was the UK that was behind the EU’s first major treaty change – the Single European Act – that a Conservative government signed the Maastricht Treaty (the biggest expansion of the EU’s powers to date) and that the treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon were all rubber-stamped by British premiers.

Likewise, your claim that the French government supported each enlargement hardly tallies when we remember Francois Mitterand’s forthright opposition to German unification, Jacques Chirac’s scolding of new central European states for supporting the Iraq War (“You missed a good opportunity to shut up”) and Paris’ decision to bar workers from new member states from working in France after they joined in 2004. “Double-dealing” Britain – which treats Europeans with “contempt” in your opinion – opened its doors from day one – and over a million came.

You paint a picture of the UK as a wrecker – despite it being behind some of the EU’s biggest success stories – such as the single market French firms have profited so much from, the smashing of state monopolies you protected as prime minister and the enlargement of the EU to extend the Union’s zone of peace and prosperity eastwards.

You also claim that, having watered down new rules, Britain “tore them up by seeking derogations.” If I remember correctly, it was France and Germany that ripped up the Growth and Stability Pact that was meant to oversee the Eurozone. France favours derogations as much as the British – for example its ‘cultural exception’ to protect its ailing film industry. And when it comes to actually applying EU laws – rather than calling for new ones to be added – Britain is always near the top of the league, with France languishing way behind it.

Monsieur Rocard, your argument is forcefully made. But it would have been more credible if it hadn’t been written less than two weeks after a quarter of your compatriots hadn’t voted for the extreme right-wing National Front, which flatly opposes the EU’s two biggest projects – the euro and the free movement of its citizens. Indeed, in recent opinion polls the French appear as hostile to the EU than the famously euroskeptic British. In a Pew Research Center survey carried out in May 2013, only 41% had a “good opinion” of the EU, against 43% in Britain. Most French view the EU as intrusive, inefficient and divorced from their needs – hardly breaking news given they voted ‘yes’ to Maastricht by less than 1% and killed the constitutional treaty in a 2005 referendum.

Countries that would like to see Britain leave the EU should be careful what they wish for. A UK exit would make the European Union poorer – London still pays in more to the EU budget than it gets back – more protectionist and weaker on the world stage. The 28-member club would lose a nuclear-armed, permanent member of the UN Security Council, which – along with France – is the only other EU country able to protect and project its values by force if necessary. That is not in the EU’s interests and it is not in Britain’s.

Ultimately, I was more saddened than angry by your article – because you are clearly out of touch with the way the EU is evolving. The day after Marine Le Pen’s electoral triumph, your president – sounding uncannily like David Cameron – said the EU “must be more focused on its priorities, show more efficiency where it is needed and not add to things where it is unnecessary.” That is the same Francois Hollande, by the way, who urged the EU to create an “economic government” last year only to rail against Brussels for interfering in French affairs when the European Commission had the temerity to ask Paris to honour its Eurozone commitments and cut its debt.

Mr Rocard, you are also clearly out of touch with many of the French people I meet – whether living in Brussels, visiting London (isn’t curious that young French go to Britain to work, while elderly Brits go to France to retire?) teaching young French journalists in Lille or seeing friends and family in Paris and Montpellier. Most of these French are prouder about being French than most Brits are about being British. But they also see no contradiction between listening to the Arctic Monkeys – that’s a rock-group – and French electro-pop duo Daft Punk. They speak English without chastising themselves for abandoning Europe’s former lingua franca. They are hypercritical of the EU – even daring to question why the Union wastes €200 million commuting to its second home every month at the insistence of the French government. And they accept Britain for what it is – an awkward, uncomfortable member of the European Union that is better to have in the club than out.

Yours in Franco-British friendship

Gareth Harding

Running for Europe


Imagine a presidential campaign in which the leading contenders are unknown to the vast majority of the public, voters cannot directly cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice, and the eventual winner can be struck down in favor of a more palatable politician by ruling elites. This may sound like a sham election in a post-Soviet dictatorship. But in fact, it is the slightly surreal circumstances of the world’s first transnational presidential campaign.

From May 22 to 25, 380 million voters in the EU’s 28 member states are invited to the polls — as they are every five years — to elect 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The difference this time is they can also play a part in picking the next president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body.

“Until now, the commission chief has been chosen in much the same way as the pope.”

The scheme is not short of critics among Europe’s pundits. Open Europe, a mildly Euro-skeptic think tank based in London, argues that the European Parliament has “failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy” and that its candidates for the plum post “are unable to connect with what remain national electorates.” An op-ed in theEconomist last week called for the European Parliament to be “downgraded” and urged EU leaders to “stand against its latest power grab.”

But the new election is really a step toward more democracy in Europe, giving voters a bigger say in choosing who runs the EU than they have ever had before. And that’s a good thing.

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Eight Unforgettable Openings of Marquez Novels


The novels of the Nobel prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died today aged 87, grabbed you from the first sentence and remained lodged in your brain like a stray bullet. Many of the opening paragraphs dealt with death, echoing the title of his 1981 classic ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold.’ As the postmaster quips in ‘No One Writes to the Colonel’: “The only thing that comes for sure is death, Colonel.”

Here are eight of my favourite openings from the great Colombian journalist, novelist and political agitator:

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Brussels Media – The Breakdown

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog piece puncturing the myth of the shrinking EU press corps. Far from dwindling, I showed how the number of correspondents in Brussels has risen constantly over the last four decades – and continues to grow despite the crisis. According to the latest official figures, there were 1022 journalists accredited to the European Commission in September 2013. However, Lorenzo Consoli, the former president of the Foreign Press Association in Brussels, recently informed me this figure had jumped to 1095 by the end of 2013.

Evolution Press Corps SizeWhen I published my article, I promised a breakdown of the Brussels press corps – something not even the European Commission has done. So below you will find data on the gender, nationality and type of media journalists in Brussels work for. In addition, we show who are the big beasts in the Brussels media – ie, which media organisations employ more than a handful of reporters.

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Inside the Belgeway


When President Barack Obama visits Brussels for the first time on March 26, he will discover a city that – in many ways – is Europe’s version of Washington D.C.

Both are medium-sized capitals with large commuter belts, fine restaurants and delightful green spaces. They are relatively wealthy cities with large pockets of poverty – Brussels is the third richest region in the European Union but has a youth unemployment rate of almost 30%. In both places everyone seems to be from somewhere else – and in Brussels’ case this is largely true with over half the population born abroad or to foreign parents. And they have a complicated status within their respective nations. Brussels is the glue that holds divided Belgium together, a Francophone city surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. The District of Columbia, to the befuddlement of most foreigners and many Americans, is the capital of the United States but its elected representatives have no voting rights in Congress.

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The Struggle for Europe

100 years after the end of the war to end all wars, there is a new battle for Europe taking place. Few seriously expect a major conflagration on the continent again. However, there is no ignoring the fact that the social and political fabric of Europe has not been so strained since the early 1930s and the continent has not been as divided since the fall of the Berlin Wall – between rich northern countries and indebted southern states and between those that want greater European integration and those that want to roll it back.

On the western edge of the continent, Britain appears to be dying to leave the European Union, while on the southern and eastern flanks poor migrants from Africa and brave protestors from the Ukraine are, literally, dying to get in.

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The Myth of the Shrinking EU Press Corps

1250 px ©European Parliament--Pietro Naj-Oleari.jpg - Filming

Remember all those scary stories about dwindling press numbers in Brussels a few years ago? Well, turns out they were wrong. Far from falling, the number of journalists accredited to the EU has actually risen over the past decade – from 929 in June 2004 to 1022 in September 2013, according to unpublished European Commission figures.

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The Idiot’s Guide to Snooping on Europe


American spies have been taking it on the chin from European Union officials since it was disclosed in the files leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that U.S. secret agents were eavesdropping on their conversations in Brussels, New York, and Washington, D.C. While spying on your most powerful allies just before the start of transatlantic trade talks may not exactly be neighborly behavior, spare a thought for all those poor NSA snoops trying to translate EU gobbledygook into intelligible English or make sense of the Byzantine workings of the world’s richest trade club. Out of sympathy for our friends at the NSA, Foreign Policy asked our man in Brussels to gin up an A-Z guide to the European Union for U.S. spooks.

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Books for Budding Journalists


Some light summer reading

Books changed my life. If I hadn’t read Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun when I was 16, I wouldn’t have gone to work in Oslo after finishing school. And if I hadn’t read Milan Kundera and other Czech writers just before the collapse of communism I wouldn’t have headed to teach English in Prague after university. Both were formative experiences for me and taught me more about life than any academic courses.

Books not only educated, inspired and entertained me. They opened up new horizons, fed my curiosity and sparked a desire to travel more, learn more and experience more. Without a love of books I would, quite simply, never have become a journalist.

When I made this point to a recent group of journalist students, one of them asked me to send a list of books I would recommend reading over the summer. This is the result. Not all the books are the work of journalists and they are certainly not all about journalism. But I am convinced that reading just some of these works will not only make you better writers but more-rounded human beings. Happy reading!

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