October 9th, 2016


One in three thousand: me and the European Social Survey

I was pleasantly surprised a few weeks ago to get a letter from our local university, informing me that I am one of 3,000 randomly selected residents of Belgium who is invited to participate in the European Social Survey, a multinational project to discover what the Plain People of Europe Really Think. (I note that 3,000 is more or less the square root of the total population.)

Last time round, Belgians gave our health service the highest score of any country's respondents. I had looked at the previous questionnaire and was expecting to answer questions about television and drinking habits, but they were not asked this year. Instead there was a substantial section on energy policy and climate change, as well as the core questions about politics (including immigration) and general well-being.

Obviously I am a bit of an outlier on various important metrics, but I guess that they will average my answers in with the other 2,999 across Belgium, and indeed the others across Europe, and come up with the necessary statistics comparing Belgium with the other 24 participating countries. The whole process lasted an hour and a quarter - probably went quicker because I had done my homework - and is probably the longest conversation I have had in Dutch for many many years. (The interviewer complimented me on my taalkennis.) I am already looking forward to seeing how my answers correlate with those of the population as a whole.

I hope the UK stays in this initiative post-Brexit - non-EU states have always participated, but of course this project means engaging with experts, some of them foreign, so I guess we can't take it for granted.

The Dinner, by Hermann Koch

Second paragraph of third chapter:
I was standing in the doorway to his room. He wasn't there. But let's not beat around the bush: I knew he wasn't there. He was in the garden, fixing the back tire of his bike.
This is a novel about an uncomfortable family meal in Amsterdam (which I read, with impeccable timing, immediately after a weekend in Amsterdam with my siblings and mother). Serge is in the running to be the next prime minister; Paul, the narrator, has become aware of a heinous crime that their sons committed; their wives Claire and Babette are in the conversation; the dinner is interrupted at various points in various ways; the technology of the mobile phone plays a key part in the narrative. It's intense and a bit unpleasant, but gripping reading. I often find unreliable narrators a bit annoying, but this one worked for me.

This was both the most popular unread book I acquired in 2016 and the most popular unread non-genre work of fiction on my shelves. Next on those lists, respectively, are V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and The Innocent Man by John Grisham.