Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surplus City

my new blog

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

LSE normal

I arranged to meet with a friend to hear a lecture in the LSE titled "Beirut Normal" by architect and scholar Hashim Sarkis. Approaching the LSE I was surprised by the large number of well-dressed people in front of the doors, chattering happily in Arabic. Are they all Arab architects and town planners, the Zaha Hadid aspirationals?

As I was locking my bike, to my surprise I saw the well-dressed men starting to hit each other, as the doors of the building shut closed with huge metal barriers, as if out of the sesame cave. The skirmish appeared to be between people with placards and people with no placards. Then I realised that the no-placard-camp were chasing after the placard camp, kicking them and shouting "Traitors!". I noticed that I've never seen people with such expensive suits beating up each other. As one guy was running after a photographer and threatening to break his camera, I could even smell the eau-de-cologne.

What's happening? I asked a non-suit person that was watching the scene. "Kaddafi's son is speaking here today". That made more sense. So we were among a crowd of lackeys defending the great Arab revolution in Armani. I realized that in that case we should be grateful they didn't start shooting at the protestors.

As I circled the building I found that although had shut all the gates, the Student Union shop remained opened. As I guessed, the shop had a passage to the building. I went in, and noticed a little army of security people facing the main doors, with their backs to me, and they didn't notice me at all as I jumped the barriers. Now, inside the building, I thought I just have to locate myself strategically on the cafe balcony and prepare to throw my detonating device.... Alas assassinations are not my expertise.

The Sarkis talk ended up being very smooth, but quite disconcerting; "money is not a problem in Beirut", and courtesy references to social exclusion through a picture of a cleaner in a hotel. My sense was that he probably plans buildings the same men in Armani suits that were beating the demonstrators outside.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Categories of being

Yesterday in the Somerford grove clinic, a woman was trying to get an apointment for her baby. The clinic secretary was going through the registration procedure with her. She asked the woman for her race. The mother was surprised: European, I am European (she looked Mediterranean, dark, I thought she was Turkish).

"There's no European, there's "white british" "white irish" and "white other". Which one is it?"

The mother was perplexed. "We are from Spain". - So circle the "white other" suggested the NHS staff. And your husband?" "he is also European" insisted the woman. "But his race?" the mother looked across the hall, as if to examine her husband's skin colour "white...? white other?" she said with incredulity.

"And the baby?"

"the baby... but he is born here. So he is "white British"?

Yes, said the NHS.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pirates at Lambeth

I have been researching Somali piracy for the last few days (as part of my paid work). As usual, my commissioners are keen to learn the numbers. Not for them, long descriptions of knife held between the teeth, and jumps onto ships; or alternatively, the plight of Somali fishermen, who, when seeing their seas plundered by international fishing boats, decided to jump the fishing boat, and board the oil tanker, for a US$15 million ransom.

No. My employers want to know the numbers: how dangerous it is to global trade, how much money lost, how many attacks per month. And so I cruise the rough seas of the internet, keeping a sharp eye on the horizon for nice numbers and statistics. They are not so easy to find. To my surprise, there are more than a dozen of organisations monitoring and reporting naval piracy, but it seems that none of them produce the numbers I need.

One of these organisations is the International Maritime Organisation, whose headquarters is near Lambeth Bridge. Above the entrance is a statue of tough seamen, braving the hard weather and looking ahead, that is, across the Thames, somewhere in the direction of Tate Britain. The IMO headquarters was on my cycle path for some years; my never-never cycle path, my fairy tale cycle path, composed from my urban legends, of which pirates and admirals were just one element (others were: MI6 spymasters, at their emerald castle in Vauxhall; corrupt looter accountants, at Ernest and Young, just down the road; MPs across the river in Westminster; seagulls; cycle couriers on Waterloo Bridge). Perhaps I should call for a visit now to the International Maritime Organisation headquarters, that I have a reason. But inside, I am afraid, I'll find no captains or bandits, only annoying borring people in suits.

It seems a lousy job, Somali pirate. You may just hit the jackpot, land on a defenceless Saudi supertanker worth 100 million dollars. Bingo! you make your demands, you split the US$15 million ransom. But ten days later you are floating in the waters of the Gulf of Aden, dead, on your body some 170,000 dollars in waterproof packets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Collapsing demand

The current global recession is manifested, we are told, by a collapse in "demand". That is to say: less products and services are being sold; business is slowing down; less profit is made, and therefore less is spent. Companies go bankrupt; and people are laid off. Economic hardship takes on different forms: for the few, it means less champagne and oysters; for the many, it means real suffering. For example in Ukraine, where hot water supply to homes was unavailable this winter.

The flip-side of the global recession is that the "environment" is getting a break from our frontal assault. The most obvious thing is the use of fossil fuels, which fell in the last year after growing for decades. Atrocities such as the Canadian tar sands projects suddenly appear not-so-profitable; the ethanol industry is struggling. On the other hand, the recession contributes to environmental degradation, for example, less refuse gets recycled as demand for raw materials is sluggish. So more rubbish goes to landfills. But overall, there could be little doubt about the balance. Less cars manufactured; less miles driven; less trees felled for paper: yes, the recession is green.

Going back to the issue of "demand", a simple and obvious observation is that "demand" has little to do with what people really want or need, it is about what keeps this machine going. Demand for what? It doesn't matter, as long as there is someone with cash to buy. So the term is neutral; there is nothing good or bad about demand, except for the fact that "demand" creates jobs, and without jobs, economies will collapse, people will starve. This is no small thing at all.

And so, "make do and mend" is the wrong message. The principle of "Re-use, Reduce, Recylce" is at odds with the fundamentals of this economy, which is about: buy more, use once, and throw out, and so you will provide employment for a dozen people at least. It is easy to tout green slogans. It is also not so difficult to point out that this system cannot survive beyond a few decades. But in the meantime people have to eat. Is it possible to envisage a different system, which does not cannibalise its living environment? Perhaps. But the transition cannot be smooth or painfree.

In normal times the contradictions between thrift and prosperity are not so obvious. That is to say, the system lives with a high level of contradictions; all systems have built-in paradoxes, which in time lead to their demise. But we are far from that moment; the current crisis was not brought by the absurdity of perpetual growth in a closed system. It has nothing to do with resource depletion or environmental degradation, it was brought by the perversities of financial deregulation and a credit bubble. And so the problems with "demand" are not yet on the horizon: for the time being, the song stays the same, more, more, more.

Monday, March 09, 2009

British Library encounters

The British Library is a good place to do lots of things. One if them is meeting crazy people.

Encounter (1) I go up to the coffee machine. An elderly woman seeks my assistance in operating the machine. Or rather, she commands my assistance, and from her demeanour and accent I assume she was, once upon a time, the product of the public school system. After I get her a cup of coffee, she asks where I’m from. I say Israel. She shows her concern: is it safe now? Depends for whom, I say, realising the last thing I want now is a Palestine/Israel discussion.

People do not realize how dangerous this tunnelling business is, she says. I once lived in a house in Devon and they found a very long tunnel under the house. 50 feet, we had to leave the house. It is very dangerous indeed. People don’t understand. Tear gas, that’s the solution, she says.

You used tear gas, I ask?

No, I recommend tear gas. You should just throw tear gas inside. Saves the need for bombs.

I excuse myself and leave, feeling growing nausea. Maybe it's my family history, but I don't react well to ideas including gas and closed places.

Encounter (2) Three hours later, again next to the coffee machine. A camp man in his fifties asks me in a Scandinavian accent: “what are you reading?”

Excuse me?

This is a library, what are you reading?

I say I am not reading, but rather trying to write. He feigns admiration and amazement. And yourself, I say, before he has a question to ask more.

I invent, he says. I invented a new source of energy.

This sounds interesting enough so I accept his invitation for a seat, and ask for more details. He says it is all built on volcanoes. The machine will have no moving parts inside, and is to sit on top of volcanoes, because all this energy is going to waste. We could also burn trees, but then, he said, it will be very dull, no elks, not even mosquitoes.

He shows me business cards of people from the Royal Society, and claims he has a letter of support from Gordon Brown.

But what is difference between your invention and geothermal energy, I ask. He answers that the science establishment is entirely hostile, because his idea is so radically different. Then he lowers his voice, and admits he intends to give his machine to the Royal Navy, because it will be very very dangerous.

Please, take my email, he says.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A trip down south

Going South There was a food order waiting for me in South London, at the Food Co-op. I usually go there - when I go, every month or two - on Thursdays, so I can chat with C, who has his usual shift then. But yesterday I was in the Library and Friday is my designated running-around sorting-things out day (I'm trying to be a good Jew, finish the chores before the Sabbath).

I decided not to cycle but to take the bus, and took with me a big suitcase in which to carry the food back. My reasoning was that the food was going to be quite heavy for the bike, and I could spend the time on the bus reading.

Losing Marks The 149 bus travels southwards on the borderline between the City and the East End. We pass near the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters and I wonder how long will it take before people start smashing its windows (there are plenty to smash). In less than a month all this could become a battlefield: it's the G-20 Meltdown, Storm the Banks. The bus is busy and it proves cumbersome with the suitcase. I change at London Bridge. - Only later, on the way back, I will notice the river; I see it so rarely these days, a shame because the Thames is one of my favourite things about London. - it's windy, and cold, and it's taking longer than I thought.

When I am on the 40 bus I open the book again and realize I dropped the bookmark in the other bus. So that's why I never use bookmarks: I lose them. Now I have to search for the page. I am disappointed and sad. I really liked this bookmark, with the image of Om Koltum, which I got in the Yafa Cafe/bookshop in Jaffa four years ago. I promised myself to visit Yafa soon to get a new bookmark. This spring, inshalla. Trying to concentrate on the book but it doesn't really work. We are now travelling round my beloved mammoth, the Elephant. "Bus stopping at next bus stop. Please do not block the doors".

As I step out to Walworth Road I automatically smile. This still feels like home. Am I still a South Londoner in exile? -

Greenwashed Mandelson I have to take out money, so I try first the petrol station. They don't have a cash machine, but they have the newspapers, showing Peter Mandelson's image with the green custard smeared all over him, and there's a quote from Gordon Brown saying that Mandelson has always been very green or something similar. So the British Cabinet's Business Secretary had just been humiliated in public, and it seems like everybody think it's funny.

I am trying to decide what I think about this. First, hats off for the custard lady, Leila Dean. Second, I feel like credit has to be given to British politicians for their self-humour. And also, despite all, it has to be admitted that civil liberties here are better than in most countries - the fact that the protester has not been arrested or charged and simply walked away (the police approached her and said they wouldn't comment on what she did, and wished her a good day). Compare this to poor Muntadhir al-Zaidi - the guy who threw shoes at Bush - who was tortured and is still in prison three months after the incident. (Of course, Leila Dean is white; had she been black or worn a veil the whole thing could have ended quite differently).

But maybe, I think, protest is simply not taken seriously here. The government is not afraid, they understand it's better to treat it as a joke rather than a real challenge. They know that for most people it's entertainment, not politics (not for the custard woman: she was very serious, and apparently worked hard to get the texture right).

More than anything, it exposes the real meaning of democracy in Britain: the occasional public humiliation of people in power. It's not about electing your government (less and less people bother to) but about dragging its members through mud every once in a while. And they fully cooperate in the process. Mandelson even said "that's what I'm paid to do". Is it all about S/M?

Walworth What has changed since I moved north? A new Tesco. More buildings being built, towers of shoebox flats for bubble time up-and-coming professionals. Only the bubble has burst. What are they going to do with the shoebox-towers? - I stop at a new arty cafe near the Co-Op. I want to let my brain slow down a bit. The cafe looks cute from the outside but inside the fridge is making a terrible noise and there's pamphlets with pictures of dead children, I notice after I order my Latte. - I try to concentrate on my book but the woman is talking about evictions, evictions, evictions. I pay and leave.

At the Co-Op I pack my suitcase with 42 packages of gluten-and-yeast-free bread. I add to it Saurkraut, alfalfa seeds, Tofu, tahini, fair-trade basmati rice and nuts. I come here so rarely that I always feel like I have to stock on everything. But the suitcase is really heavy and the Co-Op is out of plastic bags. Time for an exit. I wheel myself out, under the bridge, and onto the bus. It's full of people and there's no chance to open my book. I start to think I should have cycled.

Shirts As I get off the bus in the City (one stop too far) I see a smart shirt shop with Sale signs. I step in and the shop assistant measures me up in his eyes, hesitating a couple of seconds before saying with a French accen, a little too emphatically: Good Evening Sir. Which I take as: you look scruffy but I will still be polite to you. "Are you travelling?" he said, pointing to the suitcase.
No, I'm just bringing stuff from South London.

Once a year, on average, I buy myself a really nice shirt - one of my few luxury addictions. I have already used my allowance in December but I decide to try their black shirt. The lighting in the dressing room is fierce and frightful: it comes directly from above, and it makes me look horribly pale, especially with the black shirt ON.

I start a little discussion with the shop assistant. I tell him my reservations about the colour: I don't have a single black shirt. He claims it's easy to wear black, it goes with lots of things - unlike colourful floral shirts, for example, he says referring to the beautiful brown shirt that I'm looking at, with yellow and red flowers - floral shirts are so difficult to match.

I tell him I have at least five colourful floral shirts, and I wear them all the time.
And you find black difficult? He is genuinely perplexed.

As I step out of the shop, I feel I have to cleanse myself of this make-belief world, and happily rummage through the rubbish outside a sandwich shop, finding only packaged bread-slices to go with soup. I live them at peace and go to catch the 149 back home.