Friday, December 30, 2005

the cold

It's been very cold.

It is my fourth winter in London, and the cold is not becoming easier. My hands, my nose, my feet, seem to freese within three minutes of cycling. Two pairs of socks and hiking boots, winter gloves and wooly scarf, all have a very limited effect. But it is my bladder that suffers most: it is unclear why, but I find I have to go much more frequently when the tempratures drop. As long as I'm cycling, I seem to control my body mechanisms. But it is when I arrive at the library, and have to lock the bike, that it feels almost impossible. I find myself dancing strange dances around the bike, trying my best to distract my body from its urges. I wonder what the guards think.

Twice in London I lost control on my bladder. Both times happened in February (not the same year). I arrived home late at night after an icy cycle. I was dying to go but somehow managed to open the door, bring the bike inside, and run to the toilets. Only there I could not manage to open my trousers: my hands were so frosen that I could not use my fingers. The frustration was unbearable. I could hold it no longer. Exasperated, I found myself squatting on the toilet seat, my pants wet and smelling of warm, fresh piss. I was laughing and crying at the same time, feeling relief and humilation. At the time, it seemed symptomathic of what London was doing to me: the ways in which it was robbing me of control over my life. It was a humbling experience.

But now I can say it's only piss. And there's nothing wrong with urine. I learnt this last year, at the Villas, when I came to realize the benefits of living with a chamber pot.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Day Travelcard 1-4. Believe it or not.
I had to go up to Newspaper Library at Collindale today. You probably don't know where it is but I do't either. The tube is a very strange way to travel; one seems to emerge out of darkness in unexpected places. It completely mangles your sense of geography.
It's like being beamed somewhere, only it takes longer, and is done in a carriage full of strangers. Plus beaming is less expensive I believe.

I think Collindale is on the North Circular, that mythical boundary of London: again, I have no idea of its route, since my car-experience of London is limited to 4-5 stressful and unfortunate house moves. But the North Circular sounds esoteric, I'm sure it follows some ancient energy lines and involves free-masonry town-planning. Let's put it this way: it's far north. Zone four (ZONFOR in some dialects).

* * *

Coming back on the tube I recalled what Tanya said to me four years ago about adverts on the tube. She said only very specific things are advertised inside the carriages:

* Flu, cold, congestion and fatigue relief - instant magic medications to make you feel better, and more importantly, able to work
* Cheap international phone deals
* Loans - re-mortgaging your house to be even more in debt.
* Cheap travel packages

In short, if you're on the tube, very likely you're: seriously ill but have to work / foreign to this place and want to call home / dying to escape to somewhere sunny / desperately thinking up ways to get easy money / all of the above.

Not much has changed in that respect. There's far less loan adverts; people are a bit more careful with money than they were around 2000. A lot of internet-related things. Unlike the Cinema or the newspapers, there's absolutely no ads for cars.

Strangely, once you're out of the carriages, the adverts change; the escalators and tunnels are a brave new world of opportunities: perfumes and clothes, movies and West-End shows. London as you thought it would be. London which exists nowhere, and everywhere.

* * *

Warren St. loudspeakers: "Please assist us in keeping the underground clean. Help us by taking your litter home with you."
Fair enough.

Monday, December 26, 2005


Have you noticed the way autumn leaves rub off on the asphalt? It's usually the plane leaves, on coloured patches of the road (cycle paths, pedestrian crossings). Leaves turn to stains, flat and almost abstract. It's like cycling on wallpaper.

Last year, when autumn leaves became a household necessity (but not a commodity) I started noticing them more and thinking about the fall. The austerity and beauty of the whole thing leaves me speechless. They grow, they fall, they disappear without a trace, every year. They crumble into thin air. Like the phoenix. And unlike us.

Traces Left Behind
Earlier this year I went up to Scotland for the G8. The night before the opening of the summit we hiked through the hills, camping above a water reservoir. In the morning we discovered on the other side of the reservoir some ancient ruins; they must have been there long before the reservoir. Now they were little more than piles of stones, and some traces of walls.

We kept going; when we hit a gravel road, the first modern human thing we came upon was a jeep telling us not to go off the road, this being private land owned by Highlands Water company. Not long after, we came upon two cabins of chemical toilets.

I don't know much about chemical toilets. But I did a bit of reading and as far as I understand the idea is to treat toxic body waste - ie shit - not by allowing it to break down, but rather by disinfecting it with chemicals, such as the carcinogenic formaldehyde, which actually preserves the disinfected pooh. As one person commented on a discussion forum:

Don't use it. There's no reason to embalm your effluvia for future
generations. Formaldehyde stops aerobic and anaerobic decomposition in
septic disposal systems and bodies of water and is a health hazard.

This stuff is vile. True, uncareful treatment of excrement can spread diseases. But turning it into a poisonous soup doesn't sound quite the right solution. These chemical toilets are our legacy: the plastic altars that our civilization is erecting in the hills of Scotland. They are perhaps less robust than the stone ruins that are now crumbling into the valley, but they will remain for much longer.

Above our heads the helicopters were buzzing, bringing the guests to Gleneagles.

Obscure visual sign of the week (12)

Small robots on the run

(this one actually looks like RTD2)

tis the season for skipping

I love going to the wholesale fruit and veg market just before Christmas. Tons of food to skip, often luxary items (exotic fruits), and also a chance to bump into people you know doing the same. It feels friendly. We went a few people to get stuff for our Xmas/Hanuka lunch.

Kali found this.
It's another proof that things are seriously wrong.

In case you can't see, it's a passion fruit, packed in its own personal sealed nailon wrapping.
K: Don't they realize, it arealdy comes with its own packaging.

* * *

In season: mainly fruit.
Oh!!! (TM) Cucumbers (Spain)
Grapes (South Africa)
Bramley apples (UK, a skip full of boxes of them)
Strawberries (Egypt)
Organic Clementines (Turkey)
Yellow cherry tomatoes (Israel)
Wild Mushrooms (France; the season's nearly over)

No luxary items, but found a horseradish root. I'll make my grandma's style horseradish sauce, with beatroot. It's a Jewish Polish thing for Passover, and it's the wrong season - but the season is always wrong in the Wholesale Market. It's very simple to make:
Grate the horseradish root and the (cooked) beetroot, and mix. Add a bit of lemon/vinegar. And - if you have to - a bit of sugar.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Last shift at the Bonnington Cafe

Thursday I did my last shift in the Bonnington Cafe. We've been doing the Vegan shift for the last few months now; I did the evening bit, playing the waiter.

When I was growing up, I thought one day I'll be a university student and for some reason I assumed this would necessarily involve working part time in a restaurant/cafe as a waiter. I can't say I was exactly looking forward to it. Waitressing seemed to require both coordination and good social skills, engaging with strangers etc. Being both awkward and shy, I thought of it as a kind of intimidating test or challenge. Yet at the same time it did contain some promise of transformation.

Years went by. I started university and found job as a subtitles translator. It paid well, I got to improve my Arabic and English, and it did not invovle balnacing 5 plates on one hand. Then I worked in writing software in a start-up. This job required no motor abilities beyond the keyboard and social skills were a bonus which most employees lacked altogether. So it seemed that I would never get a chance to be a waiter. On the one hand I was relieved, on the other slightly disappointed.

But life sometimes take unexpected turns. And so I found myself wearing a sexy red checkered apron, in a vegeterian restaurant in London, taking orders etc.

The Bonnington is not a usual Cafe. It's a workers' cooperative; there's no landlord or boss. Each night is run by a separate crew, serving different cuisine. There's about 20-40 people involved, which makes it at the same time very anarchic and extremely rigid (come to the Cafe meetings and you'll see what I mean). On our night, we split the money equally between all of the workers.

It's been great fun. Since most of my labour is intellectual, reading or writing, every chance I have to do some physical work is much welcome. On extemely busy shifts I found myself just not thinking at all about anything for 6 hours: what a relief. Plus, there is something deeply rewarding about giving people food. Some kind of primordial pleasure.
I think I'll miss it.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Backstage Of Our Lives

Last year I had the experience of taking a van of old furniture to New Cross South London recycling centre. Gary had the van from work, and the Villas were still full with useless rubbish EdB had collected from the streets. We wanted to get stuff out of the way.

As I found out, Recylcing Centre is a bit of a misnomer. We were asked to put the furniture through a giant machine which squashed it to death; it then gets burnt. Heaps of stuff were sorted according to type, and then taken elsewhere.

There was one huge container filled with elecrtic equipment. I climbed the metal stairway to the top of it, from which you would throw the defunct video/tv/streo on the heap. I remember looking with shock and amazement on this mountain of hi-fi. I had been finding appliances in the streets for some time, and I know that most cases it works; when it's broken, the fault is usually minor. There was a NAD amplifier right there at the very top. Should I just take it? I needed one for my room. As so often when I am faced with the sudden promise of freedom, I was not sure what to do. I hesitated for a few seconds; a huge lorry came and towed the container away. It was gone forever. I don't know what they do with hifi. Some elements are toxic. I doubt if they recycle any of it. One thing I knew for sure: no-one's going to even try to fix these things, or even test them.

I remember returning home feeling physically sick. We were supposed to do another run but I said I couldn't. The image of that mountain of discarded hifi kept coming into my mind. I felt like I had just been to a slaughterhouse. It was as if I had seen something which I wasn't supposed to see: as if I was taken to the backstage of a glamorous show, and found everything there miserable, sordid and vile.

Some people say you should eat meat only if you are able to kill an animal yourself; that if you couldn't, then you were a hypocrite. I tend to agree. As I see it, one should be willing to face the consequences of one's actions. I'd like to take this further: imagine each time you were buying new shoes, you would have to see, not pictures of models and sport stars, but the 16 year old indonesian girl who made them. That each time you boarded an airplane, you would be shown the amounts of fuel that your flight will use. That each time you had a drink in a club, you would get a glimpse of the guy washing the dishes in the kitchen for less the minimum wage. That each time you took the rubbish out, you would see the landfill where it goes. Imagine you had to come face-to-face, on a daily basis, with the consequences of the way you live. Surely it would be unbearable.

This is one reason packaging is so important for the way we live. The horrible, boring facts (socially, enviromentally) are constantly hidden behind a shining wrapping. We are kept safe from the real price of it all. We should never be allowed to see the backstage: some of us might not take it very well. It might prove too disconcerting. It might lead us to serious doubts.

The wholesale market, where I go every week, provides such experience. It is an industrial wasteland, quite literally. It is a desert of concrete. It is devoid of any of the joys which the word market brings to mind. It is the reality behind the supermarket shelf. And yeah, it's food for free.

* * *

Today at the market:
Italian fruit season! with organic clementines, kiwis and pink grapefruits (my favourite fruit on earth... after figs); non organic pears
Sicilian courgettes
Leeks, kale
British apples

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

a london day

Waterloo bridge: a cycle-courier overtakes me, cycling rather leisurely for a courier (they usually ride like Kamikaza. I'll write more about them someday). Suddenly a man walking on the bridge calls to him: the courier stops on the side of the road. They embrace, and kiss on both cheeks. I watch with interest and a sudden, unexplained joy.
Physical contact is very rare here. Certainly in the street. People would do their best not to touch eachother. British manners are all about that.

On both sides of the bridge, colours are dull and grey. But it is an exception. This automn has been crisp and sharp in colour, especially on Waterloo: the National Theatre in purple, the trees in blue, the Eye all red, the river deep and moving. It's been edgy.

* * *

That evening, in Soho, with S, C and A, at the Humous Bar. (This place is straight out of Tel-Aviv. But boy they try to hide their Israeliness. The humous's with Foul - broadbeans - is excellent).
I always get totally disorientated in Soho. Usually I have a good grasp on directions and my surrounding, I know my way in London. But once I step into Soho I become a tourist again. I can't tell north from south; it's alien territory.
We tried to go to the only bar we know there - the Swedish Garlic and Shots, which offers beer with garlic, a formidable combination. The back yard is the coziest place in London; downstairs is heavy metal kingdom, all patrons pierced and tattooed, and you can't see much through the cigarette smoke. Way too hard core for minks. The back yard was packed, of course; we retreated. The sign on the door says:

* * *

We settled for the coffee place on the corner of Old Compton Street, where the rickshaw riders hang out. D was there, sitting in his rickshaw, on the other side of the road reading a book, obviously wasn't looking very hard for customers.
D came to our housewarming-wedding party at Limehouse, two years ago, with a bunch of other merry rickshawriders. He was wearing a 118 shirt, and kept saying he's looking for 'non-lesbian pussy'. For a goodbye present, he pissed on our neighbours' front garden.
We didn't really like him after that.
"He was just drunk" said Michael. "He doesn't normally behave like this".
Last year on Christmas day we had a nice hanging out in our living room in Hallelujah Villas. Made dinner watched moves played music and just talked. D came with a few other riders. I was of course suspicious but this time he was very sweet; he even washed all the dishes, always a good point with me, and there were lots of dishes.
So we're even. But I didn't feel like saying hi last night.

It was Soho: people walking past were saying
"She's totally drunk: and she's got a pedal push bike. I mean, lucy, you're drunk".
A woman to a man: "She was talking to you, and looking at me the whole evening. I mean the chick of it".

Obscure visual sign of the week (11)

Genesis 8:8 And God said to Noah: thou shall not send out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground.

Sonic Booms in Gaza

I very rarely write anything here about Israel/Palestine current affairs. This is my London blog and I am weary about 'the conflict' taking over here. I think about the conflict every day, but I don't want to blog about it from London.
Anyway - please read Laila al-Haddad last postings about the sonic booms above Gaza. It's the latest Israeli retalliation policy - flying about Gaza to make sonic booms to scare the population. It is much much worse than it sounds: the planes must be flying very low, and the results are - acording to Laila - deafening and nerve-wrecking to say the least.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

after a week in bed, finally ventured out. To the British Library. But I thought cycling would be too ambitious, and opted for the Tube.
I've taken the tube so rarely in my three years in London that it still feels like going abroad. Mainly the smell, this very unique underground aroma (each underground has its own smell: the metro is really different). But today I couldn't smell anything, so it didn't really work. It just felt: blinded by florescent lights, alienated (not a single word said in the carriage), sad. And the noise, the high-pitch scream of the train meeting the lines, it makes me so depressed and tired.

Pimlico: the next station is Pimlico. Alight here for the Tate Gallery.
The lady from the announcment system seems to suppose that everybody's a good middle class tourist doing London's sights. And anyway, if you wanted the Tate, you could have gone in Vauxhall, and walk on the Bridge...

Next station is Green Park: change here for the Jubilee and Piccadilly Lines; alight here for Buckingham Palace.

Or maybe you're the Queen, and you need someone to remind you where you get off.

* * *

The BL was almost empty, and very quiet. A notice in the entrance to the reading room declared that from January 2006 pens will be outlawed, and only pencils could be used. Too many people have been making notes in books.

Ah the exhilirating, dramatic life of a phd student. Livind on the Edge.

Coming back, the tube was packed. Started to get suicide bombing premonitions. Tried hard not to look at people suspciusly. Realized that my own wooly hat and shawl and bag make me a likely suspect, and wondered if anybody is going to pull a gun out. Just wanted to get out of there.

Next Station is Vauxhall: alight here for the Fag hill, the Portugese shops, the Paradise Gardens, the Bonnington Cafe, and your very temporary Home.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

sick mink

in bed, sore throat. Reading:
Suad Amiry's Sharon and my Mother in Law. Life in occupied Ramallah. Extremely hillarious, candid and poingant.
Iqbal Ahmed's Sorrows of the Moon. Beutiful and subtle journey through London - the real London, of minimum wage, annyoing postoffice ladies and alienation - not the fake hyped London of Time Out.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Obscure visual sign of the week (10)

Extracurricular Mink

(*) Eviction Party in Dalston, Friday night: most "normal" squat party I've ever been to, with
  • people arriving in black cabs
  • girls with handbags
  • only two people with dreadlocks
  • posh cheese (stilton and goat) and chicken wings (!!?) as hors doeuvres
  • good live music
very strange, and quite a change from South-London vegan-punk fairs; not really for the better. Normality's boring. Dancing was fun.

(*) UCL attractions: two years ago I heard the curator of the Petrie Museum, Dr. Quirke, give a mesmerising paper on ancient Egyptian cities, gender and power. It involved a poem about the King sneaking at night through a mudbrick town, to reach the house of his general lover. Been wanting to visit the museum ever since.

To get to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaelogy, you need to jump the UCL library gates, go through three doors which seem to be leading nowhere; once you're there, you'll need a torch to see the exhibits (the museum staff will provide one) because it's so dark. The display is amassed in endless rows of glass cabinets, some of it leading into the blocked Fire Escape. They will modernize it in a few years and move it to a new building (to be called the UCL 'Panopticon' - milking on the Jeremy Bentham connection) - so go before it's normal and boring. It's free.

As for Jeremy Bentham, who Marx called "a genius by way of bourgeois stupidity" and a "purely English phenomenon" - yes, he's there, in his 'auto-icon', stuffed, or rather, preserved for posterity. My favourite bit is seeing the guard put him to sleep everyday on 5pm. I'm rarely there to see it though. The clothes and bones inside are his, the face not (unfortunately something went wrong and they have to use a wax mask).

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Market Diaries

To get to the wholesale market I have to go through a big supermarket; the gate is at the end of the parking lot. As I cycle there, my panniers empty, I see people going into the supermarket; on the way back I see them coming out with plastic bags full with their shopping; it's usually around lunch time, quite a few people come from nearby offices.

Sometimes, on a good day - when my panniers are full with fruit and veg, and a box on top of that, of exotic fruits and organic produce - I feel like saying to people: look! You can get all this for free! There's no reason to go into the supermarket. No need to pay for anything. It's just five minutes walk from here, and (usually) no one will stop you! It's all getting thrown away!
But I don't say anything. Partly because in London, when strangers approach you on the street, they're almost always crazy/want money(that's my experience at least).

But also I know there's no point. People are shocked by the idea of taking food from the rubbish. Ostensibly, it's about hygiene and food safety. But the food is perfectly fine - really, it could be on the supermarket shelves (so why is it thrown away? Too much ordered, too close to use-by date...). It's as hygienic as the stuff you buy.

The real reason is shame - eating wasted food is something poor and desperate people do. Most people will agree that throwing good food away is criminal, but as for taking it themselves...

When I first started skipping I was over-self-conscious. Opening a bin-liner in a main street for the first time, in broad daylight, felt like transgressing some basic rule; 'thou shall not touch the rubbish for it is filthy'. And I was sure everybody were looking at me. At times I wondered: what if somebody from college sees me? Or a friend of my parents, visiting London? But I found that no-one cared, no-one was looking. And when they did, they would avert their eyes; it's unpleasant to see someone looking through the rubbish. Very quickly I lost my sense of shame.

The level of waste in London is astronomical - you could feed another huge city with it; the ones who should feel shame are the people who throw out this food, not the people who take it. But that's a bit hard to stomach I guess.

* * *

Yesterday in the Market, in season:
Tomato day (from Holland, Morocco, Canary Islands) - and tons of Iceberg lettuce (Spain)
As Blue once said on Iceberg: it has the nutritional value of cardboard, and the only good thing about it is that it can last for weeks. (Good for supermarkets, that is).
asparagus (Peru)
Pok Choi
Wild Mushrooms (fresh shitaki, great in an omelet)
Butternut Squash

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Lonely Gloves

When I see them around London, I think of Michael. Three years ago, in the first house we lived together (not far from Brockwell park: my first proper home in London), he often talked about starting a repisotary where people could find their lost glove. A Lonely Glove Club; perhaps with find-your-glove events. Rickshaw riding around Soho, he would see dozens of them everynight. Lying on the floor, lonely, miserable, their true partner somewhere on the tube going home.

Later it became an idea for a website. Find your perfect matching glove. It would have pictures of them all (like dating websites, or police criminal shoots). Like many of Michael's ideas - the robot-roller-blading disco benefit, or the special dish rack he was planning to build- this one didn't materialize. He just never got round to it. But he did collect the lonely gloves, and put them on his wall, above his desk.

Blu, on the other hand, collected them for more practical reasons. You always lose gloves, she said, so it's better to have some spare ones. So she picked this glove off the road, and when she ended up putting her hand into it (four months later), she found a hundred pounds note.

Funny, I just realized it's Michael's cycling winter-gloves I'm using. He left them behind in Honor Oak in one of the broken toilets. Someone was supposed to pick his stuff up, but it never happened, and when eviction came I appropriated them.
But then again, he doesn't really need them in Namibia.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Obscure visual sign of the week (9)

the text was too good to leave out, and I didn't think anyone would believe me.
I'm leaving London in less then two months. For a month, for the winter, perhaps. Plans are elusive, the future gets dark at four o'clock, and prospects twinkle, fade, and twinkle. Confusing moments.

To make sure I don't spend whatever time I have left in London at libraries and archives, I decided to make a list. Things to see. Places I've always planned to go but... places I always go to. a Provisional List.

1. Have lunch/dinner at the top floor at the Elephant and Castle.
2. Visit the Petrie Museum and photograph Jeremy Bentham
3. Climb the Monument
4. Go on the annual pilgramige to W.Martyn's Tea&Coffee shop, Moswell Hill (perhaps with a visit to the Highgate cemetry)
5. Go down to the river bank (just below MI6)
6. Walk round the Oval
7. visit Clifton Mansions (you can never tell if how long they'll be there)
8. Go to a squat party
9. Nunnhead cemetry
10. Walk the Chenyne Walk, Chelsea

Friday, December 02, 2005

the truth is out there, in Vauxhall

They appear without warning, and position themselves along South Lambeth Road and Vauxhall Cross. Mostly men, they have about them an air of anxiety and confusion, the kind typical of newcomers to London. The reports they send on their radios are difficult to understand, and the gadgets they use strange and unfamiliar. A sleek , smug and relaxed man goes between them and checks on them. S ventured to ask one of them what they were doing, and he said: Data collection.

I think it has something to do with the British Interplanetary Society. It seems that extra-gallactic contact has been established; for a brief moment, the back yard gates were open and I could see the Society members practicing something. I wonder if they might be coming soon.