Sunday, January 22, 2006

Obscure visual sign of the week (15)

Doesn't it look like a banana?

It should be the British Slapstick Comedy Fan club.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

I did some life modelling today for a drawing class. Not done it for a long time. When I stepped out of the changing room I was a bit confused, I guess I still feel more at home behind the easle than as the naked person being drawn.

Years ago, when I was taking life-drawing classes, I never understood this thing about a changing room. The model would arrive in normal clothes, then retire to the dressing room and come back with gown or a tracksuit, only to take them off immediatley! what's the point, I wondered, if you're going to undress why not do it right there. It seemed like an unnecessary ceremony.

But last year, when I started modelling, it suddenly made sense. Life modelling is not simply about taking your clothes off; it's a role you take on and play out. In this sense undressing is like dressing up. The moment of transition is important, and so is the separation between your life (in your normal clothes) and your job. Clothes are means of protection, they are a mask that shields us from other humans; taking them off is not easy.

I enjoyed the modelling tonight. It's very meditative, and also help me be aware of this body of mine.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Obscure visual sign of the week (14)

Attention! Cars may split in the middle without prior warning

Saturday, January 14, 2006


(1) You are walking down a narrow, windowless corridor. The floor is at an angle, it is a sharp descent. You tread carefully not to lose your balance. At the bottom of the corridor you find a closed door, leading to a large room. As you go in, a girl stamps your hand. The room is full with people, they are all standing, almost motionless. Noise comes from the far end; you make your way through the crowd until you can go no further. Now you can here it clearer: an electronic rustle; slow, rhythmical harmonies, quietly taking over your body; piercing cries of anguish: are you the only one hearing them? everyone around you seems self-absorbed. The room is suddenly rocking from side to side.

Looking through the windows, you can see water on all sides. You realize that this is a boat, and that you are on the river. You find this knowledge comforting; you cling to it, cherish every rocking movement brought by the the waves of passing boats. Through the darkness you can see the glowing blue trees on the other bank, and far in the distance, the evil watchtower; its beacon stabs the night. You find it hard to look, even harder to turn your eyes away.

When the music is over, you walk out, only to find that the corridor is now no longer at a slope. The leveled floor is easier to walk. You step out to the street, where you see two men in space-suits struggling to close a huge tap. You wonder if the pandemic has arrived.

(2) You are sitting on a bench on the South Bank, on the east side of the bridge. It's a cold January day but the sun is shining and it makes the world sweet. You are waiting for your operator. You always meet by the river. He says its safer. You have performed your task, obtained all the necessary information; it was difficult and risky, but you now have it all in your bag. But he is late. The large clock on the other side of the river says it's half past one. You wonder what's happened.
Around you pigeons walk giddily, looking for crumbs. You observe them with greater attention: one has an amputated leg, the other a strange white mohuk. They are all black with soot, miserable looking. Digital cameras snap: London pigeons are easy prey. You turn your face. You must not be photographed.
The bells of the National Theatre are ringing: the intermission's over. It's ten to two. He is never so late. What will you do with the information. Restless, you stand up and lean on the railing. You notice a life buoy drifting on the water, like a orange candy. You follow it as it emerges from the shade under the Bridge, sailing eastwords, to the sea: the tide is going out.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dislocation in progress

Went to the market this morning to get some boxes. It's strange to go there not for food. Couldn't help it and brought home a small sack of chestnuts. But mainly boxes in all shapes. It's packing up time.

House moves are good for shaking up your life and getting you out of corners. But they're also unsettling and dislocating. It's not easy to simply relocate and to pick up things where you left them. I have this fantasy of living very simply, with just a few clothes, a sleeping bag, a computer, a bicycle. This way I could live anywhere, as long as I have library to work in. But I always acquire things, I always make a home of the space I live in, always build up my kitchen. And then it's hard to leave, even harder to start again somewhere else.

This time it's not an eviction. Things are less stressful as a result. It's not that evictions come without notice: you usually get 4-6 weeks. But one of the most difficult (and liberating) things about squatting is that when you move in, you don't know how much time you have there. Well this time we knew. We were housesitting for a friend and we had five months. Now they're over. We're going away, coming back to London end of Feb. Where to? and for how long?

* * *

My longest ever London home:
The Villas - 12 months

My shortest ever London home:
Limehouse - two weeks

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Market Diaries

It's Friday, the day before new year's eve. You cycle through the supermarket's car park, hectic with shoppers and reversing cars. Carefull, they can't see you in this weather. You get off your bike, and walk it through the small gate at the end of the car park. Down the slope, look left for cars, then get on your bike. You're in the market.

It's half past eleven. Probably too late for the Organic place. They usually leave leftover bags outside but you can't see any. Just to make sure you cycle up to the skip: here they are. Four bags of organic produce. 'Luxury vegetables'. Another two deep inside the skip but you're not going to jump in. It's too risky and you're on your own today. Four bags are fine. Don't be greedy now.

You pull the bags out of the skip and put the vegetables in your panniers. Mostly root vegetables; at last, something seasonal. Swedes and parsnips: you didn't know these vegetables existed before you came here. There's no words for them in your mother tongue. The best find: seven orange squashes. What will you do with seven squashes? roast them with potatoes; make Moroccan pumpkin and yellow split peas soup; couscous with pumpkin and dried apricots. And you can always give some away.

It's raining and it's cold. But you don't mind. You like skipping in the rain. There's something calming about it. The waterproofs keep you dry and there's not too many people around. You carry on.

The mushroom place: nothing there. A van uploading some stuff. 'Don't touch it!' a man shouts at you. You wave to say ok no problem. 'Don't touch it I said!' you cycle away. Touch what? And why would you want to take his vegetables, when so much is thrown away? over there, right next to the bins, a stack of boxes of yellow peppers. Some of them bruised but most are fine. Roasted and marinated. With a bit of balsamic vinegar.

Not much else. They must have finished earlier today. You didn't find much fruit, but slowly the cold is getting to you. You turn the bike and start heading out of the market. But there you spot another stack of boxes. They turn out to be red grapes from Peru. What's wrong with them? one or two mouldy grapes in each bag. You take six bags. You don't need more. That will get you through the New Year.
On the way back home, you think of wasted food.

* * *

Strangely, the taboo on throwing away food seems to hold in our society. You don't have to be a poor kid to be told not to waste food. Good boys, rich or poor, finish their plates. This is why the sight of heaps of good vegetables and fruits in a skip is so infuriating. The thought that what could feed people finds its way to a landfill would make almost anyone uneasy.

But the waste of fresh produce is just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm not talking about lettuce now. It's the icing on this 4-layers wedding cake of waste: (1) the wasted labour of the people who planted the vegetables, harvested them, packed them and shipped them. Many hours of sweat and hard work for pittance-wages in far away places (2) the wasted energy and water involved in growing the produce (3) the wasted fuel required to bring the figs from Turkey and the mangoes from Brazil. I think most of the stuff is imported by air. The gas for their trip from the harbour to London (4) packaging and wrapping, the palletes and boxes - mountains of nylon, plastic, metal and wood, that find their way to the skips as well.

It is these invisible layers of waste that are the real problem. The wasted fruit and veg may be absurd and ludicrous and sad. But it is the wasted human sweat and oil and electricity, the polluted air and seas, which make this project a disaster. Just imagine what would happen if all the world was living so wastefully. How long could the planet take this?

Waste is not an unfortunate byproduct of the global market. It is no accident. Importing most of your fruit and veg from overseas will inevatably involve large volumes of waste. But the point is that waste is not bad for this sytem; it's what makes it tick. If the core principle could be summarised as 'produce something more than you need, as cheaply as you can; try to sell it for the highest price' then really if your product goes to the bin that's great because you can sell another one. Waste is good, as long as it encourages consumption. The less careful the consumer the better; that's why 'spontaneity' is considered such a good thing. That's why an atomized society is so good. The logic of sharing, saving, mending, conserving, and re-using is obscene to a system based on short-term profit. When was the last time you saw someone carrying a 10kgs bag of rice on the tube home? A sight so familiar in third-world countries. They don't buy rice by the half-kg over there.

You've been coming to the market for three years, and you still can't get it. When you find so much of something - tomatoes or plums - you want to take it all, conserve it, pickle it, make jam from it, fill the kitchen with jars, so it will last for a while. But what's the point in pickling and conserving, when you'll be in the market next week, and find some more. Because there's always more. Much more than you could possibly take. Sometimes you feel the market is playing tricks on you; it ridicules your fallacious attempts to make sense and do right in an ocean of madness.

Obscure visual sign of the week (13)

Practical joke number three: pour the water jug on top of the man's head and pull his neck with a crowbar - while he's drinking!


'... the group split up, but we still went ahead with the plan. We travelled in Brazil for almost a year. Doing theatre with kids, working in exchange for food and a place to sleep. And then I came back here, D went to live in the house inVauxhall Grove... but why am I telling you all this?' we were standing in the kitchen after dinner. She was washing the dishes, I was putting things in place.
'It's good to hear people's history' I said. 'Somehow it never happens. It's rare to hear someone talk about their life before they came to London. Life here is so much in the present. Especially when you're squatting, there's a sense of NOW stronger than I experienced anywhere else. It's almost like you're outside time.'
'I know' she said, her eyes twinkling as she smiled 'I love it'.
I've known her for three years but never heard her talk about her past.
'I absolutely love it' she said again. 'It's liberating'.
I knew what she meant. I never believed in the possiblity of transformation before I came here. I thought I was stuck with myself for good. Redemption, or reinvention, were terms I was very cynical about. I still am. But after four months here I had to admit that it was happening to me. I was changing. I was losing my old clothes, one by one, and finding new ones in unexpected places.

Me: 'I like the way age doesn't seem to exist, or to matter that much. Not like in normal life, where your age says where you should be in life and how you should behave.' Here's is a scene that happened to me a few times in London: a name comes up in the conversation. And someone asks: 'how old is she?' the answer is - always - 'our age'. But what is our age? 27? 33? 22? my housemates were always of different ages, and I never knew - or thought to ask - how old exactly they were.

'For me it's about education' she said, dipping the mug carefully in the sink, rinsing it slowly in the water. 'In Spain, your background, your formal education, matters to people so much. It sets your place in life. It was a big thing for me to break free of that.'

The last day of that weekend in Vauxhall, three years ago. Eviction day, hand-the-key to the council day. S and me making breakfast for everyone. She made it just in time, coming back from Spain. She took out from her bag two skeletal dolls, their limbs pale and alongated, their effaced faces hard with mutates' sadness. (That weekend changed my life: Jason playing Fisherspooner to us in his room; the dress-up room and kissing booth; the posters in the bike room; the smell of wood and incense in the bathroom; blu's dreads catching fire from the candles; S and me helping Jason move his stuff on a wheelbarrow to the Funeral Parlour).

She spent the night at ours. Next morning I was in the kitchen when she woke up. She kissed me good morning, and made herself a cup of tea.
'By the way' she said 'how old are you?'
'I'm 32. How old are you?'
'I'm 38.'

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The headline of the Evening Standard, hand-painted on the advertisement boards outside shops, was Sharon's fight for Life - Latest. I've passed four of them this morning. Another Standard headline I saw was See Your Doctor at the Chemist. Well that's too late for some of us I guess.

I'm itching to write about Sharon's departure, but this blog is not the right place to do it. Here I deal with more important things, such as: the discarded fish-tank I saw on the street yesterday; the 'non-denominational festive lights' of Hackney council and some random human encounters I had yesterday. (Human interaction! It's the best! Try it soon).
But if you're still interested in boring political commentary, I've written something in my Jerusalem Blog.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Round the Oval, anti-clockwise

Seven Oval Facts

1) The Oval Cricket Stadium is owned by Prince Charles.

2) The Oval and the MI6, two institutions devoted to the defence of England, are connected by a short road.

3) Some of the houses around the Oval follow its circular shape; they are not rectanuglar but concave. This roundness has a most uncanny effect.

4) During the Ashes series, the roar of the crowds from the Oval often shaked the walls and windows of the bathroom.

5) Behind the gasworks gallery (round the corner from where the big Oval squat used to be) you can hear bird choirs going crazy.

6) The gasworks of the Oval appear in David Kronenberg's Spider.

7) There is a gap in the fence of the Stadium from which you can watch the match. It is there I first learnt how the flag of Bangladesh looks like.

A Story about the Oval
Three years ago, when we were getting evicted from Vauxhall, Blu went for a stroll in the neighbourhood, looking for empties. She wandered, dreamy and deep in thought as ever, until she was brought back to reality with a policeman pointing a gun at her and shouting she should not move. They interrogated her for long minutes about who she was and what she was doing, refusing to give an explanationn. Finally they let her go after advising her 'don't look dodgy'.
She didn't understand what the whole thing was, until someone told her she was standing outside Jack Straw's, the Foreign Secretary's house

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Like most things modern, Gaia was born in London. The man who invented Earth comes from Brixton Hill. James Lovelock, the scientist who put forward the hypothesis that Earth and life on it behave as an organism or self-regulating system, started his love affair with chemistry in the basement of Brixton Library.

(I never knew they had a basement. Maybe that 's where they put all the books, now that they cleared the space for computer terminals and DVDs.)

He thinks we've had it.

In front of him, on a large flat panel monitor, there is a climate map of the northern hemisphere, updating constantly with evidence of climate change. All around Greenland there is unfrozen water; though it's early December the North West passage has only just closed.

Read the interview, it's good. Lovelock is no hippie, and he's not exactly green. Famously, he supports Nuclear Power. "The Greens don't seem to understand that without electricity, civilisation would collapse. Just imagine London without electricity. Within three weeks it would be like Darfur."

I once lived for three months in a house without electricity. It was one of my most loved houses in London, a real haven. The serenity and calm are not easy to capture in words. I learnt there that darkness can be your friend. Granted, we had gas for heating. The only 'problem' was charging mobile phones; all the rest proved easy to live without.

On nuclear energy, I'd quote N/E: the stuff stays radioactive for 24,000 years. The only way to handle nuclear waste is to keep it safe. Would you trust humans to keep anything safe and beyond reach for 100 years, let alone 24,000 years? No quick fixes, please.

He thinks it is a ludicrous presumption to suppose that we can save the world. Serious climate change is now inevitable, whatever we do: by the middle of the century, he says, the Arctic icecap will have gone; by the end of it, the rain forests will have disappeared too, to be replaced by desolation. The Earth's temperature will have risen by 8C, as it has before, and it will probably stay there for another 200,000 years.

Let's enjoy it while it lasts. You can also read his chat with Guardian readers from five years ago.

Obscure visual sign of the year 2005