Monday, July 31, 2006

The Market Diaries: Sunday

Six days shall the market work, and on the seventh day it shall not rest. Six days of the week the Wholesale Market is London's terminal for fruits and vegetables; produce is delivered, produce dispatched. From South Africa and Thailand, Colombia and Peru, all roads lead to the Market, which every day sucks, devours, spouts and belches tons of food. But on the day of the Lord, the belly of the beast is full, the skips are set aside, and the wide concrete avenues of the Market are overcrowded with shoppers. The beeping sounds of reversing forklifts make way to the happy shouts of children and mothers. It's the Sunday Market.

In four years in London, I have never seen this market mentioned anywhere, in the press or in the media. There is no sign leading to it. The only textual reference is ambiguous and negative: 'No Parking for the Sunday Market' says a banner in the nearby Sainsbury (those who choose to defy the sign carefully wrap their shopping in black plastic bags before they sneak back into the parking lot). As far as I know, it's advertised only by word of mouth. In the heart of London, this invisibility is striking. Walk five minutes to the river and you'll find the London (TM) skyline, London from TV and movies. But the bleak setting of the Wholesale Market and the cheap merchandise on sale leaves very little room for doubt, this is no tourist attraction, no Portobello or Brick Lane, and it cannot be made into one.

What's on sale? Cheap clothing, electric appliances, belts and luggage, shoes, cleaning products, home improvement bits, bike-accessories, children toys, bric-a-brac, fake cds and dvds, and plastic in every shape and form. No handicraft or fair-trade items: the brutal flawless logic of the Wholesale market is alive on Sunday as on any day of the week. Imported goods, whether tomatoes or jeans, belong to the same story: overseas sweat-labour, mass production, cheap costs, and little value.

If you ever wondered how poor people survive in this super-expensive town, how can anyone possibly live here on a cleaner's wage (let alone support a family, and send money to Poland or Nigeria) the Sunday Market provides some answers. It is one of these hidden networks and institutions that make life here possible, that make the difference between having little money and being poor. It's far from grim. The Sunday market is a family affair. The crowd seems mainly African and East European, but also Turkish, Columbian, Chinese, and every nation and language you can think of, all the children of Babylondon: blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the plastic of the earth. They roam, they browse, they bargain, they buy, they eat hot corn and jerk chicken. It's a fun day out.

By four pm the Market is almost over. Cycle through, you might get lucky and find random plastic moments abandoned by a despaired vendor. The crowds happily disperse, leaving behind mountains of rubbish, cardboard, coat hangers and wrappings. But no worry, after all, waste is what the wholesale market is all about. In a couple of hours, all will be devoured, and the large avenues will be empty and clean, shining of concrete desolation, ready for another week.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Goodbye Electric Lane

Six weeks ago I left Brixton. It wasn't an eviction: Clifton Mansions is still going, and will probably last the summer. For the first time I chose to leave of my own accord. A tedious, convoluted story: contradictory promises were made by the former resident. There was a dispute who has the 'right' to No. 19, and for how long. The ambiguous, unwritten rules of squatters' ettiquete were invoked and challenged. For me all this didn't matter much: I don't believe in rights. I was living in no. 19, and I could have stayed. But I chose to give it up.

Through all my squatting years, Clifton Mansions stood as a distant haven. During three years I moved house 9 or 10 times. Eviction, disruption, excitement, despair: all this time I knew that the fortunate Clifton residents were safe from the cycle. The Mansions were stable: the court case dragged for years. Of the problems I knew well: the flats were freezing cold in winter and too hot in summer. Lack of light. The buildings were badly built and badly maintained. The hassle of the drug dealers in the yard; the noise. All these seemed a price worth paying. I thought of it as Camellot, a safe castle standing wrapped in misty winds.

Three months of living there had driven the mists away; things stood clearer. Strangely, the romantic image remains, alongside the real experience. These are fragments of a belated farewll.

* * *

When I grew up there were hardly any black people in Israel ; Ethiopean Jews came first in the 1980s, and were still much of a curiosity (now there's more of them). Living in an area where about half the people are black was therefore a new experience. It is one thing to think of yourself as free from racism; it is quite another thing to put it to a daily test. Racism lives in our heads, whether we want it or not: it's too deep in our culture(s) to pretend that it can driven away simply by ideals. When I first lived in Brixton - three years ago - I found my own racism, in the way I looked at people, in my body reactions. Partly it was the fear of the Other, the one who looks different; and partly it was things I heard and read in books and films, that have become part of my unconcious. Brixton gave me a chance to confront these notions in my head, and to rid myself of them as part of a daily experience.

Yet 'a black neighbourhood' is a misleading generalization. There is a big difference between the African community and the West-Indian. The Jamaican community is the domminant in Brixton, culturally and economically. I like the way rastafarians are so outrageously loud and direct. I like the way everybody waves to eachother on the street. There is a sense of a living place, that I rarely find in other parts of London. But there were also things I didn't expect, like aggressive male-chauvinism and homophobic attitudes. I know too little to make generalizations. But the incidents which I witnessed surprised me - not only because the men involved were abusive - but also the sense of rightousness that they had. There was something almost religious about it.

* * *
'I'm sick of Brixton, all the drug-dealers...' yes there is a lot of drug-dealing happening, and it's often a shorthand for all things nasty and unpleasant. But why are drug dealers worse than other dealers? I think more should be said.

If you are walking down Brixton Road and Coldharbour Lane in the evening you will be offered skunk every two meters. Now I don't like skunk and more so I don't like to be offered stuff to buy when I walk down my street. I don't care much if it's giant billboards selling shampoo or people pushing drugs shouting in my face: it's the same thing, unsolicited attempts to catch my attention in order to make profit. I think black people don't get hassled the same way. But as a white person walking down Coldharbour Lane I was assumed to be someone on a night out, a customer. I resented it. I was just walking home.

Crack is a serparate mileu, traders and clients. There was a crack dealer living in the courtyard. He was high on it half the time himself, just sleeping on the couch in the middle of the day, dumb and numb. Other times he would sweep the courtyard and burn incense sticks. He was harmless. His customers were erratic miserable junkies, who I didn't know and didn't care to know. I could hear them in the yard at night, pissing and swearing and arguing. Their lifestory is probably sad and horrible but I wanted to keep out of it. It is not pleasant to go out of your door and see someone smoking crack hidden behind the bins. The smell is foul.

I never felt at serious risk. The problem wasn't fear, but the notion that you have to be constantly careful and aware of the people around you. That you have to brace yourself before leaving home, before stepping out to the street. That step of relief when locking the gate behind you. It gets tiring very soon.

* * *

One of the signs of gentrification is trendy places opening up, bars and cafes, organic food shops. Not all of these are yuppie and soul-less. I can be sarcastic about these things but I like good food and it's nice to have a variety other than workers-cafes offering full-english-breakfast. Of these places I liked best the Ritzy. Drinking Jappanese beer overlooking townhall square, Brixton feels cool and viberant and diverse. But when you step back into Coldharbour Lane you till bump into crackheads and crazy people muttering FUCK FUCK FUCK. Brixton's gentrification seems less uneven than the usual: a lot of kicking and screaming involved.

But the more disturbing side, for me, is the club scene, Brixton's status as a cool place to go out. It thrives on the dodgy reputation of the area. This 'edgy' character brings in money, people from richer parts of town looking for a dose of excitment on the weekend. While in King Cross e.g. the dangerous image (drugs and prostitution) is a 'problem' to be 'solved' through regeneration, in Brixton it's too much part of the story to tackle. There is a feeling of sponsored edginess - that too much money is being made - that I find disgusting.

* * *

My favourite part of Brixton was and remains the Market. Fruits and Veg I get from elsewhere, so I would go there for other things: Syrian pickles in the Persian shop, Turkish bread in the Portugese one. But I loved the noise, I love the old ladies with their baskets and trolleys. And I love going there at night, cycling through electric Lane, when all is dark and quiet, dodging the holes in the road and thd dirty water puddles. In my head I can hear the noise of the daily market that died only a few hours ago (the Carribbean music, the cheesy Indian pop tunes) and this makes the silence tactile, like a pause in a conversation. Alive, only sleeping.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's not been this hot since the summer of the Iraq war. Then - three years ago - the summer broke out early, gloriously, as they say here (I grimace), shining down while we watched and followed, with fear, concern and sometimes hope. It was the spring of Vauxhall Grove, and I had found my first room, after four years as a living couple: that room was tentative, and only temporary (is it ever different), and very little in it was mine, except my dream-notebook under the pillow. I watched long evenings burning ships dance on the wall, the shadows of candle-lit-existance. Then we gave up current affairs, and cycled on, cycled through, to arrive a month later tanned and troubled to a year in the East End. Summer 2003 was all Pink Jesus.

This summer is even hotter, I conclude, walking up Walworth Road with a Namibian beer bottle (it's weak, and nice, and I think of Michael), dusk descending on the Elephant beyond. I've gone to two cold showers a day; escaping to have ginger beer in the Ritzy; but mainly hiding in the BL. Right now, in 'Asian and African Collections' (the renamed 'Oriental and India Office'; Political correctness, or perhaps Imperial amnesia). Persian kings - Nadir Shah espcially - are looking over my shoulders, their portraits huge and meancing. It sounds like the fire alarm now. I think escape is advisable.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Market in Summer

Woke up with the noise of paper through the letter box. It's 'the Londoner', Ken Livingstone's propaganda mouthpiece, informing us how good the Mayor is for this city and humanity, and offering some practical information too. There's an article on food. Did you know, they write, that 80 percent of the fruit and a third of the vegetables we consume is imported?

Only a third of the vegetables? well I guess a large portion of the rest is potatoes.

Anyway, good point. Fruit and veg. Fridge empty. It's market day.

Skipping in the summer is a bit frustrating. The skips are full with fruit and veg, but most of it is no good. London is so hot these days, with tempratures well above thirty. Prodcue spoils quicker in this heat, on the way to the market and while it is stored there. It can go bad in a few hours of standing in the sun. The smells are stronger, everything a bit muckier. The sight and smell of rotting produce: not for beginners. But there is still lots to find, especially if you come early. And somehow it seems that the security are not bothered. Maybe it's too hot for them to get out of their air-conditioned office

There was lots to find. It was vegetable day, aubergine galore and organic squashes and courgettes. Hardly any fruits. Exactly the opposite of last week. But the market works in mysterious ways.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Michael on Radio 4

Michael, Porridge time, last year (credit:El)

While people in some places are busy bombing eachother to pieces, others are trying a more constructive approach.

Michael, Mr. best and most-missed housemate of all times, will be on Radio 4 tonight speaking of his bicycle project in Namibia, south-west Africa. The organization he set up gets discarded bikes from Europe, fixes them up and distributes them to NGOs in Namibia, mainly to HIV-patients outreach workers. The aim is 'empowering disadvantaged Namibians through access to affordable transport.' You can read more on the BEN-Namibia website.

The program will be broadcast on Radio 4 9pm UK time, and it will be available on the 'listen again' section on the website.


I corrected the link to radio 4, and it now points to the program. If you have broadband access, do yourself a favour and listen it. It will make you a bit more optimistic about the world. Michael's project is simply remarkable. His 'get up and do it' attitude inspired me many times when we were living together. And what he's doing in Namibia is just amazing.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Taking Cold Showers

Like my previous place in Brixton, my new home does not have hot water. Unlike Flat 19, it has a shower. After trying to find some alternative solutions I decided it's a good opportunity to overcome my dislike for cold showers.

In my last year in highschool we had military officers from various units come and explain to us why we should join their ranks. One of them came from the Marine Commando. What I remember most from his talk was that part of daily routine was a swim in the sea at 6 in the morning, rain or shine, winter and summer. The idea of waking up to be thrown into freezing sea water was for me far more offputing than the risk of diving into enemy ports or attaching bombs to submarines.

But when I take cold showers now, I prefer to think of a different role model: that of Khalil Sakakini, the Palestinian writer and educator, and one of my favourite Jerusalemites.

Sakakini had a regime which he developed in his twenties and kept throughout his life. He would wake up, exercise, and then wash thoroughly in cold water. Then he would smoke and write for an hour, have breakfast (of 6 eggs! the days before they invented cholesterol... he was vegeterian but clearly not a vegan). He called it his 'way of life', which helped him to overcome depressions and hard times, and in his diaries he often writes about it:

Tuesday, 18.3.1919: There are days when I despair from life and I see no purpose in my existence. But soon I pull myself from this despair, through my way of life. Without this way of life, which leaves no day void, my feelings would be poisoned, despair would seize me and boredom and wearniness would overcome me. But my way of life gives me new birth every day.

Sakakini took cold showers all through the year, even in the harsh cold of his prison cell in Damascus in the winter of 1918 (he was exiled and imprisoned by the Ottomans for giving shelter to a Jerusalemite Jew who was wanted by the authorities).

In some way, this regime reflects not only the modernity of Sakakini's ideas - he was an avid reader of European literature and phillosophy - but also of modern living conditions, i.e. homes with a bathroom and shower, and the availability of water; a generation earlier Jerusalemites bathed in public bathhouses (hamams), probably not more than once a week.

At the moment I am getting used to it, and the water seem less cold each time. But it's July: I don't think I'll be able to do it in February. It's London after all.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Friday, July 07, 2006


For readers who are interested in the current Gaza escalation, Raed Jarrar and myself have written a joint article on the issue, 'A Unilateral Ride over the Edge', published by Foreign Policy in Focus. I'm also going to post more on the issue on my Jerusalem blog.

The Market Diaries

In the Time Out Food&Drink section this week I find a full-page picture of man standing over a pile of mandarines in front of industrial warehouses. Behind him are stacked fruit crates and parked forklifts. I recognise immediately the familiar setting of the Wholesale Market. Which row is it, I try to guess? Probably the middle one. The man seems self-confident with his open shirt, his smart-casual dress, and his comverse shoes. He's lifting one leg in the air, as if he is about to stamp on the discarded mandarines, or to toss them about like a football player. Some of the mandarines are crushed, but most seem alright, just scattered everywhere. The title says: Jamie Who? The fresh talent stamping their mark on London's food scene.

The man, I learn as I read, is the chef-patron of La Noisette, a restaurant soon to be opened in Knightsbridge. Time Out tip him as 'the wild card' on the up-and-coming masterchefs scene, with a reputation for 'fabulously inventive dishes such as foie gras with espresso syrup and amaretto foam'. 'Son of a Dutch father and Spanish mother, born in Switzerland and grew up in New York, the UK and France, about to marry a Canadian - 33-year-old Bjorn van der Horst could have pretty well gone anywhere'. Funny, this exhilarating globalised mix of countries and nationalities sound exactly like what I find in the Wholesale Market bins. Yesterday, for example, I went there and salvaged Domincian Republic Organic bananas, Spanish lemons, Maroccoan oranges and Chilean grapes - all of these, as Time Out put it, could have pretty well gone anywhere, but like Mr. van der Horst, ended up in London.
Aren't we all so lucky.

The discarded pile of mandarines in the Market was chosen to create an impression: something playful and edgy, the mix of orange colour with industrial grit, something wild and urbane-sophisticated. The young chef must be pleased: in the age of celebrity-chefs, an exciting public image is as important as what you cook. But I wonder: what's so delightfully playful about wasted food? Imagine a similar picture in a slaughterhouse: the young chef (who promises lots of meat in his new place) patting the heads of crying lambs, or standing smiling above carcasses and blood. Even die-hard carnivors would not find this too playful. But when it comes to the slaughtering of the planet, it's all fun and games: mandarines going to waste, yupee!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Quote of the day:
Once we have conciously known ourselves as pilgrims on the way, then all the people and the scenes about us have a new significane.

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (33)

Yes... Pencils?!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Waterloo Omens

It is no surprise that Waterloo Bridge features frequently in this blog (see here and there). It is probably my favourite bridge, the one I use most . The Bridge is my liminal threshold, my daily rites of passage from South to North, from Life to Library, from home to London.

But three ominous developments have caused me to think of alternative routes.

1. The constant traffic-jam at the north end, caused by the roadworks, leaving no room for cylcists. About two thirds of the way I have to get off my bike and start walking amid irritated pedestrians.

2. The Charing Cross huge clock has been showing the time as midday for the last week. Its giant arms refuse to move. As any apprentice psychogeographer would tell you, this can only mean one thing: the end is nigh.

3. Most disturbing of all: the Waterloo Rabbit. I've never noticed it before, and it freaks me out.