Thursday, December 20, 2007

In the land of heathens

Somehow this year I find Christmas unbearable. It's my seventh festive season in England. I hate it: I hate the red and black in the shop fronts, I hate the schmaltsie songs in the restaurants, I hate the hysteria building up, I hate the fact that everything - including public transport - will stop over the next few days. Even the trains to the airports stop.

Why a post-Christian nation would still want to go through this annual nerve-wrecking experience is one question. With Church attendance falling to the margins of statistical error, this festival can hardly be called religious, even if you insist on the chorals. But more important, London is not England. At least two out of the seven or eight millions of people living here come from other religious backgrounds: mostly Muslims, but also Hindu, Sikh, Budhist, and Jews. Why do we non-Christians have to suffer? It doesn't mean anything to most of us, not even the hazy memories of some original myth that we no longer believe in. It's just another cold two weeks in which you can't do anything and have to stay at home, unless you escape out of the country in time.

I now realize this is how Palestinians in Israel must feel during the High Holidays or Passover. The frenzy of another people's festivals can offer some amusement, but it's annoying when the banks are closed, the buses don't work, or - in the case of people in the West Bank -you're under virtual curfew (just to make sure you won't upset your neighbours festivities).

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hackney Diary: Multi-Culturalism

The internet shop from which I connected to the web in the last three months has large signs saying "No porn sites". Twice I witnessed the staff asking clients to stop looking at naked women or log out and leave. One black Caribbean guy responded by calling the shop-attendant "Taliban". The term came so instantaneously out of his mouth, so easily without a second of reflection, that I was taken aback. "Do you know what the Taliban is?" asked the guy from the shop in a tired tone. But the customer was not interested in his take on the Taliban. He knew what the term meant, and said it again. "Taliban".

The staff are all Muslim, bearded men in galabiyas. Most are African, from Sudan and East Africa is my guess. The only thing they play on the stereo is Qur'an Suras. I can't say they're particularly nice, unless you say Salam Alaykum, and then you get a smile and 'Alaykum al-Salam'. In other circumstances I would have used the greeting - it does not come unnatural to me - but here it felt like a code to a fraternity to which, in truth, I do not belong; I did not want to feel like a phony. My Hello was always greeted with a suspicious head nod. Perhaps you develop this attitude when you're running an internet shop on a main road in Hackney. Perhaps they're just not friendly. My views on life and the universe are probably very different from theirs, but on the porn issue I'll take their side; I'd rather not have the guy sitting next to me drooling over these pictures.

It's a strange place, Hackney. Like Peckham, or Brixton, everything is in-your-face, including the mix of cultures. On the corner where the internet shop is located there is also a Turkish club for men playing cards all day; a Vietnamese grocery; a small Turkish supermarket; a West-African take-away; a cheap hostel. For a whole month the corner also featured a large billboard advertisement for Marks and Spencer's middle-class-respectable women clothes, showing a model sailing a gondola in Venice. I wondered if M&S had any idea who the people walking past were, and the likelihood of their buying into this Venice fantasy. But I'm straying off my main subject, which is the meeting of cultures, "the clash of civilisations" in the corner of Mare st and Wells st.

Diversity is the most striking feature; diversity of colours, tastes, and sounds. In contemporary writing ethnic difference is often reduced to food, and in such a place it is perhaps inevitable. Get your Chinese lettuce from the Vietnamese, your pomegranates from the Turkish, your Curry-Goat from the Caribbean takeaway. Isn't it wonderful, the collage of cuisines, and aren't we all so lucky, to be living in Bablyondon. On the bus you hear the music of a hundred languages (spoken on mobile phones), mixing together to one symphony, of dense melodic rhythms of little water streams or the cacophony of busy market places, all far far away from this hazy cold city.

From here it is only a small step to the trope of multi-culturalism, which has now the status of an official doctrine. It says, in brochures and posters, more or less in the following lines: respect, live side by side, appreciate difference. We come in all colours and shapes, we each keep our languages, our cultures, our beliefs; we engage in a polite way to make this a free and open and diverse society.

The discourse of multi-culturalism often invokes images of the tapestry or the mosaic, that is, of different elements juxtapositioned within a coherent whole. The problem with such models is that they represent the world as flat, two-dimensional and static. What is missing is the flows which create this tapestry; the forces that shape it, and the frame which sets its borders. The problem with this ideology of pluralism and tolerance is what it makes invisible: the fact that it operates and depends on a society of consumption, on global capitalism, on certain gender-roles and power-relations. You can look at the Hackney street-corner or upper-deck of the bus and marvel: like in Benetton adverts, skins in every colour. Difference is made a commodity in the age of consumer choice. But what is left of difference when you don't want to buy or sell it?

I look at the Hackney street corner and I see invisible forces at work: immigration; exploitation; power; commodification; those are but a few that make this space what it is. If you don't see them, you will see the 'clash of cultures', or, in more optimistic moments, the Mediterranean cucumbers alongside Vietnamese mint; and the smiles of the faces in the colours of the rainbow, but how they (people and vegetables alike) got here, and what they are, will be lost in the two-dimensional multi-cultural snapshot.

This doesn't mean I have a dictionary through which I can translate the world correctly, reduce everything to its real meaning, using theories of capital or gender. No; if anything, my experiences from the internet shop tells me things are never so simple.

saving those little fishes

My food scavenging experiences have largely been limited, in the past few months, to salvaging packed sandwiches and salads from their black plastic bin-liner coffins, left outside the cafes chains. For a student living on a shoestring and engaged with a battle with the phd-moloch, this is a reasonable way to fill your stomach, save money and time. However I hate living on sandwiches. The bread of these triangle shaped specimens is labeled 'malted brown' or 'multi-grain' or something to make it sound healthy, but it's cheap and crappy bread to begin with, and would not last more than a few hours after the sandwich was made. So I have devised a new way to salvage these wasted items. With salmon, roastbeef, chorizo sandwiches etc, I discard the bread as soon as I can and keep the meat or fish to serve in breakfast, or to make my own sandwiches.

I am not vegetarian. I would prefer to be one, but I enjoy eating meat and fish. I am not even a freegan - though the term freeganism is often used liberally to describe any dumpster-happy comrade, strictly speaking it refers to Vegans who allow themselves animal products when they find them and not have to pay for them; and I do buy meat and fish occasionally.

Yet there is something that strikes me as especially horrible in throwing good meat and fish away. A fellow scavenger I recently met in college put it into words. "You may think it is alright to kill animals in order to eat them. But killing a living creature, just to throw its meat away? What kind of a senseless cruelety is that? How can you possibly justify it?"

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Recently I've become obsessed with coveing my face, with hiding from the world. It happens most often on public transport: on trains, and buses, which sadly I have succumbed to taking much more in the last few months. Sometimes I wish I could wear a veil that would protect me from the wind, the rain, and the looks of strangers. But the cultural connotations of the veil preclude this option for me. So I have resorted to other means, such as letting my hair grow, until I now resemble a small shrub; and wearing the hood. When I am wearing the hood, I can see less (my field of vision is obstructed on both sides) but others can see less of me. Hooded, in a dark empty street, it's harder to tell if you're a man or a woman, angry or happy, a bum or a productive member of society(TM).

To some extent, this is about personal safety. On a bike I always felt protected from the city, like a knight on a horse, escaping unpleasant encounters by quickly turning the pedals, and arriving straight home. Coming back on foot, after midnight, to an east London estate, feels different. But real or imagined danger is not the main issue. It is about being exposed to society whether you want it or not.

In retreating to my hooded shell, I am following the rule of this city, not the exception: the rule of no-contact at all costs. Read your rubbish-newspaper; listen to your i-pod music; murmur sorry every once in a while; block out any disturbances. Ignore your fellow humans. I have always found it strange how people of all origins take on this attitude; Polish or Jamaican, everyone adapts to the London etiquette.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

another day

For some days now I've been thinking about getting Wellington rubber boots. There is a big puddle outside the front door - the drains seem to be blocked - and Wellies could help if I wanted to do something about it. Yesterday I found a pair in the street on the way home. Somebody left them next to the parking metre. As if they had come to pay for parking and then vanished into thin air.

(empty shoes always look like someone just took them off, said f. There is something indexical about shoes).

I looked around to see if the boots related to something particular, but could find nothing except people walking past busily and the random groupings of students outside college doors. I put my foot inside one boot; there was sand at its bottom. My size: reclaimed.

Later, closer to home, we checked the bins of the French patisserie on the green. I never had luck there but yesterday, success: long thin baguettes. As I closed the binliners, a man approached us, turning his head from side to side erratically: maybe you have 30p, 10p coin, I need to make a phone call. His eyes were twitching, and his manner suggested crack. No money I said, but you can find some nice bread in there, and pointed at the binliner. "What!" he exclaimed, and hurried off, shouting-murmuring, waving his hands: "Arseholes. Idiots. SCUM! Taking food from the rubbish! SCUM!"

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

How to renew your student visa

1. Make an appointment with the Immigration offices. It will cost you more, but this way, you will think, at least it's all over in one day, and you'll have more control over this disempowering experience. You will be wrong: to illustrate this point, your first appointment will be cancelled with no reason and you will have to change your plans to get a new one.

2. Take the train fron London Bridge station going to Croydon. Do not expect to see the bridge or the river; instead expect concrete landscape, the constant downpour of text and numbers on huge screens, the confusion of loudspeaker announcements. As the train pulls out, look right and see a medium-size bill board:

Legal Shop Online: Write your will for just £9.99

Wonder for a brief moment about the morbid nature of the commuting experience, and then look back to see if the sign was really there, only too late, it's gone.

3. Upon arrival to Croydon, walk out of the train station and turn right. Notice a drunk man lying unconscious on the right hand side, his bottle next to him, his bottom exposed. Notice another man pull out his mobile phone and, laughing, he takes a picture of the drunk man. Look to the grey skies, and turn right again, to Wellselly road.

4. Proceed through 1960s land: an eight-lane road with high rise buildings on both sides. Shopping malls, hotels. It's grim, and it could be anywhere. Since you had been to the UK for a while you know it usually doesn't look like this. Notice the space exploration theme: first you pass Apollo house, and then, your destination, the concrete-blocks-protected Lunar House.

5. From here on you will have to follow the winding path of the bureaucratic maze, that is at the heart of the British State's system of control. Where other countries put armed police, here they use ribbon-separated queues and a convoluted system of lifts (Did you sit on the red or blue seats? Red? Then it'll be the third lift on your left). This cluttered order through chaos was once the secret of ruling a third of the planet.

6. As you wait for your appointment, you will find yourself too nervous to go over your draft chapters. Instead, stare at the screens. Short informative clips are provided, to teach you to Save Energy at home! Keep distance while driving! Don't leave your baby in the bath by herself! Don't forget the cooker on! In addition, you can learn about the history of Croydon - home of Nestle UK, and the London's first airport - and about the facilities: a "multifaith reflection room", baby changing rooms, and a pay phone (all mobile phones must be switched off).

7. Finally your ticket number will be called out. You will sit on a plastic chair, slightly far from the counter. A glass wall separates between you and your interviewer, and you will have to lean forward, uncomfortably, and shout for her to hear, and for other people behind you in the hall to hear as well: shout your current employment status. Shout that you hope to complete this degree by next September. That you had recently moved house. That your brother brings you money when he comes to visit, twice a year. That you are going through divorce.
'Passport and application form please!'

Your interviewer will most likely not be of a white English background. The immigration service seems to be the most ethnically- and racially- diverse public service in the UK, and this is no accident. The children of the colonies are now the zealous guardians of the former Empire.

8. Do not ask you interviewer: How does it feel to have people's futures in your hands, in application forms and passport photos, in bank statements and letters of proof? How does it feel to have the power to join lovers and break families, to give hope and to shatter dreams? You will be too wise to ask her. Instead, fix your gaze on the red button next to the interviewer's microphone. The button says PANIC ATTACK, in crafted lettering that you will not be able to define in exact terms.

9. The interview is over, and now you have two more hours to wait for your passport. Wander round and read the signs in the hallway, and in the corridor, encouraging you to leave feedback if you are 'unhappy with our service'. Yes, the people deciding your future are providing a service, and you are a customer. This place, the headquarters of population control, is no more than a 'Public Enquiry Bureau'.

Fill in one of the feedback forms. Under 'other suggestions' write:
A World Without Borders.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

homework: pillage three coastal villages

A notice in my college:

VIKINGS
The Class will not be taking place today.
Please make sure you have completed your assignment for the seminar meeting.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Dissertation Blitz

I was supposed to be in Tel Aviv right now, but the Home Office thought differently. They bungled my visa extension application and I had to stay. Instead, I am watching the days grow short as I am waging the last battle of this five-year-phd-plan. Comrades, if all works according to plan this will be nearly over in three weeks. So, from morning to early hours, it's thesis time, no weekends, no procrastination. Some of us may not survive the campaign, but the greater good will benefit. How exactly, I am not sure.

At the meantime, I am leaving college in late hours and find my dinner on the way to the tube. Last week I was looking through the trash of a cafe-branch in Holborn as a man in a suit and tie stopped by and joined the picking. 'Anything in there today?' he said. 'Well you know they mess it up so people can't take anything, taking sandwiches out of their packaging' I said 'but there's always some exceptions'. I handed him a tomato-and-brie baguette (still in its wrapping). 'No thanks' he said. 'It's for my neighbour, an old woman, I bring her food on my way home. The baguette is too hard for her teeth.'

He also was suspicious of a salmon sandwich. I told him I never got ill from food I found in the rubbish, not once in five years. I can't say the same about food I paid for in restaurants!

Friday, October 19, 2007

oiling the wheels

In October 2001, the price of a barrel of petroleum was 19 dollars.

Yesterday it reached 90 dollars.

It hasn't even made the headlines. I'm looking at a few news websites. Yes, it's there, somewhere at the bottom. But that's because it hasn't translated to petrol prices yet, and because we haven't looked back to realize how far we've gone from the cliff edge.

Capitalism is all about playing the roadrunner. You're safe as long as you don't look down; just keep running, and the wind you'll make will help your fellow roadrunners to hover onwards. There are however moments when people look down. They can't help it. It's inevitable. Humans are curious creatures. Like the story of Lot's wife or Orpheus. They know it's not going to bring good but they look back. I wonder how close we are to the moment of sudden awareness - low-energy light bulb! - TING! - we've founded an entire civilization on the basis of a non-renewable energy source!! and it's not going to last much longer!! What are we going to do??

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

hidden, stolen friend

This is Hoa Hakananai'a, which means 'hidden or stolen friend'. Appropriate as it is now far away from his Easter Island home, in the British Museum. You can their official description here. Note how they carefully mention that the islanders helped to carry to poor heavy thing to the HMS Topaze boat that took it to Blighty. God knows what the British Empire would have done without the kind hospitality of strangers.

He's one of my favourite items in the Museum, which I rarely visit despite the fact it is very close to my college. This morning I decided to say hello to my hidden friend on my way to work. After passing through the loud courtyard I found him sulking amongst other pacific specimens. As usual I tried to imitate his face, which came very easily.

The text beneath 'the hidden or stolen friend' insists he is a statement about leadership and authority, but I think their guess is as good as mine. Any reading of this face would be a modern projection; for me he suggests vulnerability and the difficulty of holding your chin up. His small arms are holding his body tightly, almost in fear that he might fall off the pedestal. I would like to put my arms around him, but the text beneath also says please do not touch.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Never be too eager

Rule #1 of the finding and losing economy: wish, don't plan.

Sometimes you decide that today, you're going to find your dinner. You check one sandwich shop and find nothing, but instead of relenting, you insist: you know there is food out there, good food, carefully packed, hiding in black bin liners and is going to waste. What was an evening stroll, a break from the tedium of sitting in front of the computer, becomes a mission. You visit your favourite skipping places one after the other, Cafe branches and sushi takeaways, and find only disappointment. Here you arrive too early and there too late. Finally you realize: you have become too confident, too determined, too calculated. You take off your imaginary hat and buy some chips.

Skipping doesn't go well with planning. When you plan, you shut your eyes to whatever the street has to offer. Skipping works best when you wish for things, in a casual way. Like, wouldn't it be great to find a small gas oven. And then, two days later, you find one. It happens all the time.

The idea that your diet is not for you to decide is of course strange . In our society, food, like most things, is presumed to be a matter of consumer choice. When eating out, you decide: Vietnamese or Turkish, a soup or a sandwich. People plan dinner according to what they would like to eat; they then go to the shop and buy the ingredients. The unavailability of an item is met with a slight disbelief. The relation between seasons and food seems a faint childhood memory, and is used by the supermarkets exactly in this way; nostalgia is a great marketing tool. But these 'seasonal vegetable' signs only confirm that a relation between nature and food is an exception, not the rule.

Finding your food involves a different approach. Like a hunter-gatherer, you set out for an adventure. You might find plenty, or nothing. You may be in the mood for aubergines, but you come back with a sack of peppers. Seasons do not exist in the bins more than they exist in the shops; but at least you have no illusion of 'choice'. The power to choose is, no doubt, a privilege, which is not easy to give up. But it does not compare with the sweet taste of the unexpected, like the container of Parmesan cheese I found the other week.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Skipping and hopping

From the kitchen window I see the rubbish bins of the estate. Always overflowing, and usually surrounded by more rubbish. Stuff you can always find on the streets. Like ironing boards. Laundry racks. Broken plastic containers. Clothes hangers. Prams. Mattresses. Stuff that gets broken and then has no use. The dead plastic skin shed by mass-consumption society. In a city of affluence, even the poor can afford to throw away.

Among the rubbish zoo mattresses are especially miserable creatures. Cheaply made and easily thrown out, mostly for a reason, although I have found good futons on the street (but left them there). A day or two outside and a reasonabley good mattress becomes a sad soggy piece of filth.

On Sunday there were two mattresses outside the bins. For some hours they laid there sadly, but then they were reclaimed by the kids as trampoline. They were led by an extremely eager 6-year-old girl, who kept encouraging the rest. The miracle of staying up there in the air! It looked like the springs were in good shape. I followed them from the kitchen window and thought about the dump as East London's multicultural melting pot, where children of all colours and backgrounds meet, halleluja. There aren't many places to play around the estate, with most of the place taken up by car parking.

The next day I looked out of the window to find the bins empty again.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

So Doku

On Sunday I attended the Times national So Doku championship, even though I never solved one of these puzzles in my life. I was there as part of my brilliant career as invigilator, and my job this time was to check the answers of the participants. There were over a hundred of them, all sitting in one room. Most of them looked in their 40s and 50s, lower middle class, more men than women (3:2 ratio. I counted. Invigilation makes you very bored). Almost all, save three or four, were white. I don't know it that's the profile of the average so doku fan or the average Times reader.

I sat there and watched foreheads furrow, eyeballs roll, fingers stretched, and tongues peek from tightly closed lips as they tried to get the numbers right. I thought how once we humans preferred to run around and try to climb treas and kick balls. But now we sit in a room and write numbers into little boxes. What a technocratic society we live in. We measure a genius by her or his ability to arrange a nine by nine matrix in the right way and quickly as possible. Other societies may pick their geniuses by their ability to get the best apple yield or to crack car locks.

But I heard somewhere that there's a lot of creativity in writing these puzzles, and the ones produced by computers are hugely inferior. So humanity still kicks ass. The composers of Sunday's puzzles stood at the side of the room, a quiet couple of earnest and lean looks from the So Doku Syndicate, the group that really runs the universe. They reminded me of the virtual reality terrorists of Kronenberg's Existenz.

For so doku fans in my readership, two set of puzzles are waiting for you, if you want, the junior ones for under 12 and 13-16. I tried the one for under 12 children, and failed. I used to think I was good with numbers.
The white man jumped into the 38 bus through the back doors, saying very cheerfully to no-one in particular, 'good old Ken Livingstone. Giving Londoners free buses'. He then turned to stand in profile, and suddenly became quiet and gloomy.

Some of my friends have made an art of travelling all across London on these bendy buses where you don't have to show your ticket to the driver. There's enough of them to get you anywhere, albeit in winding routes. I'm usually too impatient, and also too worried to get caught. When I'm not in the mood to pay, like today, I stand next to the electronic-ticket-reader in case an inspector comes.

I'm reading the new Koetzee book in hard cover and it's hard holding it up while standing.

A man with an indian accent said: 'My grandfather was a great man. He died laughing'.

Free rides come with a price. The bus terminated its journey two stops after Angel, and long before my stop. It was sunny, and I decided to walk to college. The streets sprinkled with some unexplained English good nature and properness that almost made me feel I'm not in London. But then the red brick house, that beautiful 1930s gothic tower. I would so much like to live there. Or squat it for just one winter.

Monday, September 10, 2007

It's my birthday today and I started it with a cold shower. I was supposed to be over that stage in my life, now as a legitimate rent-paying occupier of living premises. Well the fact I don't need to show a Section 6 Warning on the door doesn't mean I get hot water. Gas to the flat was disconnected last week by the long arm of the law, chasing some long-gone tenant. Getting it back is not easy.

At the meantime it's DIY all over again, had to install my camping-stove on top of the IKEA kitchen. The oven is working, being electric, but I somehow never got along with ovens. What can one do with ovens? Roast veggies. Cook eggplants to prepare Baba Ganush (eggplant spread). Hmm that's it more or less.

So cold showers. Dreading them is part of the deal. But so is the liberation they bring. It is that little push you often need in the morning. It's a reminder that you are stronger than you think. Not just about endurance and resilience, but also learning to live with your body, and letting it enjoy the world at it is. As the gushes flow down your skin, you feel your back straigthen, your shoulders broaden. One last wash, one more second, and you are ready to face the day with a shivering smile.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Chapeau Bas

After three years of struggle, the village of Bil'in in the West Bank has won its fight against the 'security' fence that was stealing its lands for a yet-unbuilt settlement. In three years of weekly demonstrations involving Israeli and International supporters, the Bil'in village committee has proved itself among the most imaginative, resourceful and inspiring non-violent direct action campaigners in the world. They staged their resistance-performances every Friday, tirelessly, to an unappreciative audience of teargas-bomb squads. Actions included setting up a settler-style outpost; squatting empty houses in the nearby settlement; barricading in a cage with a goat on the route of the fence; a piano recital and more. (This is my account of one action, two years ago).

Today the Israeli Supreme Court declared the route of the fence illegal. On the overall schema of things, this small victory may seem insignificant. There are a thousand more defeated Bil'ins in the West Bank and Gaza, a million more defeated Bil'ins in the world. But for me, the real victory, and the one that should serve as example, is the Bil'in demonstrators ability to maintain their resolve, creativity and humanity in the last three years. Bravo.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

This Morning

Man with teddy bear heading to Kingsland Road - Barbican towers appear, their teeth ready to bite - Somebody scratching off the name off a funny looking church, 'The Word Centre' - a dead squirrel, lying on its back, on the side of the road -

A dead squirrel.

Centre Point in view.

Descend, maintain course, ready, slow

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sweet Malaise

My illness compels me to take a certain vitamin every other day. For more than a week now I haven't taken any; I forgot them in the previous house I stayed. House moves never come without leaving some things behind. After ten days of a roller coaster ride I finally collect the pieces of my life together, and went to buy more vitamins.

Not only they sold me the wrong vitamin, but the pills were covered in sugar, as I found when I took one an hour ago. The nauseating taste is still in my mouth. Why put sugar in a vitamin pill? The pill has no taste that needs disguising. I suppose they add it because they think people like it. It makes you happy, no? Like the candyman? But I feel like someone has slipped a drug into my food.

It is astonishing how many things contain sugar. It is difficult to come across packaged food or beverages that don't have it in them. After five years of a diet based on fruit and vegetables, the taste of sugar now strikes me as crude and vulgar. I can feel the effect it has on me, like the effect drugs have on people who never took them. I don't like it: it sends rushes through my body, it makes me edgy and erratic.

Sugar has been cultivated from very ancient times but it developed from a luxury drug to a mass-market narcotic only in the age of European colonisation. The connection of sugar with the slave trade is well know. To cover a history stained with blood and exploitation the sugar traffickers became art-sponsors, and Tate is only one example. But there are important correlations and parallels between sugar and fossil fuels. Both have been so successful because of what they give us: plentiful energy. Both are - socially and environmentally - devastatingly unsustainable. For more on this double addiction read Louis de Sosa on the Oil Drum.

I have still to write about the Climate Camp but life has really been out of control. I have been urging it to behave better and finally it seems to relent. Back soon with more.

Monday, August 20, 2007

compost tales

On my arrival to the camp I was reminded how easy it is to make compost from urine: you simply piss into a pile of straw or sawdust. The urinal in the climate camp were a line of straw bales behind a curtain. Straw bales also made the seats in the big marquee where the workshops were taking place. On one occasion I had to give up my seat as the toilets were running low on straw.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

This planet has no emergency exit

Back from two days at the Climate Camp in Heathrow, had an exciting, inspiring, and infuriorating time. Due to lack of time, had to decide between going to the workshops and the direct action on Sunday/Monday, and I chose the workshops. I'm glad I did, I learnt a lot and it gave me much to to think about. I hope Sunday and Monday will be as good.
More later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Devil in Arsenal

This morning, as I was leaving home, a woman approached me. She said she was very troubled about the rising violence and killings lately, and wanted to know what I thought. I said something about the social breakdown of late capitalism. 'But who is behind all this?' she asked, taking a book out of her handbag, and opening on one of the pages of the Revelation. It mentioned the dragon, the serpent, and the devil. 'He is responsible', she said. I said I did not believe in the devil, declined to take her reading material, and cycled off.

But then I saw him. He was walking on Gillespie Road, coming from Arsenal Tube station. A middle aged man wearing a black bowler hat, and three heavy necklaces, and carrying a Tesco plastic bag. He seemed deep in thought.

* * *

This summer of moving house every four weeks gives me an opportunity to familiarise myself with areas in London I never knew before. Arsenal is the latest: it's a pleasant, nondescript lower-middle class neighbourhood in north London. If you never lived in London, it would look exactly like any other neighbourhood: the terrace houses, the occasional council estate, the park. But between them there is a big football stadium: this is Arsenal, home of the football club, a household name for millions of people around the world. The stadium lives up to the club's reputation. It carries the logo of the Emirates airline and its slick glass and steel design is how I imagine Dubai. But arriving there is a sort of an accident, tucked away as it is between the community nature park and the housing development. Nothing much prepares you to it, and once you passed it you are back in north London.

I am no football fan but even for me the name Arsenal carries some meaning. Reconciling the global trademark with the London reality is a confusing experience, but one that is an integral part of living here. So much of our modern mythology came out of London. The estranging effect of placing the myths back into their pecularly local birthplaces is one of the reasons I like living in this city.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Climate Camp

I am considering going to the Climate Camp in Heathrow. The scheduled workshops sound terrific, and I need a short break away from London. What could be better than some fresh air, good organic camp food, 1,800 policemen to make you feel safe and an airplane taking off over your head every 50 seconds.

Yesterday Downing Street warned the protesters that any disruption to the airport's operation will be 'unacceptable'. If there is a point in these protests it is exactly this: soliciting such statements, which show the reality behind the smooth talking. In moments of crisis the real determining forces are unmasked, priorities and power relations become clear. This is important.

Climate change is caused by human actions, mostly the flaring of fossil fuels. This is something the current British Prime Minister and his predecessor have talked endlessly about, but they never termed these human actions 'unacceptable'. The criminal waste and pollution can and should go on, even if it leads to an environmental holocaust. The only thing that is unacceptable is the disruption of the economic machine responsible for climate change. Heathrow airport is a real place and a symbol for the frenzied movement on which global capitalism thrives. The baggage carousel cannot afford to slow down. Instead, we hear delirious promises of technological solutions, regulation, carbon trading and offsetting, whatever. Just keep the party going.

The camp's declared aim is to stop the building of a third runway, which would expand the number or flights going through Heathrow considerably. For the runway to be built, an entire village would have to be evicted and concreted over, and the media is now turning to cover its struggle. Yesterday they showed it as a postcard of England: the elderly couple and their small well-kept garden; the local pub owner, with his melancholic, understated resolve. Such pictures are easy for viewers to understand and empathise with: they make visible and real the consequences of Heathrow's expansion. Understand, empathise, and move on: progress demands sacrifices. What the media does not and in many ways cannot show, is the real yet invisible link between the ever-more frequent famines, droughts, floods, and the kerosene fuel burnt in Heathrow.

Fossil fuels are an absolute essential to the way we live today, and so much vested interest depends on this order of things that no level of empaty or awareness will bring the necessary change. The rapid depletion of energy sources in the coming decade will be the first step towards transition, but not without a struggle. On the way there, more and more people will realize the unacceptable price of the way we live.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Escapism

Whenever my life goes out of control, I find myself reading obsessively about the coming oil crisis. It's my very own form of escapism: others go to the cinema, I read about depleting oil fields. There is something very soothing about it. As it seems that the whole petroleum-based economy is going to hit the wall soon at high speed, it puts things into perspective. No place to live? having to move house once a month? struggling to finish my thesis in a state of growing anxiety? sit back and relax while I tell you about the costs of offshore drilling; the fictions of oil reserves figures; the curves of supply and demand graphs. Open wide your eyes, as the peak oil magician continues to conjure food shortages, major panic and a climate disaster.

As I said, it does put things into perspective. The thing is, that even when I get out of my moments of crisis, the oil problem is still there. Did I tell you already? It's running out.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Skipping Hisotry


Once a day I leave my desk at college to go and see my lover in the nearby university institute. On the way I pass by the university dumping site, a hidden corner of amusement and curiosities. Chairs, desks and filing cabinets are guarantied, but sometimes you can find more interesting things. Today the skip had dozens of bookends, a karate suit and belts, and an exercise bicycle. But the most beautiful find was a wooden cataloging cabinet with thirty small drawers, labelled 'history'. I wish I could take it.

The card catalogue is no doubt a thing of the past. It represented a wish to sort the universe according to a rigid set of categories; it had to be constantly maintained, and it was always in crisis. 'No cataloguing system is ever comprehensive' said to me the archive maiden in Oxford Middle East Centre last year. Yet the catalogers tried their best to keep the world in check. Globalisation swept this away: not so much the computer as the Internet. Tabulated databases made way for networks: pyramids of information were replaced with DNA spirals. The triumph of Google is the filing cabinet's kiss of death. The Google algorithm, with its emphasis on paths and links of information rather than content, and flows of information rather than constant structures, has learnt not to search for a euclidean geometrical order in this chaos, but to follow its entropic dancesteps.

This is no song of praise: just like economic globalisation, the death of the authoritative catalogue does not mean a world without hierarchies. It means a more chaotic and confusing world of information, abundance for some and scarcity for many. The Google spider sits in its web and gets fat on something.

When it comes to scholarly work, my own system of cataloguing is dismal, and my note-taking technique continues to fail me at crucial moments. More than anything, I think of myself as scavenger: like in my trips to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market, I pick the rubbish which others left behind: I collect, not to assemble a complete set, but in order to produce a strange collage. My intellectual journey has its logic and aim, but accident is the rule of thumb. At the end of the day, all I can ever produce are my happy findings on a criss-cross journey over a wide field.

I left the catalogue cabinet in its place, but could not resist the karate belt.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Now is a period of housing uncertainty, jumping between safe havens, spending six weeks here and three weeks there. This is not the first time for me; in five years in London I had many moments when I didn't know where my home will be in two weeks. The price of instability is often confusion and despair. During these periods I remember cycling through the streets and looking at people's houses, through the windows of the warmly-lit living rooms, where people seemed safe and happy. I kept asking myself: Why do I not have a home like this? How is it that some people manage to find a place to live?

My answer would usually be that I chose to abandon the "normal" way and live in squats, abandoned and often derelict houses where I had no legal right to stay, and therefore had subjected myself to constant dislocation. But I always knew that this was an illusion. Housing is this city's biggest problem, and precarious accommodation affects far more people than squatters. One doesn't need the official numbers of 70,000 'officially homeless households' in London: almost everyone I know spent weeks or months sleeping on friends' floor or on the living room sofa.

Renting promises an allure of stability, but the truth can be very different. I know enough nightmare stories: J paid a first month rent and deposit to crooks, only to find that the flat was not theirs; M was forced out of his tiny room in a luxury Hampstead flat by the collapse of the ceiling; S fled her noisy landlord who would embark on DIY projects in the middle of the night; P chose to leave when her housemate started sending her emails of spite and hatred. These stories may well be the exception, but they prove that paying extortionate sums of money to landlords doesn't necessarily give you a stable roof above your head, or a safe place to come to at the end of the day. Living in this eight-million-ant colony makes one vulnerable to random, unstable, and precarious circumstances. This cannot be avoided.

We always underestimate the power of our environment to determine our lives: London has taught me this lesson so many times. The advertising billboards tell you you can be anything you want, as long as you buy what they sell. They want you to believe that you control your future: it's all about your decisions, your choices. But again and again you find your life dictated by events and powers over which you have no control, and often little knowledge. Fighting this makes no sense: but dealing with these unchosen circumstances still leaves much room to find in myself calm, strength and hope.

Friday, July 20, 2007

UNCLAIMED SHOES ARE A
P R O B L E M

REPAIR ORDERS ALWAYS REQUIRE A
D E P O S I T

(A sign in a shop in Newington Green. Outside the rain never stopped)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Just go for a drive

Last night I went to the cinema. After 16 years without television, I'm always excited to see the advertisements before the film. I can't resist the promise of spectacle, but like the desire for fast food when you're hungry, the excitement lasts for about two minutes, then comes nausea.

Three out of four ads are trying to sell cars. One of those screened last night had a man cruising some downtown at night alone in his car. Of course he seems alert, confident and strangely content as he drives through the slick cityscape. The allure of the edge: dark empty streets, drug dealer types, somewhere a burning vehicle in an empty parking lot. Thank god, it's a bus. Nobody likes public transport. And then the punchline: When was the last time you just went for a drive?

Well, never, in my case, but I know people do. Some years ago Time Out asked various celebrities what's best to do in London "for free", and the superstar architect David Adjaya said he likes to drive his car around the city aimlessly for hours. So much for "London for free" (what about car maintenance, petrol, congestion charge?)

Driving just for fun: burning petrol, pumping CO2 and pollutants to the air, and making your car a little older. As they say, doing your bit for the economy; the economy of overproduction, waste, and ecological destruction. In a few years, if we ever get to have the Fossil Fuel Museum, these citations can go on the wall. I imagine visitors' reaction: you had the cheapest energy ever available to humans, and you just burnt it for fun?

Five years ago a barrael of petroleum sold for $22. Today the price is $78 - almost four times more. Most rollercoasters return to the starting level at the end of the trip, but this one's going up the mountain the whole way, a spectacular takeoff straight into the sunset. In five or ten years "just going out for a ride" will be as likely as burning your house to get warm. But you wiil always be able to go out for a cycle. And there won't be all these annoying architects in their swanky cars on the roads.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

upturn

"London has a beating heart" said P two years ago. We were in Amsterdam sitting on a bench and watching the Amstel. He was opening grolsch bottles one after the other like pistachio nuts. "London is a living monster. It can crash you like an insect, throw you into the gutter, it can kill you if it wants, but it can also protect you, heal you and look after you".

Saturday London decided to be kind. It started with a slow and good visit to the market where we found asparagus, parsley plums, grapes and papayas. Later a five hours farewell-to-south-London party on the roof with a pink sunset on one side and a rainbow on the other. By 1am got hi-jacked to another party in a former psychiatric clinic, squatted by Polish kids. The building seemed in bad shape, and they have no water or electricity inside the house. So they use a generator and rebuilt their kitchen in the garden near the only working tap. The music was 1980s cheese, bad, bad, bad, you know it.

Someone looked at me and said:
Very good. Always make sure your shirt matches your drink.

I was holding vodka and cranberry, which should give you some idea about the shirt.

Slim bikes were overcrowding the dark corridor. The next room had a football table and a kitten. And their court papers for late July.

When I cycled back the day was starting. Walorth road was packed with cars and bagels were in much demand.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Life seems to go into a spiral just at the moment where I needed three months of stability to complete the project on which I've worked for four years. As I am moving from one temporary accommodation to another, my housing situation beyond August is uncertain; my computer has gone into a comma, giving me the blue screen of death; and worst, my body feels like it is disintegrating. Many months of hard work on the computer are taking their toll. The fact I had no hot water at home for most of this period didn't help.

Now I discover in practice what I always knew in principle: that my way of life, which enabled me to live on almost no money (at some points, as little as £5 a week) in one of the most expensive cities in the world, could be sustained only as long as I was healthy. With severe back aches I cannot cycle, so I have to pay for the bus; no cycling means no trips to the market to skip free vegetables and fruits, as I cannot carry heavy loads. And so I find myself in the hateful supermarkets - which I have generally succeeded in avoiding so far.

If I was still squatting with a large group of people, like I did for most of my London days, I could perhaps leave skipping for others and could help in the house in other ways. My housemates would have looked after me, as they did in the past, as I did for them. But in my last house there were only two of us. And as conditions deteriorated, we are both on our way out.

Instability, precariousness, challenging living conditions, and frequent housemoves: I've lived with all of these for five years now. If I feel that I cannot take it any longer, this is also because I have a choice now: with a more-or-less steady income I can contemplate alternatives to squatting. Maybe other people with less choices would love to have my cave. But I have no illusions: discomfort seems to be such an integral part of life here, - a thing of cultural differences; and precarity, a condition that is gradually swallowing more aspects of our lives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Empties

For those who haven't seen Mario's Empties (a short film about squatting in London), here it is. Spot the mink!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Advice

When you reach England, if you come to London, pass through it quickly, for I do not at all like that city. All sorts of men crowd together there from every country under the heavens. Each race brings its own vices and its own customs to the city. No-one lives in it without falling into some sort of crime. Every quarter of it abounds in grave obscenities. The greater a rascal a man is, the better a man he is accounted. I know whom I am instructing. You have a warmth of character beyond your years, and a coolness of memory; and from these contrary qualities arises a temperateness of reasoning. I fear nothing for you, unless you live with evil companions, for manners are formed by association.

Well, be that as it may! You will arrive in London. Behold, I prophesy to you: whatever evil or malicious thing that can be found in any part of the world, you will find in that one city. Do not associate with the crowds of pimps; do not mingle with the throngs in eating-houses; avoid dice and gambling, the theatre and the tavern. You will meet with more braggarts there than in all France; the number of parasites is infinite. Actors, jesters, smooth-skinned lads, Moors, flatterers, pretty boys, effeminates, pederasts, singing and dancing girls, quacks, belly-dancers, sorceresses, extortioners, night-wanderers, magicians, mimes, beggars, buffoons: all this tribe fill all the houses. Therefore, if you do not want to dwell with evildoers, do not live in London. I do not speak against learned or religious men, or against Jews: however, because of their living amidst evil people, I believe they are less perfect there than elsewhere.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The end of a house is always very much like its beginning. As structures of ordinarity, banality, and daily schedule collapse, you find yourself eating take-aways; sleeping in your sleeping bag; using your mobile phone rather than the landline; living from your rucksack. Temporariness sneaks in and settles; still not the temporariness of the new place, but rather of your precarity laid bare. The illusion which was maintained so many months - in salvaged posters on the wall, in morning porridge, in music played in the early hours - in laughter round a crammed dinner table - has left your home to go elsewhere. These moments of beginning/end, like opening a telescope, are rich and dense and startling. A richness which perhaps no one can bear. The space where you spent many nights and days is stripped of traces of you: they are all in a pile of suitcases, boxes, bags. Suddenly this room can be anyone's: it's previous owner or its unknown next. But know this: your fleeting presence will remain long after you'll be gone, like the voice of an Opera singer lingering in the concert hall decades after that celebrated night.
Yesterday I went back to my old home to pack my things. Inside awaited me the silence of Sundays without electricity: the air was slightly damp. It's never easy to pack your life into boxes, but in darkness it is even harder. I filled the room with small candles and used a torch and a reading-light. In the twilight, I still find myself having to make hard choices, like if Goethe's Italian Journal should go to Fiction or Non-Fiction. Finally it was nearly over; I still haven't ventured into the kitchen. In the back of the house, two potatoes are spreading their roots, like huge arms searching for the switch. Small potato treas, from some Nordish fairy tale.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A theme song in a popular kids show when I was growing up showed a hand puting out a burning candle with bare fingers; that line said "You too can change the end of the play". Ever since then, using my fingers to put out candle flames was something I craved and feared. When years later I found myself living in a house without electricity not far from the Thames, I cherished the opportunity to practice this art. I discovered that like in many things, if you falter, it will hurt. If you believe in yourself, do it quick and with determination, you won't get burnt. (Although licking your fingers before also helps). As my life was changing course and I was embracing a more precarious but also more rewarding form of existence , being able to put out the flames before going to sleep made me feel that I was not only handling the situation but also making it into an empowering exprience.

During my recent power breakdown I realized that being empowered not only means being able to deal with difficult circumstances but also not to get addicted to them. I didn't mind not having hot water for the last year, and living with limited - or no - supply of electricity, but life without daylight was too much. It made my body ache and my spirit low. Squatting is not a purpose in itself; it is not a trench i have to deffend. It was useful for me when I had no money to pay rent; even more useful to develop my thinking, it threw me into unexpected corners from which many former beliefs looked far less obvious; it helped me make many friends and learn about solidarity in a city that is too often alienating and lonely. But clinging on to squatting when it was doing me harm was sentimental. These are the final months of my thesis writing, a long last push of a four years journey. It was good to realise that I cared about this project and that it is something I wanted to put first. Once I have made up my mind, and was content to - god forbid - pay rent, life produced its usual magic, dropping pieces in unexpected places... And so, a new beginning.

Monday, June 18, 2007

5 Comments from Berlin

1. The line of Ortlieb bicycle panniers in Berlin includes not only the red, black, yellow and green popular in London, but also silver and - my new favourite - orange.


2. Bagels - New York style, filled with cheese, and salmon - are all the rage in Berlin, served in the student cafes and in art galleries. P says that's a new development. Personally, I'm not too keen on bagels, unless its past midnight and I'm near the cheap 24 hour Brick Lane bagel shop: their bagels are very filling. But it's not something I grew up eating: unlike other Jewish East European foods, bagels never made it to Israel, that is until the 1990s and globalisation, when New York bagel shops started appearing. There are, of course, the Jerusalem bagels of the old city, but they are something completely different (I still have to find the history behind them) tastier - thinner, long and crispy, they are eaten with Zaatar (tyme, sesame, salt). - Pretsel, however, is a long tradition in Germany; strangely, they spell it Bretzel.




New York Bagel


Jerusalem Bagel


3. Cliches about Germany made me expect the train loudspeaker announcement to be delivered in a shrill and aggressive man's voice, ending with a stamping of his shiny boots. I was surprised to hear a woman's voice, almost whispering the names of the stations in the most seductive tone one can imagine. Sexier than any underground announcements I've ever heard, including Madrid.

4. The gap in the heart of Berlin, the legacy of the cold war, is still not quite filled. Construction work is largely over, but something still has to sink in, to take its shape. All the buildings - new or renovated - seem too clean. In former East Berlin, history was cleared away with the soot, and the result is somewhat contrived. Maybe it is yet too early, and things will congeal and flow. At the moment, like all large nationalistic projects of regeneration, there is still too many facades, and too little to bring them together.

5. It was my first time to Berlin and yet the city felt very familiar. Partly it's the modernist architecture which reminds me of Tel Aviv. But a lot of this familiarity is because of the beautiful children books of Erich Kästner which I read dozens of times as a child. Kästner's world of sausages restaurants, trams and cafes, and little boys who travel on the train to Berlin, was an fantasy land of which we knew nothing but could, somehow, imagine. These books are probably the reason for the dejavu feeling I had swimming in the small lake in the centre of a city park, and eating fried fish and Kartoffelsalat while standing by the bar in a west Berlin Deli-supermarket. There is more to say about that lost Europe and its resonance in a Israeli childhood.

Emil und die Detektive, in Hebrew

Like a voice trying to speak after a long gap in the conversation, life now trembles slightly, learning to live with its own sound which it had forgotten in the caesura. A wall of red bricks through a large, large window: daylight, and rain, and a woman on the opposite balcony, checking the laundry, holding her hands together. A new temporariness, a new room. A London estate.

Last night I still slept in my sleeping bag, like I always do in the first few days of a new house. The makeshift bed with its familiar synthetic feel is anchoring and comforting. Beginnings are always haphazard and tenuous, and all I have (the books, the olive oil, the red lentils) is still there. Time to start again.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

We were approaching the end of the class, laying our bodies on the floor, closing our eyes and waiting to relax. The dusk light tiptoed into the room but the noise from the other room was becoming unbearable. The teacher spoke.


Distraction and outside noise can be used as a useful tool. What is the point in trying to achieve mental calm if it can only be found in perfectly relaxing circumstances? we would like to be able to find peace in real life. You should not aim to block out the disturbing factor, but rather - simply - to ignore it, and focus on what is important, in this case, your breathing.



This is how I often thought about my experiences in recent years. Living under the threat of eviction in unusual cirtcumstances (no sewage, no electricity and no hot water) is challenging and taught me many practical skills. But the main skill - the one I hope to take with me as I leave the twilight zone and move out of my philosopher-squatters cave - is the ability find inner calm in the face of debilitating anxieties.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Green Lies

A rummage through the rubbish is not only a good way to find food, but also to learn the truth behind the green promises of supermarkets and food chains:

"Bag for life" - offered by supermarkets as a durable plastic bag, which is replaced free and recycled when worn out. But you see, plastic is such a pain to recycle; a much easier solution is to throw them into the skip, where I sometimes found dozens of those sad bags, doomed for life under mountains of rubbish in a landfill.

"Hand made in our kitchen, freshly every day" this is the promise of the quality sandwich and salad chains, stamped on all their wrappings and shop-windows. Well, if you imagine young chefs lovingly slicing roast beef, tearing lettuce leaves and cooking soups, have a look through their bin bags. You will find plastic packs and containers of ready made ingredients: everything arrives to the shop already washed, chopped and prepared in advance. I think "assembled in our kitchen" is more appropriate.

"Everything is made today and what we don't sell, we offer to charity" - perhaps some of it does make it to charities. But enough remains that could feed small towns. The amounts of food that these chains of gourmet cafes are throwing in their binliners will make you throw up.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

don't try this at home

Some people destroy themselves by heavy drinking.

Others ruin themselves by taking hard drugs.

I chose the real extreme path to wreck havock on body and soul: I'm writing a phd.

Depression, manic fits, repeated motion injuries, strained back, and an increasing disability to divide between thought process and reality: I've had it all.

I think postgraduate research degrees should come with big captions. For example: Warning! phd students have less human contact and a strange look in their eyes

Friday, May 25, 2007

Marx and Windows

It's the exams season and I'm once more working as a supervisor. Today in one of the rooms in the new extension of the college, with a huge glass wall but no windows. There's an air conditioner which is always either too cold or hot. The control is a flimsy plastic switch, which some people take pleasure in pouring superglue on. As a result I often find myself in a freezing room (with 20 shivering candidates). I wonder what happened to windows: a great invention, which helps to regulate air flow and temperature. Best of all, it doesn't take electricity. What will happen to these air conditioners when energy prices quadrupole?

The exams period is good to catch on all the reading I avoided. For the past three days it has been Das Capital. I expected something densely complex, but to my surprise the text - while cumbersome and tedious - is far from difficult. Another surprise was to find Marx overtly antisemitic:


The Capitalist knows that all commodities, however scurvy they may look, or however badly they may smell, are in faith and in truth money, inwardly circumcised Jews [...]

(Volume I, Part II, chapter IV, The General Formula for Capital).

All I can say is, look at the mirror, dude.

Probably the worst thing is his sense of humour. He loves to make these erudite, smug and completely not funny comments. He sounds like those types in the British Library one has to avoid at all costs, especially if you're a young good looking girl.

On a more learned note, it is interesting that Marx's world, in which value is congealed labour, is a world of nature shaped by man (sic). That is: nothing in his account is finite, certainly not water or energy. Capitalism has unleashed a world of exponential growth, restricted by its own speed limit only, or perhaps by the uprising of the proletariat. It is a presupposition he shares with liberals, and one that we may all soon find disastrously wrong, when the finite-ness of our world will force us to stop building offices without windows.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Chimneys and the future

I am not a big fan of British architecture but I love the chimneys. They are one of the things that connect the London I've lived in for the past five years with the London of my childhood imagining, based mainly on Mary Poppins. I think I watched that film 12 times or more: Chim-Chimney Chim-Chimney Chim-chim-Cheree,
A sweep is as lucky, as lucky as can be...

Fireplace and chimneys - in my childhood, exotic curiosities - are normal here in London, a standard feature of the skyline. Whenever I have the chance, I sit by a window and watch them, groups of four chimneys, brown or orange, squat and plump. The terrace houses start feeling like ships, and I always expect them to blow their horns and start sailing.

Chimneys are essential to the cityscape but they are largely useless. Very rarely used today, and if so it is only for fun - woodfires are neither cheap nor eco-friendly. But the smell of smoke is unusal in London. Chimneys have become what in Japan they call 'Thomason's - objects conserved as part of buildings even when they have no more use. For example: this door, or the useless sink. 'Thomason' after an American baseball player by that name who spent a whole year playing for Tokyo team without scoring once.

Today, chimneys are a quaint feature with nostalgic value, the only reminder of the age of coal. From the 12th century to the 1950s Londoners used coal for heating. Only after the 1952 Great Smog that killed 3,000 Londoners in four days coal burning in the city was outlawed. Coal was gradually replaced with gas and electrical heating. The chimneys and fireplaces are all that remains of a London of black smoke. No more than an architectural feature, a void in the centre of so many living rooms, of what was once a way of life, a huge industry, a livelihood for so many people.

But what about the Thomasons of the future? This is how I look these days on my electrical appliances: my electrical sockets, the cables, the lights. Since I've been cut off electricity they have become useless objects that stand in my way. The florescent lights in my room - there are four of them, and they didn't work even when I had electricity - are different from the fireplace in design (1960s vs. late Victorian vs. ) - but they are equally pointless .

My electricity breakdown is a personal predicament and perhaps a temporary one. But I expect an energy crisis to hit us hard in the face in the coming decade, forcing a transition as dramatic as the abandoning of coal. What is useful in our current energy age of abundant cheap oil and gas will not necesserily make sense tomorrow and I have no doubt that many of our objects will become Thomasons, which future generations will find strange, magical or stupid. Which objects? It is yet hard to tell. One thing I know: the houses built a hundred years ago had often a solidity about them which does not exist anymore. Fireplaces and chimneys are perhaps useless, but they rarely pose a problem. Later generations assumed cheap energy is here to stay, and they built accordingly. When I look at 'luxury' yuppie housing developments around London - such thin walls, so flimsy looking - I wonder who on earth buys these cardboard houses for a fortune. Some of these places might become so uneconomical to run that they will be abandoned; the ruins of the future.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

power/knwoledge

In living without electricity, I am far from unique. A 2000 UN report estimated that 1.64 billion people, or 27% of the world's population, were living without electricity. However my location - inside London's Zone 1, the heart of 'developed' urbanity- makes me more unusual. 99% of the population without elecriticy lives in the developing world, and 4 out of 5 in rural areas. While I'm sure electricity would be a great help to these people, I also have reason to believe that they know how to live without it.

My condition is more similar to people who have become used to electricity, and then suddenly it is denied of them. War or natural disaster result in power failures, and an urban population has to find solutions for food storage, light and heating. Electricity often returns, but not for the whole days, and less reliable. People who can afford it buy it from local generators. Such is the case in Gaza, or Baghdad. But this is likely to be a far more common scenario in the urban third world by the end of the next decade. The growing population of the globe needs more energy and the sources are limited. Prices will rise, bringing shortages, blackouts and disruptions.

For those of us lucky to live in the 'developed' worlds, and with the exception of some minks, this scenario is still farther away, although less farther away than you'd think.

Porridge Haiku 4

In times of crisis
solidify: add but one
tahini spoonfull

Monday, May 14, 2007

candlelight

I am not enjoying life without electricity, but somehow at night it is different. With no switches to turn on, I come back to darkness which soon becomes sprinkled with small light drops. As the candles light one by one, it feels much quieter, as if a new silence has taken over the house. I don't think any sounds are actually missing: the AA-battery-run clock still ticks loudly in the kitchen, as are the drops of water from the bathroom, the neighbours arguing upstairs. But still I feel some mental quiet descending. I find it soothing and comforting, and it is even not so difficult to see. Surprisingly three candles are enough to feel at home, although telling fennels seeds from cummin seeds is not very easy.

Another thing I like about candles is that they involve a different relationship with the night. The binary dichotomy of electricity - ON/OFF - gives way to a spectrum of shades, in which light and darkness are no longer hostile opposites but members of the same family, their relationship continuous and ever stretching. I think electrical light has made us fear the night much more: people who are used to the dark it do not see monsters hiding behind it. In Vauxhall, there was nothing I liked better than going to the toilet in the middle of the night. Still deep in slumber but with an instinctive knowledge of my path, I would navigate by touch the half stairway, the door, the coolness of the toilet seat under my body, where I would dream some more of dragons spitting water. Blu used to say that if burglars ever broke into the house at night, they would be much more scared from the dark than us.

The dark morning is sad and offers no such comforts. Yesterday you dreamt that the scaffolding was taken off: through your bedroom window you saw the sky brighter than ever. You did not know if this was temporary, and should you savour on the blue freedom, or was it gone for good. There was no one around to ask. You woke up to find yourself once again in a London cave.

More Porridge Haikus

2
All that is solid
will turn into wet tissues
Soak your sticky pan

3
Leave the skin unpeeled
Grate the apple, not yourself
for meatfree oatmeal

Friday, May 11, 2007

Porridge Haikus

Responding to Lillistar's outrageous claims regarding the un-goodness of porridge, I decided to to start a project I have been contemplating for a long time: porridge haikus. This is the first one:

Porridge Haiku 1

Porridge with raisins

they sink and burn, memories

of sweet Sabbath bread

more on the lack of fridges

Yesterday, as I was cycling to Hackney, I thought again about life without a fridge. When I lived in Vauxhall four years ago, I spent the whole spring (March to June) without electricity and somehow the impossibility of food refrigeration was not an issue. So why is it such a big problem now? These are my conclusions:

1. Global warming: this spring is considerably hotter. April felt more like July. Things go off more quickly.

2. Communal living: I lived in Vauxhall with four other housemates (now we are only two); we all cooked for each other regularly and ate in the house. So we would go through cooked food in a day or two. Often when I got home from the library there was food waiting fo me. Now I mainly cook for myself: much more time consuming.

3. Simpler packed lunches : at the time I was skipping bagels regularly from a bagel shop in Covent garden. Lunch usually consisted of two bagels with some filling (fried tofu, tahini and carrots.. etc). It was simple to make. I no longer find bagels there - it seems like they stopped leaving them out, and in case I would not like to eat bread so often.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My living conditions are deteriorating steadily. Noise from nearby construction works have been driving me out of the house to work at college, and now scaffoldings have taken most of my limited daylight; the house has turned into a cave. Stepping out to the street is a somewhat blinding experience - I never knew there was so much daylight in England until I missed it. If this was not enough, electricity is down again, and it is unclear for how long.

The Victorians who built my house and lived in it knew how to live without electricity; they had coal stoves for heating and cooking, and probably used oil lamps. Electrical light is, I believe, better: when it is there, it floods the space effortlessly. The shadow theatre of oil lamps and candles brings magic into the space but keeps much of it in the dark. As a 21st century specimen, I am badly adjusted to the lack of electrons: I have no lanterns, just candles.

But for me, the main problem is the inability to keep food for more than a day. Food refrigerating is a modern luxury which I find very difficult to give up. I can cook by candlelight, I can take cold showers, but I need a fridge. Again, Victorians probably had their ways: from ice-fridges to eating conserves. But mainly, I think, they had more time. Especially the women; and their diet was not one that I envy.

My survival in London on a low budget depends very much on food. I go to the market every week to skip two big sacks of vegetables and fruits that keep me for a while; I cook large quantities and eat them for a few days. Very rarely do I buy food or eat out. It's expensive and usually bad. I leave to college daily with my packed lunch. During winter, I stored food outside in a big box. But since March this is no longer possible. The small fridge I have does not take much electricity, but I don't have even that.

These issues are worrying, but I noticed that they are very different from the fear of eviction. Somehow, the anxiety of being taken to court is much more overwhelming. The threat is now hovering over my head, slowly becoming more concrete. And although I know well that the process of eviction will take months, at the very least, it is still a much more debilitating anxiety than the real and pressing practical concerns.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

I'm going into thesis-writing-frenzy mode so I don't have time to write all the posts I want: about people in the street; about london's bricks and chimneys; about the people who made my house into a cave; about my visit to St. Thomas hospital; a Market Diaries entry on Mushroom picking in the Free Market, and another one on the peppers of Almeria, and Kenyan green beans; a post about my prostituting for market research; about finding calm while living under the threat of eviction; on Waterloo Bridge, the £10 season ticket, text and capital; on englishness and edge of darkness.

Will be back with some of these posts or others. At the meantime, greetings from the toffee-cheerful Spanish horse-chestnut tree I saw just outside Waterloo station. It's pink and happy. And so should you be.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hundreds of people are gathered outside the college. They look to the entrance stairs attentively.
What's going on? student protests? announcements, speeches?
Is it about global warming? Iraq? Darfur?

Of course not. It's a fire alarm.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

March on buses (2)

Again, I found myself using the bus in March this year, this time because my arms were too painful to cycle. As most readers of this blog do not take the bus in London. Let me tell you what you're missing:

1. Free newspapers - the most systematic brain-washing campaign I've ever been exposed to. You simply cannot avoid them, and I have not been able to resist reading them. Promoting celebrities, consumption and brain-death. And I didn't say a word about the waste of paper. Criminals.

2. Music- usually raggae or hiphop, coming from people's speakers, and most of the time suprisingly pleasant. Much better than mobile phone ringtones.

3. Most bus journeys are a constant reminder that this is Babylon: it is not unusual to hear on the same bus Polish, Portugese, Chinese, and French in African accents.

4. Passivity, alienation, and exasperating long journeys.

I'd rather be cycling.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Skipping appliances - the anti-consumer beginner's Guide

What can you expect?
The streets of London are awash with discarded appliances, and most of them either work or can be easily fixed. It seems that people throw them away for a range of reasons - disfunctionality isn't the main one. More specifically:
  • Printers - I see them on the streets all the time and they usually work. But if you don't need one or can't be bothered carrying it home, look in the paper comparment. It's almost always full with A4 paper.
  • Vaccum Cleaners - never work. I've stopped trying long ago .
  • Computer screens - always work. But who needs them?
  • Fridges, washing machines, stoves.... mixed record of success. My skipping algorythm for these appliances: multiply necessity by distance then divide by housemates willing to carry the load. Allow colour to influence your decision.
Where's best to look?
Anywhere in London. More stuff appears in middle class areas but it's not unusual to find various treasures near estates in working class areas. Really posh areas, like the docklands, are the worst: everywhere is gated and fenced off and you have no chance of getting near the bins of plenty.

Carrying the load

Just put it on the back rack of your bike, and start rolling. You'd be amazed how much you can carry on a bike. You might have to walk it though.

Skipping things on the way home is another reason not to take the bus. It provides nice breaks to your journey where you can ponder about the state of the world and your household requirements (staring at a fax/photocopier off Shaftsberry Avenue at midnight - do I really need this? Well not with 2kwat of electricity supply).

The cut electric cord
Some people say that if the electric cord is cut and the plug is missing, this is a sign that the appliance doesn't work, and therefore do not bother.

However I'm pretty sure we've found appliances without a plug that worked just fine. I also have a vague recollection of myself cutting the plug of a fridge I found in the street because I needed the plug. Maybe it was people like me that destroyed this spotneneous popular sign system.

My Best finds

A washing machine - thrown away because the door handle was broken

Oil radiator heaters - I just found one the other day, this is my third, and of course it works fine. Heating with electricity is wasteful, but this is the most efficient way.

A disfunctional cash till - I made a clock from its buttons. NO SALE! is noon.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

All Semites Unite

For all fellow Hebrew and Arabic speakers: I just found the most useful thing on the internet: virtual keyboards for Arabic and Hebrew characters. You might know previous versions where you had to use the mouse to click on virtual buttons to choose letters. But here you type as you would normally - and it prints on the screen in the right alphabet, right to left. This means that you can blog, email and google in Hebrew/Arabic from every computer, no need to install anything.

What a great idea! I have both languages installed on my computer but it's a pain to have to carry the laptop everywhere.

Here are the links:
Hebrew Virtual Keyboard
Arabic Virtual Keyboard

Monday, April 16, 2007

This evening I went to my favourite sandwich chain on Tottenham Court Road, not far from college, to look for dinner in their rubbish. I do this sometimes when I plan to stay in college and work late. It's usually guarntied to find there a nice dinner, like lentil and rice salad or noodles with shrimps.

Lately they've started to take the sandwiches and salads out of their paper and plastic wrapping so no-one could eat them. It makes me really angry. To throw away so many sandwiches and salads (perfectly good) every night is one thing. To make a concious effort so no-one else could eat them is another step up the ladder of criminal waste of our planet resources. Why do they do this? Do they think I - or any other person who survives this way - will buy their sandwiches? not likely.

Thankfully, they throw away so much food that they didn't bother to do it to all the sandwiches. I could still manage to find a wrapped roast-beef baguet and a ham-and-egg sandwich, which kept me happy.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (51)


Middle-Eastern people not allowed in this park

Thursday, April 12, 2007

scholarly life

One of the advantages of being a student in Bloomsbury is the easy availability of free refreshments. I gave up the opportunity to hear the honorable MP Tony Benn speaking on the future of the World Bank, but found it useful to attend the reception afterword. Buiscits were dry but the coffee was very strong. I was mingling with myself while the small crowd was busily discussing the prospects of international development. With my cup finished, I retreated to SOAS library upstairs.

Cofee is such a drug, I can't believe it's legal. For an hour I was racing like mad through the library. Each book looked just the one I needed. Everything seemed connected, it all made sense. The completion of the thesis seemed a matter of days. But then it came to a halt. I felt tired, hungry, and lost. I looked round and found myself surrounded by stale and dusty books. I had to leave.

Outside, the queue for the Hare Krishna food stall was unprecendently short.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Summer in the City

Thursday evening and you are cycling back home. The air is warm and inviting, and people fill the streets. The Easter holiday is starting tomorrow, and you can sense good will, and relief. A very different feeling from the random harshness of weekend desperation to have a good time at all costs. Winter has bowed one last time and disappeared. You find yourself smiling.

The last couple of weeks have not been easy. Among other reasons for anxiety, your house is now under threat. There is no reason for immediate concern, this is only a prelude to a saga that might unfold in the next weeks and months. But the feeling is unsettling. Every knock on the door stratles you. Answer it, or pretend you are not there? There is nothing worse than hiding. You cringe like a snail in its shell. The precariousness of your position - a squatter - which laid dormant for many months, now comes back to haunt you.

When you board that train of thoughts, it will race through your mind all night. Constantly considering possibilities, and strategies, only to come back again and again to the same point: you have almost no control over the situation. A thought hard to reconcile yourself with. Squatting keeps you on your toes, said S long ago, but you've been standing on your toes enough to apply for the Royal Ballet.

It takes you some days to distance yourself from the anxiety. You remind yourself that these are probably your final months of squatting; that you had been evicted in the past. Uncertainty is hard to accept. But the ability to live with uncertainty is the source of much strength.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Market Diaries: blood oranges and tarragon

After a long month away, finally back to the market today. With a sunny April day, with lots of fellow scavengers around - Polish punks. Indian men. Chinese ladies. Today was a day of herbs - tarragon, majoram, corriander, dill and chevrill (parsley's lame cousin); and oranges - blood oranges from sicily, organic oranges from spain, and mandarins, and.... Korean mushrooms. Today was a day I promised myself I won't linger, but stayed for over an hour and came back with far too much. Another bag of organic produce skipped on the way out. How can I say no to purple greens?

Perhaps they should be named 'purples'.

I want to be happy with my finds. I am: I had pasta with morrel mushrooms for lunch, and organic sprouted alfalfa on the side, in the pleasure of sunny russel square's meadow - the Plain trees blossoming any day. I live on luxary food for free. I get a great diet from the the rejects of capitalism. Who would complain.

But there is something that cries, constantly, shouts, whispers: this is wrong. This is so wrong that I don't even know where to start to explain. Maybe I should be more informative, and maybe even bring statsics, science, facts. Hard figures that would convince everyone. But come to the market: you'll see with your own eeys. You don't need statistics, scientific explanations, or facts to know: this is wrong. This cannot be sustained. This is suicide. We are burrying the future of this planet in landfills.

Free oranges anyone?

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (50): Weapons of Mass Destruction

Destroying the envrionment
Killing pedestrians and cyclysts
Destroying our cities
Atomising our socieities:
The 20th century's most deadly machine
Ban cars now!

Friday, March 30, 2007

Energy Reforms

Lately I experienced a number of powercuts, and this led me to be more careful with my energy consumption.

What I did
I tried to figure out how much electricity all my appliances consume. In most cases it's very easy: it's written on the appliance in Watts. If this is not specified, you have to figure it by multiplying the Amp by current. Example 0.5A in 220v current is 110Watts. Not so difficult. You'll find the detailed information at the botton of the post.

Then I tried to think of ways of reducing consumption:
The electric kettle was the most energy demanding of all - so I decided to switch to an old-style whistling kettle.
I replaced all the light bulbs with energy saving - saving some 500-400 Watts.
I am much more careful to switch appliances off, such as speakers, chargers etc.

Conclusions
1. It's very easy to save energy. Switching light bulbs probably saved 20% of my power usage. It's also very easy to find out how much one is using - the appliances have the information on them.

2. But I didn't bother to check or change until I had to. Even though I knew my supply was precarious, only a real crisis forced me to be more rigorous.

3. What do I need electricity for?
Light - hardly consumes power but is really crucial. As nice as candles can be, washing dishes or preparing dinner with only a few candles is not easy. You end up eating pumpkin peel soup instead of pumpkin soup.
Heating - important and consumes much but there are alternatives
Food refrigeration - will soon become very usefull as it gets warmer. Yet the fridge consumes far less than a heater.
Computer, speakers - important but not crucial. And do not consume much.

I keep this in mind when I read about energy crises and their implications. They don't mean the end of the world. We can do with far less than is the average use today in the UK. Conservation is the way forward and is the easiest way to tackle CO2 emmissions. But we need a real and immediate sense of threat in order to start conserving seriously.

Appendix: energy use by appliance
Electric Kettle: 2200 Watts
Oil radiator: 2000 Watts
Laser Printer 1000 Watts
Inkjet printer:
Electric coffee maker:
Lamps: 100-40 watts
Speakers: 40 watts
Laptop computer: 120-200 watts
Hoover:
Fridge: 700 watts (estimate)

Comment:
# Of course, not all of these are connected at the same time. The fridge is waiting in the corner for the summer. The kettle only worked for brief periods.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It's running out (2)

Lately I've been following The Oil Drum more closely. As mentioned before, it's a website on peak-oil and energy, featuring geologists, petroleum industry veterans, and techno-geeks. As you can guess there is a very boy-ish atmosphere on the discussion forum, and lots of doomsday-talk. But also lots of people who know what they're talking about. There have been some very interesting posts there in the last month.

If you have any technical sense, if you are not put off by charts, I strongly suggest looking at the site, especially the posts on the situation in Saudi Arabia, the last one is here. Other recommended links are this blog and this research.

It looks like there is strong evidence to suggest oil production will peak in the next decade, if it did not peak already. As supply will fail to meet growing demand, an enrgy crisis will follow. Oil prices will rise cosiderably; by how much exactly is anyone's guess. The worrying thing is that this could happen within a couple of years.

I am not worried about the immediate question of supply. Despite my sensationalist headline, oil is not running out, it is just getting much more expensive. We can cut our consumption by half quite easily, without losing(?) much of our lifestyle. I am worried about the psychological impact. Petroleum is a finite resource: this will come to most people as a shock.

Our economy requires some basic underlying factors. Cheap energy is one of them, but another is trust. We trust the digits on our bank account. We trust the funny paper notes in our wallet, and the plastic card with its 'expiry date'. This is how we live. A sudden shock may do much to harm this trust. This is how stock markets fall, banks go bankrupt, and currencies plummet. True, capitalism is a very adaptable system. It can accomodate crises up to a certain point, and even use them to grow more. But beyond a certain point, even the supplest treas break.

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (49)


No hitch-hiking (on the Madrid underground)

Monday, March 26, 2007

on flying: with Charlotte Gainsbourg

melancholy / aviation / chocolate
perfume / cigarettes
frequent flyer /stow away
dislocation / sleeping / jets

It's my favourite song in the album, by far. It captures so accurately the intoxicating panic that engulfs me each time I board an airplane.

I didn't use to be this way. I used to love airports and flying. Maybe growing up in a country that sees itself as an island, despite the geographical evidence to the contraty, makes one enthusiastic about aviation. Airplanes keep you connected to "the world" (read: New York. Los Angeles. London. Paris.) Or was it the little kiddie gifts they gave me on the flight to New York when I was five. I even liked the food.

we wish you all a very happy pleasant flight /
this is a journey to the center of the night /
and the inflight entertainment's out of sight /
here on AF 607105

It usually starts when I find my seat, gets worst in the first hundreds meters above ground, and slowly subsides some minutes after the seat-belt lights are switched off. It's a take-off panic; some people get it during turbulences or thunderstorms, but I don't mind these. I know they're unlikely to take the airplane down. It's the takeoff and landing that are most dangerous, my air-pilot neighbour used to say, but the landing is done usually by the computer, anyway. Which I personally find reassuring.

My neighbour died by free falling, from a cliff, something I think he must have found ironic.

invent / a new persona /
drunk here on the edge of space /
all the things i carry with me /
and all the things i left behind /
and all the things that wait to meet me /
hover in the air tonight

What I fear exactly, I'm not sure: engine failure, bombs and missiles, air collision? My nightmares take on different shapes. But more and more I feel that it is the simple strangess of being so high, so fast, so disconnected from the earth that unhinges me.

Perhaps it is the knowledge that all this may soon pass. In a few years, when oil prices go through the roof and cheap flights become a thing of the past, we will look back with strange envy and disgust on the time when we used to burn petroleum so wastefully to hop across the planet. Ah the sweet scent of aviation fuel: the crudest form of fuel, the most polluting, and tax-free. Of all our carbon-suicide indulgences, it must be the worst, and the one that has no substitute.

if i can only keep on moving /
and never stop and think of me /
and freefall through the years and decades /
terminal velocity

Her thin and quiet voice makes the air above my desk pulse and fluctuate. I look up to the little stretch of sky topping the inner courtyard, the bright blue above the fading green grey bricks. An airplane is flying through the metal railing, emerging, disappearing, in and out, like the song's heartbeats. We will shortly be landing at Heathrow airport.

the cabin / is burning /
i smile and feel complete /
here amongst / total strangers /
27 000 feet