Wednesday, January 31, 2007

London ain't no place for teddy bears

Remember Paddington? The migrant bear-worker who arrived to London from "darkest Peru" hidden in a cargo shipment ; no one could pronounce his foreign name (all too familiar) so he was re-named Paddington bear by the Brown family, who took him to their posh house in west London.

Well not all migrant teddy bears are as lucky. Here are some pictures documenting their miserable condition, down and out in south London.

The Market Diaries: skipping breakfast

Last night you were up late, reading Dr. Frenkel’s 1856 account of his travels to Jerusalem, written in antiquated Hebrew, strange and sweet. Now it’s nearly ten and you had planned this to be a market day. No time for porridge, then; you get ready to leave, put on your grubby market trousers, and fill you panniers with empty plastic bags. A look through the peep hole before you step out, roll your bike, go.

You cut into the secret gardens, by the abandoned warehouse, through the parking lot: when you reach the gates you put your florescent orange jacket away. In the market, visibility has its disadvantages; attracting attention is unwise. You never know how the Market Authority feels about scavenging this morning.

You start the tour and find your breakfast: Organic bananas from the Dominican Republic. One will be good for now, the rest for later. As you eat you notice the boxes of Tunisian dates in the silver metal bins. Why are they there? You turn the boxes but can’t find a Best by date. Taste one, and two, and three: they’re fine. ‘Is there anything wrong with the dates?’ but the worker from the warehouse just shrugs his shoulders. And so you become the lucky owner of three kilograms of organic dates.

Now come kale, leeks and fennels; Italian pears, more bananas, radicchios, a small bag of wild mushrooms, and the best find, five Brazilian papayas. You forgot to bring elastic bungee ropes, and your panniers are full, so this will have to be it for today. You bid farewell to the squashed Israeli avocadoes, to the boxes of mandarins. No herbs, you think; there was a time you used to find coriander every week. Is there a global coriander crisis? Or perhaps coriander is an early morning commodity, disappearing before 11am? The mysteries of the market keep you pondering as you cycle out.

An hour later, you are sitting in your little courtyard, eating rice, fried smoked tofu and wild mushrooms, cooked with garlic, olive oil and white wine (as Marcel advised, you let it almost completely evaporate). You savour on the sky, the air: the cold does not bite. Global warming, the best antidepressant.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (44): Mission Imposible

For your next assignment, you will need the following tools:

London Mink will deny any responsibility if you get caught. Good Luck. This computer will destroy itself in 15 seconds.

Life without hot water

Even though it’s a warm winter, I decided to stop having cold showers; I have been warned that excessive cold showering may lead to repressive personality complexes. The last cold shower was in November.

These days I go for the bucket system. Two kettle-full of boiling water, together with cold water, is all that I need to have a nice shower, and even wash my not so long hair . It takes less time than an average shower, and much less water: around 8-10 litres per bucket, compared with 30-50 litres of a 'real' shower, and 80 litres for a bath.

Modern domestic water facilities, which we have come to expect as a natural element of our living conditions - the flushing toilet, the sink, the shower - make us use much more water than our ancestors did. The global consumption of water rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995, double the rate of population growth. Most of this goes to agriculture; but water is a fluid form of power, privilege and money. When I read that the average de-lux hotel guest uses per night 700-1000 litres, I feel like closing a few taps.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Soy Cuba at the Ritzy

It’s better in the matinee, sing Franz Ferdinand in the CD I found a few months ago on my street. It’s definitely cheaper, in the Ritzy’s World Cinema Matinee, £2.50 only. A good day to cycle south to Brixton: the sun was shining in my face. I sat outside in the little square in front of the library with the drunks and the rastas, enjoying the yellow thing in the sky and eating the vegetarian sushi I skipped last night from Pret. Then I went inside the cinema to watch Soy Cuba.

Made by Mikhael Kalatozishvilli in 1964, this film is the story of Cuba at the time of revolution. Pathetic, poignant, and strangely beautiful, it’s Soviet avant-garde in a Caribbean settings; like Dziga Vertov on pina collada, Eisenstein after a hot day in a sugar plantation. The dialectical approach is still there, and so are the strange angles, but not the 1920s hectic montage, built on shock and surprise; Soy Cuba is dreamlike realism, and the camera movement is much slower and more lyrical, leading the way to Tarkovsky.

In the first act, we see degenerate Cuba through its sleazy bars full of rich Yankees and poor pretty prostitutes. As you may have guessed, women feature predominantly as a vehicle to explore notions of seduction, violation and redemption; gender/race is always a good way to examine socialist/radical films, to look beyond the surface propaganda. Soy Cuba is not the only film where the director’s fascination with the female body and with blackness runs counter the supposed progressive message of the film. Strangely, the camera assumes the point of view of the American businessman, stranded in a shanty town, desperately trying to find his way out; as if the audience is most likely to identify with him.

Next Act, a poor farmer is told that his sugar cane field and his little shack were sold to United Fruit ltd, and that he has to leave. He burns his house and crops, he goes mad, he dies; the camera moves backwards, upwards, and the narrator, a woman’s voice:

I am Cuba

Sometimes I think that my Royal Palms were watered with blood

Sometimes I think that the sea around me was created by people’s tears

Who is to answer for all the blood,

Who is to answer for all the tears?

United Fruits are now rebranded as Chiquita. Their stickers, like Del Monte's and other agro-empires, are on the bananas I find in the market every week: I know the end of the story. With Fidel’s condition deteriorating, soon they may all be able to return to Cuba, the agro-corporations and the rich men in suits. On the way out I looked at the audience, that random collection of matinee viewers, bag-ladies, pensioners and students. Revolution anyone? Better go home to my leek and potato soup.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Thursday, January 18, 2007

It's running out

When I ask people what will happen when oil runs out, I always get the same answer.
A taxi driver in Amman, last May, pointed to his mobile phone, and said 'we didn't have them ten years ago'. He smiled. 'People will invent something'.
A university lecturer in Jerusalem said to me last November 'they'll find some other drek (shit in yiddish) to replace it'.
People seem sure that technology will come up with something.

Imagine you inherit lots of money from a dead aunt. Then you spend it like tomorrow never comes. When someboy asks you about this behaviour you say: 'well maybe I have another rich aunt and she will die and leave me more money'. But you have no other rich aunt - not one that you know of, and the chances it will appear out of nowhere is almost zero. No one would call this behaviour rational. I would use the word nutcase.

But this is how we live today. We consume energy as if an easy and cheap solution is just around the corner. But there is no reason to believe this is the case. For sure, there are lots of technological solutions, lots of renewable sources, but they will not allow us to live the way we do.

Peak Oil is the term for the time when the production of crude oil peaks - that is, production cannot expand to meet the growing demand. Some people think we already passed it; others put it at 2015. Others put it at 2030, and prefer to forget about it. But when the Peak comes - and it will - prices will go up considerably. Since the demand for energy continues to grow (with rapid growth of the economy in China, India and elsewhere), cheap energy will be a thing of the past.

However I look at it, I can't figure it out. How can people keep living the way they do? Is there anything I'm missing? There is a very good chance that in ten, fifteen or twenty years, the way we live today - the way we travel, eat, keep warm, etc etc - will become impossible ... Humans are ingenious creatures and solutions will be found to survive. But at what price.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Saddam vs. Squatters

In the Guardian I read about Saddam’s deserted villa in the French Riviera. It’s an eight-bedroom secluded mansion near Cannes, now "ransacked and ruined":

"Inside and out, the stone walls are covered with graffiti, windows have been wrenched off their hinges and the terraced gardens, complete with 8-metre (25ft) swimming pool, are crumbling under years of weeds and neglect.

"Signs of wealth have been replaced by the detritus of squatters: filthy mattresses, rusting cookers and empty beer bottles. Only a long since quaffed bottle of Ch√Ęteau Lafite champagne, a carton of Johnnie Walker limited edition whisky and a dusty pile of Arabic magazines, one containing a photo of Saddam, testify to more opulent days.

"A neighbour said: It’s a great pity to see such a lovely place just left to go to ruin. … you can’t miss what the squatters and vandals have done to the place. But I’m not sure whether I’d prefer having Saddam and family living there or squatters”.

No doubt, it’s a tough call. Imagine you have a $ 3 million villa in the Cote d’Azur. Who would you pick as your neighbour? On the one hand you have people who don’t pay rent, live in this exclusive location for free, and in adittion, paint on the walls and leave beer cans on the floor. On the other hand you have a dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of people, but has sports cars, millions of dollars in his swiss bank account, and most importantly, keeps the villa clean and does not use spray cans. That’s what I call a real dillema.

Locking my bike to a fence in Hackney, I’m hit by the sudden tingeing smell of Geranium; it’s January in London, and these plants do not normally survive outside in this time of year. This is the warmest January I can recall, a spookily mild winter. Easier to bear, but not so good for my food storage: with not enough electricity to run a fridge, I’m keeping food in cold storage in the yard, in a big plastic box. But day temperatures are over 10 degrees Celsius, and outside is not that cold.

If this warmth is part of Climate Change, Act One, the rest of the play will not be as comfortable. Not only this summer is predicted to be the hottest ever; the longer term might see a much colder England. Melting ice-caps mean the slowing-down of the Gulf Stream, which is keeping this island warm. Without the Gulf Stream they say London will feel more like Montreal (which is actually further south in terms of latitude).

* * *

On the bendy bus near Liverpool Street Station, a white man jumps in through the back door, a glass in his hand, with a slice of orange in it. He looks in his late twenties, perhaps a student, but more likely an office person. He smells of vodka. The driver’s voice, an African accent, comes through the loudspeakers:

the man with the glass at the back, you can’t take the glass on the bus.
The man gulps down his drink in haste, then throws the glass through the bus open doors on the pavement. The glass breaks into a thousand pieces.

The bus deriver’s tired voice on the loudspeakers:

Have you no brains at all?

The man waits for one second, ‘NO’ he says with anger, then stumbes off to find a seat.

* * *

Kuffia, the traditional Arab rural headscarf for men, is becoming trendy in London. It seems to have moved beoyond the niche-market of wannabe-radical students outside SOAS college. I see a few people wearing it every day especially in hip cafes and so forth. I read somewhere it is actually manufactured in China by Israeli businessmen, and I wouldn't be surprised.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (42)

Do not try to pick the metal flowers

Notes from the Holidays

1. The cheap European airlines have a distinct Eastern-Bloc feel about them. Most of the air-crew seems to come from Poland; in their drab uniforms and gloomy faces they point to the emergency exits, looking like Party members about to be purged (but probably it has more to do with their very low wages). In addition to the dubious allure of the one-brand-empires (you can buy tasteless easy-snacks on your easy-jet flight with your easy-credit-card) you have the heavy and vulgar self-propaganda; trumpets calling in your ears upon landing: Another Flight on Time! Since the latest five-year-business-plan was announced, 90% of xxx-air’s flights have arrived on time! It’s funny: I thought capitalism was supposed to be different, glamorous, you know.

2. CocoRosie have taken over the world; at least over its i-book-users population. The global apple-powered avant-garde likes the spooky, quirky feel of their thin voices. I’ve heard ‘Noah’s Arc’ first in Melbourne a year ago, and became addicted immediately; since then I’ve heard them played by friends in Tel Aviv, Paris and now Germany. There is a special face people put on when they play them. You probably know it, or you’ll have to find out for yourself.

3. Europe’s way of dealing with the depression of Winter Solstice was to multiply it by making it the main holiday season. Family-related anxieties, shopping marathons, food-and-alcohol over-indulgence and lots of fire crackers, combined with the bleak darkness of early winter, make it into a real end of the world experience. Coming from a country where Christmas is a non-event and New Year’s Eve is just a reason to go out, I’ve always viewed with fascination the roller-coaster feeling of the Christian festive season. Nothing I knew compares to it: the Jewish High Holidays in late summer and Passover in spring are, of course, a fine source of family anxieties, but they have neither the existential edge caused by the cold and the darkness, nor the frenzied spiral of shopping and consumption.

4. On return, I was questioned by the immigration officer on my studies. It was eleven at night and I’ve had a long day, which included driving in the left lane in the wrong country with almost catastrophic consequences. To avoid complications I said as usual ‘PhD in History of Art’. It’s not really what I do but it sounds obscure and harmless. For this officer, however, it wasn’t enough.

But what exactly is the subject of your thesis, he insisted. Are you looking at a specific style, such as Pointillism, or a period, like the Baroque? And what is your argument?

I stared at him with disbelief.

‘Modern visual culture’ I mumbled.

‘That’s a bit broad’ he said.

None the less he stamped my passport and allowed me back into the country.