Sunday, February 25, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (48)

And give me my arms back!

London mink is taking a week or two away from computers. See ya soon

Friday, February 23, 2007

There's so much still I want to write about this city.

How it is a huge jigsaw puzzle of cycling routes. And how an unusual journey (Whitechappel to Bloomsbury, middle of the day) brings together different pieces of the puzzle, suddenly they sit together, suddenly they match. Old Street to Southwark Bridge flips three times and guess what, it's there next to Liverpool St. to the Barbican! North/South, East/West, the pieaces click, loudly: a cry of joy from my lips.

Cycling is a journey, not just on the city's maps, but through memories. A restaurant called Arabella takes me to the only Pinter play I ever saw - No Man's Land - four years ago: "Are you trying to tell me you had an affair with Arabella?". Cycling is a journey through urban change (the ongoing gentrification of the East End, another street corner claimed for progress); a journey through capital and poverty; a journey through all the posts I meant to write and never managed to.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Market Diaries

Today you did not have to look very far: three sacks of organic produce were waiting for you as you started your tour of the market. Bingo: potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, apples, bananas and mandarins. What more do you need? But alongside your excitement, you are also slightly disappointed. So what now? turn round and head back home? The market is your special weekly outing, different from cycling to town or to college. It's your breath of fresh air, your time to think food, grit and wide skies. You don't want it to be over so quickly. Perhaps this disappointment is what hunters feel when their expedition proves too easy.

So, you are easily persuaded to carry on; just check out the mushroom place, and maybe find some herbs... you cycle slowly through the arcades of waste and plenty, almost aimlessly. You collect Colombian bananas, and celeriac, and almost succumb to dig for Brazilian figs. But no: the bike is too heavy, and the guards might be growing impatient. Your leisurely cycling is raising the stakes, you might lose all that you have found. The Market is known to play these tricks on people. Turn back then.

Later, at home, you wait long minutes before unpacking the bounty. As always after returning from skipping tours, arranging the fruits and vegetables seems a task too difficult, too overwhelming, too daunting. You are always happy to go out rummaging for food, to collect, to carry heavy loads of produce or other finds. But always when you return home, the sorting out, the introduction of order (root vegetables in one bag, greens in another) is something you were happy to leave to your housemates; always rushing to eat a banana, and make some tea, check your email, in short, anything that would postpone the difficult moment of unloading and arranging. You wonder what it says about you. Finally, with no volunteers around (you are alone in the house) you start taking the vegetables out of your panniers.

PS: If any readers are interested in a large bag of shitake mushrooms, let me know.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Obscure Visual Sign of the Week (47)

No bad Halloween costumes please

At home at the Elephant

Sometimes when I get homesick I go to the Elephant &Castle shopping centre. This much maligned and much loved hideous pink monster holds inside clues to the soduko piece called London. Not all is apparent. How shall I explain? It's 1960s England only the people are Columbians. And Afro-carribeans and Chinese and... it's throngs of people, masses of them. Real people, they make the logos disappear, they make the dim light sing. It's ugly, no doubt. It's alive. It won't be there for much longer.

I go upstairs and walk into the Russian shop. Awaiting me are stacks of Riga Sprats tins (smoked fish); Russian beer, rye bread and Tvorag cheese. Everything is written in Cyrillic alphabet, even the OK! magazine the till girls hold as they chat in Russian. It all looks and smells and sounds like the shops of Russian immigrants in Jerusalem, where I used to buy fish and non-Kosher sausages every Friday afternoon, my end of the week treat.

Here in the Elephant they think I'm Russian. Well it's partly true as I am a quarter Moscovite. We fled the Bolsheviks in 1917. I don't mention this to anyone in the shop. They calculate my bill and say Dva Piatdesyat Pajalusta and I give them the coins and say Spasiba. Any further dialogue would make clear that I can only half mumble. In Jerusalem's Russian shops they never made this mistake: reading my body language and clothes, they always addressed me in Hebrew.

On my way back I think how strange to find home in these many mirrors of dislocations and alienations; that familiarity of strangenss, that reassuring stability of nomads.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sunday, February 11, 2007

with a little help from my friends

power is back on, and seems stable. I am still apprehensive about using anything electric, and hold my breath each time I switch something on.
So I decided on energy reforms. I'm trying to see where I can save power, which appliances would be risky to use, which appliances could save me energy. I am travelling through eco-friendly cyberspace.
I don't have clear answers yet but I can tell you one thing: 'green' is a growth industry. Really if was a capitalist that's where I'd put my money. Most of it is stupid gadgets for guilt-tripped yuppies, but who cares.

Friday, February 09, 2007

At 3am in the night, I am getting ready to print a draft of the chapter I've been working on for the last month. I plug in the printer, and switch it on. Suddenly I am flooded by the pale ghostly light of my computer screen.A few seconds pass before I realize that the rest of the room is covered with darkness. The moment I've been dreading has come. I have no power.

Good time to go to bed, then. I light a candle; boil some water for my hot-water-bottle. It's going to be a cold night, tomorrow will be snow.

As always with writing towards deadlines, it takes me time to slow down. But tonight the usual buzz like feeling of words running through my veins is replaced with fear. What if there is a serious problem? My lights, my heating, my computer, my music, they all depend on a precarious source, of which I have almost no control. What happens if it can't be fixed? I try to imagine how I would live there without electricity. I've done it before, I think, in Vauxhall, and it was so easy, remember, it was magical. But that was in spring, not winter; and I had gas heating, and more windows.

Life without electricity: oil lamps and candles, portable gas heaters and stove.. it can be done. But no computer, no internet, no music. When this house was built they had no electricity. What did they use? lanterns and coal stoves?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

food waste

Tristram Stuart, a scavenger in arms, wrote in the Guardian about his experiences as a ‘freegan’.

"Every week, I heave open a supermarket skip and find therein a more exotic shopping list of items than I could possibly have invented - Belgian chocolates, ripe bananas, almond croissants, stone-ground raisin bread - often so much it would have fed a hundred people. A rummage in the bins of the local sandwich store yields another bewildering array, from granola desserts with honey on top to crayfish salad and tuna-filled bagels."

I'm not too keen on these Pret granola desserts myself, they're full of sugar . My favourite is (vegans look away) their Pastrami sandwich. But let's get back to more serious things.

Stuart could afford to buy food; this is his protest against the food waste culture. The figures he brings are appalling. Yearly food waste in the UK is estimated at 15 million tonnes; that's half of the food sold. This wasteful food chain contributes 20% of carbon emissions in the UK; in addition, wasted food which is sent to landfill sites decomposes into toxics and methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than CO2. It's all bad.

Stuart has some 'cost-effective' ideas how to change the situation; for example, distributing unsold food through charities. 'If we currently waste nearly half of what we produce, and half of that waste can be avoided, then simply by sorting out this one problem we could slash our emissions by 5%.' He also mentions WRAP (waste reduction action program) whose motto is 'creating markets for recycled resources' and talks about 'working in partnership with businesses and the public...'.

This new-labour-speak makes me a bit nauseous but I do not want to be an ideological purist. Anything to reduce waste is good. But ultimately I think that a global economy with food flying all over the place, and individualistic, stressed and hectic lifestyle inevitably involve large amounts of waste. We need to slow down our life and our economy, not to create new markets within the existing system.

The fundamental problem with these suggestions is that they are underlied by the notion that waste is bad for business, that it doesn’t make economic sense. This is Calvinist Capitalism: working hard, using your resources to the best way, being frugal and saving wherever possible. I don’t think Western free market economies work likes this today. As I understand it, this system is built on rapid growth, short term profit, and large scale considerations. It prefers excess to frugality; too much to too less. Better throw away 50 sandwiches each night, than a customer not finding their favourite kind or having to wait for someone in the kitchen to make it. A food outlet chain (cafes, restaurants, or supermarkets) works by being efficient, standard, and large scale; all these mean food waste.

True, waste is bad for business because it involves loss; but for the overall system it’s good because it boosts demand. When it comes to ethical or environmental implications, this system is completely neutral. The bottom line is numbers in a bank account.

More than food waste is at stake. Our world is facing an environmental holocaust and an energy and water crisis; our political-economic system cannot rise to these challenges. It is unreasonable to expect the State to take the lead; the State will not do anything to harm economic prosperity or voters’ sense of good life. We need long-term planning and radical solutions, which will no doubt be painful in the short term. One cannot expect these from a system built on quarterly profits reports and four-yearly elections.

This, at least, is my personal conclusion, based on political and historical analysis as much as it is based on my intuitive investigations into the bins of the Wholesale Market.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007