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


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


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

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

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.