Monday, August 11, 2008

The Library

The day we arrived, we circled the library twice and found all doors closed. The sun was making eyes squint, and the whole place was very quiet. A small red brick villa - but was it really here? Finally we found the servants' entrance, and rang the bell (it is permanently locked; a librarian has to let you in and out). The door opened, and we descended into the scholarly basement. Our air-conditioned summer has begun.

Downstairs, in the big reading room, there are only a few windows and no direct day light. Continue down the corridor, to the scholars' carrels and the secondary books stacks, and you are underground, florescent lights, and squeaking floor. It feels like a military bunker, or a prison. At the end of this short walk is the lounge, room with Vanity Fair magazines, a fridge and microwave and free tea and coffee, even free pop corn. All the scholars have their lunches there. We smuggle ourselves outside to the garden - carrying our lentil salads, rice and plums - strip ourselves from the wooly jumpers (it is very cold inside) and cover our eyes for protection from the burning colours.

The green lawns are huge, and they stupidly water them in the middle of the day. There are also water features, and a heavy tree whose name I do not know, but I think of it as the baobab. It's thick arms and fingers run a long way from its stem, and the fruits are painfully heavy when they fall (no picnics underneath it then). The librarian has arranged a table for us on the terrace on the other side of the garden (they are very forthcoming here), and we sit, the three of us, and talk, on eighteenth century march songs, on families, on unemployment in France.

The whole place is deserted. Sometimes somebody ventures in from the street; a woman with her dog; even a whole kindergarten once. But usually there is no one, except for the mystery Hassidic man that is sitting on the fence with his back to us, very far away (sometimes I think I am imagining him, but then he moves to reassure me of his existence). And yes, there is the libray cat (his pet food paid by the University).

The library was built in a real-estate gamble in what was to be Los Angeles's better quarter; but history ruled otherwise, and the area sunk into poverty from which it is unlikely to ever recover. Perhaps this is the reason for the constant locking of the library doors; it feels more like an outpost than a welcoming public institution. I wonder what happens when the revolution comes; will the angry neighbours burn the early modern manuscripts, smash the Eric Gill sculptures, and have barbeque on the lawns?

The place has privilege written all over it; the story is typical. First, a ruthless man carves an empire of wealth from railroads, oil or mining. Then, his descendants ensure an honourable reputation for the family through Culture, (with a capital c: European culture), championing classical music and paintings, books and libraries, universities and concert halls. And from then on, generations of scholars and artists will bask in the benevolence of the great man. A three step plan from exploitation to finesse, from the hard realities of the world to the genteel pursuit of knowledge and art. But what role do we play – the scholars who come and enjoy this privilege for one summer? Apologists? Collaborators? Lucky winners (not only free coffee and internet; somehow we fooled the rich to support our cause)? I am not entirely sure. When I think about it, this bastion (or bunker) of knowledge, with its back to its poor neighbours, brings out the unease I feel about the prospects and meaning of scholarship. But then again, the red-brick building at the centre of a large empty park, a strange construction of eclectic qualities, usually feels more like a ruin than a palace.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


We could have chosen not to hire a car: there is a surprising number of cyclists on the road, and public transport from our house to the library is reasonable. But a car makes it much easier to go to the beach and Pasadena and other places after work. It's a strange experience: I've hardly driven in the past six years.

One of things I noticed first was the Valero gas-stations. I immediately thought of Valero I know from Jerusalem, the rich Sephardi banker who had offices near Jaffa gate around 1900. The great charity of Mr. Valero is often mentioned in contemporary accounts, as well as the fact that had a black slave, who converted to Judaism (the writers saw no contradiction between these two facts). I wondered if the Valeros hit the big times in California.

Well, I followed this up and found that no, there is no relation between the two Valeros - except for their Spanish roots, and the early modern history of Spanish religious persecution and colonialism. The gas station corporation is named after Mission San Antonio de Valero (known better as "the Alamo") in Texas. I found a Valero village in Spain south of Salamanca; perhaps the Jerusalem Valeros and San Antonio used to be neighbours.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

heretical musings on the British class system

Ever since I have come to the UK I have been intrigued by the British class obsession. It is hard not to be: class is the defining fissure running through British society, the primary category of identification, usually coming before region, religion, or ethnic origins. But I always felt that the class discourse is somewhat fake; or rather, that class had become an "ethnic community", defining origins rather than a socio-economic category referring to one's wealth, income, and occupation. "Class" is not really about class, it's about family roots, cultural attachment, accent, a sense of identity and history. These things often relate to economic realities, in the same way that in other places, ethnic identity can determine one's socio-economic status - but not necessarily. The most tasteless example of the weakening correlation between British “class” and socio-economics is a research from last year, which found half a million Britons who defined themselves as "working class" while earning above £100,000 a year; three out of ten bank managers saw themselves as working class.

This is not to say that Britain has become a classless society. If anything it is the opposite. Income inequality is the highest in
Western Europe. Almost three decades of "free market" rampage have resulted in greater wealth, but also in bigger gaps between regions and income groups. In relative income terms, the rich are getting richer, while the poor and the middle income groups lose out. The wholesale annihilation of the manufacturing industries contributed to the development of an urban underclass whose chances of long-term employment are meagre (the non-working working class). Immigrant workers seldom fit into the stereotypical class system, but they are often the ones taking the lowest-paying jobs and working in the worst conditions. On illegal or semi-legal workers one hears only when they die in dozens in criminal accidents (the invisible working class).

Ultimately, the British class obsession serves the interests of the richest, as it obscures economic changes with a nostalgic attachment to long-gone realities. Look at the numbers and you will see: middle-income households are being squeezed; poor families face real hardship as food and fuel prices skyrocket; and the richest are constantly improving their position. Britain has become more affluent in the last thirty years, and even the poorest are in some ways better off. But this has come at the price of accumulating a mountain of household debt in mortgages and credit cards that paid for New Labour cornucopia; at the same time, the realities of income have shifted in favour of the richest 30%, who now control about 60% of income. Framing this story through the sentimental clich├ęs of upper, middle, and working class does not help to understand it.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The end of flying

Almost a year ago I participated in the Heathrow Climate Camp. I never got to write a long blog entry about it - having to move house and the PhD write-up took higher priority. I still have my notes from last year; I hope to do something with them one day.

The declared goal of the camp was to stop the construction of a Heathrow 3rd runway, and to draw attention to the damage of aviation to the climate. The battle on the runway is still not concluded.

Most of the talks I went to in the camp did not deal specifically with aviation, but when speakers referred to it, it was clear that ending aviation as we know it is essential to stop climate change. At the same time, airplanes were taking off over our heads every 50 seconds; we were sitting in the heart of fly-mad Europe, cheap airlines heaven, tickets at 1p to places you never heard of.

Despite all the enthusiasm and optimism that activists' gatherings often generate, I could not imagine the aviation industry shutting down because of environmental concerns. In 'business as usual' scenarios, emissions from airport expansions would offset a considerable amount of the emissions cuts planned in the UK, if not all. But I could not see any chance of governments taking steps to prevent this. I could also not see a chance of convincing a large enough section of the population to stop flying.

I know a couple of people who decided to stop, or severely limit their flights due to global warming concerns. I respect and admire their choice, but never believed this is a viable course of action. Citizens of rich countries were never going to give up the right to fly. Governments were never going to make their voters angry in such a way.

But flying as we have known it in the last decade is going to come to an end. High oil prices have come to the rescue. 25 airlines have closed in the last year, and still more will follow. Fuel price hikes have taken all their profits away; no airline can make a profit at oil prices above $100 a barrel. British Airways are changing their plans so that they can survive at $150 p/b: this means less flights, higher prices, and emphasis on business class. But what happens when oil reaches $200p/b - and it will, in the next five years? Flying again is becoming a luxury that only upper middle class families will be able to afford.

Peak Oil - the end of the cheap oil era, the stagnating and falling oil production around the world - is not going to save us from climate change, or end this car-based-civilisation; much can go wrong. But aviation is about to become a dead horse. For environmentalists, focusing on an industry going bust does not make much sense anymore (still it would be good to prevent spending public money on expanding airports that will never be used - and the chances to stop Heathrow's 3rd runways are better than they were last year). Instead I believe activists should focus on other things: fighting the comeback of coal; pushing renewable energy, and public transport; and perhaps most urgently, stopping food-based biofuels.

What is important however is that the end of flying is understood for what it is: not a temporary hardship, caused by evil speculators and oil companies. Neither it is, as some would put it, a problem of 'geological constraints', the fact that we are running out of a natural resource; rather this is the logical result of a reckless way of living; a civilisation which is consuming all it can for short-term profit; a cannibalistic system which burns what it finds today and thinks not about tomorrow.