Sunday, May 03, 2009

Pirates at Lambeth

I have been researching Somali piracy for the last few days (as part of my paid work). As usual, my commissioners are keen to learn the numbers. Not for them, long descriptions of knife held between the teeth, and jumps onto ships; or alternatively, the plight of Somali fishermen, who, when seeing their seas plundered by international fishing boats, decided to jump the fishing boat, and board the oil tanker, for a US$15 million ransom.

No. My employers want to know the numbers: how dangerous it is to global trade, how much money lost, how many attacks per month. And so I cruise the rough seas of the internet, keeping a sharp eye on the horizon for nice numbers and statistics. They are not so easy to find. To my surprise, there are more than a dozen of organisations monitoring and reporting naval piracy, but it seems that none of them produce the numbers I need.

One of these organisations is the International Maritime Organisation, whose headquarters is near Lambeth Bridge. Above the entrance is a statue of tough seamen, braving the hard weather and looking ahead, that is, across the Thames, somewhere in the direction of Tate Britain. The IMO headquarters was on my cycle path for some years; my never-never cycle path, my fairy tale cycle path, composed from my urban legends, of which pirates and admirals were just one element (others were: MI6 spymasters, at their emerald castle in Vauxhall; corrupt looter accountants, at Ernest and Young, just down the road; MPs across the river in Westminster; seagulls; cycle couriers on Waterloo Bridge). Perhaps I should call for a visit now to the International Maritime Organisation headquarters, that I have a reason. But inside, I am afraid, I'll find no captains or bandits, only annoying borring people in suits.

It seems a lousy job, Somali pirate. You may just hit the jackpot, land on a defenceless Saudi supertanker worth 100 million dollars. Bingo! you make your demands, you split the US$15 million ransom. But ten days later you are floating in the waters of the Gulf of Aden, dead, on your body some 170,000 dollars in waterproof packets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Collapsing demand

The current global recession is manifested, we are told, by a collapse in "demand". That is to say: less products and services are being sold; business is slowing down; less profit is made, and therefore less is spent. Companies go bankrupt; and people are laid off. Economic hardship takes on different forms: for the few, it means less champagne and oysters; for the many, it means real suffering. For example in Ukraine, where hot water supply to homes was unavailable this winter.

The flip-side of the global recession is that the "environment" is getting a break from our frontal assault. The most obvious thing is the use of fossil fuels, which fell in the last year after growing for decades. Atrocities such as the Canadian tar sands projects suddenly appear not-so-profitable; the ethanol industry is struggling. On the other hand, the recession contributes to environmental degradation, for example, less refuse gets recycled as demand for raw materials is sluggish. So more rubbish goes to landfills. But overall, there could be little doubt about the balance. Less cars manufactured; less miles driven; less trees felled for paper: yes, the recession is green.

Going back to the issue of "demand", a simple and obvious observation is that "demand" has little to do with what people really want or need, it is about what keeps this machine going. Demand for what? It doesn't matter, as long as there is someone with cash to buy. So the term is neutral; there is nothing good or bad about demand, except for the fact that "demand" creates jobs, and without jobs, economies will collapse, people will starve. This is no small thing at all.

And so, "make do and mend" is the wrong message. The principle of "Re-use, Reduce, Recylce" is at odds with the fundamentals of this economy, which is about: buy more, use once, and throw out, and so you will provide employment for a dozen people at least. It is easy to tout green slogans. It is also not so difficult to point out that this system cannot survive beyond a few decades. But in the meantime people have to eat. Is it possible to envisage a different system, which does not cannibalise its living environment? Perhaps. But the transition cannot be smooth or painfree.

In normal times the contradictions between thrift and prosperity are not so obvious. That is to say, the system lives with a high level of contradictions; all systems have built-in paradoxes, which in time lead to their demise. But we are far from that moment; the current crisis was not brought by the absurdity of perpetual growth in a closed system. It has nothing to do with resource depletion or environmental degradation, it was brought by the perversities of financial deregulation and a credit bubble. And so the problems with "demand" are not yet on the horizon: for the time being, the song stays the same, more, more, more.

Monday, March 09, 2009

British Library encounters

The British Library is a good place to do lots of things. One if them is meeting crazy people.

Encounter (1) I go up to the coffee machine. An elderly woman seeks my assistance in operating the machine. Or rather, she commands my assistance, and from her demeanour and accent I assume she was, once upon a time, the product of the public school system. After I get her a cup of coffee, she asks where I’m from. I say Israel. She shows her concern: is it safe now? Depends for whom, I say, realising the last thing I want now is a Palestine/Israel discussion.

People do not realize how dangerous this tunnelling business is, she says. I once lived in a house in Devon and they found a very long tunnel under the house. 50 feet, we had to leave the house. It is very dangerous indeed. People don’t understand. Tear gas, that’s the solution, she says.

You used tear gas, I ask?

No, I recommend tear gas. You should just throw tear gas inside. Saves the need for bombs.

I excuse myself and leave, feeling growing nausea. Maybe it's my family history, but I don't react well to ideas including gas and closed places.

Encounter (2) Three hours later, again next to the coffee machine. A camp man in his fifties asks me in a Scandinavian accent: “what are you reading?”

Excuse me?

This is a library, what are you reading?

I say I am not reading, but rather trying to write. He feigns admiration and amazement. And yourself, I say, before he has a question to ask more.

I invent, he says. I invented a new source of energy.

This sounds interesting enough so I accept his invitation for a seat, and ask for more details. He says it is all built on volcanoes. The machine will have no moving parts inside, and is to sit on top of volcanoes, because all this energy is going to waste. We could also burn trees, but then, he said, it will be very dull, no elks, not even mosquitoes.

He shows me business cards of people from the Royal Society, and claims he has a letter of support from Gordon Brown.

But what is difference between your invention and geothermal energy, I ask. He answers that the science establishment is entirely hostile, because his idea is so radically different. Then he lowers his voice, and admits he intends to give his machine to the Royal Navy, because it will be very very dangerous.

Please, take my email, he says.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A trip down south

Going South There was a food order waiting for me in South London, at the Food Co-op. I usually go there - when I go, every month or two - on Thursdays, so I can chat with C, who has his usual shift then. But yesterday I was in the Library and Friday is my designated running-around sorting-things out day (I'm trying to be a good Jew, finish the chores before the Sabbath).

I decided not to cycle but to take the bus, and took with me a big suitcase in which to carry the food back. My reasoning was that the food was going to be quite heavy for the bike, and I could spend the time on the bus reading.

Losing Marks The 149 bus travels southwards on the borderline between the City and the East End. We pass near the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters and I wonder how long will it take before people start smashing its windows (there are plenty to smash). In less than a month all this could become a battlefield: it's the G-20 Meltdown, Storm the Banks. The bus is busy and it proves cumbersome with the suitcase. I change at London Bridge. - Only later, on the way back, I will notice the river; I see it so rarely these days, a shame because the Thames is one of my favourite things about London. - it's windy, and cold, and it's taking longer than I thought.

When I am on the 40 bus I open the book again and realize I dropped the bookmark in the other bus. So that's why I never use bookmarks: I lose them. Now I have to search for the page. I am disappointed and sad. I really liked this bookmark, with the image of Om Koltum, which I got in the Yafa Cafe/bookshop in Jaffa four years ago. I promised myself to visit Yafa soon to get a new bookmark. This spring, inshalla. Trying to concentrate on the book but it doesn't really work. We are now travelling round my beloved mammoth, the Elephant. "Bus stopping at next bus stop. Please do not block the doors".

As I step out to Walworth Road I automatically smile. This still feels like home. Am I still a South Londoner in exile? -

Greenwashed Mandelson I have to take out money, so I try first the petrol station. They don't have a cash machine, but they have the newspapers, showing Peter Mandelson's image with the green custard smeared all over him, and there's a quote from Gordon Brown saying that Mandelson has always been very green or something similar. So the British Cabinet's Business Secretary had just been humiliated in public, and it seems like everybody think it's funny.

I am trying to decide what I think about this. First, hats off for the custard lady, Leila Dean. Second, I feel like credit has to be given to British politicians for their self-humour. And also, despite all, it has to be admitted that civil liberties here are better than in most countries - the fact that the protester has not been arrested or charged and simply walked away (the police approached her and said they wouldn't comment on what she did, and wished her a good day). Compare this to poor Muntadhir al-Zaidi - the guy who threw shoes at Bush - who was tortured and is still in prison three months after the incident. (Of course, Leila Dean is white; had she been black or worn a veil the whole thing could have ended quite differently).

But maybe, I think, protest is simply not taken seriously here. The government is not afraid, they understand it's better to treat it as a joke rather than a real challenge. They know that for most people it's entertainment, not politics (not for the custard woman: she was very serious, and apparently worked hard to get the texture right).

More than anything, it exposes the real meaning of democracy in Britain: the occasional public humiliation of people in power. It's not about electing your government (less and less people bother to) but about dragging its members through mud every once in a while. And they fully cooperate in the process. Mandelson even said "that's what I'm paid to do". Is it all about S/M?

Walworth What has changed since I moved north? A new Tesco. More buildings being built, towers of shoebox flats for bubble time up-and-coming professionals. Only the bubble has burst. What are they going to do with the shoebox-towers? - I stop at a new arty cafe near the Co-Op. I want to let my brain slow down a bit. The cafe looks cute from the outside but inside the fridge is making a terrible noise and there's pamphlets with pictures of dead children, I notice after I order my Latte. - I try to concentrate on my book but the woman is talking about evictions, evictions, evictions. I pay and leave.

At the Co-Op I pack my suitcase with 42 packages of gluten-and-yeast-free bread. I add to it Saurkraut, alfalfa seeds, Tofu, tahini, fair-trade basmati rice and nuts. I come here so rarely that I always feel like I have to stock on everything. But the suitcase is really heavy and the Co-Op is out of plastic bags. Time for an exit. I wheel myself out, under the bridge, and onto the bus. It's full of people and there's no chance to open my book. I start to think I should have cycled.

Shirts As I get off the bus in the City (one stop too far) I see a smart shirt shop with Sale signs. I step in and the shop assistant measures me up in his eyes, hesitating a couple of seconds before saying with a French accen, a little too emphatically: Good Evening Sir. Which I take as: you look scruffy but I will still be polite to you. "Are you travelling?" he said, pointing to the suitcase.
No, I'm just bringing stuff from South London.

Once a year, on average, I buy myself a really nice shirt - one of my few luxury addictions. I have already used my allowance in December but I decide to try their black shirt. The lighting in the dressing room is fierce and frightful: it comes directly from above, and it makes me look horribly pale, especially with the black shirt ON.

I start a little discussion with the shop assistant. I tell him my reservations about the colour: I don't have a single black shirt. He claims it's easy to wear black, it goes with lots of things - unlike colourful floral shirts, for example, he says referring to the beautiful brown shirt that I'm looking at, with yellow and red flowers - floral shirts are so difficult to match.

I tell him I have at least five colourful floral shirts, and I wear them all the time.
And you find black difficult? He is genuinely perplexed.

As I step out of the shop, I feel I have to cleanse myself of this make-belief world, and happily rummage through the rubbish outside a sandwich shop, finding only packaged bread-slices to go with soup. I live them at peace and go to catch the 149 back home.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Culinary Hackney

Where: "Tina we Salute You Cafe"

What: Latte, small glass

How much: £2

More: No doubt the best Latte in London, in a dodgy corner of Dalston. It is of the same quality you find in Melbourne and Tel Aviv, both Latte capitals. I could speak critically of the ironic decor and the designer chairs, and pay lip service to the sturggle against gentrification, but when it's class struggle or good coffee, I take the second.


Where: Shacklewell Lane, under the plastic cover of the vegetable stall of Penikulum Turkish supermarket, hiding from the rain

What: Kofta (we call it Kubbeh back home): Bulgar wheat dumpling filled with meat and vegetables

How much: £1

More: You don't often see these Kubbeh dumplings in London. This version was different from Arab Kubbeh that I know which are made of meat, pine nuts and onion. The Turkish version was moistier, more oily, more chopped vegetables than meat, and too few pine nuts. But the bulgar crust was perfect: the right texture, between crunchy and moist. Recommended, unless you're vegeterian.

Monday, March 02, 2009

To the losers who will not give up

These men had as if casually been imprinted with the same expression, the expressions of the losers who do not give up, who know: they will lose again and again, and again and again till not give up, and that is no accident, no mistake or mishap, but it is meant to be that way .... yes, the most dreadful shame, the real crying shame, the greatest delight.

* * *

I am reading Christa Wolf on the bus to Euston; the day is sunny March. I am thinking of defeat, and the theses of history, and cyling by the Canal, by dusk, last summer. I am thinking on the sweetness of defeat, punctuated by pain, or is it the other way round: the pain, punctuated by sweetness. The momentary respite, the picnics of our life; enclaves of little victories, islands of good-humour, and then we lose, retreat, and try again.

Friday, February 20, 2009

about snow and sex

Cycling on snow sounds like a Yoguslav brass band under your pedals

* * *

The man in the Cafe yesterday talked about "tantrum sex". Everybody liked the idea

Monday, February 16, 2009

The market diaries: monetising tomatoes

I am drawn back to the wholesale market, the one I've been visiting for six years now, on the south bank of the river. It is not a short cycle for me, perhaps even an hour. I wonder if it is nostalgia that draws me back there; or the search for continuity, while my life is changing.

But there are simpler reasons, as my fridge is empty of vegetables, and the distance is hardly an excuse - what is an hour's cycling compared to hours of Internet-procrastination. As I am currently out of paid work, filling the larder with free fruits and vegetables is something I look forward to.

As I am cycling through the city, and then on Southwark bridge, I enjoying to see London, the familiar beast groaning with traffic. I am following the little rituals I developed over the last few years. Yet as I get closer to the market, I am starting to think: what if the security guard kick me out?

I start the tour and find boxes of Brazilian lime in one of the silver-metal bins. I love limes and these ones look fine, even perhaps organic? (small and non-standard shapes). I also find some basil (UK). But then the Market Authority car stops next to me. I don't look at them. They sound the horn; I look up, and the guard, in a tired gesture, motions to me to get out and get lost. I feel the anger building up in me. What harm am I doing by collecting rejected fruits and vegetables that were flown here from the other side of the world only to be dumped? But I nod. As they drive away, I continue my tour, my decision made: they would have to do more than this to throw me out.

In truth, in dozens of visits to the market, I never returned home empty-handed. I was kicked out a few times. Twice - in six years - they ordered me to empty my bags of the produce I had collected from the floor and the bins, but even then I managed to get out of the situation while keeping most of my booty. The risk is low, but it is always there. I used to accept it, in return to free food. But now I feel a new kind of impatient anger. Perhaps it is the fact that I cycled from the other side of town; and perhaps it is because I am out of work, not out of my own choice, that I feel my standing is stronger. But is it? at the end of the day, good food going to waste is wrong, and salvaging it is good, regardless if you are unemployed by choice or not.

No doubt, things have changed in my head since I gradually went back to the money economy over the last two years. I starting thinking in costs and savings. Before, I rarely bought fruit and veg in the supermarket; I had little idea how things cost and I didn't care. But now, as I am cycling between the bins, trying to keep a low profile (to postpone the encounter with the guards as long as possible), I think of the monetary value of my finding. Onions are cheap, lemongrass, expensive; organic cherry tomatoes, very expensive. Inevitably, I am thinking how much I saved by picking this food; how much it would have cost if I had bought it at the Turkish veg-shop where I otherwise get my produce from. It is a useless calculation, simply because I would never buy 1gk of limes, and a giant bunch of parsley (tabule salad forever). I would not get 12 oranges, and 4 radiccios. The experience of the market is abundance, plenty, and madness, it cannot be compared to the conventional shop-and-save experience. It is the dark side of capitalism; the malign side of growth, the irrational side of the profit logic; the big loophole, which I am so happy to travel through once more.

It is after 11am and the market is quietening down, the traffic of forklifts, vans and trucks becomes slower. I somehow manage to avoid the security, or perhaps they avoid me. Finally it is time to leave, with two full and heavy panniers. Mission accomplished: strangely, the only thing I didn't find were the usually-ubiquitous bananas. I cycle away by the river, my blood sugar dropping, my spirit wandering.

On the visit to the market I found:

mint (Israel)
limes (brazil)
Organic lemon; organic capsicuoums; organic cherry tomatoes
cooking apples

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Olympic Market

The usual wholesale market to which I've been going for five years and more is far from Hackney, which has meant that I've been there only a few times in the last year. Last week I decided to try another wholesale market not far from my house.

I went on a Saturday because I know Saturdays are slow. Markets work for half days and there's less traffic of traders and buyers and vehicles. It also means less things to find. But it was the first time and I wanted to feel the place before plunging into the full experience.

The area is this large expanse of East London: flat and empty, with motorways and warehouses. I like that area, in its fucked-up and contemplative way. The Olympics are designed to "regenerate" this, but to what exactly, I guess we have to wait and see. My guess: fucked-up unused giant Olympic installations. The market is just opposite the Olympic construction ground. What exactly is supposed to be opposite, I'm not sure: the Olympic Village, or Velodrome, or is it the basket ball arena? the Olympic maps tend to be a bit fuzzy. Whatever it'll be, they'll have nice smells from the market nearby, of grit and rotting vegetables.

It's time to cycle into the market, through the main gates. The main trading area is inside a huge hangar. There was little, if anything, to find outside it. And so I ventured in, by foot, with some trepidation. Walking for some minutes without seeing anything worth picking. Wondering if people would stop me to ask what I'm doing there. But they didn't. Finally I spotted some coriander, and parsley, and a few papayas lying on the floor. As I picked them up, one of the merchants offered me another papaya: "it's a good one!" he said as he walked away.

People are friendly here, I thought. Skip one, get one for free.

After this it only got better. Slowly I collected a nice loot for a Saturday morning: a whole bag of rocket (Israel); tons of radishes; four beautiful Radiccios; green beans (Israel); four fennels, and one mango (Brazil). No organic produce, as far as I could see.

My conclusions: this market is smaller, and is probably oriented towards corner shops. Still a nice number of luxury items. It seems more relaxed, with no market-police driving around with security-uniforms and hats.

And it's all for free.

Monday, January 26, 2009

What's in a name

God this blog is becoming Nostalgia central.

No, it's just that I'm sorting my papers. After two years of mayhem. I want to claim some tax back, and I need the receipts. So I go through my stuff. And I found exam candidates name cards.

When I supervise exames, I am bored, so I look for funny names, as I tick the students' attendance list. Sometimes the name really suit the person. For example, Mr. A. Admiral, who had a square jaw, was short and squat, and his look was always turned forward, towards the horizon. Or the rather fearful mr. Meek, who kept looking at the clock with anxiety. Ms. Downwards, who didn't even bother showring up to the exam.

But then some people just don't look like their names: the Afro-Caribean Mr. Snow; the rather dull looking Mr. Sultan Khan.

I like to collect the name cards, to recycle them as scrap paper, and to remember the names. The ones I found tonight in my mishmash folder were not bad: Ms Urban G (a hipster no doubt); Mr. A. Cassanova (no, I don't remember how he looked like). And believe or not, Ali G, the man himself (Psychology: Inroduction to Research Methods).

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I just found my notes from the Gleneagles, the G8 summit three years ago. In the same folder with my NHS cards and emmigration stuff, for some reason.

Tuesday, walking on the highway, not sure where. The hotel should be nearby. Nick is talking about the midges, Scotland's menace, little flies that never leave you alone. We are overheard by two robocops. One of them trying to be friendly, says, sure, when they get in my suit these midges, I'm fucked.
His mask is lifted, we can see his face. But his mate is keeping his mask on.

Friendly robocop says, look at them walking barefoot, I would step on a stone in two seconds and wouldn't be able to carry on.

The Spanish girl asks the masked robocop, why are you covering your face?
Eager robocop: you can talk with me, I don't have a mask.
She continues: when I cover my face you call it "anti social behaviour"
Masked roboco: no, Muslim women can cover their faces and that's fine.
Spanish girl: I'm Muslim, by the way. And I'm not talking with you cops.


sometimes, within the green, eplises of black mud, and white bright rocks, or mushrooms. And underneath everything, water, streams and rivers. The ground is drenched. The ground is water.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gaza as entertainment

In watching UK responses to the Gaza war, I find myself in a by-now familiar predicament. I am resolutely against this pointless carnage. And I do think there is room for action here in the UK: Britain and Europe is supportive of Israel in a range of ways, which make them in my view involved, partisans. Yet at the same time I dislike much of what I hear on British and European anti-war rhetoric. It's not even the arguments, it's what I see as exploitation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as some kind of a banner. The utlimate cause for anyone with the right views on the world.

Take this quote from the Guardian, a story about working-class Britons making it to Cambridge and Oxford:

When I came here I was adamant at first that it wasn't going to change me. Looking back, I've changed so much, but it's all positive. Before I would have thought getting into debates about Israel and Palestine over a drink in someone's room wasn't for me at all, because I'd never had that opportunity.

Discussing Israel/Palestine over a glass of wine - the ultimate passtime. The way you make it into the intellectual elite.

Hey! This is my country you are talking about! Not some film.

More from the Guardian, the tasteless comment of 2009:

Forget Gaza. The real story of the week was that of an actor [Kate Winslet] sobbing after taking receipt of her second Golden Globe.