Could Donald Trump actually be…illegitimate?

I don’t just mean politically. Obviously he’s playing the wrong role, was swept into office on a frothing white tide, and is now a demented puppet of forces he couldn’t even begin to understand. I mean literally.

Clearly he had enough of a connection with his father to inherit his wealth and his hate-fuelled value system. But accounts of his life make clear just how insecure he is about his status in a range of fields. As President, he projects those insecurities onto others, tweeting and rabidly barking at his mirror-mirror-on-the-wall rallies about the illegitimacy of his political opponents. The force of his obsession with others’ illegitimacy was what took him to the White House. Of course, he focussed (and continues to focus) principally on Obama’s legitimacy as an American – maybe Trump, like so many of his fellow racists, believes that all black men are literally bastards. As for Hillary, the fact that as he flounders further and further out of his depth, and the reality dawns even on him that he lacks even the most basic notion of what his rights and responsibilities as president are, his only consistent response is to whine about the illegitimacy of her defeat, is a clear sign that he knows that he is marooned in a role he is absolutely and uniquely ill-suited for.

I suspect that what lies underneath Trump’s almost crippling self-doubts about himself as a white heterosexual male is a fear that he is, in the deepest of senses, illegitimate. As he teeters on the edge of a full hysterical breakdown just at the moment when his emotional inadequacies may lead the world to an actual full-on nuclear fucking war, one way to send him gibbering away from the levers of power may be to state clearly to him what we all know: he is not only illegitimate as president, but also not the rightful heir to his father’s name and fortune. Not only is he pretending to be Commander-in-Chief; he is pretending to be the son of Fred Trump, and thus only pretending to be Donald J. Trump.

He tried to bring down Obama by casting down on his legitimacy, thus revealing his own Achilles’ (as he, less literate than any black high-school drop-out, would attempt to spell it) heal. Now’s the time we need to leave aside his tax returns just for a moment and ask: what are you hiding about your birth certificate, Donald? Could it be that the J actually stands for…Jamal?!

Maybe a good hashtag to use would be simply…#birther. Now, I wonder how we can go about getting Lebron James to tweet that?

A trip to Genoa

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I’ve thought of Genoa as a Portuguese city ever since, in Dublin in summer 2000, I drunkenly butted into a late-night bus conversation in what I thought was some unusual variety of that language, only to find that the two people were speaking zenese, or genovese, which just happens to share some of the cadences and vocabulary of continental Portuguese.  The latter may not be entirely as a coincidence – history doesn’t record which languages were spoken on Columbus’s expeditions, but as he was born in or near Genoa, prepared his voyages in Lisbon and set off from Spain it must have been a mishmash. The cities thus share a history of maritime expansion, and now live in the shadow of those former glories. Genoa feels to me not so much a city I’ve never visited before as a city I’ve never got round to living in, because back in another Golden Age of Overseas Discovery, that of TEFL, when the mere accident of having been born into an English-speaking environment meant that you could, at the drop of a derisory month-long course, emigrate and earn a decent living pretending to teach English, it was spectacular images of Portugal’s second city, Porto, which drew me there. If the Guardian travel section had instead featured Genoa, I could just have easily ended up in north-east Italy. I might even have ended up marrying an Italian woman*.

Arriving in a new city involves, Marco Polo-style, recalibrating one’s impressions of all the other cities one has visited or might visit. Thus, in keeping with my assumptions, Genoa does indeed strike me as a version of Portugal’s two main cities, which are both port cities with hilltop palaces descending rapidly to medina-style alleyways. In Genoa those alleyways are called caruggi. They’re immediately reminiscent of the steep, twisting warrens of Lisbon’s Alfama or Porto’s Ribeira – and, funnily enough, they also resemble other parts of Italy, for example, the Barrio Spagnolo in Napoli, but without all the vespas which render that area so unpleasant to walk around. The fact that we arrive just before what looks like an incoming squall puts me in mind of when, in 2009, I got to Trieste, another city I’d long longed to visit. I found it to be windblown, sombre, and not all that welcoming, albeit in a way that was sort of interesting in terms of reflecting on its complex history and just what it was that James Joyce found so compelling about the place. In Genoa, after we leave the station, despite Google’s claiming that our accommodation is only 1.3 miles away, the taxi takes us on an apparently unavoidable detour through winding tunnels, and takes me back to that macabre Mexican masterpiece of Guanajuato. There is a connection, in that some of the silver adorning the palaces and cathedrals is sure to have been siphoned from the veins of the new world, as is also the case from Sevilla to Syracuse. Strolling around Genoa, it does feel a bit like a greatest hits of the best bits of large southern European cities. While some areas recall Sant Pere and Barrio Gótico, with their tiny shops that are also bars and tiny bars which are also shops, others are a little like Rome but without all the bloody tourists, with their segways, their Trump hats and their incessant f*cking pointing.

I’ve always been fond of the Spanish word accidentado (uneven, bumpy)*, which describes the layout of Genoa pretty well. Its endless hilly detours make it enjoyable to get lost in. Losing my bearings happens to be my preferred mode of getting to know a city; however, it turns out that things are different when you’re in charge of a pram. Sudden stunning vistas, cutaways though ginormous 18th century buildings right down to the sea are all very breathtaking, but the prospect of another flight of stairs is less enticing. With the skies still threatening to Do A Houston, I’m excited to see a poster advertising a showing of ‘Eraserhead’ serendipitously starting in just four minutes time; however, it proves impossible to find an impromptu babysitter among the passers-by. Later, when we find a nice, quiet place to eat, our daughter starts to behave like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave. She soon manages to cover herself in so much pesto genovese she’s almost indistinguishable from Kermit, but with the personality traits of a young Miss Piggy. When, about 20 minutes into this mortifyingly messy and noisy farce, another couple-with-baby arrive, the proprietor quietly sends them back out into the pouring rain, claiming that he’s all booked up for the next month and a half. Then he disappears, possibly to shoot himself in the head.

The following day we explore the Museum of Maritime History, which is so huge and detailed it’s like standing and reading a six-volume series of books, each with 800 pages for each year of the city’s existence. After two hours we’ve managed to cover two of the five floors and are too exhausted to tackle the part about immigration, which is the bit that drew us there in the first place. The captions employ a curious Verfremdungseffekt, in that they present PhD levels of historical analysis written in often purple prose presented in the kind of lighting more appropriate for sending a baby to sleep, which thankfully, eventually, it does. By the time we head off in search of gelati and fasciatoi we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that a) being a galley slave was really not very much fun at all and b) Christopher Columbus definitely did come from Genoa and not, as some have claimed, just outside Swansea.

One more recent person of global significance that doesn’t exactly cover the city in gloria is the renowned comedian/trickster/drunk-driver Beppe Grillo, leader of the at-best-incoherent at-worst-openly-racist 5 Star Movement. His blog has been called Europe’s number one source of fake news stories, navigating us to a brave new world where nothing is true except for what’s published on certain implicitly trusted highly ideological websites. His influence helps explain why newspapers are full of stories about parents withdrawing their children from school so that they don’t get forcibly injected with chemtrails. Grillo emerged in the same decade as a more laudable local character: Fabrizio de Andre, whose classic album ‘Crêuza de mä‘ (roughly, ‘Crossing the sea’) gives the name to a beachside bar we visit in the picturesque beachside suburb of Boccadasse***. The album, with its genovese-dialect North African-influenced songs about lives lost at sea, resonates; as we walk around Genoa, we see graffiti in support of those who have more recently been forced by circumstances to seek a better life elsewhere.

Such solidarity recalls another famous episode in Genoa’s history: July 2001, when the city played host to massive anti-globalisation demonstrations focussed on the G8 summit. That spirit very much lives on in and around the carruggi. There is some remarkable anti-gentrification graffiti. One such slogan calls for the immediate expulsion of the ‘creative middle class’. There are posters for a Right to the City conference, slogans condemning the immigration authorities and opposing deportations, and graffiti referring to the recent alleged rape by carabinieri police of a young tourist. Genoa sees some cruise ships but not as many Barcelona, where tourists themselves have been the focus of furious protests. The area (called, I think, Madalena) looks a lot like a busier version of Alfama, particularly because this week I’ve been following Momus’s escapades in Lisbon, a city which some are calling ‘the new Berlin’. It reminds me that in the fifteen years since I left that area has also changed, with the arrival of new waves of tourists and gentrifiers and the settling-in of new immigrant communities****.

It’s only a few steps away from the emblematic museum-like streets with their 18th-century palaces and ‘lifestyle stores’ that we happen upon some of the more vibrant side-streets. There seems to be more variety of immigrant groups than I’ve found in similar cities, for example Bilbao. Visa services are on offer to quite a range of language speakers: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali and Welsh (possibly not Welsh); Latin American sex services are available to tutti quanti. There are some African tailors’ shops which seem to come straight from the streets of Kinshasa. We come across one lively bar where there seems to be a very energetic argument going on between Columbians and Venezuelans. It’s our last night, and I never could resist the lithesome rhythms of bachata, so we quickly load up on cheap rum, sell the baby to some passing zingari, and start to make the most of what’s left of our short holiday. Tl, dr: I’ve been to Genoa, it’s good, you should go there too, adesso scappo a cambiare la bimba.

* Piuttosto che una terrona :-P.
**Apparently, unsurprisingly, the word also exists in Italian.
*** I was first introduced to the music of both Fabrizio de André and (much to my wife’s chagrin) Franco Battiato by a visiting friend of a friend around ten years ago. I’m currently passing on the favour to our seven-month-old daughter, who seems to respond positively to the particular melange of melodies, instruments and rhythms of ‘Crêuza de mar’. Or it could just be that she secretly understands
zenese. The fact that most Italians had to turn to the translations of the lyrics (included with the original album) in order to figure out what the songs were about suggests to me that genovese is, like a number of regional cosiddetti variations on Italian, not actually a dialect, but rather a language.
**** Dublin has also changed a great deal since I left.

In which I teach my Chinese students (and myself) about Welsh

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There’s a cliché that the ‘best English’ is spoken in Dublin. I’d like to put a new one into circulation: the friendliest variety of the language is that of the Welsh. When I left Cardiff a couple of weeks ago I felt genuinely sad to be moving away from a place where everyone I met in the course of two months greeted me in a helpful and engaging manner, even though I couldn’t speak a word of their official language. Well, one of their official languages. We managed, or the most part, to get by in English.

I spent eight weeks teaching almost exclusively Chinese students on a presessional course at Cardiff University. One reason I chose Cardiff is because I’m very interested in issues of language and identity, particularly national identity. I also thought it would be an opportunity to challenge my long-held patronising view of the Welsh language, which has occasionally caused me to use its very existence as a punchline whenever the name of a slightly absurd language is called for. Force of habit meant it was hard for me to overcome my slight amusement at finding in the university library a copy of the book ‘Business Welsh’. Surely the one phrase that would be most useful in such a setting would be ‘Edrychwch, pam nad ydym ni ddim ond yn gwneud y cyfarfod yn Saesneg?‘.

Things are, inevitably, considerably more involved, as is always the case with minority languages. The point of a language is not merely to communicate, after all, but to maintain and represent a particular culture and identity. Hence, gaining a better understanding of the role of Welsh is a way of rethinking other such languages. Besides, as this wonderful poem by Nayyirah Waheed implies, who wants to speak bloody English all the time? Nevertheless, in the relationship between Wales, Welsh, and English, contradictions abound. Reflecting on the role of Welsh in state school education put me in mind of a lengthy conversation I had with a young Spanish speaker in San Sebastian a number of years ago, who was frustrated that the Basque language was used to exclude people from other parts of Spain from public service jobs. On the one hand, I could relate to his annoyance. When I lived in Dublin I was prevented from applying for a civil service job by my total lack of Gaelic, and given the Welsh-English border is so fluid and that so many Welsh people don’t speak Welsh, it’s easy to understand why such exclusion, when and where they do exist, might create resentment. On the other hand, to complain about the imposition of such requirements is to ignore questions of historical injustice around identity which cannot simply be repressed. There are very clear reasons why stickers reading ‘PARLA CATALAN!’ can be found on lampposts around Barcelona. The Spanish attitude to Catalan identity is exemplified in the nickname they give to the local language: polaco (Polish), supposedly a language that few want or need to understand. Such attitudes are, as I write, provoking a potentially world-shaking response.

I suspect that Cardiff’s relationship with Welsh is rather like Dublin’s relationship with Irish. When I was living in Dublin, I barely noticed the existence of its second official language. Back then, as a confirmed monolingual, I didn’t spend much time thinking about languages. When I visited places like Singapore and Malaysia, I experienced and thought of them as essentially English-speaking countries. I must have just blanked out those portions of street signs and official notices that weren’t written in English. When I went to live in a non-English speaking country I became, as the young people like to say, woke, to the point where the role of languages and dialects became something of an abiding obsession in whichever country I happened to be living.

Wales is, of course, not as linguistically diverse as China (where I spent the academic year 2004-2005) or Italy (where I live now), but the Welsh language does have two distinct varieties. North and South Walians often don’t see tongue-to-tongue. Those who have made the effort to learn the language (many of whom are from the south) are often disappointed to be responded to in English by ‘native speakers’ (who are more commonly found up north, and are (derisively, I think) known as Gogs). Nevertheless, the language has, since devolution, gained massively in prominence and official status right throughout the country. Many non-Welsh speaking-families now prefer to send their kids to Welsh language-schools, because Welsh medium institutions tend to achieve better Ofsted results*. The knotty implications of this are explored in a documentary called ‘The Welsh Knot‘, the title of which refers to a time in which the use of Welsh at school was severely discouraged.

Being in Cardiff in English meant I wasn’t exactly immersed in Welsh-speaking culture. In effect, given my level of exposure to Mandarin Chinese, I felt I was going to work in China every day, to the point where I started to feel I should be speaking it myself (I’d say my vocabulary, which had gone down over the years, made a sudden leap up from A1.1 to A1.1003). It was a conversation with a typically chatty Cardiff taxi driver that made me start to wonder about my students’ perceptions of the Welsh language. After all, although they were all effectively Mandarin native-speakers, some of them, particularly those from places like Sichuan, probably spoke different dialects at home. How did they think of Welsh? Did they recognise its existence? Did they think of Cardiff as a Welsh-speaking city?

Given a whole morning to work on my students’ note-taking skills through the use of an extended text, I decided to explore and develop their understanding of the role of the other official language of the country where (most of them) will be spending the next year. (I also thought that exposure to a totally unfamiliar language would help consolidate their understanding of English.) The first documentary I showed them followed younger learners from a range of countries going through a transition similar to my students, viz doing a crash language course in preparation for attending a (North) Welsh-medium secondary school. We also watched part of the one of I mentioned earlier, which centres on introducing a North Walian schoolgirl to a South Walian one; both of them study in Welsh medium schools but language plays a very different role in their lives outside the classroom. (The programme is described in detail here.) I introduced the topic to my class by saying a couple of Welsh greetings I’d taught myself (it was a unique situation in that it was the first time I’ve been the most proficient Welsh speaker in the room), and then asking them to do a short survey which I had prepared but have subsequently lost. (The results are thus not available for peer review.) They found answering the questionnaire entertaining, as they’d recently put together a similar survey of their own. In response to a question about which parts of China they thought similar to Cardiff in linguistic terms, many chose a region geographically close to their own where a substantially different dialect was spoken: Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai were mentioned. Their estimate of what proportion of the local population spoke Welsh was 80% (it’s actually 20%). Asked for their opinion as to whether I spoke Welsh, about half guessed yes, which I thought was interesting as they know that I’m not from Wales. I also asked them if they could think of any words they’d learnt in Welsh, and a couple of them wrote down ‘prifysgol’, a word they’d seen hundreds of times over the previous few weeks for fairly obvious reasons.

While the results of my research were inconclusive, they did help me think about the ubiquity of linguistic diversity, and they both confirmed and challenged my assumptions that my students would automatically transfer their perceptions of their own country’s minority languages onto Welsh. Had I hung onto the results, I’d have more of value to impart. (Apparently the Welsh phrase for ‘sorry’ is ‘mae’n ddrwg’.)

Languages are multifarious, lithe, fluid creatures, filling up all available spaces to fit snugly into the social form. I suspect that my class, indeed the whole cohort of pressessional students in Cardiff, will, in the course of their courses, start to develop their own codes, relative to their new environment, mixing in English words and names and possibly even Welsh ones. Language creates and affirms shared identity: wherever new identities are being formed, new forms of language emerge to satisfy the collective need. That’s how classes, tribes and cultures are formed, and that process in some important ways reflects a more significant function of language than mere communication. When I first began to learn about the role of dialects in other cultures, I’d badger representatives of those cultures with a question which I now understand to be irrelevant and misleading: if you go to part X of your country, can you understand what people say to you? It’s a daft question, because the answer is almost inevitably: yes, because if, for example, a person from Rome goes to Napoli, or if someone from Sichuan visits Shanghai – or, for that matter, when someone from Cardiff finds themselves in Caernarvon – the locals will automatically communicate with them in their mutually understood language, not in the specific local variety. I’m sympathetic to the idea that there are no such things as languages, only language – in other words, that borders and boundaries between languages are artificial**. However, acknowledging that reality doesn’t help to resolve the status of different dialects and languages. The State has a responsibility to recognise the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up the population.

When people migrate to areas where a strong local dialect prevails, a variety of things can happen, depending on their kind of interactions they develop. Some assimilate, some develop hybrid varieties, some remain at a linguistic (and, presumably, therefore, social) distance from the local culture. Then there are very particular expressions and pronunciations which give the speaker the status of insider; code-switching, i.e. swapping between languages or varieties of a language in the course of a single conversation or utterance, is, after all, a ubiquitous feature of human speech. We all do it within our own languages, mimicking other social actors in order to take on or discard particular social roles. To switch between languages or dialects rapidly can take very great skill, but can be extremely useful. (On a side note, the fact that I look German means that in speaking German in a German-speaking country I get away with using a great deal of English vocabulary.) It would be interesting to know how this operates with regard to Welsh and English. As I said to the taxi driver, I can’t imagine that sort of thing is actively encouraged at the Eisteffod. One curious detail I found about about some of my students’ perceptions of Welsh is that when they didn’t understand what (for example) a shopkeeper was saying to them in English, they just assumed they’d started speaking Welsh, which some, it turned out, thought of it as a mere dialect of English. Such mortifying linguistic confusion may explain why some students included in the bibliographies of their final essays seemingly random references to texts published in Turkish and Portuguese . Oddly enough, however, none of them cited any works written in Welsh. Byddai hynny’n fucking hyfryd!

*Thanks to Terry for pointing out that the local equivalent of Ofsted is actually called Estyn, which, to its credit, sounds a bit less like the name of a character from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. 

** Someone who’s demonstrated this is Diego Marani, the inventor of the ‘language’ (actually more of a game) Europanto.

We can no longer ignore why hurricanes – and earthquakes – are getting stronger

Earthquake Strikes Mexico City

“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.” Sven Lindqvist.

If you’re not Mexican and you’ve lived in Mexico City, you’ve probably lived or hung out in La Condesa, with its tree-lined avenues, pavement cafes and energetic night-time economy. My wife and I recently spent a wonderful year (May 2015-May 2016) living in a 3rd-floor apartment on the corner of Calle Campeche and Calle Cholula, above a branch of the taco chain Tizoncito. Having seen the destruction around Avenida Amsterdam, just a very pleasant three-minute stroll or two-minute jog away, I hope our former home is still standing and that everyone who was in the building is safe and sound.

I experienced three small earthquakes in my time in DF (the most common local name for the city). The first time I didn’t notice, or at least I saw belatedly on Twitter that there’d been an ‘#alertasismica’. I subsequently tried to find out if the public alarm system had actually worked, because I certainly hadn’t heard it. The second tremor apparently took place while I was in the metro one afternoon – I only heard about it in retrospect. The third one took place during our farewell party. As about 20 or so of us bounced round our ultimately oversized apartment at 3am, someone pointed out that the lampshade seemed to have joined in with the manic dancing. Sure enough, when we went to peer over the balcony, the staff and straggling customers of the taco joint were gathered in the street looking a bit chastened. Ah, chingale, we thought, and went straight back to ‘Born Slippy’. It turns out that we were immensely lucky.

By far the strongest and longest earthquake I’ve felt wasn’t actually in Mexico. It took place in Rome a few months after we’d left DF, on the eighth floor of the maternity hospital where my wife would just a few weeks later give birth to our first child. We were visiting a fellow couple and their brand new baby when the water in a plastic bottle began to shake, and then the building began to wobble. Everyone went quiet – I think that was one of the uncanny things about it. Outside, down in the street, some people were gathered in small groups and others were just getting on with their lives. It seemed to go on for several minutes but afterwards the sensation of physical distress and disorientation went on for more than a week. I immediately felt inspired to write this short piece of absurdist satire in an attempt to turn my fear into something…useful? Meaningful?

The stories I’ve read in the media and posted by friends in the last few hours are genuinely shocking. By no means do I want to make a disaster I didn’t even experience about me, but knowing those streets and recognising some of the buildings, not to mention worrying for the safety of friends who still live nearby, has been a sobering experience. There have also been reports of acts of immense courage. For all its manifold cracks and faults, I felt that Mexico City is a place in which those who share space look out for one another to a greater extent than in both London and Rome, especially given the relative absence of the State. Events like this, and those in Florida and the Caribbean over the last few weeks are not a good advert for cutting back on the provision of centrally-funded emergency services.

The courage that ordinary Mexicans display in continuing to make do in the midst of constant dangers, big and small, from disappeared daughters to bent traffic policemen, is immense. Partly by virtue of living in Condesa, we were sheltered from so many of the threats that chilangos take for granted. I hope that if I were still there I’d have the bravery and integrity to help out. It’s becoming clear now that, wherever we live, the rest of our lives now will both trigger our instincts of self-preservation and also necessitate acts of great selflessness. I pray that incidents like Brexit and the election of Trump are not conclusive evidence that the two are mutually opposed.

Although I’d be hard-pressed to compare it to dragging people put of broken buildings, it did take something like courage to investigate something I’d purposefully been avoiding: the relationship between earthquakes and the changing climate. This article, by the highly-respected academic Bill McGuire, sets out the link. It turns out that as the planet heats up (and particularly as deeply-compacted ice melts, and hurricanes hammer at the surface), the earth shifts. (Incidentally, if you haven’t read the article, which was published in an eminently reputable publication and summarises the results of some very extensive research which took place over several decades and was subject, like all significant academic research, to extensive and rigorous peer-review based on the systematic application of doubt, please do not comment below.)

It’s immensely difficult to talk about climate change. We’re neither evolutionarily equipped nor socially encouraged to take it seriously. The most powerful forces on the planet employ endless legions of trolls to shout down any discussion of its causes and effects, often in the name of (ahem) “free speech”*. Republican and Conservative politicians insist that it’s never the right time to address planetary overheating, particularly at those moments when its consequences are most visible and stark. Anywhere I post this online there will immediately attract those who, without having digested or even nibbled at its contents, will insist on screaming with spluttering toddler-like outrage that someone has had the temerity to try to feed them the C-words. Their campaign of intimidation around an almost impossibly intimidating subject has made climate change into a taboo, a heresy.

Now, in 2017, everyone – particularly politicians and journalists – who talks about hurricanes without mentioning the changing climate is being cowardly and dishonest. We also owe it to each other, and to the new generation, the one which, absolutely blameless, is already here, to face up to the fact that our failure to even discuss the dangers before us has much deeper consequences than we blithely assumed. An essential step is to get rid, by any means necessary, of those ‘leaders’ who, by means of scapegoating and by encouraging inane conspiracy theories, deny reality on our behalf. They are the sort of people who should have hurricanes named after them: #HurricaneRickScott or #HurricaneScottPruit may have had more useful political impact than #HurricaneIrma. Perhaps, given his government’s stated intention to throw limitless amounts of fossil fuel onto the fire, this particular disaster should go by the name of Enrique Peña-Nieto.

* Such people specialise in belittling the suffering of anyone with darker skin, so climate change is an ideal topic for their trolling.

Ecco perché Eataly non mi piace

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Wouldn’t it be great if someone could combine the range and quality of Italian food with the style and convenience of Ikea? No, it would be shit. How can I be so sure? Well, I’ve been to such a place, and I also live surrounded by images of it. Eataly is marketed rather aggressively here in Rome – entire metro stations are smothered with adverts for the place, leaflets litter the streets, and while it may be true that all roads eventually lead to Rome, in the città eterna itself around a third of the road signs direct you to Eataly Ostiense.

The founder of the company is a friend of perma-gurning Flash Harry past-but-not-future Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Oscar Farinetti is an odd character, who stresses the importance of local food culture but has also defended Coca Cola and McDonalds. His company only started in 2007 but already has 28 stores in six countries, 18 of which are in Italy. The flagship Ostiense branch occupies a huge building (a former air terminal) 170,000 square feet in size. It is an upscale food court mixed with Whole Foods or Waitrose. Farinetti was inspired by the thought that “unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago”, a dubious statement but one that serves a self-serving and self-fulfilling prognosis – there would be more independent food outlets in Rome were it not for Farinetti’s mission to replicate and supercede them. Italy doesn’t have many chains but Eataly is starting to be as dominant as Starbucks is elsewhere.

The Eataly brand is selling lifestyle just as much as convenience. What it trades in first and foremost is the experience of being the kind of person who shops there. Hence the tone of its advertising is aspirational and (as befits any place associated with Renzi) smug. The atmosphere is anodyne, sterile, antiseptic, the kind of non-place Frederic Jameson characterised as ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’, an example of the nicely-packaged and air conditioned but ultimately boring future that J.G.Ballard predicted. Paradoxically, given that it has replaced a large chunk of the centre of Rome, it’s not easy to get to; as the New York Times wrote, it’s not designed for people arriving on foot. I’ve yet to get there from Piramide metro station without getting lost at least twice. Parking is a central selling point, meaning for those who live nearby, even more unsustainable levels of traffic. Rome is one of the world’s greatest walking cities, but this is a big box mall is just as remote from the pavements and piazze of Testaccio as a mall in the LA suburbs.  And given the sheer quantity of produce on offer (no reflection of the range) it is not at all clear what is quality and what not.

Rome has a dearth of food markets. The one near us is friendly but small, and the one in Testaccio, near Eataly, is pleasant and varied but under-occupied. There is a larger market near Termini station (Mercato Esquilino) which is bursting with immigrant energy and variety, but longer-standing homegrown equivalents are scarce. As it happens, the first Eataly was in Torino, also home to one of the most vibrant markets I’ve ever been to, whose atmosphere was earthy, foul-mouthed, and sometimes abrasive, the vendors not there to impress you or to sell you an image of yourself. Such a place exists because it exists, not because some tycoon with political connections decided to remake the city according to their megalomaniac vision.

The experience reminds me of the surprise I felt in 2001 when it turned out that a Portuguese student’s ‘favourite restaurant’ turned out to be in a shopping centre. Nowadays, with Giraffe and Carluccio’s and Zizzi’s and Wahaca and Las Iguanas and Viva Brasil and The Real Greek and Wagamamma and Yo! Sushi, it seems that many cities are, to recall Karl Marx, in chains (with London the most obvious example) . It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between local and corporate, with many global cafés imitating the stylings of independent outlets. It took us a few months of living in the Condesa area of Mexico City to realise that many of the cafés and resturants were replicants of places in Polanco, a similarly safe-but-kinda-dull part of town. It was disappointing to see that the recently-revamped Cardiff Bay only offers the same eight or nine international chains one sees everywhere from Bangkok to Bangalore.

Eataly thus exists on the Uber GPS map of Rome, disembedded from the city itself. It depresses me that visitors go out of their way to come here. Rome may be messy, disorganised, inconvenient and occasionally overpriced, but it is Rome, not some branded and airbrushed simulacrum of itself. Its fascination partly lies in its being covered in remains of fallen empires; this one, sadly, is in the ascendant.

No one deserves to lose their home to a hurricane. Well, almost no one.

The question of whether or not it’s acceptable to use violence to stop fascism was resolved to the satisfaction of pretty much the entire human race in the middle of last century. Few in the late 1940s would have had much respect for the notion that genocide is merely a expression of the right to free speech. But if, as Patrick Mcgrath argued cogently this week, fascism is a monster which keeps growing new heads, then each one that emerges needs to be crushed with maximum force – or, as the finale of Psychoville spectacularly demonstrated, exploded.

Many of those fleeing hurricanes in Florida and Texas over the last week will inevitably have more awareness of and engagement with the problem of the changing climate than the writer of this blog. Others will, like me, be aware of the basic facts and share in the generalised but rarely-acknowledged terror at what a righteously vengeful planet next has in store. But there are inevitably many of those currently witnessing the destruction of all they hold dear who have actively dedicated much of their time and energy over the last couple of decades abusing mass and digital communication media to spread disinformation with a view to ensuring that such catastrophes would both take place and be wholly unprepared for by states with the duty and means to protect their subject populations. Many of them will even have lent their support to corrupt and venal political demagogues who have built their careers and fortunes on the spreading of staggeringly irresponsible lies  which deny the present and future suffering of millions of fellow human beings.

Many of those victims happen to be poor, dark-skinned and far away. It’s by no means an accident that the kind of scum who marched straight from 4chan to Charlottesville a few weeks ago divide their online time fairly equally between scapegoating and ridiculing foreigners, threatening and bullying women who dare to speak freely and attempting to disrupt every single online conversation about how scientific findings account for extreme weather events. Climate denial is a key component of 21st century fascism, the formal and explicit imposition of elite power through violence. (Hurricanes are extremely violent events – no wonder the manchild Trump appears to revel in their power.) Just as when those who seek to gain power by means of violence are pushed back by any means necessary, when people who have inflated their egos, boosted their careers and augmented their Paypal balances by denying the experiences of climate refugees themselves become climate refugees, who can spare them any sympathy? Of all the tragedies to be visited on the US over these few weeks, maybe the greatest, or at least the most ironic, is that Hurricane Irma appears to be steering clear of Mar-a-lago. While some may be #prayingfortexas or #holdinghandsforflorida, I’m hoping that the next extreme weather event brings in its wake a tsumani of divine justice. In the meantime, perhaps a more appropriate nickname for a hurricane ripping apart the south-west corner of the United States would be simply #RickScott.

Support Trump? Want to earn $1,000?! Here’s how!!!

Although I no longer have a Twitter account, it’s proven impossible over the last few weeks to divert my eyes from the rolling car crash dumpster fire of Trump’s hamfisted attempts at pretending to be President while hanging on to his (ahem) integrity. As things stand right now, with his entirely pathetic tweets praising protestors and protesting, he has lost, bigly, the respect of the only person whose opinion he truly cares about, a portrait of whom is apparently the only picture hanging in the Oval Office office: his KKK-supporting father*. Donald wanted so much to honour the memory of his progenitor by continuing to stand up for his white supremacist cheerleaders, but he couldn’t do it. Last night, unable to sustain the arrant sub-Alex Jones nonsense he’d been posting about ‘anti-police agitators’, he tweeted about the need to ‘heel’ America, oblivious to, or maybe secretly recognisant of, the fact that he and all he represents is the cancer that the country is trying to fight off. Trump is his own Achilles’ heal. (Although, to be fare, maybe he was actually trying to spell ‘heil’.)

Much like his verbal incoherence, Trump’s combination of limited vocabulary (like his Mexican counterpart, it appears he has never read a book) and partial iliteracy seems to endear him to his supporters, a large proportion of whom would not only put up with his spelling mistakes but actually anything  he could conceivably do (including total nuclear annihilation, but quite possibly excluding his speaking out for protests and against racism. They really won’t like that in the slightest). Maybe in tribute, his supporters’ tweets are similarly poorly composed. Uniformly so, in fact. Given that there are only 140 characters at steak, you’d think that just once one of them might produce an accurately-written post, but no. So far not one Trump supporter has been able to produce a single tweet which does not contain at least one glaring and laughable mistake.

Maybe it’s a question of motivation. After all, Trump’s political victory was the ultimate realisation of the principle that money is the only driving force in any human endeavour. Maybe if his hate-addled disciples had a gold-plated carrott dangled in front of their faces (they’re already seem vulnerable to various hypnotic effects), it might propel them to think more carefully about their spelling, punctuation and grammar. Trump’s own linguistic incompetence is not in this sense a cause for optimism, but maybe he just has too much money in the first place. Although he’d happily set fire to his own trousers for $1,000 (or its rouble equivalent), he’s not intrinsically motivated to do so. His supporters are another kettle of deplorables entirely. Lots of them could certainly do with such a sum.

I’ve decided to help out. I am offering that amount via Paypal to any Trump supporter who manages to compose an error-free tweet between now (mid-August) and Christmas. It does not have to be a work of pithy genius – a simple statement regarding current events from the standard wilfully myopic/blissfully misinformed perspective will do. It just needs to obey the basic rules of English orthography, grammatical structure and punctuation. If it were also possible to make it factually accurate, that would trigger a million-dollar jackpot bonus; however, its not feasible that any statement based on factual information could be supportive of Trump, and in any case I don’t have access to that sort of money, not being, like some, in league with the mob.

To give budding entrants some practice in spotting their errors, I’ve litered this post with several speling, punctuation and grammatical mistakes of my own. However, as always on this website, their are no prizes for pointing them out. This is, after all, merely a blog, not an official statement on behalf of the Comander in Cheif or anything like that. As for whether or not you should trust me…maybe you should look up the spelling and the meaning of the word ‘gullible’.

* Nigel “Nazi flags in 2017? Whoever would have thunk it?!” Farage seems to have similar issues with his own dad, his initials being by no means a coincidence.

** There’s also the hilarious possibility that Trump was trying to be presidenshul, viz. like Obama.

Helping your students to understand Scottish accents

One of the most bizarre moments of my teaching career was when a whole class of Portuguese students complained to the Director of Studies because they’d paid tens of thousands of escudos for a ‘native’ teacher and had been assigned a Glaswegian. The conversation in which it was explained to them that Scotland is an English-speaking country apparently a little awkward but the cause of much subsequent staffroom mirth. If there’s one thing EFL students love more than talking about their driving tests, it’s complaining about the range of accents that people (uh?) the English-speaking world. Two popular sources of confusion are Indian accents (which sometimes smacks a bit of racism, given that India is partly an English-speaking country, so get used to it) and Scottish wans. It’s useful but sometimes fruitless to point out in response that by no means everyone from Scotland sounds like Rab C. Nesbitt. Although doing so by first explaining who Rab C. Nesbitt is tends to complicate things still further.

I decided to take on the task of challenging the notion that Scottish accents are hard to decipher, and have enlisted the help of Glasgow comedian Limmy, who in 2006 introduced the world to a cast of inimitable characters from that deer green city. I have chosen three clips with three of those characters and prepared some compehension questions which will, with a little guidance from you the teacher, enable your students to see through the mist of culturally-conditioned prejudice and grasp the gist, the details and the subtext of the monologue in question.

N.B. One or two of the videos include(s) the occasional example of raw or vernacular language.

  1. Who was ‘Sandy’?
  2. Why did John Paul dial 1471?
  3.  What did he then tell his friend Craig?
  4. How long did he wait before calling the woman back?
  5. What did he say to the woman the second time he calls?
  6. What did the woman do to try to stop him calling her, and why doesn’t it work?
  7. How long did John Paul then wait before calling her back?
  8. What happened in the end?
  1. What was ‘D-Day’?
  2. What sort of company was BAMN Concepts?
  3. What did Benjamin send the client?
  4. What question did Benjamin ask himself?
  5. Who did he call, and what did he ask them to do?
  6. What did the people of Glasgow find graffiteed all over their city on Monday morning?
  7. What made news of the campaign go global?
  8. What were the consequences for everyone involved?
  1. What kind of event did Jacqueline decide to go to?
  2. Why did the organisers take her photo?
  3. Why did she feel awkward about what she was wearing?
  4. What happened at 8.30?
  5. How long would the partners have to talk to each other?
  6. What did Jacqueline start to explain to her partner?
  7. How many partners did she dance with altogether?
  8. Was the night out a success?

Six days in Splott

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Image borrowed from @AndyReganCDF*

“Isn’t that Ninjah?”

My companion laughs. Everyone in Cardiff knows Ninjah, and when I mention him the response is always the same. As soon as I’d said that I’d be spending a couple of months here a friend of who knows the city told me I must look out for him. I listened to his somewhat madcap first album, watched a couple of videos in which he entertained people on of the city’s main thoroughfares by banging percussively on some bins, and started following his escapades on Facebook. And it is him, cycling towards us, half an hour after I arrived. I tell my friend about it and he’s surprised it took me so long to bump onto him.

The area I’m staying in is called Splott. When I got off the coach and told the taxi driver where we were going, his unenthusiastic response told me it held something of interest, and as we were driving along one of is narrow streets or tiny terraced houses I saw a mural proclaiming pride in the area. It’s clearly economically and socially deprived, but not lacking in curiosity or character. Or indeed controversy, starting with its bathetic name. There’s an apocryphal tale that it derives from ‘God’s plot’. In a more contemporary attempt to talk up where he lives, the landlord of my Airbnb place prefers to refer to it as /spləʊ/. In addition to the name, it’s got quite an involved history. Apparently a lot of Irish move there in the late 19th century, taking refuge from the famine. Clashes with the local Presbyterian population ensued. As a legacy of that period, Splott still has quite a collection of churches. They were joined by a number of factories, including a steelworks and brewery and, at one point, a university for disadvantaged youth. Both the steelworks and the brewery shut down in the late 1970s.

Shirley Bassey grew up in Splott and started to make her name there, singing in the local pubs, of which there used to be dozens. Now there are two or three. There is very little passing trade to bolster the dwindling disposable income of the locals. When I set foot into one of them, one of the drinkers mentions Deliverance. The place in question is a amiable, run-down, drinking barn, with a handful of local men getting properly drunk to the jukeboxes and and looking forward to the karaoke on Friday. The patrons are welcoming and happy to talk, sharing tales of long days in insecure jobs.

The effect of two-thirds of a decade of ‘savage cuts’ (thanks Nick) are very visible. Local churches have regular and well-attended food banks. A couple of years ago the cash-strapped council shut down a popular swimming pool, provoking furious protests. Along with the pride, there’s defiance, as seen in the drive-by gestures of the mobility scooter owners in this locally-filmed video (directed, as it happens, by Ninah). It shows off the Magic Roundabout, which marks one end of Splott. The area is hard to walk to and around. When, on my third day, a church collapsed, the ensuing detours made it even more isolated. Still, while the tragedy ruined my sole attempt to get to work by bus, it did make it even easier to talk to people. On my way home from an exploration of the remaining local pubs (which mostly involved conversations about all the pubs which have closed), people asked me for directions, which was quite entertaining.

Splott is probably not dissimilar to a lot of smaller towns in Wales or the north of England. There may even be areas of Sheffield (my hometown) which are comparable. On June 23rd last year, Cardiff voted to remain in the EU, but I can see why Wales as a whole rebelled. Whatever Vince Cable and (oh yes!) Nick Clegg have to say on the matter, you can’t separate the Brexit vote from the increasingly dire conditions in which so many are forced to live. Splott is clearly struggling but by no means the worst. While for some life seems to revolve around the acquisition and consumption of cans of beer, the takeaways are mostly old-school Chinese rather than fried chicken, and although there are some betting shops (which may well help explain the disappearance of the pubs) there isn’t a Ladbrokes and Paddy Power and another Ladbrokes on every corner. That may well change. After all, once the safety net is torn down, people will grab at anything in the attempt to survive.

There’s quite a contrast with the city centre, which seems to have been refurbished to suit the assumed requirements of slumming premier league footballers. On a Sunday afternoon it proved impossible to find somewhere to eat that was neither a sports bar or part of a chain, those gargantuan blinged-up all-you-can-eateries which only justify the extortionate prices if you eat enough for a week. Cardiff Bay is nice to look at and from, but it’s a shame that it has the exact same seven or eight franchised restaurants, thought to attract the right kind of consumers. It’s a pity when other parts of the city have so much character.

The local market, once I track it down, proved to be one of those places which take place in a car park and specialise in cans of vehicle spraypaint and hefty bacon sandwiches. Easy to disparage, perhaps, but it’s what people most need on a Saturday morning, and you can set out your own stall for only £7 a day. It’s a shame the council clearly does nothing to promote it or to maintain the premises. The wrong kind of enterprise, the wrong kind of consumer. It seems I stood out in my overcolourful shirt (passing comment from stallholder: “I didn’t know we were in fucking Bermuda!“), because when I asked someone about other markets around town, after a couple of references to local landmarks which met with blank looks, he uttered the (for me) delightful phrase “You’re not British, are you?”. Regular readers of this blog will understand my joy on being asked this.  As it happens, I wouldn’t actually mind being Welsh, although of course I’m not really anything more than a tourist. If you want to know more about Splott, this is an excellent place to look.

https://youtu.be/bFfq9TlbkV4