The real West London is starting to rise up

When I first visited London I was only 13 or so, and at that impressionable age I half hoped that I’d find Neil Tennant sashaying across the concourse of St Pancras Station with a recalitrant Chris Lowe six paces behind. That video defined my image of London throughout my teenage years, and without my ever reflecting on it, the lyrics to the song firmly established the east-west class divide as the central feature of my mental map of London.

When I moved there properly (at the start of 2006, after a short-lived stint in 1993) I gravitated towards the east. It was cheaper, and in any case the west seemed sort of sloaney. It never occured to me to live there and I tended to look askance at those who did. The west was the land of chinos and jazz funk. Every country has its pijos, fighetti, betinhos or yuppies, and this was their kingdom. The West seemed, in a word, naff.

The more I lived in London the more I sensed that there was much more to the area than my lazy dismissal had acknowledged. Visiting there for any reason always felt like a trip to a slightly exotic foreign country. There was more to West London to yuppies and carnival, and that event itself revealed a working class city in amongst the refurbished portico mansions and lambroghini showrooms. I reflected on the other elements: Nick Roeg’s Powys Square, the emergence of The Clash, and the influence of reggae soundsystems, the riots of 1958 and 1976, the complex interplay of different Afro-Caribbean communities, thw downbeat parades of Bayswater and Queensway which I knew from Martin Amis’ ‘Success’, the extent of the west with all its jealously-guarded class distinctions and postcode markers, from Portobello to Knightsbridge and North Kensington to South Acton.

Last year (2016) I spent a couple of weeks in an affluent part of Shepherd’s Bush and wandering around Goldhawk Road towards Hammersmith and was constantly reminded that gentrification is never total. Even with the eye-wateringly unaffordable housing, there remains a palimpest of communities: Syrian, Lebanese, Irish, Somali, Ethiopian and Sikh. 

Another less noticed feature of West London is the huge working class estates. With possibily even more intensity than other parts of London, they’ve been the site of immense battles in the last few years as new phases of social cleansing set in. As we’ve had cause to hear several times over the last few days, the area around Notting Hill and Kensington is among the most highly-prized territory on earth. The tower blocks which house hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners have become outposts of affordable life in a world predicated on aspiration or annihilation, get rich or die trying.

Under what had come to seem like ‘normal’ circumstances, in which your Boris Johnsons and David Camerons were still in the ascendant, the fire could aid the process of hypergentrification, the fate of the victims might be seen as an unfortunate charred blot on a landscape undergoing permanent enhancement. But there’s something about the national mood which will not let that happen. News channels are full of working class people who had been written out of the story of London as a successful global city. As it happens those working class people come from all corners of the globe and have made London their home even as London seems to repel their efforts, their energy and cultural inventiveness welcome only insofar as they serve as enticing images to attract yet more global capital yearning for exponential returns. Those people are West London in its purest form and their resurgence will renew it as a living and breathing place with its own proud history rather than a bland pre-retirement resort for the global elite.

This guy embodies the spirit of the true West London. It’s no accident that behind his righteous invective, honed over years at Speaker’s Corner (a place I’d always dismissed as tourist fodder/a breeding ground for mad mullahs), that he’s also a social historian. He’s spot on on the subject of gentrification and social cleansing, and in this clip is ferocious and trenchant on the role of the media in normalising such deadly inequality and dismissing out of hand the notion that there could ever be an alternative.

Two months ago Iain Sinclair, who has know more Londons than most, declared that this is the final one. I was inclined to agree. The area where he lives and where our flat is is being hollowed out of all historical and cultural content, turned into a computer simulation of the suburbs of Dubai or Shanghai. In what I’d come to think of as an encroachment of the values of West London on the working class East, the role of the yuppies is played by weekend hipsters, just as keen to amass cultural capital by snapping up everything sticking out of the ground, until every rugged feature of the terrain has been smoothed over for international investors. Few places on earth are as bland as the new East London, with its ‘international standard’ apartments and Porsche showrooms. Meanwhile, back west, the furious ashes of the Grenfell Tower contain life; local identity is reasserting itself in an area which I, unfairly, was inclined to dismiss as socially and culturally moribund. If there is hope for London as a living city, it lies in the west.

Ljubljana: Enjoy your symptom!

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The Austrian-sounding man striding across the main square (actually a circle) of the Slovenian capital is bellowing into his Handy “BIN IN LAIBACH!”. I feel entertained that he’s used the German name of the city. I happen to know this because a) I’m sort-of German myself and b) it’s a name of a well-known Slovenian mock-totalitarian rock group/art collective which has produced a series of hilarious records and videos from the late ’80s onwards and also started their own nation state. Although I’m no defender of German totalitarian imperialism I do think it’s worth acknowledging that the name ‘Laibach’ is much easier to spell and pronounce than ‘Ljubljana’. #nursagen.

As I don’t have much money as of September 2009 I’m staying in a hostel. Whenever I stay in such places I start to feel like one of my English language students. The lingua franca of such places is International English, the lexicon of which doesn’t feature lower-frequency vocabulary such as ‘snoring’. The Turkish guy who’s spent all night making more noise than a large-scale military coup doesn’t understand the word but at least he was polite enough to ask me how I’d slept (I hadn’t). Hold on, he says, when he wakes up and I try to teach him the English equivalent of horlama. I’ll put my glasses. Eight years later I’m still waiting for him to tell me where he’s going to put them. In the event I’m almost tempted to tell him to stuff them down his fucking throat in case it stops him from snoring, but luckily he tells me he go back to Turkey the same day, which come as a relief.

It’s hard to learn languages, especially from scratch. I blearily reflect upon this as I sit in the just-waking-up market square with an enormous coffee and a giant slab of breakfast burek. It’s hard to start collecting vocab and building up a working grammar when you can barely remember how to say please, let alone water, tree, food or sunhat. Not that I’m trying: I’ve just arrived from London on the first step of a mini-grand tour of Northern Italy and environs. I could do with a sunhat because every day (and very night, although my memory may have been warped by lack of sleep) it’s blisteringly warm and blindingly sunny.

I am not here to track down Slavoj Žižek. I’m not what is already becoming known in Spetember 2009 as a fanboy. I try to avoid mentioning the subject altogether so as not to appear overeager and thus uncool. This is a bit silly as no one knows me here. I might as well put on an ‘Enjoy your symptom!’ t-shirt, teach myself the Slovenian for “DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES? DO YOU KNOW WHERE ŽIŽEK LIVES?!” and run round the circle in circles until someone takes pity on me and tells me where this is.

As I look at the big metal map of the city in the main circle (Žižek’s house is thankfully unmarked) I get talking to a lovely couple, local kindergarten teachers who want to use their softly-spoken English. They’ve never heard of Slavoj Žižek. Later the same evening they take on a brief tour, including a particularly significant spot where some people were shot, or raised a banner, or maybe it was where they themselves first had sex, or something. It was, as I’ve mentioned, several years ago now.

Ambling around on my own in the early evening amidst the refreshingly chilled old stone of the however-you-say-parte-vieja–in-Slovenian, I come across a (hooray!) critical theory bookshop. The guy who’s working there speaks better English than I do and is doing a PhD in the post-Deleuzian semiology of hair product advertising (I’m making that up. This was almost eight years ago.) He grew up near the border with Croatia, and the stories he tells me of petty rivalry and racism remind me of smalltown Britain, just with a few more military uniforms and some occasional ethnic cleansing. The (fascinating) conversation reminds me of a similar encounter eight or so years earlier in San Sebastian with a young guy who worked in the castke I clambered up to one sweaty afternoon. On the back page of my Spanish-Portuguese dictionary (get me!!!) there’s a scribbled diagram of the relationships between the Spanish and Basque states, the different Basque political parties, and some assorted words in Basque. I don’t take notes on my Slovenian conversation. The bookshop guy is, like all Slovenians I mention him to, fond but critical of Žižek, and doesn’t know where his house is.

In my memory of events I give my new friend a hug and then skip down the cobbled streets. Thinking about it now it strikes me that this may have been one of the times in my life when I was on antidepressants. There are some stalls on a bridge selling what I recall as half-liter plastic glasses of white wine for a single euro. I float around for a bit guzzling my massive drink and listening to the murmury language in which I imagine, possibly incorrectly, that everyone is discussing which ideologies are the most sublime and which absolutes the most fragile. Drifting round a corner I see that there’s a naked young naked woman in the middle of the street having her portrait painted by an eager crowd. It’s a wonderful scene. To see all…the people…there’s just a really…nice…civic atmos…totally naked woman.

A hundred metres away there’s a stage with what appears to be a military brass band playing ‘Jump’ by Van Halen. I could repeat that sentence but I’ll leave it up to you, if you do want to read it again there it is. Now, several years later, it strikes me as strange that it didn’t occur to me to move there, grow a beard, start to learn the language and maybe even take up painting. I had no particular commitments in London, having just finished my Master’s, and I was living in one of the three crummiest parts of the city. I wonder what my Lacanian psychotherapist would have said. Probably just nodded and blinked. Who knows, maybe all those nods, blinks and occasional snores were a subtle form of direction to Slovenia, Venice, Mexico and beyond. Probably a good thing, on the whole, that he didn’t tell me where in Ljubljana Slavoj Žižek lives.

* Many thanks to Ben Rozman for Slovenian language translation guidance and consultation services.

Seven weeks in Bangkok

Although like most Westerners I’m attracted to the idea of overcoming craving, I spent 90% of my stay in Bangkok suffering from an insatiable yearning for deep sleep and iced refreshments. The fact that Thailand is a Buddhist society is thrust upon you as soon as you leave the airport, in the form of billboards sternly warning you that although it might be calming to place a craven image of Mr Buddha (fat version) in between the plant pots or adorning your upper left buttock, this is very actively discouraged, in fact it’s actually illegal to buy religious symbols as a ‘decoration’. Such ‘respect for Buddha is common sense’, admonishes the poster. It’s the kind of evocation of common sense which would make Pierre Bourdieu cough up his tam yang soup. Symbols of Buddhist faith do nowadays play an important decorative role in Western lives and households. What the relationship is between such images and actual faith and practice is a very moot question.

Maybe the authorities should also put up signs against selfies at buddha shrines. It’s easy (and fun) to sneer at such misplaced displays of self-centredness. It would also be unfair (as I did at one point) to complain that Thailand is less the land of smiles than the land of selfies. As it happens I identify with a lot of Buddhist philosophy and have a lot of respect for those who genuinely try to live according to its precepts, particularly renouncing one’s individual will. Just this morning I came across a lovely quote from the Buddha: “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most”. As it turns out, on tracking down that saying I see it’s fake, as is a lot that Westerners believe about Buddhism. In a classic article which he really should have called ‘Western Buddhism and the Spirit of Neoliberalism’ Slavoj Žižek argued that in contemporary Western ideology Eastern religions play much the same role as Weber (Max, not Lloyd) argued that Protestantism did in the development of capitalism*. They underpin an individualist mentality of detaching oneself from social responsibilities, particularly the moral consequences of one’s actions. You can spend 16 hours ruining lives by pushing innovative forms of debt enslavement in the City and then go home, close your eyes and pretend that reality is a mere illusion. To be fair my position had softened on this, but I do still think that those who persist in the belief that Buddhism is inherently more tolerant and peaceful need to take an honest look at what’s happening in Burma. The attitude of the Chinese authorities to religion has also changed. The former leader Jiang Zemin was keen on allowing Christianity to spread in the belief (also pace Weber) that it promoted industriousness. The current leaders seem to be taking a different tack, urging Party followers to stick to Marxist-Leninist atheism and restrict their contact with religious belief to eating members of the Falun Gong.

Maybe they should ask you at Bangkok Airport if you’ve come to nourish your body or your soul. I wasn’t there on a spiritual sojourn, but to accompany my wife while she did a summer course at the university. It wasn’t my first visit. In January 2005, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, me and my then girlfriend abandoned our plans for a beach holiday and instead spent several weeks on the west coast helping tourists locate their loved ones and rebuilding fishing boats with our teeth while using our hands to bottlefeed orphaned children. The language was no problem, we picked it up in a couple of hours. The highlight was when I received a gold medal from the King, who became a close personal friend and subsequently introduced me to Michael Jackson, with whom I (retrospectively) wrote ‘Earth Song’.

Some of the preceding paragraph is not true. There were probably tourists who sacrified their time and energies in such a way. We (shamefully) took our lead from George Bush after 9/11 and ‘supported the economy’ on the relatively corpse-free west coast. Maybe it was the heat bearing down from the Thai sun or rising up from the bowls of Tam Yung, but my memories of our actual holiday are vague. As we were living in China at the time, the ease of finding transport and accommodation came as a pleasant shock and we were overwhelmed by how friendly and cooperative everyone seemed to be, especially when it came to providing us with smoothies and toasted sandwiches. I quite liked Bangkok, including the backpacker enclave of the Kaoshan Road. The Sukhumvit area was relaxing to walk around and the presence of the occasional street elephant impressed me, although the animals themselves didn’t seem to be massively enjoying themselves, except when they were producing tsunamis of steaming elephant wee.

In London over the years I had lots of Thai students. I’d sometimes gently oblige them to do a neat party trick, which was to recite the full name of their capital city, which is basically a massive list of everything of significance in the place. People’s names are also not what you might think. For years I had no idea how complicated the whole thing was and arrogantly insisted on using their ‘first’ names. It’s actually far more respectful to call Thai people by their chosen nicknames, even though my students were had invariably chosen things like Rabbit or Blue. The most common surname by far was Porn and we had one student who unwittingly glorified in the name Bumsick. Again, it’s easy to make fun, until we recall that the name of the current US President is a synonym for bottom burp, two of his predecessors were called Bush and the present UK Prime Minister shares almost her entire name with a scuzzy porn star.

Even the smiliest Thai person must get frustrated at being asked about the same old prurient clichés, particularly about ladyboys and the social role of women-who-work-as-prostitutes. One night our group of humanitarians and alternative thinkers ended up in a strip bar on the street called Soi Cowboy. We tried to join in with the hilarity but I’d read too much about the background to have a lot of fun. There is a mythology that sex workers are more respected back in their home villages. I hope it’s true and that they’re not coerced. It’s also nice to think I would never have to take my clothes off and waggle my arse in the face of fat German tourists. That whole supply and demand thing is probably a key factor.

My experience of the Thai language was actually kind of refreshing, in that it was a relief not to pretend that I fitted in. Learning any new language is always a great game but I was reminded how difficult it is to start, to get past the stage where you can get a phrase out but not understand a word of the reply. Had I been there for more than a few weeks I would have tried harder (try saying that in Thai) but as it is I felt grateful when people responded in English. It made a change from feeling resentful, as I often do in countries where I do speak the language and someone addresses me or replies in English. Given the immense linguistic and cultural gap, in Thailand calling yourself an expat makes sense. Although I vastly prefer the word ‘foreigner’ it would be misleading and absurd to put yourself in the same social category as a enslaved Burmese refugee peeling prawns for British supermarkets or a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker terrified of arbitrary deportation. A lot of English language culture is nonetheless very bland, filling out that nebulous category of ‘international’: soulless hotel bars, vapid pizzas, what should really go by the name of “Mexican” “food”. I joked with a random person we met at an expat meetup about how all we have in common is our language – for all I know, I could find myself talking to an arms dealer! He turned out to be basically an arms dealer, one who lives in Oman and occasionally comes to Bangkok for the (nudge nudge) ‘recreation’.

Maybe (to be generous) he meant the shopping. It’s incongruous that the authorities are so fussy about the statues because they are, like everything else, very much for sale in endless parades of stupendously cavernous malls. If you didn’t know Bangkok was the capital of a Buddhist society you might mistake it for a gigantic monument promoting human cravings. Parts of it felt distinctly like the most boring part of London, viz Canary Wharf. The absence of parks and the presence of the Sky Train above congested roads makes for a heavy and frenetic atmosphere and what starts as a five minute stroll to seek out yet more international adaptors can quickly drain you of physical and mental strength. The BTS trains themselves provide some relief from the heat as they are kept at a constant temperature of -273.15C.

Two cities that make for useful comparison are Bangkok and Mexico City. Before going to the former we spent a year living in the latter. There are obvious point in common (heat, traffic, spices, political chaos) but in terms of walkability the Mexican capital is (relatively speaking) paradise, with its abundant green spaces and (where we were living) leafy boulevards. Between Mexico and Thailand we also spent ten days in Cuba (ain’t life grand!), where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting and will have some great travelling stories to regale our daughter with should we be able to stop gasping for air long enough to share them.

There are also, as mentioned, some nice, quieter parts of Bangkok: some pleasant side streets and the teak mansion which that silk guy who used to be in the CIA called home. The night markets (particularly JJ Green’s) are a charm and a joy. Some of them are actually less markets, more shopping centres, because if there’s one thing which absolutely everyone loves and that Bangkok is crying out for, it’s more shopping centres.

I tried to take an interest in Thai politics but it’s a murky affair and it’s hard to work out who the least-bad guys are. The whole red and yellow t-shirt thing may be, well, colourful to outsiders but those garments are indications of treacherously deep rifts in society exploited by those with the means to do so. From a very voluble taxi driver I heard the best argument against democracy I’ve ever encountered. He explained cheerfully that given the immense power of Thailand’s version of Berlusconi (Taksin Shinswatra, who, when ousted from a military coup, simply put his sister in charge of his party – the army stepped in to cancel an election she would have won) there is simply no alternative at present to military rule (a fascinating and detailed background can be found here). In the light of Trump’s rise and Rupert Murdoch’s victory in the UK referendum it was hard to argue back.

At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club we saw a poster for an intriguing upcoming event discussing free speech in the light of the upcoming constitutional referendum. It was subsequently banned by the regime, which didn’t want people discussing what they’d be voting on. God forbid that participants in referendums should be well-informed, especially by bloody (vomits) experts! While we were there things were calm but there was a certain nervousness around the King’s health (he subsequently died in October). This is something that it is immensely hard to discus with Thai people and it would be wrong to joke about, especially given that the university hosting us is known as the ‘Pillar of the Kingdom’.

In our brief interactions with people in uniforms we noticed a certain harshness of tone. Traffic policement were uniformly brusque, as if no one told them about the smile thing. Being snarled and barked at by people in khaki became a daily experience. The brutal treatment of those who challenge or offend authority both contrasts and is intertwined with the tweeness of official state promotion. The current Prime Minister is a retired general who gives regular speeches on ‘returning happiness to the people’ (he also write a ballad of the same name) and said of those who oppose his regime “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other…The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles”. This reminds me of General Wiranto, the sadistic Indonesian general with his love for karaoke. The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ also exposes this deeply sentimental aspect of authoritarianism. Autocrats have a necesarilly limited and often puerile emotional range. An entertaining complement to Peter York’s classic coffee table book on dictators’ houses would be one on their music collections. I suspect that Trump’s CD rack contains a fair few Whitney Houston discs – ‘American Psycho’ Patrick Bateman (a character partly modelled on Trump) was obsessed with the production on her debut album. If he gets to lead the G7 I can imagine him, Putin, and Duterte joining in on a rousing version of ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The course my wife was on was about Peace Studies. On a field trip down south the group was chaperoned by the army. The episode gave us an insight into how autocracy works: the military politely asked if someone could come along, and the organisers of the trip were in no position to say ‘no’. Those who work in human rights exhibit immense bravery and intelligence in the face of outright repression. The history of Thailand in the 1970s involves a communist insurgency partly inspired by the massive presence of US troops, soundtracked by bands like Caravan and marked by massacres of radical students. It puts me in mind of Costa Rica’s role in relation to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. Thailand may famously have remained formally independent for centuries but its history is certainly not free of geopolitical compromise.

The imperial struggle to win over young people’s hearts and minds continues in other forms. One weekend towards the end of my stay an ‘Edutech’ festival took place on campus, the central theme of which seemed to be: “let’s get rid of teachers!”. Let the students eat laptops instead. Upcoming TEFL guru Hugh Dellar wrote an excellent diatribe against big business’s ongoing takeover of education here. Apart from the odd exchange I had little contact with the university students themselves. The atmosphere around the residence felt a little twee, or maybe that’s my sulky impression as for the first few weeks I couldn’t seem to find anywhere to buy beer.

The area next to where we were staying is being transformed from a filthy storage place for heavy industrial machinery into spick and span student apartments surrounded by manicured lawns and immaculate, if empty, bijoux shopping malls. I came across a friendly cafe several grubby street away whose owner was recently turfed off the campus to make way for shinier, newer things. There’s big money in international education. Another cafe just next to our building employed two charming Cambodians who spoke less English than anyone else I have ever met (although my command of their language is considerably  worse – at least they knew how to say ‘hello’). An extended stay in the orient is, as Edward Said taught us, an object lesson in trying to essentialise, to see everything as (in this case) quintessentially ‘Thai’. Any society houses hidden tensions and exclusions. Bangkok is a primate city, which means it attracts huge numbers of immigrants, some of whom, especially those from the Esan region in the north-east near Laos, are not always well treated. Most people would also prefer to live near the centre, in the place where we were privileged to be staying, rather than spending inordinate numbers of hours on various cramped and stuffy forms of public transport.

I lived a charmed life for the few weeks I was in Bangkok. Since I was in the midst of a swimmimg mania, my daily schedule involved an hour-long dip rewarded with a smoothie and toasted sandwich followed by a sunblasted stagger to the MBK shopping mall to seek out even cooler drinks, even more breathable garments and ever-spicier rice and noodle dishes, followed by a few desultory hours of dozy work interspersed with shouting at people who might be racists on Twitter. Although I did survive the heat, get paid for the work and achieve a relatively deep and even suntan, my one-man online campaign against Brexit failed to have any meaningful impact. Proof, if any more were needed, of the ultimate ineffectiveness of all human endeavour. Or maybe further evidence that Twitter is not an appropriate forum for combatting incipient fascism, especially when you happen to be thousands of miles away from where the events you’re ‘debating’ are taking place.

*If you’re in the market for a a imponderable conundrum to meditate on, that sentence may well be it.

Sheffield: A personal history

One of the happiest memories of my life is of my 40th birthday get-together in June 2012, when my friend Craig showed me a video on his phone of our former secondary school being smashed to pieces by bulldozers. This realisation of a dream of our teenage years is one of the best presents I have ever received.

The reputation of the school had already taken an industrial hammering. Lying on a beach in the Algarve in September 1999, I read a lengthy Guardian report by the investigative journalist Nick Davies (later of ‘Churnalism’ fame). He identified my school as an emblematic victim of early-’80s educational reforms which aimed to remove the comprehensive elements of the education system. It was the perfect example of a school which went wrong in this way. The key year when things really started to plummet downhill like an out-of-control pram was 1983, when they removed streaming. It was also the year I and my cohorts arrived. We were, it seemed, the victims of an experiment – or, at least, of an experiment which had been made to fail by the power of class and a Government ideologically opposed to the principles of comprehensive education. That might explain why we were taught music lessons by a German teacher with an open fascination with Hitler, why we learned French in a science lab whose gas taps some kids could never quite get enough of, and why our Religious Education classes mostly consisted of listening to the teacher’s favourite progressive rock albums, particularly the Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand-influenced Rush album ‘2112’.

Destruction was a theme of my youth. Sheffield was in the process of deindustrialising and so parts of it were disappearing. A few years ago I came across a BBC documentary from September 1973 (fifteen months after I was born) called ‘All in a Day’, which tracked the daily lives of various locals. Parts of it I recognised but there were some things -fashions, ways of life, institutions – which had already vanished by the time I came into consciousness. Then, when I was 12, I saw the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion.

‘Threads’ was the work of Barry Hines (who also wrote ‘Kes’) and it was shown on the BBC in late 1984. It was a extremely vivid depiction of the total annihilation of the only city I knew. A simmering confrontation in the Middle East between the two superpowers was discussed in increasingly urgent tones on background TVs and the radio, while people very similar to those I knew went about their everyday lives. Some schoolfriends were filmed running down the main shopping street screaming when the four-minute warning went off. My own sister was an extra. She appeared for several centiseconds at the end of a scene in which ashen-faced ‘survivors’ looked though a fence in the radioactive fog at armed soldiers guarding the emergency food supplies. She looked just like she was living through a nuclear holocaust. In reality, of course, she was just terrified she wouldn’t get on TV. The scream she let out on seeing herself was louder than a megaton bomb*.

The irony that South Yorkshire had declared itself a ‘nuclear free-zone’ was much commented-upon, as was the oft-trumpeted (but more often parodied) notion of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I grew up in a politically-charged atmosphere. Trips into town to seek out new books and music would inevitably involve getting caught up in furious discussions with left-wing newspaper sellers. I remember the first wave of strikes provoked by Thatcher as part of Nicholas Ridley’s plan to smash to unions to pieces. My father, after a career in haut cuisine, worked at a steel plant from around 1980. When I was ten, in April 1983, he took me on my first protest, outside Cutler’s Hall where Thatcher herself was speaking. Then there was the Miner’s Strike, about which I remember shamefully little.

My vague sense of imminent doom wasn’t helped by the news in 1988 that human civilisation was forcing the world’s temperatures to rise. Whenever I think of the moment I first learned about global warming, I picture the classroom at King Ecgbert’s, in the posher part of town, where I did an A-level in Government and Political Studies. We had a teacher who read to us from The Guardian. The fact that he treated us like adults and obviously enjoyed his job inspired thoughtful, if inchoate, responses. I can see myself in that classroom aged 17; I’m saying something I must have read in the Guardian about feedback loops.

Around that time I was becoming interested in other kinds of loops. In the Leadmill I heard the sparse bleeps and haunting echoes of ‘Sweet Exorcist‘ for the first time. The music released by Fonn and then Warp records followed an established local tradition, using a palette of industrial sounds. In this excellent BBC documentary local musicians of the time talk about how the sounds of the working city forged their sound:

Sheffield was also musically twinned with Dusseldorf, given the influence of Kraftwerk on the Human League and Heaven 17. The dystopian fictions of J.G. Ballard were also an ingredient. Although they never found (or indeed sought) commercial success, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the same wave, along with the Comsat Angels, whose bassist (much more of a pop star than we’d ever be) lived around the corner from us.

Then there was ABC, with their gold lame suits and lush, orchestrated and articulate critiques of Thatcherism. Their flamboyance stood out given that the general tone of life in Sheffield is ‘unimpressed’. There’s an earthiness, a flatness of voice and attitude which contrasts with the hills. Jarvis Cocker is the canonic example of someone who both celebrates and supercedes this. He left the city to broaden his horizons and seek fame but has nevertheless remained loyal. It was his musical map of Sheffield which taught me about the importance of Sheffield’s five rivers in its industrial development. (They probably tried to teach me that in geography classes, but I just remember being lectured about superpigs in the Ruhr Valley by a teacher with a military moustache who spent most of the lessons with his head buried in the Daily Mail.) I thus consider Jarvis to be more of a Sheffielder than I am. Still now my geography of my hometown is shameful. Someone else who knows the city much better than me is the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, who, although he’s not from there, is an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the Sheffield of the 50’s and 60’s and the pop music culture it eventually inspired. He called his book on Pulp ‘Common’.

The song his title refers to is not my favourite but it is very well-observed. The insult ‘common’ was a very, well, common way of dismissing someone, of asserting one’s claim to a higher rung on the ladder. School was rough, with bullying commonplace, and you just had to learn to cope without appearing ‘soft’. You could detect the resultant hardiness and stoicism in the music. In 1986 the Human League had a transatlantic hit with a song which was clearly not their own. It had been written by Jam and Lewis for Alexander O’Neill or Janet Jackson, and to my ears the spoken section, which was designed to sound breathy and passionate, sounded distinctly sulky, or, as we say in Sheffield, mardy. Actually, when, on what must have been New Year’s Day 1989, me and a friend went to Phil Oakey’s house on Ecclesall Road, he was cheery and welcoming. He made us a cup of tea and we chatted about Barry White.

When I was growing up, the Human League were the local celebrities, our representatives on the national stage, or at least on Top of the Pops. The same was emphatically not true of Def Leppard, at least not in my part of town. They had taken the sounds of heavy steel production in a less interesting direction, to the mid-Atlantic rather than Central Europe. Then, in the ’90s, Sheffield became synonymous with The Full Monty. I’ve watched this film more times than Stewart Lee has seen Scooby Doo. It’s the tale of a group of redundant steelworkers forced by economic circumstances to reinvent themselves as male strippers. One of the most telling moments comes early on, when the wife of one of the main characters pisses in a urinal, thus parodying and asserting a claim over a symbol of male identity. The loss of stable industrial work, with its attendant self-image of the strong male breadwinner, implies a crisis of masculinity. The men have to divest themselves of their ‘male’ identity and try to make the adaption to more ‘feminised’ forms of work, in which bodily image and the ability to adjust to the demands of spectacle are of central concern. The film thus dramatises the fabled shift from heavy industry to the leisure economy and the suspense comes from the question of whether they can make the transition. In fairy tale fashion, they succeed, putting on a strip night and proving they have what it takes to entertain. How they will go on from this one-off performance is unclear, but in neoliberal terms (and this is an emblematically Blairite film), by debasing themselves to the demands of the market they’ve demonstrated they have sufficient will to survive. Although it wasn’t set in Sheffield but nearby, Brassed Off trod very similar ground but was more sombre and angrier in tone. If you add in Billy Elliot there was actually a minor genre of 1990s films in which former industrial zones learnt to strip, play or dance to tunes played by the forces of globalised capitalism.

On another level this is what most cities on the world are trying to do nowadays: to market themselves as cultural destinations. For a brief period Sheffield was home to the ambitious but ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music. The fact that I, for whom pop music was more important than breathing, never got round to visiting it is some indication of how ill-conceived it was. Sheffield also tried to attract sports fans, with the hugely expensive debacle of the World Student Games (who?) in 1991, which the city is, as far as I know, still paying for.

I witnessed the waning of a certain visionary spirit, that which inspired the destruction of the slums and the investment in public housing of the 1950s-60s. Owen Hatherley records that the housing estates in some parts of Gleadless were designed to take advantage of the steep topography and, in the right light, they resemble sunlit Californian hillsides. Park Hill was an absolutely laudable attempt to create decent living conditions close to the centre of the city for ordinary people. It failed, partly through official neglect, but has been widely recognised as a masterpiece of urban design. There was also abundant evidence of a previous generation of patrician municipal idealism in the late 19th Century art galleries, museums and libraries. Then there was the Crucible, which, in addition to snooker championships, put on productions at affordable prices and gave young people to develop an interest in the theatre. Such initiatives were the fruit of an ethic according to which ordinary people should participate fully in the life of the city. One of the great symbols of this principle was the bus fares. As a child I paid 2p to go anywhere in the city. It was a little bit of Cuban-style socialism, one that life immensely more livable. I was lucky to grow up in such a time and place.

Nowadays a different set of priorities prevail. After a number of years the City Council managed to destroy two grubby-but-popular markets (Castle and Sheaf) which played an essential role in the life of the city. They attracted the Wrong Sort of People, principally the poor and the old. The Council demolished the markets and built a more expensive alternative in a totally different part of the city. Doing so is in keeping with an ideological shift: neo-Blairite politicians and their successors want to attract consumers, or preferably hyperconsumers, and what happens to the social fabric as a result is of lesser concern. Thus Sheffield now has some excellent and very large places to eat for those who have some money and want to pretend they have lots: Dubai-style casinos and gargantuan but bland chain steakhouses and Chinese restaurants crowd out the area next to the Town Hall. Also very prominent in the city centre are new blocks of flats, mostly built to accommodate exponentially-multiplying numbers of future generations of foreign university students who, given Theresa May’s antipathy to the UK’s economic survival, will almost certainly never arrive.

One of Sheffield’s least favourite sons, Nick Clegg MP, boasted when he was in government that he would preside over ‘savage cuts’, and the amount of people begging around the city are a testament to just how much he managed to achieve. The desperation caused by the viscous ideologically-inspired attacks on government spending must also have been a factor in the city having voted narrowly for Brexit (by 6,000 votes). Sheffield, dependent on government and EU spending in all its forms, is one city that will suffer enormously as a result. Its attempts to adjust to the new reality of a government agenda driven by psychopathic zeal do direct damage to both the standard of living and the quality of life of the city. As of 2017, the local council has now, in absolute desperation, begun a war against trees, as well as (as far as I can make out) dimming the streetlights. Perhaps they are taking the need to cut down on overheads a little too literally.

My knowledge of Sheffield is dwarfed by the number of things I don’t know, particularly given that I haven’t lived there since I was 18. I’m almost proud to say I don’t know more than a couple of the places mentioned in this recent Guardian article. There’s also the multi-venue music festival Tramlines (for which much credit has to go to a member of the increasingly-less-interesting local superstar band Arctic Monkeys), and the internationally renowned documentary festival.

There are also all sorts of wonderful things in Sheffield that have always been there: the art galleries, the museums, shops like Rhyme and Reason (a treasure trove of books and records I practically lived in when I was young and which, despite the best efforts of the Council, is still hanging on). Hunter’s Bar and the area around Kelham Island still have an abundance of very decent pubs. Sheffield’s parks (and the cafés in the parks) are an absolute joy. The walk from Endcliffe Park through Forge Dam and up Jacob’s Ladder towards the peaks and dales of Derbyshire rivals any holiday jaunt in Tuscany, and the echo of ancient civilisations around Mam Tor and Froggat Edge is just as resonant as symbols of the mysterious beliefs and rituals of lost civilisations at Teotihuacan.

Nevertheless I’m not all that loyal to the city. Neither of my parents is from there and (partly as a result) I don’t sound like a local. There are far more well-informed spokespeople for the city than me. Growing up in Sheffield was pretty much all I knew and it took me until a long time after I’d left to begin to reflect on the geographic and social layout of the city and where I stood in relation to it. Nevertheless it’s the city I’ve spent more time in than anywhere else, and contains numerous people and places who and which will always be among the most precious in my life. I also feel an occasional burst of sentimental pride, mostly from a distance. I can detect traces of deep class solidarity in this video, filmed in a friend’s local pub on the night that Thatcher finally died. I’ll also happily admit to feeling a sense of intense melancholy joy at the end of Synth Britannia at the moment where the LA synth-pomp of ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ kicked in.

But the strongest sense of being part of a community of those born and brought up in Sheffield was in March 2015, when I was part of a group of organisers of a march in London on the theme of Climate Change. Just a few weeks before, on a stormy afternoon, we’d been walking by a river in Derbyshire following several days’ rainfall, admiring the sheer force of the water. The city of Sheffield came into existence as a result of a particular confluence of climatic forces, and in turn played a key role in the development of the industrial age which has come to jeopardise our future as a species. That’s why it felt particular fitting and moving to see on Youtube a group of local choir members gathered at the station to set off for the demonstration, singing an Italian partisan anthem remade for times which will, if we choose to face up to our responsibilities, require similar levels of sacrifice and courage:

(…and then, of course, there’s also this.)

* In an exclusive interview with this website, my sister had the following to say:

I was a 14 year old child star but the rock n roll lifestyle was too much so I had to get a career in the aviation industry when the offers dried up. (The following day).
There were 3 locations that we had to be at & that were at various stages in the aftermath of a nuclear war…the film is on you tube I think x

London to Rome: Why I will always prefer bookshops to the internet

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Here are two sets of coincidences that begin in the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and end, for the time being, in Rome.

In December 2015 I went to an exhibition by Emily Jacir on the life and murder of her fellow Palestinian Wael Zuaiter, a translator who took refuge in Rome but was murdered by Mossad in 1972. There were photos of his bookshelves containing a number of books I’d also read and quotes from his own books from which it’s clear he was an intriguing and exemplary engaged intellectual. At the time of his death he was translating ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ into Italian. His letters also show him to be an unusually perceptive and trenchant critique of imperialism, as well as a firm opponent of political violence. He was tracked down by the Israeli secret services and murdered on his own doorstep.

I’d been thinking about Rome as a safe haven. At the time we were living in Mexico but there were reports that the security situation in the areas where we lived was breaking down, with a new wave of threats against local restaurants and bars and a couple of murders on our doorstep. (I wrote about this here.) Around the same time I was reading a novel by Tomasso Pincio. I’d noticed this writer in bookshops because his nome de plume is a deliberate reference (and also adjacent on the bookshelf) to my favourite American novelist, Thomas Pynchon.

The novel I was reading is called ‘Cinacittà’ and is a murder story set in a future Rome which, due to global warming, has been abandoned by the locals and is now inhabited solely by Chinese people. Its epigraph is a quote from an ‘American writer’ taken from Federico Fellini’s film ‘Roma’, which I hadn’t yet seen. It talks about Rome as “a wonderful place to witness the end of the world”.

In August 2016 I go back to the Whitechapel Gallery and browse the bookshop. This is something I usually prevent myself from doing as, like the LRB and ICA bookshops, the Whitechapel is like a crackhouse for me. I usually come across at least six books which I know I have to read immediately. Sure enough, there’s one I’ve seen before but realise is exactly the book I need to read right now: ‘The Hatred of Poetry’, by Ben Lerner. It’s a book by a poet about how difficult and in some ways how annoying poetry is. I’ve been actively struggling with poetry for the last couple of years. Just up the road, in Limehouse, I did a series of courses which involved discussing poems and then trying to write them ourselves. The first part I loved, the second continually defeated me. When it came to writing, no matter how much expert guidance I received or exercises I did, I didn’t really understand what a poem is.

Lener argues that it’s easy to love poetry, but individual poems themselves are often too much of a challenge. Poems aspire to the condition of poetry, but always fail. I like his tone of voice and wonder what his poems are like. As it happens, the name Ben Lerner rings a bell. I see that he was the author of a 2012 novel called ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’; as I once lived in Madrid, I’d noticed the title but never thought about reading it. Reading reviews of the novel on my phone I realise it’s right up my street. It’s about a pretentious young expat poet living in Spain and pretending not to be American, smoking spliffs and looking down at other foreigners “whose lives were structured by attempting to appear otherwise”. I can relate to that, and the description of his prose as ‘precise’ appeals to me.

I start reading the poetry book as I walk down the street. In the first couple of pages he mentions his favourite poet, one which (as he correctly predicts) I’ve never heard of, which makes me wonder who mine is. One name that immediately springs to mind is Luke Kennard, whose work has the advantage of being hugely entertaining (one of my favourite words when it comes to poems). I should read this guy’s novel, I think. As it happens I’m heading down to the South Bank anyway and I have a Waterstones voucher card that’s been in my wallet for months and which I can’t remember if I’ve ever used. My day now has more of a purpose to it and I speed up my stroll towards Trafalgar Square.

It turns out that the card in my wallet only has £1.01 on it, which means I really should think twice about also buying Lerner’s second novel, but it’s described as “a near-perfect piece of literature” and was chosen as ‘Book of the Year’ by 15 reputable publications.

Now I’ve got three new books, all by the same author. I walk across to The Royal Festival Hall, where I’m meeting a friend at 5. It’s only 4.15, so I decide to kill time in Foyles. The first book I see when I walk in is a volume of poetry by Ben Lerner, a compendium of his three collections. I have no intention whatsoever of buying it, but I pick it up because I’m keen to see what his poetry is like. The inner cover has a quote from Luke Kennard: “I look forward to Ben Lerner’s poetry the way I used to anticipate a new record by my favourite band.” Right next to the quote is the price: £14.99. If I buy it I will have all the published work by my new favourite author, one by whom I haven’t yet read more than a few pages. I snap it shut and make my way to the cash desk.

It occurred to me some time ago that it’s deeply ironic that although I grew up antagonostic to capitalism on the whole, I also spent my youth obsessing over sales charts. If The Jesus and Mary Chain burst into the pop charts at number 11, or if New Order managed to get onto Top of the Pops, it felt like a personal victory, and I would feel downcast for days if The Smiths failed to get into the top ten. There was an article by Simon Frith in the Pet Shop Boys 1989 tour programme arguing that their music celebrates and mourns that moment of melancholy just before you hand over the money for a new record or just before you fall in love, when you know that disappointment is inevitable. That’s the nature of commerce: it involves an emotional investment in something you know won’t satisfy you. Given that the emotional and intellectual payback of novels and films is deeper than so much else we consume, capitalism promotes their addictive qualities. There’s also the aspect of cultural capital, that we place cultural products in our personal shop windows to attract others – or, less cynically, that they allow us to identify (and be identified by) others who have shared often very intimate and personal experiences. In other words, we also use them as a form of bonding with others of our species, which is the very much the point of being alive.

I find it hard to track down the film ‘Roma’ online. In any case, I first need to rewatch ‘La Dolce Vita’, and then ‘8 1/2’, which I can’t remember ever having seen. There’s also Bertolucci’s and Antonioni’s films to catch up on. Some of these things I can find online but in most cases I need to get the DVDs. Luckily there are lots of market stalls selling €3 copies of classic films, the ones previously sold as promotions with newspapers. In Pigneto I chat to the owners and other browsers, who recommend a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of. I quickly build up a collection of Scuola, Moretti and Pasolini. Then it’s a question of finding the time to watch it all.

The (very) English writer Geoff Dyer lived in Rome and suffered from depression. He writes about it in ‘Out of Sheer Rage’, his chronicle of his failed attempt to write a book about DH Lawrence which is also, finally, a book about DH Lawrence. He describes staring for hours at his TV, wondering if he should turn it on. Rome initially strikes me as a strange place to get depressed, but then I work out he must have been here in winter. Winter in Rome is (increasingly) short but very grey, with a cigarette ash atmosphere coating the city. Dyer then recounts how he escaped from his depression: he took an interest in it. He started thinking and reading about depression, and then had to leave the house to track down books to learn more. His mood lifted as he became part of the city, its bookshops, literary events and galleries.

Another writer I hugely admire (Nick Currie, aka Momus), has written persuasively and with his customary eloquence about how, in a globalised and digitally connected world, you can live the same life pretty much anywhere. He writes about moving from Berlin to Osaka and continuing exactly the same lifestyle. My own is essentially the same whether in London, Mexico City or Rome- pretty much wherever Amazon delivers, in fact. I noticed that my English language students in London were generally happy with their accommodation as long as it featured basic furniture and services, few disturbances and a very fast internet connection. It was by far the absence of the latter that generated the most complaints.

My own youth fed on record shops, bookshops and libraries. I was lucky to grow up in a age and a city in which there was an abundance of all three. Of course, I’m privileged now too. I can buy books if I want and I have time to wander round and enjoy what cities have to offer. I’ve lived in a succession of capital cities, all with a huge range of bookshops. Nevertheless, I miss record shops and haven’t felt the need to go to my local library since I lived in London. Like almost everybody on the planet I am far too dependent on the Internet for my cultural life.

The internet gives you access to everything. It has an infinite number of channels. But without a purpose it can be a medium for depression. After too much time online I sometimes feel like a polar bear in a zoo, pacing back and forth, scrolling and clicking aimlessly to the point where I lose all sense of what I want and who I am. Our physical selves thrive on fresh air, trees, company, exchanges of words, glances and embraces. I need to get out of the house. Luckily in Rome (we finally move here in September 2016) I have no internet on my phone and a whole city to explore. After a couple of weeks I finally track down one of my favourite bookshops. Invito alla Lettura is a dusty clutter of crumbling hardbacks, stacks of old editions of magazines, fascist pamphlets from the 30s, and a pleasant café (in Mexico it would be called a cafebrería) . Or rather, it was. It apparently shut down in April 2016 after nearly 25 years. From the owner of the Almost Corner bookshop in Trastevere I learn that food outlets are pushing out more established business, just like in London.

Humans will always need on-the-spot food and drink, but books, music and films you can get hold of online. There will always be a demand for places where you can go and browse them and maybe meet and fall in love with other people who share the same enthusiasms, but that doesn’t mean the market will necessarily provide such places. Bookshops and record shops were never primarily about buying, much more about communing with others who share a need for new ideas, impressions, experiences. I hope that when my baby daughter comes of age there will still be places where she can go to explore and celebrate whatever books and music she comes to love and, in the company of others, discover more. At least Rome has such an abundance of excellent bookshops, from Altroquando via Fahrenheit 451 to Minimum Fax, that it’s reasonable to hope that it will hold out longer against the forces of the global market as marshalled on the internet. Forse Gore Vidal, as in so many other things, aveva ragione.

San Francisco: Why I hate TED Talks and love Rebecca Solnit

dsc_0530From LA to San Francisco I take the train. This feels like a novelty because I didn’t know the US still had trains. In Mexico (where I’m living at the moment, viz. November 2015) the train network was broken up and sold off in the early 1990s, and I assumed that the whole train network in the States had long ago suffered a similar fate. It’s one of the many things that surprise me on my inaugural visit to the US.dsc_0445San Francisco feels like a greatest hits of some of the nicest places I’ve ever been to. In Chinatown I have an uncanny sensation that I am back in China. I understand that this is kind of the point of Chinatown, but still. The sights, smells and sounds seem to be those of a place that exists in itself, rather than a mere stopping-off point for tourists.dsc_0419The layout of the hills reminds me strongly of Lisbon, with sudden stunning glimpses down into the bay. Strolling up from where I’m staying on the morning of thanksgiving, I find the streets mostly deserted. I sit in a café surrounded by big-brained young people murmuring and tapping away on laptops and drink coffee so strong my head actually falls off. I’m reminded of Hamburg in terms of the quality of life. There are lots of people carriers and I catch glimpses of yachts on the water below. I find the presence of a caterpillar sanctuary comforting and make a mental note to direct any exiled lepidoptera I should meet up this way.dsc_0474On the way to the Golden Gate park, around the corner from Haight Ashbury Primary School, I stop and watch a game of American football. Americans don’t call it American football, in the same way as the Mexicans don’t talk about Mexican food. It’s a college game, someone explains. I manage not to embarrass myself in conversation with the local enthusiasts, and briefly try my hand at sports photography. In the park itself, I pass the National Aids Monument and then come across two friends from ‘home’: Goethe and Schiller. The statue was dedicated by the German community in 1901. Partly because it’s a port town, SF has always been a huge draw for immigrants, and it’s easy to see why.dsc_0530Up at the bridge I enjoy a stunning view across the bay. I’ve missed the famous fog by a couple of months. In any case it’s diminished somewhat over the last couple of years. The climate is, after all, changing.dsc_0370The next day I spend in Oakland and Berkeley. Mention of Oakland often evokes the famous phrase from Gertrude Stein: “there’s no there there”. Actually, the most powerful association it has for me is with hiphop. Back in the 1990s I listened to a lot of g-funk and was particularly enamoured of a local revolutionary rapper called Paris who was best known for bragadaciously fantasising about assassinating the then-President. Hence as I wander round my head is full of lines of street poetry about shooting cops. Up in the hills above the bay I go for a woodland walk with Daniel, the brother of an old friend from Dublin. Although he wasn’t born here, he embodies a soft-spoken wisdom about the world which I quickly come to associate with this part of the country. We talk at length about the drought and what it means. Daniel was an agronomist before retiring, and now spends a lot of his time volunteering on a collective organic farm. Hence he is very well-placed to talk about what climate change is doing down at the roots of nature.dsc_0364I get the bus down to Berkeley. My new friends Jan and Steve kindly take me on a walk around the university, which is probably the most climate-aware place on the planet. Because of the drought the grass on the lawns has been replaced by wood shavings, along with a notice explaining why. In the Sciences building there’s an advert for a Survival 101 course (‘the next 50 years will be radically different from anything we have ever known’), a special board for ‘activist jobs’ and more Bernie Sanders graffiti that you can shake an organic placard at. Afterwards we have beer and pizza in their garden and talk about climate awareness strategies.dsc_0512The person who most embodies the radical Bay Area spirit for me is the local writer and activist Rebecca Solnit. Although I’ve insisted here multiple times that climate denial is connected to racism, she points out more clearly and coherently that it is also very much about patriarchy. She’s best-known for writing the essay and subsequent book ‘Men explain things to me‘, which gave birth to the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit encapsulates the notion of an engaged intellectual: honest about the difficulties of staying active and hopeful but facing up to reality without flinching. I hope I won’t be doing her a disservice by saying she’s like a cross between Naomi Klein and Erich Fromm. In addition to being hugely prolific, she’s well worth following on Facebook. Last year her (in these times) must-read book ‘Hope in the dark’ was reissued. Shortly before visiting the States I read her history of walking, ‘Wanderlust’, in which she makes a connection between walking and writing that I find truly inspiring. Her work is a constant reminder that if is there is to be a future, it will be a feminist one, as another heroine of mine has also pointed out.dsc_0428Another woman I associate with the Bay Area is Oedipa Maas, the heroine of Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. Looking for an underground postal service which may or may not exist, she follows a series of homeless men through the night as they appear to deposit and collect mail from trash cans. The network may or may not represent another level of reality subjacent to the official America. Oedipa has visions of connections and communities that lie beneath the surface. She sees Californian suburbs laid out like circuit boards and notices arcane symbols used to communicate between those in the know. My father-in-law has a cute theory about how the visions she experiences may be the result of epilepsy. In any case, there’s something extremely prescient about a book published in 1966 anticipating the acid-fuelled flowering of consciousness that was to come.dsc_0484Maybe in the future awareness and empathy will be luxuries, like yachts and, well, houses. In the Bay Area there’s a drought of affordable places to live, which means the cost and scarcity of housing is by far the number one topic of even the most casual conversation. Whereas in London it’s partly the influence of the finance industry making things much more expensive for everyone else, in SF it’s the tech companies. In 2013 local activists started protesting the shuttle buses used by companies like Google to transport their workers to the corporate campuses, like the one described by Dave Eggers in ‘The Circle’. Everyone else is allowed to stay in the city under very stringent conditions. It puts me in mind of an essay I once read by Brazilian sociologists called ‘the return to the medieval city’. In modern cities there are so many exclusions in operation, partly through technology, screening creating invisible walls. The globalised market functions as an particularly efficient repressive tool. Anyone could get removed at any time. Just as undocumented migrants fear the immigration authorities, most people in cities like San Francisco live in terror that their landlords will sell up or raise the rent.dsc_0405Increasing amounts of apartments are given over to Airbnb. The new economy is a battleground. The Bay Area may be one of the places from which field operations are directed, but it is also very vulnerable to their effects. Just a couple of weeks before my visit protestors occupied the company’s headquarters in support of a (subsequently unsuccessful) proposition to limit short-term rentals. The tech industry is a reminder that smart doesn’t mean intelligent. Back in Mexico City I’d noticed that the British Council has a weekly session of TED Talks, open to all its students. These are becoming as ubiquitous in TEFL as they are online. They represent ‘progress’ divorced from politics, entirely mediated by the market, with technology as its stand-in article of faith – after all, it was Friedrich Hayek himself (the father of Neoliberalism) who called the market a kind of technology. The TED ideology is based on a religious faith that the existence of African mobile phone entrepreneurs will somehow save the world. It’s all very slickly packaged and presented, to the extent that The Onion does a very clever parody. (Here‘s a much more serious critique by Evgeny Morozov.) For me, TED talks put me in mind of Mao’s Little Red Book, in that they imply total devotion to the helmsmanship of the Global Market. There are, truth be told, some brilliant TED Talks (inevitable, given that they appear to come off a pretty speedy production line) but the fact that they are sponsored by car companies often gets in the way of any enjoyment or inspiration. At best they are persuasive and informative, and at worst irritatingly smug and extremely complacent; they are almost always deeply neoliberal in outlook.dsc_0551Down at Fisherman’s Wharf there are actually people fishing. I try to figure out if they’re doing it for food or fun. If it’s sustenance they’re after, they’re in competition for survival with some of the biggest seagulls I’ve ever seen. The scene reminds me of Durban, South Africa, where we saw Indians without rods fishing for whitebait in polluted water. It’s easy to romanticise going off-grid, but surviving outside the walls of the global market is hard. Still, many have no alternative but to escape its dominion and seek out or build alternative communities. José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ is about a shopping mall that dominates every aspect of life in the area around it. Work, food, security and leisure are all increasingly centred on it. At the end the protagonists pack up and drive off the page to an uncertain but more independent future. In the final pages of Pynchon’s ‘Vineland’, set in 1984, Zoyd Wheeler leaves the politically repressive atmosphere of LA and heads up to Northern California, where new communities of hippies and other dissidents are being established. Contrary to the example set by countless backwoods myths and log-cabin yarns, surviving on one’s own is not an option. Cormac McCarthy’s protagonist in ‘The Road’ wanders a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape with a shopping trolley, and the book ends up with a incongruous epiphany which resembles nothing less than an advert for Coca Cola. The motif of the shopping cart put me in mind of the avatar that so often stands in for us on the internet. In McCarthy’s novel there is no more online and no more consumerism, so the future is dead. It is ‘welcome to the desert of the real’ made (barely) flesh. There is no community, with little fellow feeling between the isolated individuals who drift into contact. They are reduced to little more than isolated pixels in a ruined computer game. By contrast, in another of Saramago’s dystopian fictions, ‘Blindness’, the only seeing character literally strings the group of blind people together and manages to preserve some sense of a community in the midst of the shredded social fabric. The final words of the novel are ‘The city was still there’.dsc_0526There are examples of offline communities which protect those expelled or repulsed by the workings of the Matrix; wherever there aren’t, we have to try and establish them in the face of the confluence of climate breakdown and total corporate control. Climate Camp and Occupy were attempts to set such up places, to establish havens where people could identify and belong. Significantly, Rebecca Solnit spent some of her younger years as part of the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common. And although it’s set further down the Californian coast in LA, Pynchon’s ‘Inherent Vice’ (set in 1970, at the waking from the hippy dream presaged in ‘The Crying of Lot 49’) closes with the following passage, one which I personally find of some comfort when contemplating what lies ahead:

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

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Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 4

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I’ve called this short series about living in and learning about Portugal ‘Postcolonial Melancholy’, a phrase I borrowed from a book by Paul Gilroy. But that book isn’t actually about Portugal, it’s about the UK. Melancholy is partly in the eye of the beholder.

A couple of years after leaving Lisbon in 2004, I went on to do a Master’s in Portuguese Studies at King’s College, London and developed my understanding of the histories and cultures of Portugal, Brazil and Lusophone Africa. I also took the opportunity to learn more about cities in general. I didn’t know that much about Lisbon when I was there. I never really thought about its layout and the different stages in its history. I didn’t reflect on the different layers of the palimpsest. It was just Lisboa, the city I’d chosen to make home, and I saw it like a child would, without contemplating the distinctions between its elements. Looking back I reflected on the tensions between various kinds of old and various kinds of new: I thought about the ways in which new infrastructure, such as Oriente, Armazéns do Chiado and the Amoreiras shopping centre related to other areas like Alfama and Bairro Alto. I thought back to the recent and more established immigrants I’d made friends with, the new and old political parties, the values of the young and those of the old. Some things were in the process of dying away, some coming into existence. Very few things were fixed in stone.

I’ve reflected here on the role of the loss of empire in Portuguese culture. The UK fifty years earlier went through an even more extensive and thus more traumatic process, and it struck me as remarkable that, despite being raised and educated there, I’d rarely consciously reflected on its import.

I’d often remarked on the fact that when EFL teachers got together, one of the safest and most obvious topics of conversation while the ritual of getting slaughtered was being performed was television comedy. It was, along with music and The Guardian newspaper, after ten or so years of self-imposed exile from the UK, one of the things that kept me attached me to my culture. I’d tried to make my own country and myself foreign to one another. Having left straight after university I felt I didn’t know much about the country in which I’d been born and brought up, and in a sense I didn’t, but maybe at another level I didn’t know much about anything else.

Having abandoned my attempt to Be Portuguese, I went to live for a while in China and then in Spain, before returning to London in January 2006. It was a good thing that I left Lisbon when I did. Drinking-as-a-way-of-life is just not funny after a point. I left behind friends who either got married and developed roots or went mad and/or took drugs and died. I was lucky enough to get into a terrible relationship which led me to brief unhappiness thousands of miles away. In several ways it saved my life. In early 2010 I went to Coimbra to discuss doing a PhD there, and then spent a long weekend in Lisbon. I decided I didn’t want to go back. I recognised the mood, or at least the mood the place inspired in me. Having since been to Macau, Maputo and Havana I’ve sensed a similar atmosphere, a certain inertness, a sense of life adrift.

There’s an adage used in recovery circles that says ‘if you spot it, you’ve got it’. Although I learnt a lot about Portugal, it’s likely that a lot of what I perceived about its melancholy response to its diminished role in the world were projections of my own cultural background. After all, it barely needs stating that there’s a strain in British culture that looks back with nostalgia to the days of empire and war. Paul Gilroy points to the persistence of the football chant ‘Two world wars and two world cups’* to argue that “sport has the same value as war in the national circuitry”. In Summer 2006 the football world cup took place in Germany, and there was a debate about the role of the St George flag, about what and who it represented. Some (like Billy Bragg) argued that it was a symbol of a renewed and more inclusive national culture, one based on what (by extension) Paul Gilroy two years earlier had called ‘conviviality’, rather than on the reactionary racist values represented by the Union Jack, which in the UK has always been associated with the far-right. Bragg even went as far as publishing a book called ‘The Progressive Patriot’, in which he put together a personal panoply of heroes to argue there is a non-imperial popular identity to draw upon. He also released an album celebrating the mixture that is English identity today, with its mix of elements of folk culture (some of which originate overseas) with immigrant elements, some of which came to us with empire. Gilroy argues that The Streets represent something similar, which he calls ordinary demotic multiculturalism, vernacular dissidence.

The optimism embodied in such attempts is obviously laudable. It is an attempt to celebrate and promote (Gilroy again) “the building of a multicultural nationality that is no longer phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness”. The racist murder of the black teenager Steven Lawrence and the eventual inquiry’s revelation of the subsequent police cover-up had exposed a level of institutional and unconscious racism which came as a genuine shock to a population which had thought itself past all that. It was an important factor in making us reconsider our society and our responsibilities to one another. The mood was also partly due to our having a nominally progressive Government. In 2001 the then-Foreign Secretary announced that Chicken Tikka Masala  was the country’s favourite dish, saying that it was “a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences”. It was partly an aspiration but also reflected a certain inevitability given the reality of our lives. It was an image of ourselves we were happy with, one which was global and mobile rather than insular and fixed. People’s lives revolved around a rhythm of regular flights to foreign cities, choosing between a gamut of different cuisines,  mixing with a wide range of people who just happened to have been born elsewhere. All of this was joyously represented in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, with its radical take on British history centering on Windrush, the Suffragettes, the NHS, Ken Loach, The Tempest, and William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

How did we go so quickly from all that to Brexit? It may be that the expansive yet inclusive national culture celebrated by Boyle was too urban, too superficial, too dependent on consumerism, on investing in an image of ourselves. Perhaps the shame of renewed imperial adventuring meant that it could only go so deep. Maybe further down there was a swell of hollow pride that our lads were off savaging the natives again, encapsulated in The Sun’s obnoxious but (in some parts of society) ubiquitous ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign. In any case there were other forces pushing back.  It was easy to laugh when the pitifully Blimpish Ukip MEP Geoffrey Bloom railed against foreign aid going to ‘Bongo Bongo land’, but harder to do so when various members of the public were filmed abusing perceived outsiders on public transport. Such outbursts often had a bitter, recriminatory tone: ‘My Britain’s fuck all now’, bewailed the woman on the Croydon tram. The targets of this kind of abuse were often more recent immigrants bearing the brunt of buried resentment. As Gilroy wrote, “incomers may be unwanted and feared because they are the unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past”.

It’s easy to overlook the role that mainstream TV still plays in British life in framing social attitudes, in creating a picture of the society that it’s hard to shut out. The national mood was soured by hateful propaganda scapegoating the unemployed and spreading the virus of negative empathy. The active celebration of bullying by programmes such as ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ and ‘The Apprentice’, with psychopathic character traits openly lauded, and other shows on which everything from hosting a dinner party to making a cake is a competition for attention, can only have further frayed the national fabric. Meanwhile, ‘Downton Abbey’ promoted the most reactionary imaginable vision of the purported benefits of strict social hierarchy. Plus, in the background, sadistic cuts in the name of austerity did their dirty work of making everyone that bit more scared and unhappy.

Those who austerity hasn’t touched, who have so far remained immune to the pressures it creates, are often oblivious to this resentful mood. The speed with which commentators swept the causes of the 2011 riots under the carpet was breathtaking. Within a few months, the whole issue had become more or less taboo, and by the election of 2015 it was simply never mentioned. After the Brexit vote I briefly became part of Facebook groups made up of people outraged at what had happened. Some seemed to believe that it was the only bad thing that had ever happened, and that if the decision could be reversed everything would go back to being perfect. There was a tenor to a lot of the comments to the effect that the underclass that has always been small-minded and racist. An extremely cogent and trenchant speech by the Guardian journalist John Harris came as a salutary corrective to this. Late last year, watching Ken Loach’s heartbreaking and bloodboiling excoriation of the effects of benefits cuts, I wondered: which way would Daniel Blake have voted? I would have been hard-pressed to argue that anyone dealing with the hard edge of government cruelty should vote for the status quo.   

So here we are on the other side of the looking glass, staring ‘hard Brexit’ in the face. We don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but we know with all certainty that it will be very miserable indeed. For (and partly because of) all its bravado, inertia is the future of the UK. The very worst elements of British society, the scum of ages, are in charge, and they have nothing to offer except a puerile and obnoxious nostalgia. Last summer during the Brazil Olympics, a Tory MP tweeted a map showing how many medals the ‘British Empire’ had won. The response to every issue, from vegetable shortages to floods, is framed in xenophobic terms. Theresa May, for all the vapid progressive sentiment of her maiden speech as leader, soon fell into line with the likes of Le Pen, with her sneering at rootless elites. The hint of antisemitism, never far from the surface in patrician British elite discourse, was not accidental.

All this posturing, like the chant of ‘two world wars and one world cup’, covers a deeper sadness, staves off the melancholy which, as Freud says, results from an inability to mourn. The alternative would involve the painful process of coming to terms with the loss of something we should never have had in the first place, but also wouldn’t exist without.

I did a Master’s in Portuguese history but not one in my own. Learning about Portugal and Brazil was, I now realise, a way of learning about my own history, culture and identity. At a national level that history is blood-soaked and shameful. Reading John Newsinger’s ‘The blood never dried’ made me aware of how little I know about the barbaric recent history of my own country. I’ve also slowly become aware that my professional field (teaching English abroad) contains powerful echoes of colonial administration. We laugh and drink away our colonial guilt and find subtle ways to sneer at other country’s histories and cultures, seeking to escape from the irreversible fact that “the carnival of Britain’s imperial potency is now over forever”. We use satire as a form of deference, a means of disavowing our responsibilities to take our past and our selves more seriously**. While the British love to joke about the Germans’ excuse for the Third Reich (‘I was only following orders’), the ubiquitous get-out clause for us with regard to our own misdemeanours is ‘I was only having a laugh’. Or we drink away our guilt, finding it puzzling that few other cultures share our addiction to oblivion. A book simply called ‘Why do the British drink so much’ would be an international best-seller. Part of the answer is that we are seeking that “manic elation” which combines with “misery, self-loathing and ambivalence” to produce this sense of postcolonial melancholy. For me, writing about my relationship with Portugal has been a means of reflecting on where I stand in relation to my own country’s past and present. In the words of Paul Gilroy:

melancholic reactions are prompted by “the loss of a fantasy of omnipotence” and suggest that the racial and national fantasies that imperial and colonial power required were…predominantly narcissistic. From this perspective, before the British people can adjust to the horrors of their own modern history and start to build a new national identity from the debris of their broken narcissism, they will have to learn to appreciate the brutalities of colonial rule enacted in their name and to their benefit, to understand the damage it did to their political culture at home and abroad, and to consider the extent to which their country’s complex investments in the ethnic absolutism that sustained it.

In my obsession with identity I know I tend to fixate on national identity. Ultimately nobody is ‘just’ British or Portuguese. Being an immigrant is never as simple as ‘fitting in’, as simply becoming like ‘any’ local. Where does one insert oneself? What sort of local does one become? Where in the new society can one find a niche, or escape from the one that has been pre-allocated? One of the joys of being a foreigner is that you can play with identity, experiment with your and others’ perceptions of who you are. There is inevitably  more space for individual flamboyance. In the words of Fernando Pessoa, we are an empty stage on which various characters play out their roles. Not having a script, struggling to follow and participate in basic routines of social interaction, is at once troubling and liberating. Some markers of identity are subjective, others objective, assigned by others. Moving to another country involves not just geographic adjustment, but also a social relocation. Defining oneself as an ‘expat’ is one way of dealing with this, by seeking to limit one’s commitment to finding a place in the new environment. Doing so often locates you within a social stratum which aspires to be from elsewhere and disavows its own background. One common theme I’ve recognised across the countries I’ve lived in (and am increasingly aware exists in my own) is: blaming the ‘common people’ for whatever you find embarrassing or painful about your own country. Across all countries there is a lazy and parasitical elite which bemoans its misfortune at being from that country and bullies ‘o povo’ (Portuguese for the ordinary people) for their supposed indolence, blaming the poor for the backwardness of the country. This attitude I’ve encountered among Portuguese betinhos, Spanish pijos, Mexican fresas and mireyes, Italian fighetti, Brazilian mauricinhos and patricinhas. In Mexico they talk about ‘gringos nacidos en México’ – people who just happen to have been born in Mexico, but who like to think of themselves as being from elsewhere. It would be wrong to put this snobbishness down to a national characteristic, because I hate it when people do that to me.

While in London I kept up with Portugal a bit through my Portuguese flatmate and occasional contact with friends still there, but gradually, inevitably drifted away. I was vaguely aware of new artists, writers, and trends, and also of more established ones I failed to engage with while I was there: Boss AC, Gonçalo M. Tavares and Joana Vasconcelos, for example. I didn’t follow up my interest in hiphop, fado and the myriad new hybrid forms of music, new identities based on shaking off the past, acknowledging its history without glorifying it, integrating other colonial and postcolonial experiences, and thereby producing “a new image of the country that can accommodate its colonial dimensions”. Despite its ongoing battering by austerity and its corrupt political elite, Portugal has very great advantages over the UK. The radical left is far more dynamic and cohesive than its UK equivalent: articulate, responsive, and smart. Portugal also has (unless things have changed very recently) no far-right nationalist movement to speak of. I suspect (but don’t know) that the national mood is, although depressed, a lot less resentful than the atmosphere in the UK and in Italy (where I live now).

I have an enormous affection for Portugal and its people. I feel grateful for what it taught me. So much of what applies to Portugal and the Portuguese also applies to me and to my own culture. It taught me a huge amount about myself, the world and the relation between the two. It helped me understand Brazil and Mexico. Certain dynamics are common to all societies and it’s thanks to Portugal and the Portuguese that I was able to learn about them. Getting older involves realising that one is part of history and may fall victim to it. Since 1999, when I first set foot in the country, we’ve seen the rise and fall of the euro, the spreading of globalisation and of challenges to its dominance, the increasing rule of the internet, Brexit, the shift into a whole new anthropogenic age…I know now what it feels like to be part of a generation. I wish I’d stayed in contact more with the people who shared that part of my life, and feel a certain sorrow that I didn’t. That’s saudade, I think.  

* Gilroy’s previous book was the classic about Black British identity, ‘There ain’t no black in the Union Jack’.

** On this theme Jonathan Coe’s review of a biography of Boris Johnson is an absolute must-read.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Los Angeles: I kinda like LA

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The film that LA reminds me of most is not ‘Chinatown’, ‘The Long Goodbye’ or ‘Mulholland Drive’, but ‘Tron’*. The absence of a specific centre is nicely disorientating, like a dream of a city with no centre, or with dozens of centres spread out across an undulating grid of (in theory) highspeed highways. Thomas Pynchon called LA “less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts”; as it happens I quite like exploring concepts and I find LA surprisingly pleasant to move around. I am, after all, here on holiday. Those who live with its traffic jams and smog would probably question the impression created by the distortions employed here.

I’ve been to a number of cities modelled on or heavily reminiscent of the rhizomatic layout of LA (Johannesburg, Singapore and the Santa Fé part of Mexico City spring to mind), which have tended to be alienating and lacking in identity. But the original has a distinct character in that it’s suffused with images of itself, so I do feel that its history is present. It helps that I’ve just read Mike Davis’ incendiary chronicle of LA’s development, ‘City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles’. Davis writes like an Old Testament prophet, a West Coast Marshall Berman. The book was originally published before the riots of 1992, and mostly details the 20th century battles over local political power, water, and land, all conditioned by race and class. The history of LA is one of small-scale wars over land title and water rights, between newly-established communities and goon squads, vigilantes, landlords, lawyers and developers. One of those developers says in Pynchon’s novel (and subsequent film) ‘Inherent Vice’:

Look around. Real estate, water rights, oil, cheap labor—all of that’s ours, it’s always been ours. And you, at the end of the day what are you? one more unit in this swarm of transients who come and go without pause in the sunny Southland, eager to be bought off with a car of a certain make, model, and year, a blonde in a bikini, thirty seconds on some excuse for a wave—a chili dog, for Christ’s sake.”

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The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard saw LA as a mirage, a simulacrum, but if it is true that our mental images  of LA screen out the real city at least they’re familiar ones. The city I come from is famous for one film, whereas LA is known for tens of thousands, many of which by no means show the city in its best light. I knew something about the water wars thanks to ‘Chinatown’ and have learnt about LA’s vice, drugs, corruption and racist police brutality from films like ‘The Big Sleep’ and ‘LA Confidential’. Mike Davis writes that the film noirs of the 1930s onwards comprised an ‘ideological assault on the American dream’. Raymond Chandler was certainly not the most radical or critical of noir writers but neither ‘The Long Goodbye’ nor ‘The Big Sleep’ paints an idyllic picture of the city. A lot of the early noirs were written by exiled European writers, like Hans Eisler and Erich Maria Remarque, who hated LA’s lack of a civic centre and thought that the city ‘negated every classical value of European urbanity’. Bertolt Brecht simply called it ‘hell’. Nevertheless Theodor Adorno, someone who you might think, given his active antipathy to the culture industry, would have dedicated LA a particularly scathing Tripadvisor review, instead commented: ‘It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it’. And, in a different mood, Brecht once complained that his cottage was ‘too pleasant to work in’ .

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In my case I’m surprised to find that there is, if not a centre, a downtown, and that it’s actually quite likable. The fact that it’s mostly Latino and that everyone speaking Spanish is comforting: given that I’ve just popped up for a week from Mexico City (another city that’s often misrepresented as consisting of nothing but traffic hell but is in reality remarkably walkable), I enjoy the feeling of being doubly foreign. It’s something I regularly experienced going from Portugal to Spain, and also the time when, living in China, I flew to Thailand and bumped into some ‘other’ Chinese people. Downtown LA also has some food markets, tidied-up versions of the ones at home. We visit one of the best bookshops I’ve ever visited (The Last Bookstore), in which I first go a bit mental buying English language novels, and then subsequently can’t help but feel a bit disdainful on discovering that they have an entire department dedicated to colouring books for ‘adults’. Out on the streets there are some sights recognisable from Hollywood films depicting a dystopian future. Although we visit on a weekday, most stores are closed and shuttered, there’s evidence of people sleeping in pretty much every doorway and a couple of distressed individuals pushing shopping carts a la ‘The Road’. However, from a Mexico City point of view, it’s all quite familiar – it feels a bit like one of the more abandoned sections of Insurgentes. Down in Chinatown there’s actual streetlife – food stalls, a couple of buskers, and groups of people standing around chatting – and when we pass through the area known as Skid Row people are quite affable, even when they think I’m trying to take photos of them, which I’m not. Much.

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The area where my friends live is extremely pleasant; it puts me in mind of the more lightly-gentrified parts of Hackney, like Lower Clapton. Some streets are like Dalston without all the ridiculous new apartment buildings. With its lowlit bars, ethnic restaurants, antique shops and hipsters, there’s a strong sense of quality of life. My friends have been here for about three years. When they arrived, she was pregnant and they were panicking about not having health insurance, but it turned out to their immense relief that the State of California has a scheme which meant they avoided having to pay out over one hundred thousand dollars just for giving birth. Even in terms of healthcare, the United States is an more complex society than I had assumed.

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Another day we head down to Manhattan Beach, where I’m sort of hoping I might bump into Thomas Pynchon, even though I nor anyone else have seen any photos taken of him in the last sixty years and he hasn’t lived here since around the late ‘60s. ‘Inherent Vice’ is set here during that time. It’s a hippy noir whose detective is permanently stoned, which doesn’t help the reader or viewer make much sense of the shaggy dog plot with its dozens of characters. Like most good detective fiction it’s less about who did what to whom than a study of the texture of a particular time and place. There are police buying off hippies to protect millionaire property developers and a shady operation called the Golden Fang which appears to be some sort of mafioso cartel crossed with a secretive corporation. But the novel shows that the LA ruled by such forces is not the only one that might exist or come to exist: the epigraph to the book is the situationist slogan ‘Under the pavement, the beach!’. The ‘60s was a time when another LA, another California, another America threatened to burst through the paving stones of mainstream society. In ‘Vineland’, a previous novel set (conversely) fifteen years later, one whose characters are addled and incapacitated not just by weed fumes but also by cathode rays, Pynchon explores a similar history to Mike Davis’ book: union battles in the film studios, McCarthyism, the FBI’s attempts to control and buy off any burgeoning countercultural forces and impose authoritarian rule. ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, from 1966, was written on the cusp of the hippy years, and has a lot in common with the critique of the situationists of the deadening effects of suburbanisation, bourgeois life and consumer spectacle. Pynchon apparently lived right down next to the beach and spent his time when not writing ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ driving round and discoursing to his hippy companions on LA and its dependence on the war machine. And it’s on the beach that I come across this:

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From the beach we drive up to Malibu to a cheap fish and chip restaurant with ocean views and photos of Barbara Streisand, Rod Stewart and Dylan (Bob) on the wall. I pick up a brochure for local property but the prices are even more absurd than the ones in Dalston**. Although they’re very nice I’d actually pay more money not to have to tell people I live in a place which reminds them of one of the world’s most cloying drinks.

The megarich of LA have other concerns, however. Many of them spend their time worrying about the number of thetans they’ve built up, only to find after several years that the secret truth they were striving for involves some total bollocks about “a galactic overlord by the name of Xenu, a volcano, and souls that attach themselves to newborn babies”***. However, contrary to what a lot of people who spend too much online may tell you, Scientology is not the most dangerous and destructive aspect of the LA lifestyle. In the evening we go to a bar which is showing sport. As the commentators discuss the game a huge Volkswagen logo located right between them takes up roughly 80% of the screen.

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Much more than Scientology or the dreamlife that LA sells us, the cult of the car is the city’s most pernicious export. One consequence of the failure of our species to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels is that California is suffering from a massive unprecedented (although not inexplicable) drought. There are notices of water restrictions everywhere. In Beverly Hills the locals have protested, however, explaining that they can’t reduce their water consumption because you know, they just need to consume that much water and anyway they’re rich so fuck off my lawn. You’d have to have the mentality of a cult member to think this kind of attitude has any kind of future.

Some people still see LA as representing the chance of stardom, despite all the cautionary tales told in movies and music from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to ‘Do you know the way to San José’. In a burger restaurant round the corner from where all the Hollywood Boulevard nonsense is, we meet a young Austrian who’s been here for three years doing an acting course. The fact that she prefers to speak in German with someone (me) who struggles to remember the word for burger suggests the course may not have all she hoped for, although she puts a brave face on it (or at least I think she does, I can’t remember how to save ‘brave’). Subsequently I see several adverts for such courses; it seems that, like the UK, the US also has a burgeoning ripping-off-foreigners-in-return-for-fuck-all disguised as something to do with ‘education’. We also meet a more long-standing immigrant, a Russian taxi-driver who is inspired by our late-night request for somewhere to buy a couple of cans of beer to drive us halfway to Seattle and stock up himself “for the night”. He buys 16 cans, at 2am.

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LA has been called a commodity, a simulation, and a cultural desert, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find (pace Gertrude Stein on Oakland) that there is in fact a ‘there’ there. I can certainly see the appeal of living in LA, particularly up in the hills. Some parts of the city looks curiously like an area of my hometown, Sheffield. The ‘70s-built council housing in Gleadless Valley imitated Californian design to great effect. (If anyone thinks that this is nonsense please read this to verify). The wonderful place where my friends live, on the slopes of Mount Washington with a sweeping view across the train tracks towards downtown, puts me in mind of the 1970s, the LA of Tom Waits and Robert Altman’s version of ‘The Long Goodbye’, which are the sounds and images I most cherish from the city.

Nevertheless, the idealised LA way of life is one that doesn’t export well. Devoid of historical content and bereft of Los Angeles’ rich and complex set of visual associations, it produces bland suburbanisation, something far closer to what Baudrillard was talking about. In a word: Singaporisation. I find it hard to see the appeal of Dubai  to anyone who has an alternative****. Such places seem to me to be much better simulations of dystopia, rendered worlds with no civic or public life, no libraries or bookshops or public squares or walkable streets. A bland, privatised architects model, an outdoor shopping mall where the only game to play is pretend-you’re-a-millionaire. At least LA has a history: one of desert, drought, corruption, rats in palm trees, film noir and race wars. It is a gigantic incoherent confluence of human ambition, creativity and destruction. The brightness and the darkness. It’s thanks to the imaginations of filmmakers and writers that Los Angeles exists in a way that many cities that imitate its form don’t.

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* The original version, not the remake by Tim Burton or whoever.

** Nobody from London will believe this possible.

*** This is what it says in this South Park episode, accompanied by the words ‘This is what Scientologists actually believe’. I sometimes think of writing something similar on this blog just in case people think I’m doing this for a laugh.

**** Not that Dubai is lacking in intrigue. I think you’d have to be very brave to live there and go looking for it. One of my friends in LA wrote this excellent novel about oil business shenanigans.

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 3

Fotografia Lisboa  Prelúdio para o pôr do sol

Part 1

Part 2

You hear it in the music, the films, the novels and the poetry: Portuguese culture is suffused with melancholy. In the early 2000s the most popular foreign groups were those whose music was steeped in the same yearning and languor: Lamb, Tindersticks, Gotan Project, Mogwai. The measured pace and sometimes sombre atmosphere led me to develop a wacky theory according to which there is a global pattern of large, exuberant countries neighboured by smaller ones where life is less frantic and more given over to reflection: Mexico, Portugal, Argentina, New Zealand, Ireland… Although the theory is in many important ways nonsense, the role of rancheras and tango in two of those cultures does lend it some credence. One of Portugal’s most popular songs of 2001 was a version of Erasure’s bouncy/sad disco anthem ‘A Little Respect’ which had been slowed down to bring out the tragic element (and, in the process, make it a lot less fun to listen to). Portuguese music had something of the drowsiness of bossa nova, but I didn’t detect the same sensuality. Fado seemed to encapsulate a mood of being ‘half in love with easeful death’. Lisbon even had its daily ritual of mourning the passing of the day, toasting the lusco fusco at Miradouro Santa Catarina.

To get inside Lisbon it helps to read at least some of Fernando Pessoa’s ‘Book of Disquiet’, a collection of prose texts assembled after his death and all written under the name of Bernardo Soares, whose lifestyle and outlook seems to have matched Pessoa’s almost exactly.  In it he writes:

“I love the stillness of early summer evenings downtown, and especially the stillness made more still by contrast, on the streets that seethe with activity by day. Rua do Arsenal, Rua da Alfândega, the sad streets extending eastward from where the Rua da Alfândega ends, the entire stretch along the quiet docks – all of this comforts me with sadness when on these evenings I enter the solitude of their ensemble. I slip into an era prior to the one I’m living in.”

Pessoa spent the ages of seven to seventeen in South Africa but after he came to Lisbon he rarely left. His was an exile of the imagination. He invented heteronyms, characters with fully-developed biographies in whose names he wrote, and some of whom, like Álvaro de Campos, travelled for him. It’s possible that he made a physical visit to Porto, where rumours suggest that he may have been caught on film by the local director Manoel de Oliveira. De Oliveira, who died last year at the age of 106, made his first full-length film in 1942 (‘Aniki Bóbó’); it featured children singing and dancing. His subsequent works slowed down until they became almost inert, like a series of sumptuously detailed paintings. I once fell asleep watching his historical ‘drama’ ‘Palavra e Utopia’ at a point where a shot of an oak tree in a breeze was being accompanied by two voices softly discussing theology. When I woke up sometime later neither the shot nor the topic of conversation had changed. His later films were feted internationally, particularly the comedy ‘I’m Going Home’, which starred John Malkovich, and his very last film, which he made at the age of 104. It was called ‘The Old Man of Restelo’ (that eternal Cassandra of Portuguese imperial expansion, as mentioned in Part 2), and consists mostly of a dialogue between four of the greatest writers in Portuguese and Spanish history (Camões, Castelo Branco, a poet I’d never heard of called Teixeira de Pascoaes and Cervantes) about “the glories of the past and the uncertainty of the future”. 

Another idiosyncratic local filmmaker was João César Monteiro, who in his films often went by the name John of God. I myself took part in Portuguese cinema history when I went to ‘see’ his version of ‘Snow White’, which on a visual level consisted almost exclusively of a blank grey screen. In doing so I was one of only seven people who saw it on its opening weekend. More recently the King of Almost-Unwatchable Portuguese Cinema is Pedro Costa, whose visually luscious and very lengthy films typically consist of static shots of Cabo Verdean immigrants standing in empty museums looking extremely sad, interspersed with twenty-minute long takes of heroin addicts coughing in dust-filled rooms in crumbling parts of Lisbon. They are very beautiful to watch and have lots to teach us about post-colonial entropy, but they are nevertheless nearly impossible to stay awake to. They put me in mind of Shashi Tharoor’s comment about India being “a highly developed society in an advanced state of decay”.

The younger people I taught were nevertheless very dynamic: highly-educated, socially liberal and often startlingly witty. They were some of the most intelligent and imaginative teenagers I’ve ever met. In my mind now, fifteen or so years later, I can’t help but compare and contrast their fate with that of those former emigrants I hung out with in Jaana’s café, who had had for the most part a miserable education. As we become older our place in history becomes more clearly defined. In their case that meant being forced to kill and risk their own lives in a war they didn’t believe in, and then driven by a lack of opportunities for mobility in their own country to seek work elsewhere. Then came the Revolution, ascent to the EU, the circenses of the 1998 Expo and the 2004 Euro Cup, followed swiftly by the crisis of the EU and brutal austerity programmes jeopardising the life chances of their children and grandchildren. It’s hard not to see them as victims of history.

As Paul Theroux pointed out in relation to travel writing, it’s never fair to judge another country when you visited it in a bad mood. In my case, I stayed too long in Portugal, started to feel stuck, and blamed my frustration on the world around me. I was irritated by what I saw then as the alternating self-aggrandisement and self-abnegation of the Portuguese, particularly how these feelings were projected onto the national sport. I came to hate both the sound of Portuguese people speaking English and other foreigners speaking Portuguese. I got annoyed when there was a word in the newspaper I hadn’t encountered before, and if anyone local who I didn’t know spoke to me in English I’d cut them dead. But I couldn’t leave, I reasoned, because I had a permanent job, a fridge, and a cat. In any case the rhythms of my life had become like the lulling sounds of a train track: trips to the Algarve and to Spain, drinks every night in the Bela Ipanema café, hearty portions of comfort food and elephantine servings of Amêndoa Amarga, trips to the beach, falling out and patching up with friends, visitors coming and going, relationships starting and ending, new teachers arriving every September… I fantasised about going to Spain or Brazil but knew I never could put myself back on the map of my own accord, despite my vague 5am notions that one day I could do a Master’s and restart my life. And all the time I was trying hard not to spend too much time wondering how my life would have turned out had I stayed in the UK twelve years earlier.

I think I hit a wall around the time a Portuguese friend of mine went on a spectacular late-night rant about “these fucking English teachers with their drinking, their whining about the society they’ve chosen to make home, their sense of entitlement and their shitty lessons which they don’t even prepare for or care about”. Sabia que tinha razão: I knew he had a point . In June 2004 I went into a massive sulk when my “beloved” Spain were defeated by my host country at football. In the end it was one of those new teachers who uprooted me, a violent process which involved moving on from those habits and friends which had sustained my single life.

A couple of years later I came across a song by Transglobal Underground (‘Drinking in Gomorrah’ – see playlist below) which summed up perfectly that particular fate I’d narrowly escaped: being Lost in TEFL.  For years I blamed the place but knew deep down the problem was really me in that place. Part of the sadness, frustration and regret I was seeing everywhere around me was my own, and a lot of the arrogance and self-abasement I attributed to the Portuguese was really aspects of my own personality and culture which I was projecting elsewhere. As psychologists like to point out, if you can spot it, you’ve got it. Ainda bem that I left, for me and for Portugal. It really wasn’t working out for us any more, but, as so often – at least in the sometimes melancholy world of Teaching English Abroad – the problem wasn’t them, it was me.

Part 4

Rome: Armed soldiers and homeless immigrants

img-20161224-wa0000-1These are some fairly disorganised thoughts scribbled in a station and on a train on 24th December last year. I have a bad habit of trying to (in the words of my wife) connect the dots and present a complete and coherent picture of an issue. For reasons that will become clear I don’t want to do that here.

There have almost certainly been homeless people in Rome for as long as the city has existed. Similarly the presence of armed soldiers has probably been a constant. Here in and around Termini Station there is an abundance of both, but ordinary life is going on oblivious. On the main concourse there is a Christmas tree with messages and wishes stuck to it. One piece of paper reads simply: Gulio.

Gulio Regeni, whose name has been seen everywhere in Italy this year, was, after a fashion, a migrant, an Italian PhD student in Egypt. He was by all accounts an exemplary human being, the sort of person who quite simply gives you hope for the future. He was murdered by the security services. They saw him as a potential threat: a European in a repressive Middle-Eastern country asking searching questions and sticking up for people whose livelihoods and rights were threatened, and who had no alternative but to stand up for each other and take whatever outside help they could get.

He could have stayed in Italy and helped migrants here. There are lots of good people involved in such initiatives, people from the church and civil society. The Italian Navy has managed to save huge numbers of people from the Mediterranean, but the response of national and local government authorities has sometimes been a lot less helpful. Recently the police in Rome turfed out the inhabitants of a volunteer centre which was housing, feeding and advising homeless newcomers. Lots of people on the streets come from Senegal, Mauritius and Pakistan. They are, despite their religious background and the colour of their skin, the counterparts of the Italians who went in such huge numbers to the Americas a century ago and who now go to work and study in London and elsewhere. Any one of them could be another Gulio Regeni.

In Rome there is huge pressure on public housing. It started before the recent wave of migration. Nevertheless openly racist groups like Casapound have been exploiting the crisis for their own ends. A family of Moroccan origin, who have been here for several years and are now Italian, were prevented last month from moving into the apartment assigned to them by a group of ‘locals’ shouting “we don’t want blacks here”. I came across other migrants online (white European ones, who classify themselves as ‘expats’) who made excuses for the protests.

Homeless people, whether migrants or otherwise, are usually invisible. Armed soldiers are too, albeit in a different way. I’m used to guns, having seen so many of them in Mexico. When we came back to Europe last December they were already everywhere. It’s not just stations and airports and major tourist sites, but also our local metro station. They are there to identify and exclude anyone who might be a threat.

They are there in Brussels too. No-one talks about it, a friend of ours who lives there tells us. It’s become a taboo. Life must go on.

It’s all too complex and contradictory to assemble into a simple picture or a single narrative. The problems are multifaceted, dynamic and interlinked. What’s the proper reaction to attacks like the ones in Paris, Brussels and Berlin? Any response is inevitably partial and incoherent. For several days this month no big trucks were allowed to circulate in Rome. Last month there was a similar prohibition in place because of the pollution. In the first case no one complained. In the second people felt justified in doing so.

Any attempt to describe the future which doesn’t address Climate Change is meaningless and dishonest. Last Christmas someone gave me a book called ‘Sapiens’, which purports to be a complete history of the human race. The conclusion features one reference to the changing climate, and it dismisses the prospect in two lines. Yesterday in Feltrinelli I saw that the same writer has a new book about the future. This time there are three pages dedicated to the environment, on which he argues in a tone of staggering glibness that human beings will probably survive like they always have, probably just in much smaller number.

That’s all fine then.

Migration is one of the most basic evolutionary reflexes. ‘You only leave home/when home won’t let you stay’.

I take a photo of the scene with the tree and like any photo in any public place in Europe right now it could end up being captioned ‘five minutes before the shooting began’.

It’s easy to identify the main ingredients in this stew of fear and resentment: ‘We’ have to protect ourselves from ‘them’. ‘They’ get everything. ‘We’ get nothing. Far-right tricksters, agents of violence and chaos, keep throwing extra spice into the simmering unpalatable mix. We don’t want to accept what they are offering, but maybe after a certain point there will be nothing else to eat. That’s what they and their counterparts in the Middle East want to happen.

In the meantime lots of people are unhappy in their lives. The obvious thing to do would be to stop spending so much, get out of debt, but our mode of existence is based on over-consumption. That’s why Bush came out immediately after 9/11 and told American citizens to get back in the malls. That’s why the implied missing word in the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ meme’ is ‘…shopping’.

The Internet tells us there is no limit to how much we can consume. It’s an infinite resource. It increasingly determines how we regard that other reality, the one that sustains and troubles us so much. Maybe one of our secret thoughts is: Why can’t all these homeless people and migrants just do what we do and take refuge online?

Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked enough: if states are so keen to protect us from the threat of terrorism, why do they do basically nothing to protect us from climate change? Why don’t they tell us to consume less rather than more?

A neoliberal response to any question is that more markets are the answer. In the words of Thomas Pynchon, the real war is a celebration of markets. Perhaps it’s significant then that so many terrorist attacks target markets; generally local ones, as the global one is beyond reach or reproach.

Deaths from terrorist attacks are visible, immediate and spectacular. Terrorists target people like us because they know it will be newsworthy. Climate change will – probably already does – kill many more people than terrorism will, but more slowly and less visibly. It targets people who are more vulnerable than we believe ourselves to be, who do not have the protections that states founded upon and legitimised by liberal values and institutions provide.

It’s strange, or at least illogical, given the prevalence and persistence of climate change denial, that there is no-one (or at least no-one I’ve come across) who tries to get away with claiming that there’s no connection between a bomb exploding in a marketplace and people being killed and injured.

What’s Christmas like in Russia this year? After the massacre of Aleppo are people still sentimentalising the young, are orthodox priests preaching about the need for peace in the world? Are they mourning the ambassador to Turkey? Will anyone around the Christmas dinner table point out that bombing Aleppo to pieces would have consequences?

What are the consequences of me, a British citizen, asking these questions? One of my compatriots once wrote:

‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in their turn’.

There is a tension around the issue of belonging, and the line between those who do and don’t belong is fraught. That’s why we ignore armed soldiers and homeless people in our midst. In the words of the great Zygmunt Bauman (RIP), the greatest fear we have nowadays is of being excluded.

It’s the day before Christmas. There are adverts for luxury goods everywhere we look.