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, an intellectual who took refuge in Rome. 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.

Brief Encounters: London 4pm

Strolling away from the almost bucolic festival environment of the climate camp about 4pm on Wednesday, I hear a conversation between an obese woman and her exhausted looking colleague. ‘Of course’, she says, ‘this is all based on the idea that climate change is true’. I look at her, shocked. The man grunts his assent and they labour their way up the street.

Turning left out of Russell Square tube about the same time the following day, I hear a man behind me ask, ‘Do you think it’s changed you as a person?’. ‘No’, replies a woman’s voice. ‘Do you?’. Intrigued, I turn and look directly behind me, and see that the woman has a pirate-style patch over her right eye. The couple are holding hands. ‘No’, says the man. The woman sees me staring at them and glares at me with her one good eye. It occurs to me that this would be a good starting point for a novel.

Passing a pub off Tottenham Court Road in the April sunshine, I see a fat man sitting at an outside table hungrily reading the newspaper. His t-shirt reads, ‘Fat men are harder to kidnap’. I check my phone. It is Friday, just after 4pm.

Ealing – the Promised Land of the Polish People?


I have nothing whatsoever against Polish people; although I can’t claim that any of my best friends are Polish, I have met some charming Poles over the years. In fact at the moment I have a couple in my class who I like enormously. And years ago, in my very first teaching job, on a glorious summer’s day in Dublin, I was given a class of 14 Polish au pairs, who seemed very sweet, outgoing and broadminded. Or at least they did until I happened to mention the word ‘gypsy’.

From that moment, as they skies outside the classroom suddenly filled with dark clouds the atmosphere in the classroom quickly turned to one of unadulterated racial hatred. Everybody had a bitter tale to tell about the filthy, lazy, scrounging scum plaguing their land. I was genuinely shocked as noone seemed to have the slightest reservation about advocating violence against an evidently fairly beleaguered community – 70% of Poland’s gypsies were murdered in the Holocaust.

Of course it would have been churlish of me to point out that six of the main extermination camps were located in Poland, especially as so far as the Nazis were concerned it was all part of Germany anyway. But it just so happened that at the time I was reading a book about alcohol consumption around Eastern Europe, which mentioned that there is a very potent myth about the number of Jewish people living in Poland. Around three million died in the death camps, it said, and although official statistics state that there are now only about 15,000 remaining, most Polish people would apparently state with confidence that the real number is more like a good couple of million. So in the midst of this firestorm of racist attitudes I decided to find out if this was really the case, and my students, who before had seemed perfectly good-natured and tolerant, obliged by letting me know in detail about the scandal of Poland’s hidden jews. I don’t think they were talking about Anne Frank.

Partly because of this, I’ve never considered Poland as a possible destination, either for living or for a holiday. Too cold, too grey, too superstitious and too, well, racist. And certainly as far as the political side of things go, I think I’ve recently been considerably vindicated. The weather, as far as I know, has not improved much either.

I can understand, then, why people might not want to live there. Now, of course, the country is part of the EU and Polish people are free to travel to work – anyone who has been anywhere near Victoria coach station in London over the last couple of years can witness just how many of them are keen to come to the UK and find a job. They come to places like Ealing.

Now I want to make it clear here that I am totally in favour of immigration. It enriches the destination country economically, culturally, linguistically – in every conceivable way. Places like London, Sheffield and, now, Dublin are infinitely better-off for enjoying such a variety of different peoples from all over the world, and anyone who cares to suggest otherwise is well advised to spend a year or so in a place that doesn’t have such a mix – China, for example – and then see how they feel.

The problem that I do have is that here in Ealing, where I work, that mix is largely limited to the people you see on the streets. Because the moment you step into a cafe or a pub, the first thing you notice is: that almost all the staff are white. It’s quite rare to be served by black, Pakistani or Bengali people – by, that is, locals. The majority of people working in these jobs are Polish and have come here very recently, and they are doing jobs which, on the whole, would otherwise be done by people who were either born here or have lived here longer – for want of a better word, British people, wherever their families originated from.

The same point was made in an article in the Guardian late last year by Polly Toynbee, in which she talked about the recent opportunistic changes in Conservative Party Immigration policy. Her basic argument was that ‘the use of cheap foreign Labour may boost our GDP, but it enriches the well-off at the expense of the low-paid’. I can see her point, insofar as she is talking about recent arrivals from the new EU countries:

Bercow (Conservative MP) and Labour hotly assert that migrants don’t take jobs from British workers nor depress wages. But there is no evidence for this assertion. It is impossible to know what level wages might be at or how many unemployed might have been tugged into jobs at higher pay rates had Britain kept its doors shut to new EU citizens until their countries had caught up economically.

Blair and Brown embrace the inevitability of globalisation, but make a deliberately class-blind analysis. Migrants do bring GDP growth, but remember the Gate Gourmet workers fired to make way for cheaper newly arrived workers. Migrants add to the profits of the company and thus to GDP. They keep down the cost of flying for people wealthy enough to fly. They also hold down the pay rate for all other low-paid workers, keeping wage inflation remarkably low and the Bank of England very happy.

But all this does nothing but harm to the old Gate Gourmet workers and to all the other low-paid. This is what globalisation does, widening the gap between rich and poor. Cheap labour provides more cheap services for the rich to get their lifestyle at a premium while nailing an ever-larger swath of the workforce to the minimum-wage floor. The greatest job growth is in rock-bottom jobs.

London has the most migrant workers and it also has the most unemployed. Who are they? Many more young people are not in education or work after generations of deprivation. Bangladeshis are among the poorest because 80% of their women don’t work. Many more London single mothers can’t work because the cost of housing and childcare means even tax credits don’t lift them out of a poverty trap where a low-paid job means working at a loss.

This is quite a sophisticated argument because the superficial idea – that Eastern Europeans are coming over here and taking ‘our’ jobs, thereby deflating wages – seems like a classic racist rallying call. But we are talking here about a very sudden phenomenon, and one that seems to have been orchestrated from above precisely in order to achieve the objective of lowering wages.

I’m not actually very sure how I feel about the conclusions she comes to. In terms of possible solutions, the following is both seductive and shocking:

Try this thought experiment: 43.5% of nurses recruited by the NHS since 1999 come from outside the UK. What if that were banned? The NHS in London would find clever ways to recruit from the city’s mass of underqualified boys and girls, single mothers and other non-workers. Recruiters might set up special classes for 14-year-olds interested in nursing, promising work as nursing assistants while they trained, places to live in attractive nurses’ homes, starter homes for key-worker families, status and good pay. The offer would be irresistible, and yes, taxes would be higher.

Other employers would be in hot contest to entice the forgotten people into building, transport and catering. Adam Smith’s hidden hand of the market would force the workless into work. It is shocking that 30,000 of the 70,000 workers being employed to start work on transport infrastructure for the Olympics are to be east Europeans, not impoverished Londoners.

I’m not so certain about the ‘hidden hand of the market’. I think that’s just as much as a myth as Poland’s hidden millions of Jews. After all, one of the main reasons why people from low-wage countries are suddenly able to work in different countries is because the not-so-hidden-hand of European business and pro-business policy makers has determined that it is a convenient way of ‘reducing costs’ and making us all more ‘competitive’. And I find it doubtful that the new EU countries will rapidly ‘catch up’ with their wealthier neighbours, and find it difficult to believe that anyone really believes that – the most quoted statistic given for their ongoing level of economic development is GDP, which is, of course, and especially given that we are talking about wages here, nonsense. Those countries have been brought into the EU because it is cheaper to produce things there and workers will work for less money.

Nevertheless I don’t think there is some kind of idealised version of EU capitalism where everybody could be content to stay put and employers would have their workers’ best interests at heart. Globalised capitalism only allows and encourages people to move when it’s in its own very best interests, and it is cheaper to hand over low-paid jobs to EU newcomers than it is to provide longer-term immigrants – asylum seekers, for example – with the support and language training they need in order to be able to establish themselves here more permanently with proper jobs. After all, nobody should be working all week for the pittance that they pay you to work in cafes or bars these days, whether they were born in Britain, Bangladesh or Poland.

In conclusion, then, two unrelated points. One, that people from the Deep South must find it reasonably amusing that there is a country by the name of Po’land. And secondly, a prediction: in the not-too-distant future someone will pop up to proclaim that Poland is the China of Europe. Oh wait, someone just did.

Shave Soreditch Shtation!

April 25, 2006, 20:54


I have decided that I am going to Save Shoreditch Station, which, it has been announced, is to close in June. Partly because it’s just so difficult to actually say ‘Save Shoreditch Station!’, but also because I feel somehow that I can. I would be genuinely interested to see what kinds of people would get involved in such a campaign these days these days – especially with the BNP poised to sweep before them the votes of whoever can be bothered to vote next Thursday – and it might be a useful way of getting to know some of the nuttier and some of the more boring locals.

I did use Shoreditch Station once, a few weeks ago, and I must say I was most impressed by how clean and empty it was at 7pm on a Thursday evening. Maybe, in fact, that’s why they want to close it! Hmm. Nevertheless, I am more then pleased that there is a tube line running straight from my house to Brick Lane, and I am quite prepared to stand alone before a bulldozer or a tank and in front of the cameras of the world’s press to save it, even if it does mean that I will never, ever be able to go back to China.

Ahem. On the subject of tube trains, just what the flaming fuck is a ‘Train Destination Describer’? The one at Whitechapel has been out of action for some time, but even when it was working I’m sure it didn’t actually describe the places where the trains end up. I’m willing to bet it never read “This train is for Ealing Broadway, a fairly bland, nondescript stretch of West London with too many Polish people and nowhere particularly nice to go for lunch”, or “This train goes to Wimbledon, which stars Paul Bethany“. Or even “Customers are advised not to board this train, as it is a Hammersmith and City line train and to be honest, guv, you’d be better off walking, alone, through those long, dark, cold rat-filled tunnels”.

I digress. Maybe I should just go and apply for a job with Transport for London. Maybe it, like the National Health Service, is enjoying its best ever year! Ho ho ho. They pay thirty grand, apparently, according to that song. And the perks – special red Oyster cards that glow in the dark, a snazzy yellow jacket and a non-standard accent – are quite remarkable.

Come to the Pissed Speaker’s Corner!


Council provides al fresco drinking for alcoholics

In a secluded corner of parkland, a circle of benches provides a pleasant spot for a drink. The side tables are ideal for a can of strong cider. A bin has been provided for the empties.

Welcome to Britain’s first purpose-built drinking den for homeless alcoholics – in a London park popular with families. It is seen as such a success that it may be replicated around the country.

A council spent £1,900 creating the “alternative drinking area”, which is intended to keep drinkers out of sight of ordinary passers-by. It was prompted by complaints that drunks were loitering at the entrance to Brockwell Park, south London, shouting abuse at locals.

Not that I usually read the Telegraph, I should add.

Transport in London is shit


…or so I’ve been told (and experienced from time to time) my whole puff. But it’s come to my attention (during a phone conversation with my mum in which it was revealed that my sister and my future brother-in-law is, are getting married), that I haven’t heard a single anti-tube rant so far this month, and that luego it must be de facto better than it used to be.

Discuss.

ps. Incidentally, Enduring Love is a good film.