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 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. Were I there for more than a few weeks I would 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 we know, we could be 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 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 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 We were also lucky to spend ten days in Cuba, where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting. We 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 some nice, quiet 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, 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 colours 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. 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 talk to 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.

In which I renounce blogging

life-of-brian-still-2

So far today 3,300,798 blog posts have been written and shared. This is the 3,300,799th, or probably, by the time I’ve finished probably the 3,333,333rd. (You can check for yourself here).

Someone has to read all this stuff and (shamefully) it’s not me. I don’t read many other blogs, or at least not regularly. This one is not part of a community of such sites, with fellow bloggers commenting on each others’ latest thoughts and discoveries. Such things can happen (when I was in China it was the case) but it hasn’t this time round. Thus I feel like I have a direct, individual relationship with the Internet rather than being part of a congregation or community of faith. It’s a Protestant relationship, in that there’s no mediating hierarchy and it encourages hard work towards an unclear reward.

Come to think of it, the Internet shares certain properties with a Christian God:

  • Its existence manifests itself almost exclusively thorough rituals (such as status updates, blogging and posting photos)
  • It offers the faithful the very occasional miracle (see below)
  • It’s omniscient
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s omnipresent.
  • Its mood is alternately punishing and consoling

As you can see, theology is not my forte. On this blog I’ve written mostly about what could broadly be considered political questions and my relation to them. Around twenty years ago, for a period of about four years while I was living in Dublin, I was active in (and occasionally wrote for the publications of) a left-wing political organisation. My individual identity was subordinated to the needs of the party. As a foot soldier my time and energy were given over to hard work and disclipine on the basis of a shared faith in a common project. This necessitated being involved in relationships which were never entirely political and never wholly personal. Arguments ensued whose resolution often obliged me to swallow my pride and accept that I was wrong, that my perspective was too limited to see essential details or to grasp the bigger picture. As for writing, I mostly wrote reviews of films or books, evaluating them in terms of how well they contributed to the revolutionary struggle and stalinistically rebuking the cultural worker who had produced them if they had failed to do so.

Inevitably, I find this activity (blogging) much more satisfying. It allows me to fully express my personality and my identity with hardly any risk of admonishment. It engenders no personal dischord and involves as much or as little ‘discipline’ as I like. I am completely unaccountable, whether in terms of choosing what to wrote about or in terms of how true or how good what results is. There is no measure of success or failure. Whether I scribble some mild satire about Theresa May while my students are doing a test and only 25 people read it, or bash out some anti-Trump diatribe on the way to work that (after my having done the rounds of anti-Trump groups on Facebook) gets a couple of thousand views, what I post here is (for the most part) gloriously/frustratingly inconsequential. At the same time, I’ve got some lovely responses from some extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful people who’ve come across the site and whom if I’d never put finger to keyboard I would never have encountered, I’ve discovered some others who make astonishingly inventive use of the medium, and no one’s spat on me outside the GPO for being a ‘Trot’.

Politically, however, it’s hard to make a case for the usefulness of blogging. (Plus it remains a uniquely unpleasant-sounding word.) Even the most popular thing I’ve written here (by far) was essentially urging passivity and complacency. That explains why it took off as it did. The dream of any blogger came true for me – this was the miracle I referred to earlier. My post went viral, with 750,000 views in about four days. The feedback almost universally positive; very few took issue, which was extremely gratifying if also a little perturbing. Hard to keep up with, because a week later, we had a baby, which put things into some perspective.

*****

The internet is a good fit for Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, in that it allows people to let off fetid bursts of steam while constituting no threat to power structures. On last week’s ‘Under the Skin‘ podcast the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued convincingly that the development of late ’60s hippy counterculture led to an explosion of individualism which consumer capitalism was all too ready to facilitate. Nowadays, the Internet encourages us to believe that our individual feelings, rituals and gestures mean something, that they register on some elusive scale of value. While I may believe that I’m expressing my individuality, my unique perspective on the world, it just so happens that there are probably 30,000 people out there saying exactly the same things. The internet is a perfect manifestation of the power of the spectacle, one adapted to the pretensions and projections of every individual who accesses it and one in which we frantically produce and consume images of ourselves as productive and influential beings; the spider’s web of communicative capitalism eats up all individual protest, all the rants and outbursts and cogently-argued denunciations and feeds upon them. In providing me with a virtual patch of land in which to cultivate my narcissism, it allows me the illusion that I am engaging politically. Who benefits most is wordpress.com, which profits from my (briefly vomits) ‘content’ and that of millions of individuals who are all convinced that what they are doing is unique and important.

The role of the internet in relation to our political consciousness also validates the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, and the subsequent reflections of critical theory as to what Saul Bellow called ‘the late failure of radical hopes’. Our migration to a life lived online is partly responsible for and partly symptomatic of the fact that in the face of the absolute need for immediate and massive political transformation present generations are (in the modern era) unprecedentedly conservative. Adam Curtis hones in on the ubiquity of risk aversion in contemporary finance, and the ways in which this colours our everyday expectations and aspirations. Something I’ve noticed among some of those opposed to Brexit is a sense that everything was perfect before June 23rd and that the vote is a brutal intrusion, an ugly flaw in an otherwise unproblematic reality. For those who benefit from a certain measure of economic stability, any social or political change is something to be feared rather than encouraged. Seven years of talking to (mostly young) exam candidates from around the world, hearing and reading their thoughts about political and social issues, has for me repeatedly confirmed Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of ‘capitalist realism’, the notion that no matter how bad things get there is simply no other horizon to look towards. Curtis gives the example of Yemen – the resignation which which we greet the news that our Governments are funding – indeed, profiting from – what appears to be genocide. Speaking out against such horrors might put our own status at risk. The taboo that governs mentioning climate change on social media is reminiscient of those scenes in which the line-up of troops on parade quivers with fear, terrified that if they stand up against the bullying commandent they will be next to be humiliated. In this case its our peers who we fear might see us overly earnest or excessively serious in a medium designed for irony and levity – or, in the case of Twitter, irony and abuse.

The famous statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that a slight alteration to capitalism implies that we would be unable to respond to anyone who demands to know what our alternative is. Instead we respond to gruesome disasters with Facebook prayers. Some sneer at Twitter hashtags like #prayforparis without reflecting on what a status update or a shared meme is but an invocation of, an appeal to, a higher power. Like Kierkegaard said of prayer itself, it is more useful to the person doing the updating than anything else. And what do memes resemble if not religious icons? The priests of this religion are those wannabe-demagogues who have a sufficient command over the arcane means of diffusing their messages or who already have access to a sufficiently elevated pulpit. Comedians do politics and politicians seek first and foremost to entertain, mostly by evoking outrage and giving it a clear and convincing focus. TED Talks mask the fact that for all that we live in a time of stupendous technological wizardry our age is also one of social stasis marked by economic ruination and a profound and widespread lack of moral and political agency.

Jodie Dean wrote in ‘Communicative Capitalism’ about the illusion that what we share must register in some significant but vague way, and the fantasy that posting online constitutes a meaningful political intervention. Lacan’s Big Other, that invisible and ineffable authority before which we genuflect, is somewhere online, reading everything we write. The Matrix is an increasingly efficient metaphor. FOMO is largely driven by fear of no longer existing. Disconnection means death.

There’s something deeply religious about all this frenetic online blathering, this blind compliance with the rituals of the world’s biggest ever cult. But while most Gods are benign, this one definitely is not. I want no more part in propagating these illusions, principally my own. It’s time to end this vanity project and to get involved in something useful.

Why everyone should (at least try to) read Thomas Pynchon

Late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of. 

Reading Thomas Pynchon’s novels is hugely entertaining. It enables you to see the world in new and unexpected ways, to entertain new possibilities about reality. While poets often do this in an oblique way, Pynchon does it in a manner which teases the brain but is also relatively easy to make sense of. To get to grips with his novels nevertheless takes effort, but it’s one which is hugely pleasurable and deeply rewarding. That first quote was from his latest (and possibly last) novel, ‘Bleeding Edge’ (2013). This is from his first, ‘V’ (1963):

The only consolation he drew from the present chaos was that his theory managed to explain it.

And this from ‘Mason & Dixon’ (1997), from the mouth of a talking dog:

“Once, the only reason Men kept Dogs was for food. Noting that among Men no crime was quite so abhorr’d as eating the flesh of another human, Dog quickly learn’d to act as human as possible,— and to pass this Ability on from Parents to Pups. So we know how to evoke from you, Man, one day at a time, at least enough Mercy for one day more of Life. Nonetheless, however accomplish’d, our Lives are never settled,— we go on as tail-wagging Scheherazades, (…) nightly delaying the Blades of our Masters by telling back to them tales of their humanity. I am but an extreme Expression of this Process.”

Seeing as I am currently, while waiting for my wife to give birth to our first child, enjoying “that mysterious exemption from time that produces most internet content” (‘Bleeding Edge’, p428)*, I wanted to share with ‘the world’ just what a joyous experience it can be to read Pynchon’s work. Once again, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It took me, I would say, seven attempts over twenty-five years to get past the first few pages of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ (set during the Second World War, published in 1973). I’m very glad I did, because once you accept that those first couple of pages are actually a dream sequence, on page 9 you get this:

With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table, (…) crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded into the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast, squeezed out a pastry nozzle across the quivering creamy reaches of a banana blancmange to spell out the words C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre (attributed to a French observer during the Charge of the Light Brigade) which Pirate has appropriated as his motto . . . tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing over banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead . . . banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy Pirate brought back last year from a cellar in the Pyrenees also containing a clandestine radio transmitter. . . .

Some internet genius has made a diagram in case you should want to recreate the banana breakfast:

banana-breakfast.pngAnd on the next page of the novel there’s a song about bananas:

There’s a constant strain of wackiness in all Pynchon’s novels. He uses a huge amount of humour and a lot of (often extremely silly) songs. Talking lightbulbs, mechanical ducks and a sentient (and actually very cute) ball of lightning called Skip all feature in his books. His characters often appear to be animated: that talking dog he describes as walking with ‘no more than one wag of the Tail per step’. He’s often using these tropes to talk about science: ‘objects’ that appear to be inert but may be more alive and conscious than we think. The science parts are apparently extremely well-researched or very elaborately made up and also eye-glazingly complex. Some passages test your patience and might make you inclined, on the first reading, to put the book down, walk quietly away and just pretend that you’ve read it. One disturbing secret about Pynchon’s novels is that you have to read them twice: the first time is practice.  You also need to concentrate, using what Daniel Kahnemann calls “System 2” thinking: not automatic and emotional but deliberate and attentive.

The stories he tells are open-ended and feature hundreds of characters, many of whom may appear only once or twice. It’s often a challenge to work out who is speaking: is this passage a memory, a fantasy, a dream? Whose it it? What happened to the person we were introduced to two pages ago? It helps that the characters’ names are entertaining. The narrator of ‘Mason & Dixon’ (which is set in the 1760s) is called Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke. There are others called Fender-Belly Bodine, Sauncho Smilax and Mucho Maas. This works to help you remember the characters and also to remember that what you are reading is a work of the imagination. The main character in the book (and now film) ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009) is called Doc Sportello (‘sportello’ in Italian means counter, like in a bank. This may be important; it may not). Paul Anderson’s film is actually a pretty good introduction to Pynchon’s work, in that it’s huge fun to watch but it hurts nicely in the head to make sense of what’s happening. The best book to begin with, however, is ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ (1966, 142 pages), which features the funniest parody of a Jacobean revenge play in mid-1960s postmodern fiction.

For all his zaniness and occasional abstruseness (especially with regard to science), Pynchon’s work is concerned with very pressing themes. Although he may be talking about German colonialism in late 19th century Africa, 18th century myths about the hollow earth or recipes for baked potatoes, he’s also talking with disguised urgency about the world we live in now. That may be the reason he likes to use anachronisms. Pre-Independence America didn’t feature shopping malls, coffee chains or goth teenagers, but they all appear in ‘Mason & Dixon’. One major theme in all his books is history and remembrance. History is ‘at best a conspiracy, not always among gentlemen, to defraud’ (‘Gravity’s Rainbow’). ‘History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers – nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the people’ (‘Mason & Dixon’). ‘Vineland’ (1990) insists on the need to remember. It was widely misunderstood when first published. Pynchon’s unofficial mentee David Foster Wallace hated it. There were complaints that is was superficial, obsessed with obscure details of popular TV shows, and vastly inferior to the immensely complex ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ seventeen years earlier. But actually it was an elaboration of the prediction in that novel: ‘there’ll be a thousand ways to forget’. One late ’60s hippy character comments:

“They just let us forget. Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock and roll is becoming — just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die. And they’ve got us again.”

Upon which Pynchon wryly editorialises: ‘It was the way people used to talk’.

‘Vineland’ had therefore a deeper message about the history of workers to survive in the face of brutal repression, and the ways in which (pace Gramsci) the dulling effects of TV serve to complement that repression. Pynchon’s novels depict and are in themselves attempts to map networks of power, and thereby to escape the wire mesh power throws over us so it can build upon us, to paraphrase the plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe’s terrifying speech at the end of ‘Against the Day’ (2006).

That novel is set around the turn of the 19th century but Pynchon was keen to stress that it is a book about now and the future**. In his own distinctive way, that is. This is the synopsis he himself appears to have written upon its publication:

With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred.

That worldwide disaster in the context of the novel was of course the First World War and the novels shows the apparently inexorable drift towards it. It contains a warning:

“When peace and plenty are once again taken for granted, at your most languorous moment of maximum surrender, the true state of affairs will be borne in upon you. Swiftly and without mercy.”

Events converge in Pynchon’s work as they do in history and in life, often (to quote ‘V.’) ‘according to an ominous logic’. ‘Bleeding Edge’ is set around the time of both 9/11 and the aftermath of the dotcom crash. If events coincide, there must be some connections, some hidden logics which connect them. You might think that as it’s the only one of his novels to be set in the last 30 years, it would be the only one to address the Internet. You’d be wrong. The following quote comes from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, which was mostly written during the 1960s:

Is it any wonder the world’s gone insane, with information come to be the only medium of exchange?

…and this one from ‘Vineland’ (1984):

If patterns of ones and zeroes were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name — its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world. We are digits in God’s computer, she not so much thought as hummed to herself to sort of a standard gospel tune, And the only thing we’re good for, to be dead or to be living, is the only thing He sees. What we cry, what we contend for, in our world of toil and blood, it all lies beneath the notice of the hacker we call God.

A character in ‘Bleeding Edge’ elaborates on the remark in ‘Inherent Vice’ (2009, set around 1970) that “everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape”:

“(the) Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.

Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should ever get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”

The main character’s two children in the same novel are described near its end as:

…standing just like this, folded in just this precarious light, ready to step out into their peaceable city, still safe from the spiders and bots that one day too soon will be coming for it, to claim-jump it in the name of the indexed world.

And although these lines describe the atmosphere in the wake of 9/11, they may also strike a tone when we reflect on the role of hackers in the recent US election:

…the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.

Pynchon has also been extremely prescient when it comes to environmental questions – “for the living green, against the dead white”. Both that and this come from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ again:

Taking and not giving back, demanding that “productivity” and “earnings” keep on increasing with time, the System removing from the rest of the World these vast quantities of energy to keep its own tiny desperate fraction showing a profit: and not only most of humanity—most of the World, animal, vegetable, and mineral, is laid waste in the process. The System may or may not understand that it’s only buying time. And that time is an artificial resource to begin with, of no value to anyone or anything but the System, which must sooner or later crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life. Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide . . . though he’s amiable enough, keeps cracking jokes back through the loudspeaker . . .

There are, even more than is the case with other Pynchon novels, several genres woven together in ‘Against the Day’. One is time-travel science fiction:

“We are here among you as seekers of refuge from our present—your future—a time of worldwide famine, exhausted fuel supplies, terminal poverty—the end of the capitalistic experiment. Once we came to understand the simple thermodynamic truth that Earth’s resources were limited, in fact soon to run out, the whole capitalist illusion fell to pieces. Those of us who spoke this truth aloud were denounced as heretics, as enemies of the prevailing economic faith. Like religious Dissenters of an earlier day, we were forced to migrate, with little choice but to set forth upon that dark fourth-dimensional Atlantic known as Time.”

There’s a hopeful note in ‘Inherent Vice’:

“The good news is that, like any living creature, Earth has an immune system too, and sooner or later she’s going to start rejecting agents of disease like the oil industry.”

..and its hard to argue with the sentiments expressed by March in ‘Bleeding Edge’:

“Maybe it’s unbeatable, maybe there are ways to fight back. What it may require is a dedicated cadre of warriors willing to sacrifice time, income, personal safety, a brother/sisterhood consecrated to an uncertain struggle that may extend over generations and, despite all, end in total defeat.”

In terms of 9/11, you don’t have to be a puerile internet conspiracy theorist to see that the planes did not fly into the World Trade Center by accident:

“The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market”

“A religious beef, you’re saying?”

“It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s populations–more cheap labor, more addicted consumers.”

…while, in this mood of paranoia which suffuses Pynchon’s fiction, other characters remark:

How could predicting market behaviour be the same as predicting a natural disaster?

“If the two were different forms of the same thing?”

(…)

“No matter how the official narrative of this turns out,” it seemed to Heidi, “these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”

Pynchon is mostly renowned as a writer of conspiracy and paranoia, trying to discern those ‘secret lusts that drive the planet’. In his novels paranoia is a tool that helps us interpret reality. His characters (and therefore we readers) struggle to make sense of, to map reality, and the way in which those efforts conflict with ‘control’, the desire of power to index everything, to turn it (and us) into ‘ones and zeros’. Hence there is a libertarian strain to his work. It’s no accident that rumours spread in the 1970s (partly fuelled by his habit of avoiding journalists) to the effect that he might be the Unabomber. It’s even possible that there are some Pynchon fans who voted for Trump. I hope not. It would go against his respect for our human vulnerabilities and his insistence on holding open the possibility of other realities in the past, present and future.

At a certain point reading Pynchon (and similar literature) compelled me to start writing. Doing so is partly a form of reading more deeply, and also a way of finding others who’ve had the same experience and of trying to persuade more people to read (and think) the same things. What is, after all, the point in my having read these books? What do I do with the knowledge I’ve acquired? I’m privileged to have the time and education to read such books. Reading serious fiction is also a way of taking life more seriously; I know I have a culturally-derived tendency not to do so:

“On this island,” says Yashmeen Halfcourt, “as you will have begun to notice, no one ever speaks plainly. Whether it’s Cockney rhyming codes or the crosswords in the newspapers—all English, spoken or written, is looked down on as no more than strings of text cleverly encrypted. Nothing beyond. Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun,’ for it’s only combinations of letters after all, isn’t it.” (‘Against the Day’)

In the face of life’s single lesson: that there is more accident to it than a man can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane (V.), if you want to learn to understand the world in 2017, need to find (as we all do) an antidote to Trump, and would like to have a huge amount of fun and frustration in the process, read Pynchon. Should you need some help from people who know even more about Pynchon than I do about wasting time writing pointless blogs, listen to the podcast. It’s also huge fun.

 

* I’m also trying hard to avoid thinking about earthquakes.

** ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was set during World War 2 but its relevance to the Vietnam era shouldn’t be underestimated.

*** Incidentally, a propos of nothing, occasionally nobody asks me where the quote at the top of each page is from. It’s from ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’.

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 2

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Please read Part 1 first.

Living in Lisbon I sometimes felt a bit like I’d fallen off the map. On Sunday afternoons in particular the city seemed to be not just sleepy but fast asleep. The atmosphere occasionally put me in mind of Ricardo Reis returning from Brazil to live out his final days in his desolate and listless hometown in José Saramago’s aptly-titled novel ‘The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis’. I also recognised it from the work of Fernando Pessoa himself, in particular his ‘Book of Disquiet’, a part-autobiography of a faceless clerk revelling in his dull quotidian existence, one sweetened by intense daydreaming and a rapt attention to poetic possibility. Around this time I also read Requiem by Antonio Tabucchi, which is similar to the Saramago novel in that it depicts a character drifting round an empty Lisbon on an eternal Sunday afternoon waiting for an appointment with the ghost of Pessoa. I had known about the Portuguese gift for melancholy and fatalism, especially having lived for a year in the cradle of Portuguese nationhood, and had also read an enchanting article on the subject by John Berger (RIP) in The Guardian while working in Dublin in the summer. It was by no means always unpleasant, once one adjusted to the languid rhythm and the solitude.

Melancholy sometimes seems like a national cause in Portugal, one even promoted abroad in the form of countless travel features celebrating saudade. At the turn of the decade the local group Madredeus were heard everywhere, and were even brought to international prominence thanks to their wailing about Alfama in Wim Wender’s 1994 film ‘The Lisbon Story’. Fado, the name of the music they were playing, means ‘fate’. I began to develop a vague notion, partly acquired from those books and others like Saramago’s ‘Memorial do Convento’, partly from Pessoa’s poems and partly from articles I’d read in a special edition of the magazine Granta dedicated to Portugal (one which I had, fittingly, lost) that this atmosphere of apparent stasis was somehow related to history.

To be fatalistic means to accept whatever happens, however sorrowful, as inevitable. In Portugal that means looking back, living as it were in the pluperfect, feeling sad for what had been and mourning its absence. Such a stance seems to have its roots in Portugal’s sudden acquisition and loss of an empire.

It is a historical truism that Portugal had to expand to survive. The idea that the nation had been born with a civilising and christianising mission was no more than a reflection of historical realities. So as not to get subsumed into a bigger entity, Portugal needed to become a bigger and richer country, and so, partly drawn by ancestral legends telling of kingdoms of infinite gold overseas, the Crown invested in navigation. In the space of a single year (1498) Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Vasco da Gama reached India, and 24 years later even those achievements were surpassed by Ferdinand Magellan, who became the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. Portugal wasn’t the only European country seeking to expand but it was ahead of the pack. Millennia of Jewish and Arabic wisdom and technology were put to very good use. The Portuguese reached Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Japan, and set up trading arrangements wherever they went. But it was all too big and too fast. Portugal was too small and too thinly spread to maintain control. They had networks of forts and trading posts but their empire was neither coherent nor centralised and they hadn’t effectively colonised the places they had nominally conquered, so were vulnerable to encroachments from the Spanish, the British and (in particular) the Dutch*.

Contrary to the later propaganda of the Salazar regime, the povo (common people) had little interest in expansion. A trope commonly evoked in Portuguese-speaking culture to decry a defeatist or pessimistic attitude is that of the ‘Old man of Restelo’**, a character in Luis Camões’ 16th century epic of expansion and conquest who condemns the departing expeditions as vain and wasteful. Certainly the Crown ransacked its new territories without building much back home in the way of infrastructure. Instead it spent the money earnt from slaves and silver on baroque palaces and manueline monasteries. The ruling elites also allowed Britain to exploit Portugal’s new wealth, which is why so much of British history and culture comes from or via Portugal. Tea was part of the dowry that came with Queen Catherine of Braganza, and Britain brought Portuguese wine in preference to French for political reasons. It is also partly thanks to Portugal that we have a taste for spices – it is telling that the word ‘vindaloo’ comes from the Portuguese words for wine and garlic. In Britain Portugal had its oldest ally, but the relationship wasn’t always to Portugal’s benefit. Church and crown became phenomenally wealthy but Portugal itself was undeveloped. The fact that nowadays it has just two big cities is a legacy of centuries of failure to build roads and develop internal trade.

The symbolic defeat of the Portuguese empire took place in what is now Morocco, with the death of the royal successor Dom Sebastião (known as ‘The Desired One’***) at the Battle of Alcácer-Quibir. Two years later the Portuguese Crown passed into the hands of Philip II of Spain. This led to a suspension of the alliance with England and a further deterioration in the empire. Although Sebastião was dead, a powerful current arose based on the rumour that he would return one foggy morning, giving Portugal its second birth. The idea that Portugal could still one day fulfill its mission of building the 5th great empire on earth took hold. This movement became known as Sebastianism and had a powerful proponent in Padre António Vieira, a Portuguese preacher in Brazil; it was still very much a theme in Pessoa’s poetry and nowadays when headlines such as this and this appear it is an appeal to Sebastianist sentiment, the idea that Portugal can shake off its past and be reborn.

Another ongoing theme in Portuguese history was that of the Inquisition. According to the historian António Saraiva, the prevalence of this institution can be attributed to the desire of the nobility and church to hold down the emerging mercantile class, which is why Jewish people were persecuted, forced to become ‘new christians’ or leave the country. Some were burnt in Rossio Square. The term ‘auto da fé’ is one that exists in several languages, designating the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates. In addition to the banishment of a whole class of entrepreneurs, Portugal also suffered from a quasi-colonial relationship with England with regard to the trade in wine and cloth. Although Portugal had regained its own crown from Spain in 1640 it was still very dependent on England for commerce and on the colonies for lucrative slaves, spices and precious metals. The ‘enlightened autocrat’ Marquês de Pombal made some progress in challenging the power of the reactionary nobility and the church, reigning in the Inquisition and rationalising the economy. However, the 18th century was also a time of wars with Spain, and colonial gold and silver were beginning to run out.

Then, in 1755, a massive earthquake struck Lisbon (as immortalised by Voltaire in Candide), destroying the city. The following century began with the Napoleonic invasion, at which point the royal family fled to Rio, which briefly became the capital of the empire until, tired of Portugal acting essentially as an intermediary between its products and the European market, it proclaimed Independence in 1822. The 19th century was also a period of civil wars between liberal and conservative factions. Throughout the century huge numbers of people left for Brazil, partly to replace the workers freed at the end of slavery. Emigration was (and continues to be) a constant theme in Portuguese history, with a large proportion of the people always leaving, mostly for South America. Few 18th and 19th century emigrants could be persuaded to move to Africa, with its disease, prison colonies and lack of prospects.

There was always the possibility of union with Spain. In the late 19th century this was seriously mooted as a means of survival. In reaction there was a powerful nationalist movement, based around the 350th anniversary of the restoration of ‘independence’. In fact, several historians have argued convincingly that the accession of João 1 in 1640 was not the result of a popular revolt but merely the change of one lord for another. Nevertheless, the campaign culminated in the erecting of a statue in what became known as Praça dos Restauradores, Restorers’ Square. In 1890, Portugal was humiliated internationally by being forced to give up territory it had claimed but never occupied between Angola and Mozambique. In response it launched a long and brutal campaign to pacify those parts of Africa it did nominally rule over, and there was a wave of nationalist fervour at home, resulting in what one historian called the ‘second foundation’, as it was during this time that the flag, shield, and the national anthem were chosen and the writing system standardised. Then, with the assassination of the King in 1910, a short-lived republic was installed.

Political and economic instability resulted. Fernando Pessoa wrote during this period of:

This dull brilliance of the land
That is Portugal sinking in sadness –
(…)

All is uncertain and ultimate.
All is fragmented, nothing is whole.
Oh Portugal, today you are mist..

If Pessoa thought a saviour was at hand, he wasn’t completely wrong, but it wasn’t anything like the one he’d been dreaming of. In 1926 António Salazar took over, and within a few years he had established the ‘Estado Novo’, the New State. He preached and practised a severe doctrine of austerity and self-reliance. I once asked a Portuguese friend if Salazar had children, and he laughed, explaining that he was ‘kind of a priest’, but he wasn’t the friendly sort, presiding instead over a brutal police state in which political opposition was crushed. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and forced into exile. In the Second World War Portugal was ‘neutral’, but…with benefits.

As for the colonies, they played a powerful ideological role. In classrooms throughout the country for decades there hung a map of Portugal and its colonies coloured in as one country the size of Europe, accompanied by the slogan ‘Portugal is not a small country’. The nature of Salazar’s closed, integrated circle of trade meant that for a period the country was also economically dependent on its colonies. Portugal survived partly by providing raw materials and African workers for South Africa. This gave Portugal currency stability, particularly important as it traded little with other countries. Hence the response of the regime to the outbreak of anti-colonial agitation was ferocious. In 1951 it had declared that all its colonies were now overseas provinces, so it was an existential issue to hang onto them; letting go of them would be like giving up the Algarve. The irony that most of continental Portugal was still not particularly well-connected to the Algarve probably didn’t bother them unduly*****.

Portugal also actively promoted the notion that in its colonies racism had been overcome. It was argued that the Portuguese benefitted from a ‘unique gift for understanding the African’. In fact, from the start of the 20th century a system was in place in Portuguese colonies under which Africans had to qualify as ‘civilised’ by taking an exam. Very few passed and no white settlers were asked to do the same. Nevertheless the respected Brazilian sociologist and father of lusotropicalism Gilberto Freyre accepted an invitation from Salazar to visit Angola, presumably in his dotage and wearing lilac-shaded lentes, and he gave it a clean bill of health, before popping back to Brazil where he was last heard of singing the praises of his own country’s military dictatorship.

The PR effort by the Portuguese could not disguise the ugly reality of the brutal wars it was fighting across all its African ‘provinces’, with significant support from apartheid South Africa. Then, in 1968 Salazar fell off a chair******. The regime pretended he was still in charge for a while and then put someone more hapless in charge. Portugal was effectively freed on April 25th 1974 by its own colonies – a movement of army officers who were no more prepared to fight for a lost cause overthrew the regime overnight. It was already becoming a different country in economic terms. With the overseas-funded growth of the 1960, a new middle class was rapidly developing. Not that political stability had suddenly been achieved, however; there then followed several years of infighting between political forces whose Marxist revolutionary credentials were very quickly proving to have been forged.

For the philosopher-king of Portuguese national identity Eduardo Lourenço, membership of the European Community was the ‘best drug to cure the post-colonial hangover’. Not everyone agreed. In 1986, the year of both Spain and Portugal’s ascension to the EU, lifelong Communist José Saramago published his novel ‘The Stone Raft’, in which the entire Iberian Peninsula floats away, eventually to reposition itself midway between Africa and Latin America.

Perhaps all former colonising and colonised countries share something of this particular mix of melancholy, insecurity, guilt and regret. Like in a bullying relationship, the two sides of the equation are interdependent, defining themselves in relation to one another, and once freed/deprived of that role it’s inevitable that they are forced to face searching questions as to their identity. To quote Eduardo Lourenço again, such countries have to undertake a ‘slow, painful and perhaps impossible reconfiguration of our national mythology’. In the words of Portugal’s King Pedro V:

‘Once we were great, now we’re small. We are still not used to being small, and in the middle of our misery we still want to show off a level of luxury that provokes scorn. Let’s not delude ourselves; let’s look at reality, and let that be our starting point’.

Being from a former imperial power myself, one whose long-standing connection with Portugal has not always been to its advantage, I can see that Portuguese history and the attempts of the Portuguese to come to terms with their past has a lot to teach me. It shames me somewhat that my knowledge of Portuguese history is, although inevitably faulty, better than my understanding of my own*******. Nevertheless, learning about it has been a means of coming to terms with my own history, culture and identity. The British tend to err more on the side of arrogance than melancholy, but they are after all two sides of the same coin. While the Portuguese like to say that the word ‘saudade’ cannot be translated into any other language, I, and I’m sure most other people, find the English term ‘Brexit’ to be equally mystifying. Maybe it means that the UK’s necessary reconfiguration of its national mythology is no longer possible. I do hope not.

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* This is attested by numerous sources on the historical record but as this is a blog and not a history book I will just leave this here.

** See e.g. Dilma.

*** In Portugal all monarchs have nicknames. The English equivalent is not ‘Big Ears’, ‘the one who murdered all his wives’ and ‘that bloke who resigned to spend more time with Mein Kampf’. Incidentally, when José Mourinho called himself ‘the special one’ he must have been thinking in pretty grandiose terms.

**** In fact I just googled Ronaldo and Sebastião and I found this page by someone who is clearly, as the Portuguese say, madder than Batman.

***** I met people in Guimarães who told me that when they were kids it took two days to reach the Algarve and five hours to reach Porto.

****** As described in excruciating detail by Saramago in his you-had-to-be-there short story ‘The Chair’.

******* With regard to any inaccuracies please contact the Master’s tutors in the Portuguese Studies Department of King’s College London, ‘cos it’s them who taught me all this stuff.

Part 3

Lisbon: Postcolonial Melancholy, Part 1

1000px-panorama_of_alfama_lisboa_from_belvedere_portas_do_sol_on_2014-11-08In a previous life, I lived in Lisbon. I’d already decided it was my favourite city before I’d even set foot there, and in some ways – although I’d never want to go and live there again – it still is. 

I’d found the town I’d been living in up north very pretty but culturally and socially moribund. Most of the young people seemed to dress exactly like their parents and the more interesting ones were straining to escape and didn’t understand what I was doing there. Arriving for an exploratory visit to the capital in spring 2000, I climbed up from Santa Apolónia station to the ramshackle medieval labyrinth of Alfama, on the foothills that led up to the Castle. There was something about the light across the river which I found immediately beguiling and the intricate layout of the alleyways intrigued me. The city felt like it had been built on water.

Within a few days of moving there later that year I had my own 5th-floor cabin on the edge of Alfama, with dentists chairs and a view across the Tejo to Alameda. I had decided to take the place at first glance because when I had looked out of the window on my first visit there was a group of caravels lighting up the river. My flatmate was a sombre and taciturn Mexican restaurant manager who spent his days off “buying soap” (there were indeed two drawers full of the stuff in the kitchen) and sobbing along to Celine Dion. On my first weekend, mortifyingly hungover after meeting and greeting my new teaching colleagues in Carcavelos (I recall that the police were called at some point), I stumbled down in the glaring sunshine to Campo das Cebolas, where my new Mexican friend took one look at me and handed me a michelada. He may well have saved my life. For the rest of the day I floated round the deserted city, feeling like I was on a magic carpet and wondering just what was in that drink. I ended up entranced in the cinema before a random Portuguese film called ‘Peixe Lua’ (Moon Fish). It opened with a orchestrated panoramic swoop across the river and up towards the castle and then descended into a lush and more-than-a-little-silly tale of cross-border love triangles, implausible bullfighters and Cordoban gypsies. Over the next four years I would occasionally oblige friends to watch the film with me but, like a movie seen on a late-night flight, it had little earthbound appeal.

When I went back in 2010 and 2013 I was disappointed and surprised to see that so many places I knew, shops, bars and restaurants that I had assumed had been and would be there forever, were gone. Years later I would read up on our ingrained tendency to essentialise other societies, to assume that whatever we see abroad is unchanging, eternal. A staple subject in English language coursebooks is just how happy everyone is in Bhutan. EFL teachers do have something of the eternal tourist along with (if you’re not careful) the worldview of a minor colonial administrator. Plus, of course, the lifestyle of a part-time alcoholic.

Fitting, then, that one of my favourite places (which, also fittingly, no longer exists) should be a bar, the Estrela d’Alfama, a tiny daytime place on Rua de São Miguel run by my hilarious English colleague Steve and his mordantly deadpan Finnish wife Jaana. It was one of the few times in my life when I felt I was inside a soap opera. Alfama sometimes seemed like a village. Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and there were some who very rarely left. The area is often romanticised but there is a lot more to it than picturesque charm – it seemed resistant to any attempts at what I now think of as trasteverisation. My fellow timewasters included João, a local lothario whose job, we eventually figured out, consisted of tiptoeing round shopping centres stealing fire extinguishers, Sauri, another Finn with a gift for intricate wood carvings and mammoth vodka benders, and Joanna, an English colleague who could swoop from the most staggering heights of charm, wit and eloquence to the deepest canyons of inebriated truculence with the speed of a severely liver-damaged peregrine falcon. There were also men who had spent twenty years or so working in northern Europe on building sites and then returned exhausted to look after ailing parents, but whereas their counterparts from the north had spent their savings building the kinds of pink bungalows you see dotting the hills of the Minho and the Douro, they invested all they had in tiny bottles of Sagres and Superbock called minis. Thanks to such characters I learnt that anyone who drinks non-alcohol lager and is not pregnant at the time is a late-stage alcoholic. (Around this time I also figured out that someone drinking Cerveja Martini at 10am is probably an English teacher). In previous generations my fellow drinkers would probably have stayed in Alfama and worked on the docks, but such work had dried up and despite their often impressive command of spoken languages they didn’t have the education required to get jobs in the new economy. Some of the regulars were amazed that I could read newspapers of which they would struggle to get past the headlines. I tried to impress upon them the nature and extent of my good luck in having being born in a country which had had the foresight to impose its language on the world, which meant that my choice of livelihood, unlike theirs, had not depended on my ability to master other languages. But they insisted I must be some sort of genius. Nem por isso, I protested to little avail.

Often a despondent atmosphere prevailed, but everyone would cheer up such as when there was a big football championship on or some fado singers would turn up. Every June 12 was the festival of San António, prepared for months in advance, when the whole of Alfama would colourfully carouse on sangria and sardines and I would dig out my rusty bartending skills. In mid-2001 I moved up to the more rarified environs of Príncipe Real, to Rua da Palmeria, my own overfurnished deathtrap-wired bolthole. A Brazilian friend, the partner of the then Canadian Ambassador, who lived in a place with three bathrooms and (I seem to recall) eight balconies, described it as ‘aconchegante’. I looked it up; it means ‘cosy’. Back down in Alfama Jaana displayed very great fortitude in the face of provocation of local drunks, while I spent what now seems like several months at a time looking out of the door waiting for my friends, or anyone who spoke Spanish, to show up. One day it was two comedians: David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, who were ‘researching’ their new football show by walking round in the sunshine coming up with ‘improvised’ repartee. I joined in their bantering for a while but sadly they didn’t immediately offer to include me in any future projects. I also met a Chicagan taxi-driver who, when I asked him where he was from, responded by accurately guessing which part of Sheffield I had been brought up in. On another occasion me and my friend Andrew met a monolingual German couple who dragged us down to the local Irish pub to see Germany play England. We found it packed with British sailors, and it was only from Horst’s belligerently overjoyed reaction to Germany’s goal that I finally realised mit Hindsight und ein bisschen Angst that the hilarious football anecdotes he was loudly regaling me with mostly involved acts (his) of partisan violence. Luckily England then scored five times in quick succession, so the filthy looks and muttered abuse from the sailors began to taper off and the Schadenfreude of my new hooligan friend turned into a more incoherent and thus less life-jeopardising kind of Freude.

Meanwhile the world changed. In March 2001 the country was aghast to witness the sudden collapse of a bridge in the north of the country. Several cars and an entire coachload of local people plunged into the river. They were on their way back from an excursion to see the spring blossoming of cherry trees. It was soon discovered that local companies had been extracting the sand surrounding the pillars of the bridge; the whole country was outraged and then increasingly resigned. There was general agreement that in the rest of Europe such a thing could never happen.

Six months later I was walking into work for a lunchtime class when one of the more security guards told me out of the blue ‘é todo culpa tua!‘ – ‘it’s all your fault’, and when I responded with bafflement said something to do with some planes and the Empire State Building. I presumed he’d been drinking on the job, which was not unusual; it would indeed have been perfectly understandable. The euro came in and I got into debt for no reason at all. I got my first ADSL line and celebrated by staying awake for six whole months cheating at Championship Manager. Those Chinese shops which had been a novelty in Dublin became more ubiquitous. I made friends with people from more salubrious areas of the city and from less stable and/or prosperous parts of the world. Together we watched in dismay as Portugal’s golden generation threw a World Cup tantrum and stomped off in tears. In Jaana’s bar one constant refrain accompanied any change for the worse, from falling bridges to football punch-ups to rising prices: Tem que ser, pá: that’s just the way it is, man.

What’s that all about?, I thought.

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Part 2

Rome: The Streets Where We Live

sin-tituloI was tickled to see that someone on Tripadvisor had described the restaurant immediately underneath our flat as being in an ‘absolutely insignificant quarter of the city’. The area may not have a name as such (we have to describe it using a series of awkward coordinates) or any singular identity but it is of significance to us for two reasons: one, there’s the fact that we live here, and two, that it embodies certain tendencies and pressures both global and local*.

Take, for instance, that restaurant. It’s become quite popular of late partly by virtue of its very good rating on Tripadvisor (and/or the other way round). It also attracts quite a few foreigners, a lot of whom may well be staying locally. There’s now something which calls itself a ‘guesthouse’ in our building, but no hotels nearby. I attribute the presence of those tourists to (and I presume the guesthouse is part of) Airbnb. Will Self once remarked that most inhabitants of London don’t actually live in London itself, but rather on the map of underground stations. In a similar way, nowadays most tourists visit a Google Maps version of a city: sleeping in Airbnb homestays, eating in Tripadvisor restaurants, getting driven round by Uber**. A recent report on the effects of Airbnb in Amsterdam mentioned established local businesses getting pushed out by new concerns catering to tourists such as bike rental shops, so it’s not by chance that one has just opened up right across the street from us. To be fair, those tourists do need some way of getting around, given that Uber barely exists in Italy and the public transport system appena funziona. Finding a normal taxi in Rome often feels like getting your hands on something to smoke in an unfamiliar city: you have to hang about in particular places and hope you get lucky, or try to get hold of the number of someone who might be able to supply you with one. At least our area is more or less within walking distance of Trastevere, a much more Woody Allen part of town altogether.

In terms of local changes, it’s noteworthy that the restaurant itself used to (until about two years ago) be a Jewish one. Although I don’t know its history, there’s certainly a community centred on our street, with two butchers and a bakery on the other side of the road. It reminds me of the few weeks in the summer that I spent staying near to the huge Orthodox Jewish colony of Stamford Hill. It struck me as curious that the Orthodox people and the other locals rarely acknowledged each other. Those few interactions I had – looking for directions, asking to get past people on the bus – felt kind of encouraging. Although rumours abound in London about what the Orthodox community gets up to behind closed doors, peaceful coexistence is based on letting other people get on with their lives rather than bashing down doors in case someone’s doing something you could enjoy getting annoyed about. Racism itself is becoming conditioned by the intrusive habits and prurient morés of online life. It seems so easy to resolve conflicts and differences on the internet: you just call people names and it instantly feels like the world’s a better place. In offline reality respectful distance is the basis of civilised accord.

It sometimes seems as if anti-semitism is bubbling away, just beneath the surface, everywhere you look. Just beneath our apartment is a shop run by a guy from Bangladesh. This also feels like home from home; I used to live in a bit of Bangladesh, in Whitechapel to be exact. However, while almost all Bangladeshis in East London come from a tiny part of the country called Sylhet, most here seem to be from Dhaka. The proprietor of the shop works extremely long hours, and is tired of it. He wants to go to London, and he wants to know if there is any way I can help him. He got 5.5 in IELTS ten years ago and he used to work as a pizzaiolo. It’s hard to see how he might get a visa. After ten years here he finds Italy ‘disgusting’. Why doesn’t he like the country any more? my wife asked him once. ‘Because there are too many Jews’, was his rather startling response. Not a great move. Now we choose to shop elsewhere.

Although they might not welcome his support, he may have something in common with the local fascists. A couple of years ago there was a sudden local spate of far-right graffiti and posters against ‘usury’. I recently came across some graffiti from the teenage fascist collective Casapound reading ‘respect the hero, not the refugee’. This seems to be something of a trope on the far-right. They worship violent sacrifice and martyrdom in much the same way as their jihadi counterparts in the Middle East. Both are puerile Valhalla-worshpping death cults. Last December, in one of my proudest moments, I tore down and disposed of a huge fascist poster stuck up next to our local bus stop spreading the standard lies about immigrants getting precedence over local people in housing and healthcare. Then we got on the bus and went to the Museum of Liberation, which focuses exclusively on the Nazi occupation of the city. In Italy there is a keen distinction made between nazis and fascists. In some circles calling oneself a fascist is almost respectable, or at least it doesn’t have the same stigma as nazifascista, which applies only to the German forces. I recently read a book by a prominent US historian of fascism who argued that the Italian version wasn’t nearly as bad and had more in common with Mao’s China than Hitler’s Germany. I find this dubious – such arguments are destined to give succour and credibility to the contemporary far-right.

‘Nationalism is an easy illusion’. That’s what’s written in huge letters on a nearby railway bridge, more or less where Garbatella begins. This area was built during Mussolini but it houses a radical tradition, with lots of squats putting on politically-inspired music events. Just to the south there is the vast district of EUR, also inaugurated by Mussolini as a showcase for fascist architecture; Bertolucci used it to very great effect in Il Conformista. It does have some remarkable and not at all unpleasant-to-look-at buildings, such as the Square Colosseum. Nevertheless, things seem to get poorer and grubbier as you follow the main arteries further south, and the new far-right is keen to take advantage of popular discontent. I recently saw a news report about a squatted social centre in EUR being turfed out by ‘local’ people repeating the usual lies about immigrants. Also beginning just around the corner from us is Via Magliana. This area of the city gave the city the Magliana gang, which appeared to be dormant until about two years ago when a huge scandal broke, centring on the figure of Massimo Carminati. He boasted that his mafia operation was making far more money from running refugee centres than it does from dealing drugs. The investigation revealed a level of murkiness in the distribution of public money that most hoped was a thing of the past. The whole affair reminds me, once again, of Mexico. The fact that the new Mayor, Virginia Raggi, seems to be feeling the unexpected strain of her job may be part of a deliberate design to teach her who really runs the city. Two months ago she lamented that Rome is ‘full’ and can take no more migrants, and then a week later made a laudable statement attacking a gang of racists in a deprived part of town for trying to exploit the housing crisis for their own ends. In the meantime, a series of transport strikes have combined with the ongoing garbage collection crisis to create a sense of impending municipal doom.

There is a vibrancy to this area which is partly attributable to the presence of immigrants. When I first visited in 2012 we popped into the haberdashers to get keys made and I found out that the guy I thought was Sicilian turned out to be from Egypt. I feel comfortable speaking Italian with other foreigners. The lingua franca is Imperfect Italian. There seems to be a sense of shared experience despite my evident privilege. One common sight on Italian streets is recent (and sometimes not so recent) immigrants selling books. There appears to be a whole publishing industry based on these street sales, and over the years the quality of the publications has improved considerably. They sell illustrated children’s stories (which will soon come in handy) along with recipe books and some excellent volumes of African poetry.

The Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous used our district as the setting for one of his novels. His books are always pleasurable and easy to read despite the abundance of new and old Italian slang. He presents a laudable defence of multiculturalism without flinching from the difficulties, with terrorism and the suspicion it generates an ever-present background. The world he describes is one I catch glimpses of, one of overcrowded apartments and constant anxiety about renewing one’s permesso di soggiorno (residence permit). One of the largest groups of recent immigrants is from Bangladesh, and they tend to be the ones you see in tourist places selling selfie sticks, luminous flying things and mobile accessories. Like the goods sold on the Metro in Mexico city it’s hard to find out how the goods are distributed. I asked my Bangladeshi hairdresser but he didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Visiting his shop is a cheap if not always cheerful experience. The first time I was there I had my hair cut by an Afghan who spoke no Italian, the second time it was the owner, who has been here for three years. I soon felt guilty about favourably comparing my Italian to his. His first year or two years in Italy were spent working in agriculture in Apuglia, which is apparently not exactly a bucolic idyll.  Before that he had been stuck for months in Libya, before managing to escape with hundreds of others on a boat designed for dozens. It’s tempting to call him one of the lucky ones but I wouldn’t swap my luck for his.

In addition to a local Chinese shop selling useful plastic tat, on the corner of the street there is a coffee bar run by cheerful second-generation Chinese people who seem to speak better roman dialect than the locals (after all, they are locals). It’s a very popular place to hangout, read the paper and argue and also doubles up as a gambling emporium. Although betting shops are becoming more prevalent in Italy, they are more subtly woven into the urban fabric than they are in the UK, and are easily confused for normal cafés. There may well be a link between their increasing number and the amount of people begging on Viale Marconi, outside the hundreds of shops selling expensive baby accessories and the dozens of french fries outlets that have sprung up in a sign that globalisation and austerity may be doing permanent damage to the Italian diet. There are also signs of gentrification, such as the brand new and very swish birreria just around the corner and the artisan beer shop on our street. Given that I am, in theory at least, its perfect customer and I’ve never been in there or seen anyone buying anything, I don’t know how it survives. However, Mexico taught me that just because somewhere doesn’t have any customers doesn’t mean it’s not…solvent. So chi lo sa.

Some tourists come to our area to go to Saint Paolo’s Basilica, in whose café I’m sitting as I write this. Since December 2015 it has been under very heavy guard, with armoured vehicles and fully-armed and camouflaged soldiers outside. The church is of huge historical and religious significance as it houses the remains of St Paul. You could fit several ordinary-sized cathedrals inside it and still have room for one or two smaller basilicas. I used to use it as a soulful shortcut to get to the metro station, but the experience of passing through a metal detector with a machine gun pointed at your feet is guaranteed to shush any spiritual siren calls that were beckoning you in.

To get to the Basilica and the Metro station you have to cross the river. At some not-quite-conscious level I’m always contemplating bridges and rivers and the relationship between the two. Along the Tiber you can walk all the way into the centre. On the other side of the river, towards the working class district of Testaccio, with its former gasworks and warehouse clubbing scene, you see signs of gypsy encampments amidst the overgrown foliage.

Like most areas of Rome our district has its share of dog shit**, graffiti, broken glass and smashed-up pavements. This is not a part of Rome that Penélope Cruz or Jesse Eisenberg will be spotted in any time soon. I haven’t written about many of the delightful things that this area and Rome in general have to offer, its restaurants and gelaterias and galleries and bookshops. I didn’t want to (and I probably wouldn’t know how to) write an Eat-Pray-Love-style elegy in which I boast of the tiny pleasures of sipping on a perfectly-formed cappuccino and nibbling at a melt-in-your-mouth cornetto in a picturesque Roman piazza while reading Dante in the original language. But there is much of significance on any street and I hope I’ve given something of a sense of what it’s like for this individual (me) to be living in this part of Rome at this particular moment in its immensely complex history and some suggestion of what it must be like for those less blessed with good fortune than myself.

 

* I’ve only been living here since September 2016 but me and my wife had already been visiting regularly since 2012.

** I’m aware of the irony of writing about this on the internet.

*** Mind you if you really want to see some dog shit the place to go is Via Vaiano near La Magliana. Mamma mia.

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Mérida: Language learning, native speakers and red phone boxes

untitled-design-13-1170x611One of my roles in life involves testing the English language to make sure it’s working properly. It’s in this capacity that I get to fly down to Mérida for a few days, eat sopa de lima and cochinita pibil in nice restaurants, and pay a visit to an excellent language school. It’s easy to find because it has a red phone box outside. Everyone I meet there is friendly and seems competent. The owners (both English, in their thirties) greet and chat to the students as they arrive; they seem to know their names and both speak very good Spanish. As for the teachers, they are young, cheerful, and seem to be mostly English.

The school, which goes by the name of the London Academy and has been open for around two years, is “the only British language school in Mérida with 100% qualified British teachers that offers a true British cultural experience”. The images on the walls show cool young people enjoying themselves in London. It’s unlike a lot of  ‘British’ schools I’ve worked at in the past in that there’s a refreshing lack of photos of Beefeaters and the Royal Family and the atmosphere is by no means austere and reserved as it is in some anglophone learning environments. Entering the school I worked at for several years in Lisbon was like going to the dentists: staid, forbidding and snobbish. The school in Mérida is selling an updated version of the UK. It certainly needs to stand out, because there are a lot of schools in that particular suburb. When I walk round the block I count another four. Some seem to be part of chains and most are selling themselves on cost: low prices, discounts if you pay upfront for online classes and year-long courses.
img_4676Ultimately it’s a question of marketing. What the London Academy is selling is a tourist experience. For the students (or at least for their parents) the school is a corner of a foreign field. They will be immersed in the classroom in an English-only environment with a representative of the target culture. What the teachers get is a reasonably-paid job and an experience of living abroad, one which gives them the chance to learn some of the language and, if they’re lucky, become friends, or possibly very good friends*, with some of the locals. Nowadays in the world of English language teaching this is quite a retro model. It is based on the promotion of the assumption that the teacher is a monolingual native speaker with no or little knowledge of the host culture. Bringing a new cohort of teachers over every year is very expensive at a time when there is more competition from schools which use other images and associations to promote the learning of English.

There also seems to be a growing recognition that the language study trips abroad business is similarly a branch of tourism. The school I worked at for several years in London has just been bought up by a language travel organisation. It is true that there is no easier environment to learn and teach in. The students get some experience of interacting in an English-speaking setting and they also make English-language friendships with each other. This doesn’t mean that they start watching Eastenders and spend every night down the rub-a-dub. Rather they bond over their dislike of the food, the absurd rents they have to pay and the hangovers they picked up (and the fellow students they didn’t) in bars and clubs where most other customers (and the staff) are also there to improve their English. This is perfectly natural; after all, on holiday, you tend to make friends with other tourists rather than the locals. Some students do arrive with the impression that it’s all about becoming “English” (which is a useful marketing illusion), but they soon knuckle down to the more important and less confusing task of developing an English-speaking life. It’s far more important for Mehmet, who lives in Istanbul and deals with Chinese people on the phone, to understand Wei Wei from Shandong than it is for him to understand what Russell Brand says**. As for the teacher, their job largely involves creating a environment conducive to social and cultural exchange, with their role a mix of tour guide, cultural mediator, facilitator and occasional counsellor.
img_3197Sadly, thanks to a combination of international competition in the education market, arbitrary and ill-thought-out changes to visa rules and the global economic situation, the language school industry in the UK (and London in particular) has taken a hammering over the last few years, with very well-established places going to the wall and the survivors getting snapped up by international concerns. It is also possible that over the next few years the international marketing of British English by institutions such as the British Council will encounter difficulties in a world which no longer views Britain as vibrant, mobile and welcoming but rather as insular, hostile and closed. Whereas most marketing of English courses tends to sell an image of mobility – in the words of an advert I saw recently, ‘Where can you go if you don’t know English?’ – all this talk of shutting borders is designed and destined to do permanent damage to one of the very remaining industries which the UK still dominates.

Another major change in the world of English language teaching is a shift away from the notion that native speakers automatically make better language teachers. That’s not to say that the assumption is by any means dead. Browsing websites advertising teaching jobs in Mexico recently I was shocked by the number of ads looking for ‘native speakers’ and specifying ‘no experience necessary’. I’d imagine that most people learning a language would want a teacher with experience. But the rationale for this never was pedagogical. Again, it’s more to do with marketing, to the extent that one term commonly used in China for a foreign teacher is ‘dancing monkey’. Anyone ‘foreign’ will do as long as they don’t have a Chinese face or name. 
globalhelpswap-a-guide-to-merida-5There seems to be growing acceptance nowadays that the best attribute a teacher can have is the ability to teach, regardless of where they happen to have been born. The spread of English as a lingua franca has led to a growing recognition that it does not ‘belong’ to any one national group. Indeed, it helps to have consciously learnt the language you’re teaching. Having done so gives the teacher insights into the learning experience which allow them to give their students shortcuts and to identify potential pitfalls and misunderstandings. Non-native teachers also make more realistic role models, as the old joke about an English learner saying that when he grows up he wants to be a native speaker acknowledges. Plus it’s also true that a ‘native’ level of English is not a desirable goal. In international settings it is often British, American and Australians who have most difficulty making themselves understood, given their reliance on irony and idioms which may be lost on people who don’t share their cultural background. The trend is partly driven by economic changes – although native speakers are more profitable, non-native teachers are cheaper – but it has a positive effect as better teachers find it easier to get work.

The notion of ‘native speaker’ is problematic in any case. I’m one of them, yet there are lots of lots of ‘foreigners’ who use(d) ‘my’ language better than I do: Conrad, Nabokov, Zizek and Varoufakis all spring immediately to mind. My Italian wife writes things in her job that are much better than anything I could produce***. The idea that a ‘native speaker’ is an exemplary model has given way to a focus on proficient, competent or expert speakers. Similarly, the category of ‘mother tongue’ speaker does not take account of people who grew up speaking one language at home and another at school. Ultimately, nation state and language are just not a very good fit, especially in relation to English.
mexican-colorful-serapeI myself found out quickly in Portugal many years ago that in a monolingual EFL classroom it’s the monolingual teacher who has problems expressing what they want, especially when dealing with teenagers. Students know their own culture and can communicate perfectly well with each other. Hence they can run rings round a teacher who has little training and almost no experience of inspiring learning and imposing discipline. Such a relationship depends partly on the personality of the teacher and partly on their ability to assert their authority over the language on the basis of their national identity. Anyone who has taught in such a context will recognise the frustrations described by George Orwell in his story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘. It is all too common for fledgling (and sometimes veteran) EFL teachers to develop the attitude of a colonial policeman and to dismiss the ‘natives’ as lazy, stupid “evil-spirited little beasts” who are out to “make (your) job impossible”.

This doesn’t mean that teaching and learning is impossible in such a context but where it does take place it tends to be by accident. My own ‘teaching journey’ has taught me that any meaningful educational experience has to be based on cultural exchange. Every teacher who sticks at it works out eventually that if you’re not learning, you’re not teaching. The model I’ve been describing is about trying to impose one identity on another. What must take place instead is a recognition and validation of each others’ identities. This involves drawing on the students’ expert knowledge of their language, their experiences, expertise and social roles rather than dismissing all of the above and relying instead on a combination of communication games, bullying and luck.
2dd6318a70b4c4c1ae32371699eec48eI would like therefore to put forward five suggestions for roles that EFL teachers can usefully adopt in a monolingual teaching/learning environment:

1. The students’ knowledge of their own language is an essential classroom resource. This means that both the teacher and the students sometimes need to play the role of translators. It also implies a ceding of control and a certain amount of humility on the part of the teacher. My students know their own languages better than I do and sometime meanings have to be negotiated and dictionaries referred to. This has the advantage of reflecting real language use; in any given human interaction where more than one language is involved discussions over corresponding forms, functions and meanings are ever-present and sometimes other authorities have to be invoked. Clearly there are activities where this is not appropriate, and the teacher needs to establish when and why only the target language should be used. In a cooperative environment with purposeful activities students will be happy to go along with this.

2. Tip number 1. implies that the teacher should speak or be learning the language of their students. There are, bizarrely, language teachers who have no experience of learning another language or who have never done so successfully. Such teachers are not able to understand and relate to the frustrations and ritual humiliations their students are exposing themselves to. Several times in my teaching career I have been put on the spot by a student asking me to perform a task I have asked them to do. Such experiences have helped me to reflect on how useful and how ‘doable’ the activity I’m imposing is. Once, with a class of Italian teenagers who were traumatised by the prospect of their Trinity Exam, I did the task myself in very imperfect Italian, getting them to play the role of examiners. A light bulb went on. They realised that they didn’t need to be completely fluent and that it was fine to make mistakes as long as they basically made themselves understood. They all went on to pass the exam. In order to be a teacher you also need to be a learner. This is a role no teacher should ever stop playing; there are always new things to learn.

3. If you are teaching in another country you are also a model of someone immersed, out of their depth, occasionally thrown in at the deep end, experiencing anxiety, and sometimes losing face. Your ability to articulate these feelings and reflect on those experiences in English will be better than that of your students****. This involves drawing on your own experiences.  This paragraph itself could generate a very useful lesson for students struggling to articulate their own experiences with the language. It doesn’t mean that the teacher is an exemplary language learner but as someone who learns and also thinks about language a lot you do have insights to offer.

4. A teacher needs most of all to be a teacher, with a range of approaches and techniques to suit each particular class. Hence our role is not that of an oracle on our language and culture. Both students and teachers have gaps in their knowledge of the world. That is fine. A classroom can be a very useful place to identify things that we don’t know and to figure out how we can find out. It very often happens that I learn new things in English*****, and when that happens I point it out to my students. As a language teacher I know that some students fail to understand that one’s command of a language is never total. Pointing it out by using yourself as an example helps students to recognise that their English need not and can not ever be ‘perfect’. I am there in the classroom because of my teaching experience and ability, and not as a proxy for the Queen or for Cambridge University.

5. Teachers should also facilitate sharing of emotional experiences. We can help the students visualise their learning experience and identify specific examples of progress. One excellent way to do this is to explore learning metaphors: are they on a journey, climbing a mountain, working out in a gym, hanging out with some friends once a week? In tackling such themes the teacher is playing the role of a counsellor. In order for this to be effective the teacher needs to work constantly on creating an encouraging and forgiving environment based on an ethic of cooperation rather than on shaming people who make mistakes.

peninsula-de-yucatan-mexico-extreme-tourism-with-outdoor-diving-adventure-29These tips are written with the teaching of English in mind. Some of them also apply to other languages. For example, I can’t say that the list of characteristics of various French supermarkets I spent ninety minutes learning in an intermediate French class a few years ago has helped me a great deal when talking to recent Senegalese immigrants in Rome. The same applies to Spanish and to an extent Portuguese; there’s not much point learning to lithp or to use o senhor appropriately when you’re off to live in Mexico or Brazil. Some other-language courses I’ve encountered have confused language competence and grammatical knowledge, with little room for error and a very narrow definition of success. The teaching of English does have something to offer language teaching in general given that there is simply more practise and research taking place.

It’s different with, say, German, Italian, Japanese or Finnish, since almost all speakers of these languages are from those countries or have spent time there. Then learning things like the names of personalities and radio advertising jingles is important. At the moment I live in Italy, where what hinders my comprehension most is a lack of knowledge of the (admittedly very complex) culture. It is, however, only one of many possible experiences. In past I’ve tended to assume that my own learning experiences are the only or the ultimate model, which is clearly not the case.
590Several years ago in London there was a best-selling book/CD for English language learners called ‘Get Rid Of Your Accent‘. The cover featured a woman who looked like Agatha Christie and sounded like Lord Reith’s elocutionist. As David Crystal points out, learners do need a pronunciation role model but the notion there is one way of speaking is absurd. People certainly need to have a command of Standard English, but in a globalised world intelligibility is the main issue. The same goes for local varieties of grammar. A former colleague used to teach his newly-arrived elementary students to ask everyone they met “What do you do work-wise?”, a question guaranteed to draw a blank look from Akiko from Kyoto. It can be useful to teach students to understand local accents in questions like ‘wotjado?’ and ‘naamean?’, but it’s pointless and unfair to ask them to speak in that way. Sometimes over the years my lessons have been about making students talk just like me. That, to briefly use a particularly British English term, is bollocks.598434_10151531054831548_111665811_n

* In some cases, very many very close friends.

** Mind you, there’s a wonderful story about teaching TEFL from the man himself here.

*** This is not meant to suggest that I have a number of wives from different countries. Maybe I should ask her how to rephrase it to make it more clearer.

**** If it isn’t, you may have wandered into an INSET session by mistake.

***** Such as how to spell ‘bizarrely’.

Puebla: Clowns, Trains and Antorchistas

dsc_1022In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.dsc_0791Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.dsc_0830

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dsc_0835We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.dsc_0887

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dsc_0892I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.dsc_0893The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.dsc_0932

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dsc_0998Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.dsc_0897It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more.dsc_0900 I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.

Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport.  I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.

Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.

dsc_1045We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists. dsc_1039

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dsc_1034Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. dsc_0166In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.dsc_1058It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.

Oaxaca: Tourism, Tlayudas and Terrorist Teachers

naI don’t know how many German-speaking branches of Neurotics Anonymous there are outside the Bundesrepublik. There’s probably a couple in Austria, and possibly a Geriaticneurotikenanonymous in Paraguay, but that’s beside the Punkt. We were surprised to find one in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a moment I was tempted to go entlag to one of their meetings, but I was visiting the city on holiday with my wife, herein known as Ch, who, despite my very best efforts, does not sprechen sie Deutsch, and in any case mein Volkabeln isn’t quite up to the Mark. Plus I’m not neurotic. Wirklich.dsc_0934Everybody loves Oaxaca. The first thing that Mexicans talk about whenever the place is mentioned is the food, which is indeed delicious and hard to find good versions of elsewhere. Mole is the most iconic dish – it’s actually a family of dishes of immense complexity. Coloradito, the one most associated with Oaxaca and also the most picante, is made with 36 ingredients, including chocolate, chillies, fruit, nuts, spices of various kinds, pumpkin seeds and about, er, 28 other things. Vanesa, a Oaxacan friend of Ch’s who we met up with in Mexico City shortly after we arrived, got very excited when telling us about all the eating we’d be able to do on our holiday, and then very angry when she moved on to tell us about los maestros – the teachers. Of whom more later.

Oaxaca (pronounced waHAca) is the name of both the city and the state. The latter is vast, and cut in half by mountains. After we leave the city it takes us 12 hours by bus to get to Puerto Escondido on the coast and it’s only 85 miles mientras el cuervo vuela. The rugged terrain isolates communities, which means that Oaxaca is the country’s most ethnically diverse state, with an indigenous population of 48% (mostly Zapotec and Mistec), the second highest in Mexico after the Mayan Peninsula, where most of the population are…Welsh (just testing). corbyn2A wander around the Museum of Culture testifies to this. ‘Oaxacan’ culture unifies all sorts of traditions with their own belief systems, cultural artifacts and artisan technologies. The many local markets and the makeshift stalls spread on the ground in the town’s squares by people from often distant villages show off handcrafted and painted wooden sculptures called alebrijes, and intricately woven and brightly dyed tapetes, huipiles, sarapes and the ubiquitous rebozos. Some of these artefacts we have seen elsewhere in Mexico, but we get something of a surprise on entering the adjacent church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when we see an image of someone we recognise from home (see photo). It’s by no means the only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Mexico. His wife, Laura Álvarez, is a human rights lawyer who also runs a business importing chocolate made by indigenous communities. Little else is known about her (except, presumably, by him), so it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that she did some sort of deal over local produce and insisted that a stained-glass window image of her husband be installed as part of the agreement. Certainly there is no shortage of chocolate and chocolate products on sale in the UNESCO-approved colonial centre, along with hundreds of varieties of mezcal, of which I sadly only get to try about half.

In the Zócalo (the main town square) most of the people selling things seem to be of indigenous origin, and so do most of the people protesting. The centre of the plaza has been turned into an Occupy-style camp. These are the famous teachers. I’m still trying to clarify what the situation is with them as their activities inspire a considerable amount of revulsion and rage amongst Mexicans I’ve met elsewhere. Reading their banners and the sheets they’ve hung up setting out their case and briefly chatting with some of them helps to make things clearer. Their movement, led by the dissident teachers’ union CNTE, has been fighting for decades for decent wages and proper schools and over the years their struggle has to some extent become instituionalised, particularly under the leadership of the phenomenally controversial Elba Esther Gordillo. One key date in the long history (detailed here) was May 2006, when police fired on striking teachers in Oaxaca. This led to a seven-month state of siege in the city. State forces unleashed massive repression, which to some extent continues – police vehicles armed with enormous machine guns are a regular sight around the city centre – and was stepped up in response to furious protests after 43 poor indigenous students from the neighbouring state of Guerrero were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the army in September 2014. More recently teachers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas have been striking and protesting against President Peña Nieto’s asinine education reforms, which seem partly designed to provoke and destroy the unions; they also attempt to sabotage the carrying-out of elections by attacking and burning polling stations, and very regularly sequester road-toll booths and block major highways. It is this kind of action which enrages locals like Vanesa, who are simply unable to go about their daily lives as a result. I sympathise with the frustration of people like her – I have never had to live with such massive and constant disruption. But I also grew up in a country with a decent school system where there were properly-remunerated teachers, plentiful materials and classrooms with roofs. Plus I’m aware that at least some of the opprobrium towards the teachers is at least related to racism; that certainly has been the case among members and supporters of successive national governments. This is one of those issues on which I have to bow to the greater wisdom of people who properly live in Mexico.justiceSo, Oaxaca is a complex place. Maybe a third eye would help make sense of things. In the market I buy a t-shirt featuring an image of Maria Sabina, the Queen of Mushrooms. She became an international celebity in the 1960s, attracting seekers of ancestral cosmic wisdom such as (it was rumoured) Dylan, Lennon, Jagger and Richards. She herself wasn’t impressed by the hordes of new arrivals. She was a curandera, for whom the point of taking psilocybins was not to find the divine but to heal sickness. Although we don’t visit her dsc_0616village, it is still on the tourist trail – every time I wear the t-shirt over the next few months, from Havana to Angkor Wat, I receive masonic nods and winks from those who share my apparent knowledge of arcane hallucinogenic rituals. We do, however, end up taking a trip: a bus excursion to Monte Albán to look at Some More Pyramids. We are lucky to be assigned a tourguide with some alternative theories to explain why some of the stone carvings depict people with deformed limbs, the upshot of which is that archeologists are all liars, historians are full of shit and we ourselves are a bit thick and should go to infowars.com if we can bear to learn the real Truth about the world. We also visit the jaw-dropping petrified waterfall and the hot springs at Hierve l’Água. Afterwards we share a collective taxi with some other tourists in order to rejoin the main bus. Halfway along an otherwise deserted track, the truck comes to an unexpected stop, and a representative of a small contingent of men requests that we all get out of the vehicle and into another one with no immediate explanation. Some of us start to suspect that something a bit kidnappy might be underway, but thankfully the new driver reassures us, explaining that the place where we got out marks the boundary between two taxi concessions, and that there have been ‘problems’ in the past when drivers from one village have encroached on the other’s territory. This makes me wonder if the preponderance of recovery groups in Mexico might be somewhere related; perhaps one cartel controls all the Narcotics Anonymous groups in a given town and another armed gang rakes in the income from the meetings in the adjacent pueblo. I can’t imagine that such a situation would be particularly good for anyone’s sense of serenity.carvingAfter we’ve tromped up and a fair few pyramids in the 40 degree heat, taken more photos than we will ever have time to look at and visited enough artisanal workshops to last the lifetimes of several Aztec gods, we are all keen to get back to Oaxaca, sink a couple of mechiladas and echar una siesta. So we’re delighted to hear we’ll be taking in one more attraction: we’re going to see some black pots being made. The black pots turn out to be useless, at least for their primary purpose of containing liquids. If you put water in them, it apparently goes all murky and you can’t drink it. They are nonetheless very pretty decorative objects, with their black sheen achieved by polishing them before firing them. Oh. It turns out that I am the only person in the world who finds pottery boring*. Everyone else wanders round the shop cooing at the crockery on display, or at least they do until the heavens intervene. Unfortunately the shop is open to the elements, which is a shame because the elements are in a very bad mood; like us, they’re probably a bit tired and just want to be driven back to the hotel. They descend on the place and smash bits of it to pieces while we cower in the corners and try to avoid getting lacerated by shards of falling pottery. In fact the weather gods have done us a major favour, because as soon as the torrent ceases we wade across the car park and get back in the van.

There’s a limit to what we can see in and around the city in three or so days. You could easily spend a month in Oaxaca State and not even get round to a third of the places you are recommended to visit. It is the fourth most visited state in the country, and also happens to be the second poorest, with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty. In my English language examining job I often pose this conundrum to candidates when the topic of tourism arises. It suggests to me that tourism is not a good or fair strategy for developing a region. Oaxaca does not suffer from a lack of promotion or even a shortage of visitors, and it’s rich in terms of both natural and cultural resources. It has a range of outstanding natural landscapes and no shortage of well-preserved ruins reflecting its historical complexity, the range of civilisations that have existed there. However, while most images of Oaxaca depict things of indigenous origin, whether archaeological sites or local products, in tourism-related jobs indigenous people themselves are rarely seen. This must be partly because of racism, but it is also clearly related to education. People whose schools do not have books and roofs are far less likely to acquire the skills necessary to obtain such jobs. Compared to a national average of 26%, only 5% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population reaches middle or higher education.cartoonThere is also the question of who has money to invest to take advantage of all the visitors. Most mid-range places we stay in happen to be owned by foreigners, and at the level of higher-end tourism, it’s international money that dominates – indeed it often physically displaces both local investment in addition to causing the eviction of local people and the destruction of natural environments. A recent and spectacular example of the latter were the mangroves in Cancun. Where tourism does create jobs for local people, they tend to be of poor quality – short-term, badly-paid and often very exploitative. Betting on tourism as a development strategy also has an opportunity cost. It replaces other forms of development and means that everything is valued in terms of its potential appeal to visitors. This is something I hear all the time in IELTS exams, regardless of the topic: parks are good because tourists like them. National cinema is useful because it promotes the country and might encourage tourists to visit. Museums and galleries are important because tourists seem to like them. The success of this ideology is demonstrated by the fact that to many people it seems to be a natural way of thinking, a common sense point of view. Drawing people’s attention to the fallacy of it (not exactly my job, but what the hey) is like the joke about one fish remarking to another on the temperature of the water. It’s an ideology which lends itself to exploitation by private interests. In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ Naomi Klein detailed how after the Asian tsunami of 2004 fishermen along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand were displaced by hotel developments. In the case of Mexico, we learn of a similar situation towards the end of the film ‘Y Tu Mama También’: the young family who the three main characters have become friends with on the beach (filmed in Huatulco, Oaxaca) will soon be forced to leave their beachside home because of a new holiday resort. The same dynamic is in operation around the world, and not just along coastlines, but also in major cities, as the urban geographer (and my personal friend) David Harvey explores in some detail here. As he explains, tourism is a great product for capitalists to invest in because, unlike a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, it is instantly and infinitely consumable, with no product cycle. There is no limit to the amount that tourists can consume. Meanwhile local people are locked outside this endless festival of superfluous consumption, and in many situations are left with no other available means of survival but to sit on the pavement and try to sell whatever they have to the tourists. As for how people excluded in this way feel, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze tries to put herself in their huaraches in her brilliant poem ‘Third World Girl‘:

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze poem: ‘THIRD WORLD GIRL’ from Tilt Spoken Word on Vimeo.

The poem also addresses cultural appropriation. Oaxaca is important to Mexico in a similar way to how the Northeast is important to Brazil. In both cases the region provides symbols and icons which are central to national identity, and in both cases the people of the region are amongst the most deprived in the country. One such Mexican national emblem is the rebozo. In summer 2015 the Franz Mayer Museum held a special exhibition on Frida Kahlo’s use of the garment, titled, revealingly in English, Made in Mexico**. (The same exhibition had been held in London a year earlier). We learn from the information on display that this outfit is “one of the feminine Mexican garments par excellence … it has (much) meaning in the creation of the identity of women and the country.” The text that introduces the exhibition does not speak mainly of the rebozo, but of national identity:

‘Mexico is a rich tapestry in which multiple threads are interwoven. Its long and tumultuous history, from the ancient pre-Hispanic towns to the modernity of its urban culture, has brought many influences and ideas to the country, adapting to a cosmovision and way of life singularly Mexican. The decorative arts, an integral part of Mexican culture, reflect the intersection of traditional culture, colonial legacy and contemporary and political life. The rebozo has been – and continues to be – a resistant emblem of Mexican identity.’

In the words of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, what the Mexican state and its elite values is not its indigenous population, but an image of it. It then sells Mexico on the global market using images of indigenous people and indigenous products, but denies the people themselves the education that would give them the chance to exploit those things for themselves if they chose to do so. It’s comforting and flattering to think that our visit to Oaxaca helped develop the region in some small way. We certainly found it a deeply enriching experience. But I don’t believe that tourism is a equitable or sustainable way to develop a region or a city. Social and economic policies should focus on improving the living standards and human potential of the people who live in a particular place, and not the experience of those who are merely there on holiday. To which I suppose the only logical corollary is: if I ever go back to Oaxaca, I very much hope that I have a worse time than I did on my first visit.

* José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ (which I also mentioned yesterday, oddly enough) is partly an essay In Praise of Pottery. Those bits of it are profoundly dull.

** I wrote a piece in Spanish about it in Spanish here (it’s in Spanish).

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