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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning denial down by the Tiber

20170207_163216I miss the days before Kindles and iPods, when you could get to know someone better by browsing through their book and music collections. Our Dutch friend Merel, at whose house we spend New Year’s Eve, has a good variety of recent fiction and books on sustainable development and the like. I’m a little taken aback to see on her shelves quite a range of books on dictators and fascism, including two by the disgraced Hitler apologist David Irving. Thankfully it turns out they belong to her landlord.

Irving is a Nazi activist who used to get away with pretending to be a historian. He was the subject of a 2016 film starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, which depicted his failed attempt in 2000 to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for pointing out that he had systematically distorted details about the Holocaust in his books in order to let Hitler off the hook. The judge concluded that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

As it happens I’d come across a physical copy of one of his books before, about twenty years earlier in my local library in Dublin. I took it out and disposed of it, and then explained to the library what I’d done and why. They understood my point and once I’d agreed to pay the cost of the book they agreed not to replace it. The film about the trial of the book’s author is no classic but it sets out the main details, featuring real footage of Irving giving Nazi salutes to audiences of skinheads in Germany and Austria, where he once spent a year in prison for continuing to spread lies about the death camps. It also makes the link with other kinds of denial – one of the key lines spoken by the main character is ‘Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did take place’. The fact that Holocaust denial is booming online and that many of those espousing it also deny that the earth’s climate is changing is no coincidence. Hitler launched his campaign to conquer Europe in order to extend Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’, living space. In anderen Worten, he wanted to expand the Third Reich’s vegetable patch. Last week the right-wing British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by the climate-denying pro-Trump tycoon Rupert Murdoch, used its front page to blame Spanish people for depriving Britons of food. Inclement weather in Southern Europe has meant that there are fewer vegetables to export to British supermarkets, and The Sun wants its readers to blame foreigners rather than asking why global weather patterns are changing. As I have long argued that climate denial and racism are intimately linked, I can’t help but feel at the same time a little vindicated and also really rather scared for the future.

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Once I’d explained the books’ provenance to Merel, she was more than happy for me to take them away and get rid of them. It was just a case of finding the time (my wife was heavily pregnant until last Monday :-)) and the place (we’ve only lived in Rome since last September). I decided to post a question in a friendly group for local foreigners on Facebook. Things I’ve posted there in the past on related topics have generally got a good reception, although I’d been surprised when, in response to a piece I’d written in which I called  the Italian fascist group Casapound ‘openly racist’, an Italian guy popped up and invited me to join them. My post about the books got a mixed response. Several people were consternated until I pointed out what kind of books they were, but some contributors continued to remonstrate, calling me a Nazi for wanting to burn books. Thankfully a sensible person pointed out that while the Nazis had indeed gone in for a bit of book-burning, it wasn’t by any means the worst thing they had done. A couple of people made witty but pointed reference to the fact that one of Rome’s (very best) bookshops is called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I replied, arguing that the two items in question didn’t really deserve the hallowed status of ‘book’. I made the same point to a young Italian guy who promptly sent me a PM asking if he could have the books ‘for research’ because he was ‘interested in the topic’:

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…which gives a new dimension to the phrase ‘you’d have to have been there’.

Although Irving has long been a discredited and bankrupt irrelevance in terms of serious history, both the Guardian and The Independent for some reason decided to give him a blast of publicity in the wake of the film. He claims that the election of a US President who openly consorts with Holocaust deniers (and, it should go without saying, climate liars) has revived interest in his ‘work’, with ‘thousands’ of young people contacting him to find out more about his ‘research’. He continues to use YouTube to propagate the lie that he’s a proper historian.

20160914_111306Someone in the Facebook group had suggested a far-off part of town crummy enough that few would be bothered by the sight of someone burning some books, but I didn’t really want to drag a one-week-old-baby across Rome and end up getting us both arrested for arson. Instead I thought of a largely abandoned area round the corner, next to the river, so I could get the whole thing out of the way in half an hour and not neglect my parental responsibilities. As it happens the area isn’t uninhabited; there’s a community of gypsies scattered along a stretch of the Tiber. Elsewhere on Facebook I read about the impending destruction of a similar settlement in Napoli, where my wife was born. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that:

The proposed forced eviction will render more than 340 Romani families homeless, including pregnant women, young children, and persons with disabilities. These Romani families, like most Roma in Naples, are a part of the city, having been resident there for a number of years. Despite this, the municipality of Naples has not provided them with any alternative housing.

I’m sure Irving himself would approve. Anti-gypsy racism seems particularly rife (indeed respectable) in Italy. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a class of Italian schoolchildren had produced drawings supporting the burning of a local gypsy camp. As a novice arsonist myself I had to hope that the fire I was about to start wouldn’t burn out of control and have a similar impact. Whatever it was I wanted to achieve by burning the books, it certainly wasn’t that.

Thankfully there was a good omen. The place I settled upon also has some fitting graffiti (‘YESTERDAY PARTISANS, TODAY ANTI-FASCISTS’). As it happens, the only elected representative of the aforementioned fascist group Casapound recently dismissed the Italians who took up arms against their own fascist Government and the Nazi regime which stepped in to save it as ‘rapists’.

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It would be nice to see someone like Irving as a detail of history, a footnote: there were some Nazi sympathisers who denied the holocaust, but they were ignored. But that’s not the case. Next month the French may well elect a President whose biological and political father has repeatedly described the systematic murder of millions of people as exactly that: “a detail of history”.

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The reasons that some things are beyond debate is that people often lie about their interests and their ideologies. David Irving knows the Holocaust happens, he just can’t admit publicly that he thinks it was a good thing and should be repeated.

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As people like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. It also explains why I wanted to burn these books.

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Holocaust denial and climate denial have much more in common than has been so far acknowledged. Exxon executives knew several decades ago that the company’s activities were causing the planet to overheat and would make human life impossible, but they kept quiet because admitting it could hurt their profits. They and other such companies then invested billions of dollars in spreading lies about climate science, funding people to speak up for them who are no more proper climate scientists than David Irving is a proper historian. These are the kind of trolls who would take the last six words of the last sentence and remove them from their context. If I could I would burn all attempts to deny that the climate is changing. I would set fire to millions of web pages and happily watch them go up in smoke.

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By denying death, they deny life.

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Afterward the well-known events took place.

Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,
orders were given. There were those who murdered
in their own way,
grieved in their own way.
I won’t mention names
out of consideration for the reader,
since at first the details horrify
though finally they’re a bore.
(Dan Pagis)

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and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
tuvalu
kiribati
maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, and colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

still
there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive

dear matefele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

(Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)

The Great “Earthquake” Swindle

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If you believe this, you’ll believe anything! Notice btw that it comes from a *government* website.

It’s telling that the global warmist lobby, with their constant bombardment of fake news about floods in Thailand and drought in Africa (make your mind up, guys!) go out of their way to cover up the real stories. It turns out that those “doctors” would have you believe that “cells” within your “body” can go bad and ultimately “kill” you were lying. That’s right: “cancer” doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax that’s been played for decades, one perpetrated by the government and the mass media and believed by all those who don’t dare to question what they’re told. These are the same people who tell you that the President of the United States is married to an immigrant or that it’s (as one of these so-called “pediatricians” told me in person last week) “an act of grave irresponsibility” not to get your child vaccinated! Thank god (another fake news story that I bet you fell for!) that we have Facebook and Twitter so we don’t have to believe their bullshit any longer.

But even worse than so-called “climate” “scientists” and “cancer” “doctors” are this bunch of self-appointed experts who call themselves “seismologists”. This is a fancy name for people who want you to believe that the “earth” (which other “scientists” will tell you is as round as a baseball! – but that’s another story) can tremble and shake like a blancmange! The official story (and I can tell you, I’ve studied this in some detail) is that it’s caused by (try not to laugh) “sudden movements in the Earth’s crust”. Well I’m going to tell you a personal story, something that “happened” to “me” just this “morning”, which will show that this whole “earthquake” racket is no more than yet another official libtard hoax.

We went to our local “hospital” for a checkup with someone who calls himself a “gynecologist”. This shyster is paid thousands of euros of taxpayer’s money to tell us that as a result of a little cuddle time me and my “wife” enjoyed several months ago she is now “pregnant” and is going to have a “baby”. While we were “there” we visited another “couple” who apparently have just “given birth” (there was no actual evidence of this; there was a very small human being in the room and two beaming but exhausted new “parents” but there could be any number of explanations for that). After a few minutes of “conversation” (I noticed that the “baby” was pretending to be asleep the whole time) the “father” character drew our attention to the “fact” that the “water” in a bottle on the “bedside” was “shaking”. Sure enough, it “was”; I then “looked” at the “curtains” and they appeared to be moving – which obviously raised my suspicions! Then I “felt” with my “body” that the whole “building” (we were on the “eighth floor”, in the so-called “maternity department”) seemed (I’m being very careful with my language here!) to be “trembling”. I suddenly felt quite “scared”. Our “friend”, the new “mother”, checked on her “iphone” and said something about “the “epicentre””(it’s depressing to see how all this quakist jargon has wormed its way into the heads of ordinary sheeple) being near a place called “Rieti”, which I knew at once to be a lie, because although I’ve seen the name on a so-called map and noticed it on the front of “buses”, I’ve never actually been “there”.

We made our excuses, and “left”. I dread to think what fairy tales that baby will grow up hearing. They’ll probably tell it all the usual pseudo-scientific nonsense about “water” being “wet” and about how it gets “dark” at “night”. Personally I’m glad that I’ve seen through all that crap. As soon as “my” “child” is “born” I’m going to tell him the truth: that “hospitals” do more harm than good, that “teachers” do nothing but lie, and that so-called “parents” are the least trustworthy people he’ll ever meet. I’m also going to make sure he understands that whatever information he receives through his “eyes”, “ears”, “nose” and “fingers” is almost certainly bullshit, and that the last thing he should ever do in life – even worse than putting any faith in “experts” – is to use his “brain” to interpret the world. And you can stick your Dr Seuss, Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl books back where the sun don’t shine. I won’t be reading him any “bedtime stories” (in any case, if you believe that human beings “need” to “sleep”, quite frankly you’ll believe anything -and as for “breast” “milk”, don’t get me started on that junk!). Instead he’ll be staying up all night with me getting the real story from my good friends at Breitbart, Infowars and Wikileaks. I want my “child” to be brought up on a solid diet of the truth.

NB: This is a work of satire. In reality the only thing more dangerous than seismic activity is climate denial. They both serve to destroy the foundations of our existence.

Rome: Armed soldiers and homeless immigrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all fine then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the dead could speak

If I should one day die, and should I happen to be in Rome when such an unlikely event takes place, I’d like to be buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not because I have anything against Catholics, of course, I may even be one by that point anyway. Possibly. It would just be nice to be laid for eternity next to such characters as Keats, Shelley and Gramsci. If the dead can actually speak I’m sure they’ll have enough to keep us moved, entertained and inspired for the rest of our, er, deaths. (Someone did once say if the dead could speak, we would not be able to understand them, but that’s by-the-by as I’d be dead myself then anyway).

Most of the other residents of the graveyard are immigrants, people who were born elsewhere and made their lives here. It struck me as an important place right now to reflect on migration and particularly on the experiences of those who for various reasons may have had or may be having a more tortuous passage to establishing themselves as foreign-born residents. It seems apt that in the cemetery there are at least two people from Syria – as it happens, ‘If the dead could speak’ was the title of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report into the horrific conditions endured by inmates of that unfortunate country’s torture prisons.

There is a bond that connects all migrants, living and dead, and if the residents of this cemetery, most of whom we might suppose came here in peace and out of their own volition, were to hear the details of the plight of those prisoners they would hopefully wish that their own good fortune, the welcome extended to them, were passed on to others. There is also the possibility that the experiences of migrants today would resonate with their memories of their first days or years in Italy; maybe those in the cemetery went through similar struggles to their those whose stories are quoted below. In any case, I would assume that they would at least want the voices of their living counterparts to be heard, whatever their reasons for coming here happen to be. As I myself am a living human being who happens to be an immigrant (one who has been made to feel very welcome here – and one from a country which has of late been a lot less welcoming than Italy has) those are very much my sentiments. What follows therefore are quotes from a number of sources, including the immigrants themselves, which, if we pay attention, may help us to better understand the current situation and help us to recognise what our own responsibilities as fellow migrants and living human beings are.

dsc_0058“The way people look at you and mutter about you on the bus or train, as though you’re dangerous. That would never have happened in the ’80s. Now if you want to rent a house, you’ll get a viewing appointment over the phone alright, but as soon as you get there and they see you’re black, you’ll either get told ‘it’s already gone’ or quite simply ‘the neighbours don’t want to live next to foreigners’. It’s become quite normal for people to admit they’re ‘anti-foreign’ and talk about it freely. They don’t differentiate between migrants and nationals with foreign parents.” (France 24, 2009)

dsc_0060“In July, in Quinto di Treviso, Northeast Italy, residents and far-right militants broke into flats destined to receive asylum-seekers, took the furniture outside and set it on fire, leading the authorities to move the asylum-seekers to another location.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0053“Akram, a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.” Human Rights Watch, 2016

dsc_0052“Mayor Alberto Panfilio said calm had been restored at the center, where up to 1,500 people have been placed in a facility originally meant for 15 migrants.” (Voice of America, 2017)

dsc_0050“Four Eritrean girls, aged 16 and 17, said that adult men constantly harassed them. Bilen, 17, said men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us… They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.”” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0044“Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0042“Kaiser Tetteh was from Ghana. He was kidnapped and imprisoned for three months in a makeshift jail in Libya by a smuggling gang. “Kidnapping is normal. If you are in a taxi they will kidnap you, they will take everything from you.” He said he witnessed the killing of 69 people in Libya during an escape attempt from the prison. “All the time you don’t sleep,” he said. “Everyone has guns. Even kids have guns.” Lucky told us he did not mind where he was resettled in Europe. “I’m a beggar, I don’t have any choice. I just want protection. I just need freedom.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0035““It is not easy to live here illegally,” Lisa, one of the volunteers told me. “I don’t know if people really want this, sleeping in the park or not having a job. “We think people are coming here because of war and violence, not because we are kind. We are doing something very human. We tell them where to go, where to eat and try to give them advice. We don’t want them to be illegal.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0029“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for a concerted international effort to block people-traffickers after the reported deaths of up to 700 migrants in the latest sinking in the Mediterranean. “We are asking not to be left alone,” Renzi told reporters after an impromptu cabinet meeting, adding that he wanted an emergency meeting of European Union leaders to be held this week to discuss the mounting migrant crisis. Renzi underlined that search and rescue missions alone were not sufficient to save lives. He said the problem could only be solved by preventing the criminal activity of people trafficking and stopping migrant boats from leaving Libya.” (Reuters, 2015)

dsc_0026“I left Ethiopia because of the political situation. I’m Oromo and in 1991 there was conflict between Tigrinya and Oromo. My grandfather and my father fought for the Oromo. Later, my father was arrested and my brother shot dead at university by the government. In Ethiopia if you are Oromo you can’t do anything. They arrest you and they can kill you. At the time I wasn’t involved in politics. My father and grandfather were part of the OLF party. The Ethiopian police came to question me, asking who was supporting the party. In 2013/14 they arrested me and held me for two months in the prison of Diradawa. They wanted to know where my uncle was. They didn’t give me food, only bread and water once every three days, and we had to do a lot of work in the prison.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0028“About seven months after Osama’s arrest, security officers stopped Firas at the gate of his university. “If you keep asking about your brothers, we will cut out your tongue,” they told him. That day, Firas fled Syria.” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

dsc_0027“Compounding Italy’s frustration is the fact that its northern neighbours, including France, Switzerland and Austria, have in effect closed their borders to migrants, preventing what had been a natural flow of refugees towards more prosperous parts of Europe.” (Financial Times, 2016)

dsc_0064“A 16 year old, named Djoka, from Sudan reported, “They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist… They took both my hands and put them on the machine.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0068“Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said Tuesday there would be “mass expulsions” of migrants when the League gained power, after the most recent revolt in a migrant centre in Italy.” (ansa.it, 2017)

dsc_0062“An Afghan migrant travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) along an Italian highway strapped by leather belts to the bottom of a lorry, according to police.” (Guardian, 2016)

dsc_0054“In an intercepted phone call, Mafia businessman Salvatore Buzzi was heard telling his assistant Pierina Chiaravalle: “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”” (Al Jazeera, 2015)

dsc_0065A Nigerian man who had recently fled to Europe to escape Boko Haram militants was beaten to death on the streets of Italy this week as he tried to defend his wife against racist abuse. (Huffington Post, 2016)

dsc_0039“Syria is burning; towns are destroyed and that’s why people are on the move, that’s why we have an avalanche, a tsunami of people on the move towards Europe… As long as there’s no resolution in Syria and no improved conditions in neighbouring countries, people will move.” (UNHCR, 2015)

dsc_0073High ships come in bearing black strangers

who call over the harbor, Where are we?

Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.

Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway

standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,

a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls

to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,

the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.

Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.

And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,

grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me

as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.

I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.

Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,

how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.

(Eliza Griswold)

dsc_0077No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well. (Warsan Shire)

dsc_0066“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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.

DSC_1646.JPG

Due incontri per strada a Roma/Two street encounters in Rome

sin-tituloIt’s a bright blue Monday morning in mid-October 2016 and I’m standing at the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese in the centre of Rome, having just left work. I’m partly waiting to cross the road and partly trying to get fivethirtyeight.com to load on my phone. There’s a guy in a car looking at me, stopped at the traffic lights on this quiet street, shouting and laughing. At first I don’t think he’s talking to me, maybe on his phone or to himself. But no, it’s me, he’s beckoning me over, and he seems to know my name, so I must know him, but I feel bad because I have no idea whatsoever who he is. He looks very Italian, in a slightly fighetto kind of way – bald head, properly shaven, shirt well-ironed, smart and garrulous with his hands. He’s speaking quickly with a Napoli accent, and he’s saying something about an embassy, and 2011. I explain that I wasn’t here in 2011, that I was in London, but then it turns out he’s talking about the school. Il British! Ah! Well, that’s where I worked, after a fashion. British Study Centres, in Marylebone. He clearly knows me. Matteo!, he exclaims. He’s an ex-student! I taught dozens of such people over the course of eight years or so in London, so many Matteos and Giovannis and Robertos so I feel bad that I don’t remember him. Seeing him again I’ve got a feeling of nostalgia. I’m delighted to tell him that I live in Rome nowadays, I’m here to stay, in fact I’m married to an Italian. And she’s pregnant! He’s delighted, and we shake hands again. He tells me he’s now living in Frankfurt. Just to show off, I switch to German, but he waves his hand dismissively. He’s going back to Germany after a week doing business here, driving all the way there in this quite plush new vehicle. When I ask why he doesn’t fly he laughs again and explains that he’s not had a good week, he’s been working overtime and still getting nowhere. He says he works in l’abbigliamento, and as he’s sure I’m aware i tempi sono dificili. In fact, he says, he wants to give me a gift, from the clothes he hasn’t managed to sell. He reaches back and grabs an expensive looking bag, explaining that this is his company: Tutti Frutti. The jacket he takes out is maybe a bit natty for daily use but not remotely unpleasant. He gets me to try it on, and it is quite a good fit. When he tells me it’s worth mille euro, I start to regret putting it on; it’s clearly not worth a thousand euros, although it is worth…something. Money is an issue, he explains. He needs some, to buy petrol to get back to Germania. By now I’m inevitably having my doubts, even here. Surely if he’s genuine he’ll remember the names of some other students. Male Italian students always buddy up, play off each other. If he was in the school he will remember other people who I should be able to recall. Plus I’m also very aware that Il British is the generic name that Italians use for all English language schools. I ask who else he remembers from the school but he’s a bit vague on the details. Then he has another idea. My wife! He also sells women’s clothes! He jumps out, goes to the boot of the car and takes out another bag. This time it’s a dress. I know Chiara’s shape and style, and this is not it. By this point I’m experiencing quite a lot of confusion, so there is the temptation to just walk away, but the whole exchange is just too good-natured for that. If he’s an actor, he’s a very good one, and the situation just doesn’t allow me to break character and accuse him of being a liar. And the clothes must be worth something. There’s a lot of face at stake and on the small chance that this is real I don’t want to humiliate him and thereby myself. I look in my wallet and see that I have 30. He sees it too, and I reluctantly hand it over. But then he says it’s not enough. He’s driving all the way to Germany, after all. He wants me to go to the cashpoint and withdraw more money. This is clearly una stupidaggine. Sure, I tell him. Torno subito. I take the bags and walk round the corner onto Via Cola di Rienzo while he drives alongside me. I need to get some more money out anyway as I’ve just bought some probably-stolen clothes that I didn’t want from someone I’ve quite clearly never met before. I spend two minutes in the bank lobby, take out some cash for myself and then slip outside, immediately turning left and then left again, onto a side street. As I turn the corner a young African man holding out a baseball cap asks me for some change, but I shake my head, and just as I do so I hear someone calling my name. I turn, see the car and give il mio truffatore a look designed to get him to leave me alone and drive away.

* * * * *

Two months pass. I’m just getting to work on a Monday morning, having walked all the way from Viale Marconi because of another bus strike. I’ve reached the corner of Via dei Gracchi and Via Alessandro Farnese, and am lost in my own thoughts, wondering what to do in the off-chance my students should turn up, when suddenly I notice that there’s a young African man standing right in front of me and talking to me at high speed. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying at first because he’s speaking a mix of French and Italian. He’s on the street selling trinkets, colourful plastic beads and the like, and so he pushes a red tortoise representing African folk art into my hand, but the curious thing is that just as he does so he turns away, not seeming to want anything in return. At the same time he’s thanking me for taking the time to talk to him, because most Italians don’t. And this is a very special day, he says, and he wants to share his happiness with someone because his wife, back home in Senegal, has just had three kids, the night before in fact. I shake his hand and congratulate him, and say that I’m about to become a father myself, in just a few weeks. I ask him the names of the children and he shows me a photo, sent via Whatsapp just a few hours before, of his wife lying in hospital with her arms around Amadou, Fatou and Mariam. Their father is called Mustafa. I ask him how long he’s been away from his wife and he tells me just four months, he came here to play professional football in San Remo but as I can see things didn’t work out.  This reminds me of the recent Guardian article about the thousands of football players, particularly Africans, stranded with no salaries around the world. There must be a whole subculture of budding Drogbas and Tourés exiled in Europe, their peak years of skill and fitness quickly slipping by. Now he has a problem because his wife needs medicine, there were complications in the birth and there are some products that exist in Italy but can’t be found back home. I think of what I’ve learnt in the last few weeks about the process of childbirth and try to imagine what having three in quick succession must be like. I offer to help; although I don’t have any money in my wallet I know there’s an ATM just round the corner on Via Cola di Rienzo. As we walk I try to remember the word used in Senegal to describe white foreigners, particularly Europeans, and I feel embarrassed because I can’t, although I should, because when I learnt it from a book I bought from someone from Mauritania in the street outside la Feltrinelli on Viale Marconi last December I thought, I must remember that (the word, I remember later, is tubab). We reach the cashpoint, I take out 20 and give it to him, and then realise it’s already past the time for class. Time to run to work.

On ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ by Wallace Stevens

Poets tend to get annoyed when asked to explain what a particular poem ‘means’. If I could have expressed it in any other way, thinks the poet, I would have done so. In the words of one particular poet, a poem should not mean, but be, and in a quote which I now can’t track down T. S. Eliot apparently once remarked that the meaning of a poem is akin to the bone that a postman throws to a dog, a metaphor presumably designed to stop slavering strangers insisting that he ‘explain’ The Wasteland to them on the late-night tube. In my ongoing struggle to experience poems in a meaningful way rather than simply being intimidated and thus bamboozled by them, I tend to cheat, asking not what they mean but rather what goes on in my mind when confronting myself with them. Trying to memorise poems is one way of unlocking them; reaching a point of semantic saturation is a means of getting beneath the surface, to get at the poem’s sense and effect, or maybe of slowly allowing it to detonate; after all, in the words of Ezra Pound, poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. An imaginary bomb with real shrapnel. Or, if we want to be more esoteric,  a pheasant disappearing in the brush. That line is from Wallace Stevens, whose work has, since I was introduced to it in a consistently rivetting poetry class in Limehouse (given by someone I think of as the Angela Carter of poetry), presented an ongoing challenge to any tentative techniques I have developed for handling poems. Stevens’s poems seemingly mix abstract modernism with mystical, often gnomic images. Here is a particularly enigmatic example:

The Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

It would be wrong to think of the poem as presenting a riddle to be solved. There is no key or set of keys which will allow me to ‘get’ this poem or any other; it is not a cryptic crossword clue. Whatever is happening, it is going beneath the surface.

If we begin with the first word and syllable: an I, presumably that of the poet. This being poetry, the difference between eye and I is often moot. The eye, like the jar, is round, and seeks to take dominion over what it surveys. Some have pointed to Emerson’s eyeball: “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” It might even be the eye of a blackbird:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only thing moving 
Was the eye of the blackbird.

In both cases the I/eye unifies the universe, placing itself at the centre and organising the world around it: The wilderness rose up to it. In this poem, the jar contains the I. It is the poet who has consciousness, not the jar.

Given the difficulty of making sense of this poem one sensible approach is to walk away,  to take a step back, and to get a sense of the scale of the absurdity. Does placing a jar on a hill give that jar dominion over the surrounding countryside, somehow over a whole state? Or a city?

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On Saturday morning, 10th December 2016 someone placed an empty tube of paprika-flavoured Pringles on a wall outside the Vittoriano Museum in the centre of Rome, overlooking the Foro Romano*. It jarred in its landscape. After all, litter is ‘matter out of place’.  

Oddly enough, just up the road, there is this. Someone ordered it placed there.

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Trying to memorise Stevens’s poem in Rome draws my attention to all the domes and other round things placed on hills, all embodying consciousness and seeking to impose order on the landscape. It makes me think of the architects’ drawings and models that must have preceded them. All architects are in a sense utopians, imagining a world transformed with the embodiment of their vision at the centre, colonising and framing the landscape, making the wilderness surround what they have placed there. Maybe one counterpart for the poem is ‘Ozymandias’, another example of power centring the universe around it. Then, on a different scale from the Colosseum: this blog. In writing it I am also claiming dominion. This is my perspective, and simultaneously a container, one which claims a certain domain. Such interventions in the landscape are now nothing new – indeed, they go back almost as far back as the human species.

The difference here is that Stevens isn’t actually placing a jar, or even, in a sense, pretending to. The jar does not have the properties of consciousness and dominion; it is the I who places the jar who imputes them, or rather, it is the writer of the poem, or rather it is the I reading it who does so. Let’s be glib: the jar is an empty signifier (or at least it is until we throw a match into it); the jar-as-poem is just a vessel for the meaning the reader puts in it. The poem is the jar. Hence it has often been read as a commentary on art itself. In 2009 the artists Miroslaw Balka placed a literal shipping container in the Tate Modern, and in another flawed attempt to centre the universe on myself I wrote about it. As for Steven’s poem, the only true response would be another poem (beginning I placed a tube of Pringles… **) or another work of art. Some have argued that the poem can only be read as a response to Keat’s ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’, and to the claims it makes to a unity between of consciousness and nature. Steven’s poem seems to refuse such a claim – the jar apparently dominates the wilderness, but it is not part of it. Others have looked at the biblical allusions. We can  easily picture the jar as a cross on a hill, and the echoes of the phrase ‘burning bush’ certainly evoke this sense. There are obvious political interpretations: imagine the jar as a flag. Or a burning flag. Or a phallic object.

This may be cheating. The poem is explicitly about a jar, one that is gray and bare. It seems odd, then, that someone identified the type of jar in question – a transparent glass jar. The claim that it is a mass-produced object evokes Warhol, and also Duchamp taking the piss (possibly in the jar). But while Ai Wei Wei smashed up Ming vases as a comment on his own cultural heritage, this jar seems to represent nothing but power, dominion, a colonising consciousness. If the poem were called Dominion it would be less mystifying. But that would be (again) cheating. We have to deal with the poem as it is, which is hard on initial readings, because it jars, not just in the landscape but also in its form: while most lines feature four stressed syllables, there are two which break the rhythm, with only three. I’m counting Tennessee as two stressed syllables, which may be why he chose that particular state; or maybe it was because he was in Tennessee and he did place a jar there. It is after all an anecdote.

I am now going to memorise ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’ and then see what happens. A poem may emerge. A poem may not emerge.

 

* To quote the 21st century Jamaican-American poet Shaggy, it wasn’t me.

** Except I didn’t.